State of the TBR – December 2021


It’s time to share the state of my TBR and report on all those November reading challenges. And at the very end of the post, an announcement of my 2022 reading challenge!

I read 26 books in November, which was probably an all-time record, at least since I lived alone in London in the 1990s (one was for Shiny New Books and one for my other blog, so haven’t appeared on here yet). It was down to a) doing Novellas in November, so 15 of the books were under 200 pages, b) not having a huge work schedule so time to read in the daytime, and c) having the Terrible Cold which gave me 2 weeks of milling around feeling a bit rubbish and not spending time running. I’m thrilled to report I’ve taken a total of 23 books off the TBR for my TBR project 2021-22 (one DNF, the others read) so I only have 62/85 left to read (this may be a bit wonky: I will reassess when they’ve gone down a bit more) and am ahead of target (in fact a month ahead of target). I read 16 titles (two in one volume) for Novellas in November and really enjoyed doing that project, and 15 for Nonfiction November, as well as doing all five NonFicNov prompts (one to come out on Friday), and two for AusReading Month. Phew! I read four of my planned NetGalley reads for the month, I didn’t get round to “Unleash the Girls” and didn’t finish “Carefree Black Girls” (it was a valuable read for the author’s experiences but so rooted in a cultural milieu of American contemporary and older TV programmes and musicians etc. that I was having to look up more than I read).


Some incomings first. So many incomings. From the woman who doesn’t buy books in Oct/Nov/Dec in case other people buy them for her (to be fair, only one of these was on my wishlist …

In print incomings, first of all I saw mention of Sam Selvon’s “The Housing Lark”, a sequel to his marvellous “Lonely Londoners” on Ten Million Hardbacks’ blog and had to order it, and at the same time, there was mention in “Saga Land” of Kari Gislason’s own book about his search for his Icelandic father, “The Promise of Iceland”, so an order went off to Hive. Then, I went to Oxfam Books to buy presents for a Not So Secret Santa recipient and found they had some brand new social justice type books I couldn’t leave behind – “Rife” ed Nikesh Shukla, which is a 2019 collection of memoir pieces by young people, Kehinde Andrews’ “The New Age of Empire” about the effect of empire around the world, “This is Why I Resist: Don’t Define my Black Identity” by Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu which is a rallying call for anti-racism, and Remi Adekoya’s look at multi-heritage people and their place and experience in the UK, “Biracial Britain”. Then I saw mention of Amrit Wilson’s “Finding a Voice” on The Market Gardener Reader’s My Year in Nonfiction post and realised this classic of oral history / sociology with Asian women in Britain had been updated, and Lenny Henry has edited “Black British Lives Matter” with essays by leading Black British writers, so that was a must-buy, too (more ordering from Hive).

In ebooks, first of all I was so lucky to be sent two lovely D.E. Stevenson novels by Dean Street Press, “Five Windows” and “The Fair Miss Fortune”. They’re out very early next year so I’ll be reading them soon. Then I got a bit tempted by Kindle offers and picked all these up for 99p each – Elizabeth Acevado’s “The Poet X”, a coming of age story told in free verse about a young woman of Dominican descent in New York, Farhad J. Dadyburjor’s “The Other Man” about a closeted gay man in Mumbai dealing with a doomed arranged marriage, British Malaysian comedian Phil Wang’s memoir, “Sidesplitter” and Elise Downing’s run around the British coast in “Coasting”.

I got a bit excited on NetGalley this month: as well as winning several books I’d requested a while ago, I went a-clicking on the main website (I do try not to do this!). Kodo Nishimura’s “Ths Monk Wears Heels” is an inspiring book by a Japanese monk who featured on Queer Eye (out Feb); Christine Barlow’s “Heartcross Castle” is a Christmas reawd about a woman inheriting a crumbling castle (Dec); Janet Pywell’s “Someone Else’s Dream” has the heroine having to take over the cafe her (soon ex-) girlfriend dreamed of running, and finding support in the community (end Nov; reading now); Emily Kerr’s “Meet Me Under the Northern Lights” is a Christmas novel (Dec); Shellee Marie’s “Influenced Love” has an online influencer finding that world is not all it’s made out to be (Feb); Monica Ali has a new one out, “Love Marriage” is apparently a gripping tale of what happens when people from two cultures try to blend their families (Feb); Kasim Ali’s “Good Intentions” has a similar theme (Mar); Daphne Palasi Andreades’ “Brown Girls” is another New York coming of age novel and a love letter to women of colour everywhere (Jan); and Celia Laskey’s “Under the Rainbow” has a group of LGBTQIA activists descend on a US town that has been declared the homophobia capital of the US (Dec).

Currently reading

I’m currently reading Tristan Gooley’s “How to Read Water”, which is about different forms of water, their clues and patterns, apparently not prioritising the organic over the inorganic in talking about things around the water that help shape it. I’m not very far in yet but it’s very interesting. I’ve also started the NetGalley read “Someone Else’s Dream”, which is pretty enticing so far.

Coming up next

I’ve got quite the variety in paper books to get read this month. Two Christmas novels (Sophie Pembroke’s “The Wedding on Mistletoe Island” and Jenny Colgan’s “An Island Christmas”, both parts of series and hopefully that won’t matter) that have lingered since last year and a Christmas bird book originally given to Matthew which is languishing on the TBR, Stephen Moss’ “The Twelve Birds of Christmas”. Then there’s my last Anne Tyler, “Redhead by the Side of the Road”, which is a really short one, another volume of Maya Angelou, “A Song Flung up to Heaven”, one last British Library Women Writers book, Winifred Boggs’ “Sally on the Rocks” (women fight over a man in a village), and then as we’ve been watching Strictly Come Dancing this year, Craig Revel Horwood’s “In Strictest Confidence” felt appropriate to pick up!

I will also have a few NetGalley and other books on the go. I think I’ll just keep the Kindle on the go for downstairs reading this month and get these read and hopefully a few more.

So I have a good few of my November acquisitions on here, plus “The Arctic Curry Club” by Dani Redd (more light Christmas novel reading), Matthew finally has a space for Richard Osman’s “The Man Who Died Twice” in his audiobook schedule coming up so I’ll read the equivalent of an hour’s worth of audio a day on that at some point, and then I have those lovely D.E. Stevensons.

One last, very important thing … my 2022 Reading Challenge!

I’ve chosen my reading challenge for 2022 (this year it was Anne Tyler, last year Paul Magrs, before that, Iris Murdoch (again)) … and it is … Larry McMurtry. Click on the link for details and how to take part. Fancy joining me?

How was your November reading? What are you reading this month? Have you read or picked up any of my selection? And thank you for bearing with me while I posted and posted and posted – it should be a bit quieter in December!

Book review – V. S. Naipaul – “Miguel Street”


I’ve done it! I’ve read all except two of the books I laid out to read at the start of Novellas in November (the Querying With Nuance one and the Maya Angelou) and I added one extra from my NetGalley books. The Mrs Oliphant came in at two books and so somehow (I’ve just re-counted) I’ve got to 16 novellas read in the month!

I bought this book in Oxfam Books in September this year. It’s one of the old Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series with the angular fish on it and I have to admit that I’ve got a hankering to collect them now …

V. S. Naipaul – “Miguel Street”

(08 September 2021)

One of the miracles of life in Miguel Street was that no one starved. If you sit down at a table with pencil and paper and try to work it out, you will find it impossible. But I lived in Miguel Street, and can assure you that no one starved. Perhaps they did go hungry, but you never heard about it. (p. 86)

This 1959 novel (in the Introduction, Laban Erapu makes it clear that it should be considered a novel, or a novelised memoir, rather than a book of short stories or connected sketches, and there are repeated notes that pull each character’s chapter together, such as their fate being noticed in the papers) is set in Trinidad around World War Two, in a poor street that might even look like a slum to a passer-by, where the houses and their inhabitants are bound together by their physical place and their place in life. Any attempt to make a better living or make something of yourself will fail and bring you back down to the level, whether that’s trying to pass exams to study medicine or running a brothel or taxi service while the Americans are on the island. Tinkering with cars that aren’t wrong in the first place is the way the narrator’s uncle tries to improve his life, equally hopelessly. But within their station, the inhabitants are happy (as long as they don’t get mixed up with dodgy women or violent men), sitting chatting about cricket and gossiping about the neighbours.

The narrator goes from boy to man during the book, and by the end he’s seen his main adult friend, Hat, go through something of a journey and is preparing to go on his own journey, as Naipaul of course also did. The book reminded me very much of C.L.R. James’ “Minty Alley“, also of course set in a bustling but poor street in Trinidad, but a decade or so earlier, with the same striving for betterment and the same downfall coming in when you get involved in romantic relationships. They’re both lively and fun but with moments of wrenching sadness, found here in the loss of a daughter or the deflation of a man who thinks he’s funny until he’s openly mocked by the whole street. In this first novel of Naipaul, we see the character tropes, even some of the characters (the Mystic Masseur makes a brief appearance) in a quick and engaging read that guarantees engagement and enjoyment.

I never knew a man who enjoyed life as much as Hat did. He did nothing new of spectacular – in fact, he did practically the same things every day – but he always enjoyed what he did. And every now and then he managed to give a fantastic twist to some very ordinary thing. (p. 156)

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 21/85 – 64 to go! It was Book 16 in my Novellas in November reads.

Book review – Buchi Emecheta – “Second-Class Citizen”


Still managing just to hold onto my schedule, I have two books in this picture left to finish (I’ve started “Miguel Street” and I’ve managed to get nicely ahead of my TBR challenge plan. I do need to say however about this book that I was very wrong when I used to say, airily, “Oh, I don’t read books about Africa”. Oh dear. This usually meant Africa south of the countries along the northern edge, and didn’t include the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. And over the years, I did read a few books set all or partly in Africa (“Americanah” for instance. This was mainly down, to be fair to me, to my perception of the habit of publishers to share in my market mainly books that featured bloody and violent conflict (similarly to the idea that there must be Icelandic books published that are not noir, but not that many reach us). However much I know we must not look away from bloody and violent conflict, especially that caused essentially by colonialism, I also have issues with reading and watching violent content. However, I was OK reading about Partition in India, just about. And I think I did have a sea-change and change of heart after reading “Roots” with its horrific scenes. And then, of course, it turns out that books about Africa are not all about bloody and violent conflict anyway (thanks, unconscious bias and stereotyping) and I really should have read this amazing 1970s classic earlier. Anyway, confession over, I bought this book in July this year in my Book Token Splurge, having seen Emecheta’s work featured on a TV programme about African writers a few months previously.

Buchi Emecheta – “Second-Class Citizen”

(01 July 2021)

They were kind, those women in the ward. For the first few days, when Adah was deciding whether it was worth struggling to hold on to this life, those women kept showing her many things. They seemed to be telling her to look around her, that there were still many beautiful things to be seen which she had not seen, that there were still several joys to be experienced which she had not yet experienced, that she was still young, that her whole life was still ahead of her. (p. 115)

This 1974 novel is of course as brutal and psychologically horrific as any narrative of war in its way. But it’s also powerful, enchanting and very readable. Adah, a Nigerian Igbo woman, having had a tricky start in life, getting herself as educated as she could do through various means and wanting to become a librarian, marries young and manages to use the family dynamics of her in-laws to ensure that when her husband, Francis, travels to London to “study”, she accompanies him. Francis is a terrible waster, refusing to work or even study properly, quick to strike out physically or verbally and messing around with other women (this is staged as a practice to relieve her when she’s had one of their many children). She has to use all her wits and guile to get a job, get housing – it’s set in the 1960s and racial prejudice is still rife, so she’s refused housing when people find out she’s Black, and with two, then three, then four children – and work out how to operate in this strange, unemotional land, where you certainly don’t make up a stompy revenge song and dance if someone annoys you. Things get worse when she tries to access contraception so she can stop popping out a baby a year, and finds she has to have Francis’ signature to get it.

She inhabits twin worlds of slightly shady boarding houses and the lovely atmosphere of public libraries, where her colleagues are kind and supportive, and bring a light into her difficult world – there’s a particularly lovely part near the end where a Canadian colleague orders books by Black writers through the library system then the workers share them around and discuss them. She encounters White women who have married or had children with Black men and sees her husband’s pull towards White women, too, but shows sympathy for everyone who is just trying to get by. It’s a heartbreaking book but with enough points of light from kind people, from the fellow-patients in the maternity ward to their GP, to relieve the reader as well as Adah, and moments of reflection and beauty in the scraps of nature Adah finds in London.

I loved the clear, almost naive but penetrating and intelligent writing style (it reminded me a bit of my great favourite author R. K. Narayan) and indeed she talks about this near the end of the book when Adah is considering becoming a writer.

Yes, it was the English language she was going to use. But she could not write those big, long, twisting words. Well, she might not be able to do those long, difficult words, but she was going to do her own phrases her own way. Adah’s phrases, that was what they were gong to be. (p. 177)

Unfortunate in her choice of husband, desperate to escape after he makes a big attempt on her identity and half-kills her, beaten down psychologically in London to be made to feel she’s a second-class citizen (at best), she retains her hope and spirit, determined she will be proud to be Black and inculcate that in her children. I loved this book and will be acquiring and reading the rest of her works, and soon.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 20/85 – 65 to go! It was Book 14 in my Novellas in November reads.

Book reviews – Robin DiAngelo – “White Fragility” and Layla F. Saad – “Me and White Supremacy”


Still zipping through the Novellas in November, with “White Fragility” the oldest on my TBR (so part of that challenge, too). I’ve spent more than 28 days getting through “Me and White Supremacy” but have finally finished that, too, so it seemed apt for it to share this review. I had saved both to read after I’d read up on some direct experiences of Global Majority People in the UK, but actually should probably have read them earlier in the process, however I did of course learn something new from each of them.

Robin DiAngelo – “White Fragility”

(18 June 2020)

There’s been quite a lot of negative commentary on this one as being one of the big Black Lives Matter Booklists titles but having been written by a White woman. I do understand that this means BLM-related monies have gone away from Black folk, however I would hope that people didn’t only buy this book, but bought others by a range of people (as I did and continue to do). And as regards DiAngelo’s validity in writing this book, she makes the point that White people will take some of the hard talking she does from a White person whereas they might not from someone of a different colour (that’s obviously not a good thing, but she does have a point). She can also use “we” and share the issues she’s had and mistakes she’s made (which she does), therefore setting an example for good practice and allyship. She does share that she’s centring White people while doing this and agrees it’s a dilemma: she is obviously showing up, doing the work and thinking hard.

After introductory chapters explaining how White people are socialised to think in certain ways, to not see their own race (and to claim not to see others) and within an environment of White privilege, she takes on the issue of White fragility, the fact that White people feel it’s worse to be accused of racism than to be racist, the fact that White people think of “Being a racist” as being a bad person who does overt racist acts, rather than being someone who is part of the status quo and works to maintain it, and pushes away criticism, acknowledgement of Black pain and racism etc. with tactics including defeat, aggression and tears.

She then looks at how we can work against this, patterning concrete ways we can acknowledge and accept being called out and ways we can make amends for errors and poor behaviour. All through the book she uses real examples from her teaching work on race issues and from her own life, and this makes things very understandable and clear. She shares how people can reframe things, for example changing “I’m Italian American and Italians were disctriminated against previously” to thinking about how Italian Americans have since become considered as “White” (on this, I did not know that people of different ethnicities, including Japanese and Armenian people, had to petition the American courts to be considered as “White” and thus able to vote, before universal sufferage in the 1960s. There’s always something to learn, even when you’ve read widely), or changing “there’s no racism now” narratives about Black people breaking into White spaces, e.g. in baseball, to “X was the first Black person to be allowed to compete in the league”.

She is pretty hard-hitting: this is not an easy read and does not let people off the hook. Especially important was the effect that White tears, especially White women’s tears, can have on Black people around them who are used to these tears giving rise to extremely serious and horrific consequences for Black people (this is quite US-based but I’m sure it’s not a non-issue in other countries). Strategies for reframing narratives and reactions and working together were useful. There’s a list for further reading at the back and I was pleased to see I have or have read the UK-centric ones. I think this book still has strong value.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 18/85 – 67 to go! I read it for Nonfiction November and it was also Book 13 in my Novellas in November reads.

Layla F. Saad – “Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World”

(15 June 2020)

This was another one that I’d waited to read until I’d caught up on some memoir and analysis around the UK in particular. And again, that was a mistake, as quite a bit of what I read here, when I got started in late September, was stuff I’d read up on already. However, it’s always good to triangulate information and there was a lot of very good information, presented well, in this book.

It’s a bit hard to review this without looking resistant to my own complicity in institutionalised racism, however I think there were some facets which just didn’t fit with my nationality in general and personality in particular. Basically, it works through facets of racism exhibited and inherent in White people, starting with (very useful) definitions of White supremacy, White privilege, etc., and moving on to anti-Blackness, stereotyping and cultural appropriation, allyship, and power, relationships and commitments. Each week has a theme, each day has questions, and you work through day by day, on your own or in a group (there are set guidelines for how groups operate; I did this on my own, but chatting through it with some very useful friends (esp Linda: thank you!)) and note down your answers in a notebook. I did this carefully but didn’t do it every day once a day for a month, as you’re supposed to.

The issue I had was that I really just do not do some of the things in the questions, ever, to anyone. I don’t think I’ve ever shouted anyone down, and I really don’t believe I’ve ever tone policed someone apart from asking another White person not to shout at me during an argument, certainly not if they are just expressing themselves or their feelings. So those sections were hard to fill in, especially when it went on to say that if you’d said no to those questions you were deceiving yourself. I do think this might be a cultural issue, the UK is enmired in racism but we practise it more subtly than in other places, more insidiously. And of course I accept that I’ve benefitted from White privilege and indulged in apathy and silence, which are more matched to my more reticent personality, if that makes sense. As in the first book, the real-life examples of how these aspects play out are very useful indeed, and there’s a full reading list at the end after a good list of tips for how to do the work and continue to do it. I have made my commitments to myself and will continue to review those.

I’d recommend this book to people who want to think about how racism works in themselves and in society, but if you’re in the UK, I’d also recommend reading other books that are more UK-centric to understand how things play out here.

This one isn’t from the TBR project as it was off the shelf and being read when I set that up, but it does fall under Nonfiction November!

Book reviews – two short guides to London


I’m quite enjoying looking at my Novellas in November picture and seeing how many I’ve picked off already! I might not get to the Maya Angelou (but that’s not hard to reshelve if I don’t read it, a powerful reason to read all the others so I don’t have to fit them back in date of acquisition order!) but I’ve added yesterday’s Dyslexia book, I’ve just finished “White Fragility” at the time of writing this, and then only have three left to go! I’ve chosen to review these two books about London sights together as they fit together and I’m running out of days for reviews. I heartily recommend both of them, and can’t wait to get down to London again and do some touring around and photographing with Emma! I bought both of these books in this summer’s Christmas/Birthday book token splurge.

Joshua Abbot – “A Guide to Modernism in Metroland”

(24 June 2021)

This attractive small book (though the print, I will say, is very small) takes as its locations the outlying areas of London and the Home Counties known as Metroland from the expansion of the Metropolitan Underground line. The design of Tube stations themselves, municipal buildings, blocks of flats and private homes often (in decreasing amounts as you go down that list) adopted the Modernist / Moderne / International style – think round stairwells, blocks of windows with metal frames and white concrete. This was not always hugely popular, and certainly homes were built of brick and rendered rather than made of concrete, and quite a lot of the buildings faded away over the years, but there are certainly enough to make a book out of, from austere brick churches to Egyptian-style cinemas to cantilevered sports stadium terraces and the odd sparkling white block of a house.

Taking buildings in the style up to the modern day, the book is arranged by London borough, then county, with a map at the start of each section with the places marked, then a postcode for each building and a photograph for many of them. There’s a good book list in the back and an index. The book was published on the Unbound site, and I would definitely have contributed to the funding if I’d been on there when it was started! The author, Joshua Abbott, runs guided tours of modernist buildings, one of which Emma has been on, and recommends. His website is here.

Avril Nanton and Jody Burton – “Black London: History, Art & Culture in Over 120 Places”

(31 August 2021)

Before we get to the guide and sights, we find an introduction setting the book out as “a historical guide to black global history in London, as well as a compendium of information about things to see,” a history of the HMT Windrush (even though this is clearly not only a post-Windrush book), a note on the different London plaque schemes, an excellent and detailed timeline and a list of Black events in London. At the back is a good resource list, split into websites, fiction and non-fiction for adults and young people.

This excellent book covers the whole of London, split into Central & East, North, West, South and South-East, with a map and legend for each section, and has such a huge range of things to learn about and look at, from Cleopatra’s Needle to places commemorating the Black Lives Matter movement, recently installed plaques and statues and those that have been there longer, and street art by amazing artists (including one from Birmingham, Carleen de Sözer).

I left London in 2005 and it’s striking to see how much work has been done since then by boroughs and organisations (including the BBC History Project featured in David Olusoga’s “Black and British” series and the Nubian Jak Community Trust). It also reminds us of writers, bookshop owners, activists and artists who came before the current generations, so important to remember (although dispiriting that so many fights have to go on and on. This book has certainly made me want to return to New Cross Gate to see the New Cross Fire memorial and the murals celebrating the Battle of Lewisham in New Cross and of Bob Marley in Brockley. A wonderful resource that has so much to offer, with enough history and information to be informative but not overwhelming.

These were TBR Challenge 2021-22 Books 16-17/85 – 68 to go! I read them for Nonfiction November and they were also Books 11 and 12 in my Novellas in November reads.

Book review – Kelli Sandman-Hurley – “The Adult Side of Dyslexia”


I was attracted to request this NetGalley book because I’d just been thinking and writing about my editing clients with dyslexia, who are one group of writers who often use speech-to-text software (I wrote about this on my professional blog here), and also one of the books I’d been reading about race issues had mentioned how Black children are less likely to be diagnosed with dyslexia and more likely to be diagnosed with behavioural issues. I liked seeing the darker skin of the woman on the cover, allowing her to be one of many ethnicities rather than just a “standard” White. It is published this month, so I aimed to read it anyway, popping it into my NonFiction November challenge, but then when I started powering through the percentages on my Kindle I checked and realised it was also a Novella in November candidate!

Kelli Sandman-Hurley – “The Adult Side of Dyslexia”

(29 September 2021)

This short book has all it needs to pack a punch, give people visibility and recognition and put forward good solid action points for the future. Sandman-Hurley did a qualitative study, interviewing around 50 adults with dyslexia about their experiences in education and their lives and opinions now.

She recruited a wide range of respondents of all races and social classes, and reports their words directly in most of the text, drawing comparisons and making careful use of “most”, “many” and “some” as she goes (she’s also careful to ask them how they wish to be referred to, as dyslexics or people with dyslexia, and is careful to honour all their different experiences, although I did note she only seems to refer to people’s race when they were not White*; she does talk about particularly inequitable treatment given to Black and Latinx students in schools).

The stories are of course sad and painful, but she’s quick to draw lessons from them about advocacy, self-advocacy, teacher education and the importance of adult dyslexics providing role models and advocates for younger people coming along. She even includes call-out quotes that summarise the page they’re on (I’m not sure what this looks like in the print book; it showed up as paragraphs in bold in the middle of the pages on the Kindle ARC), presumably to allow a more smooth read for people with dyslexia accessing the book.

There’s a resource list in the back that includes books, websites and podcasts, including non-US ones. Sandman-Hurley is an adult literacy teacher and researcher and has written other books around dyslexia and this is an excellent, although based in the US school system, resource.

* Edited to add: in fairness to the author, I received this gracious reaction to my review from her via (public) Twitter: “Thank you for the review. I appreciate the point that I only referred to race when it wasn’t white. That was certainly an unconscious issue that I will address as I go forward.”

“The Adult Side of Dyslexia” was published on 18 November 2021. Thank you to Jessica Kingsley Publishers for making it available on NetGalley in return for an honest review.

I read this for Nonfiction November and it was also Book 10 in my Novellas in November reads

Book review – Stephen Pennell – “King City: Adventures into Birmingham’s Diverse Music Culture”


This book just fell into Novellas in November at 189 pages of text (it’s a B size paperback, so quite a lot of text) and it just fell into my TBR Challenge as it arrived on the same day as the Dave Grohl book that started off the challenge. It’s one of the books I’ve subscribed to via Unbound – always exciting, as you never quite know when the book is going to come to fruition – though this time officially published by The History Press.

Stephen Pennell – “King City: Adventures into Birmingham’s Diverse Music Scene”

(05 October 2021 – Unbound) I couldn’t resist a book about my home city and music, even if my gig-going has dried up a bit recently and seems to be composed solely of seeing Attila the Stockbroker, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and members of The Mens’ side-projects. I was hoping this would give me some impetus to try some new local bands once the pandemic is properly over, and I did indeed get some ideas.

Pennell has written these pieces for local newspapers and music sites/papers, and they’re all competently done and well-written. He does revisit the same performers and bands quite a few times, all locals such as Lady Sanity and The Clause, with regular trips to see Paul Weller (he’s a mod, though he’s wider in his music tastes than that would suggest), but it’s fresh and enthusiastic writing and, being in a smallish scene, he knows the musicians and gets access to do interviews with them, too. There’s amusement, too, with his regular sideways glancing descriptions of the area of the city he comes from (there’s also an unreconstructed element to him: this is a working man who’s steeped in the working class of the city: he calls his wife “Wifey” and he has to Google neurodiversity, but he doesn’t display any prejudice and is happy with all slices of the city’s population so that’s a very minor point.

Of course, being Birmingham, everything’s down to earth, from Tommy Iommi’s solution to cutting off the tips of his fingers just before going full-time with Black Sabbath in the introduction that runs through Birmingham’s musical history, to the performers who happily hang around after their gigs to chat to fans. I also loved how Pennell displayed the Brummie trait of comparing everywhere else we go to our home city (I was caught telling my husband how like Birmingham Monpellier was once, fairly spuriously), so he’s not impressed by a bicycle taxi driver’s stats on Hyde Park, knowing we have the largest urban park in Europe (Sutton Park, where I recently almost broke my hand during a race), and managing to extend this to New York.

Most of the pieces were written before the pandemic but it does intervene near the end, shutting down gigs, then making gigs weird when they do come back, and almost felling one of the major figures in the Birmingham music scene. Perhaps one to dip into rather than read cover to cover in one go (my fault) and a good snapshot of venues and performers, with some nostalgia for older, lost venues, too. I’m not sure how much anyone outside Birmingham will get out of it, though decent music writing is decent music writing wherever it’s based, but there’s a good slice of backers in the list at the end, and there are over a million of us here, so I hope it does well.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 16/85 – 69 to go – it’s a Novella in November (number 9) and it’s one of my Nonfiction November reads.

Book reviews – Anthony Ferner – “Life in Translation” and Katharine d’Souza – “Friend Indeed”


I’m picking off two more of my Novellas in November and two more from my TBR Challenge as well today as I hack resolutely through my reviewing backlog (four more to go after this!). Also look out for another Book Serendipity moment at the end! I’ve also managed to fit in with the Novellas in November theme this week of Books in Translation – well, sort of, with a book ABOUT translation.

Anthony Ferner – “Life in Translation”

(26 February 2021 – from Kaggsy)

I make sure people know I’m a translator, not an interpreter. Interpreters are the flashy ones at conferences or meetings of heads of state, who translate on the hoof: the adrenaline junkies, high-wire artists, prima donnas. The larger the auditorium the better they like it. Whereas the translators are the backroom boys and girls of the language world. (p. 9)

Along with the Charlie Hill, this one came from Kaggsysbookishramblings earlier this year – thank you!

In this book, described as picaresque, which I can see, as our hero rambles around the world, having encounters and meeting odd people again and again, we travel from South America to London to Europe, seeing our hero learning the art of translation then working as a jobbing translator, notably coming up against machine translation at one point, and working in a Kafkaesque nightmare of a translation agency, coming up against enemies and meeting friends, working on a translation of a novel he will never finish. He’s engaging but pretty bad with women, and he lets lots of people down, but you do find your sympathies with him. It reminded me of David Lodge’s early campus novels with all the travel and naughtiness around conferences, and of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” with the interweaving of encounters with the same people in different places.

The discussions on translation are very interesting, especially when a radical scholar proposes that the translator should change the text to find new meanings, as opposed to being wedded to the overt meaning of the text; this seems to tie in with my adherence to reception theory, that the reader creates the text, except here I am not that keen on, for example, putting a feminist slant onto a translation of a misogynist writer – shouldn’t his sins be presented to the world as is?

This was published by indie publisher Holland Park Press, who specialise in English literary fiction and poetry and translations of Dutch classics.

Heaven-Ali’s review of this book is here.

Katharine D’Souza – “Friend Indeed: A Novella”

(26 November 2020)

She has to be at this event though. This needs all three of us and the date has been set since we turned sixteen. It was a pact: three people, three ambitions, three promises. It’s time to finish what we started and I, for one, will be dressed for success. (p. 2)

This is a pretty short book and very plot-driven and sharp, so it’s hard to review without giving stuff away. We meet three friends who encounter each other at school and form a pact to meet up at various intervals through their lives. Jane, our (unreliable) narrator, seems the most put-together and approachable, neither a boring 80s retro housewife or a bitchy newspaper columnist, but as events wind up to their big birthday meetup in London – their 50th, and I have to say I’m glad I don’t have any such arrangements with any friends having read this! – her life and her narrative start to spiral apart.

I loved the Birmingham and 1980s and 1990s setting, of course, with details of school and work life. The book is full os twists and surprises and telling little details. But I did miss d’Souza’s long-form work and her room to stretch and expand, and hope there will be another full novel soon. You can find out about her books here.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Books 13 and 14/85 – 71 to go – and they were Book 7 and 8 in my Novellas in November challenge

In another Bookish Beck serendipity moment, these two books featured a very loose episodic structure, jumping between sort of glimpses and moments, which was also a feature of Charlie Hill’s “I Don’t Want to go to the Taj Mahal“ and Anne Tyler’s “Clock Dance”, which I’m reviewing tomorrow. In addition, the central characters of both of these books reviewed here start out in Birmingham, with mention of the train to Selly Oak in “Life in Translation”.

Book review – Charlie Hill – “I Don’t Want to go to the Taj Mahal”


I’ve been racing through small books, so sorry for all the posts in a row and hope you’ve been coping wiht them – something for everyone, maybe, and reviews of short books are usually shorter than reviews of long books, at least, right? This one was from Kaggsy of The Ramblings, sent in a parcel with another book and I recorded its arrival in my March State of the TBR post. The other book came from Ali to her and this is to go from me to Ali (glad I checked the note!) so will pass it to her next time I see her.

I’ve previously enjoyed Hill’s other books, “Books” and “The Space Between Things” (read pre-blog, the only mention of it on the blog from when I bought my best friend a copy) but this was the first actual work of non-fiction/memoir by him I’d read.

Charlie Hill – “I Don’t Want to go to the Taj Mahal”

(26 February 2021 – from Kaggsy)

I’ve always liked the idea that writing is an activity that is intimately connected to death. That we wrete against death, to delay it somehow, or lessen the power of its hold over us. I’m not sure how effective it is, mind. (p. 98)

This is the story of Charlie Hill’s life in vignettes, never more than a few pages in length, sometimes a paragraph, often funny, sometimes haunting, and all soaked in South Birmingham, in Moseley and Kings Heath and Stirchley, in places I know or remember or have heard of, back when the Trafalgar was a scary pub to go in, so it was almost a visceral experience, reading about his wanderings and wondering where I was at the same time. It’s also soaked in an alternative, rave culture, made poignant at the end when he talks about the survivors from those years he still sees around – something that chimes with the next book I read, interestingly.

So he goes through a succession of crappy jobs, sleeps with a succession (or a spiral, as there are exes we go back to) of women, lives in a succession of dodgy houses with odd housemates and generally lives on the edge of things; however, ‘normal’ life does claim him to an extent in the end, and he does settle.

Here he is, crashing a forklift he shouldn’t have been driving: this gives a flavour of the flat narration and wry amusement of the book.

The only thing that stopped the forklift from going over on its side, with me underneath, cryshed honest into concrete, was a metal post that bent to 4 degrees and left it balancing on the edge of the ramp like a metaphor, not that I had much time for metaphor at Harrison Drape. (p. 19)

This book is published by Repeater Books, who appear to be an indie publisher or small radical imprint – they have some very interesting-looking books if you have a peek at their website.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 12/85 – 73 to go – and it was Book 6 in my Novellas in November challenge and part of Nonfiction November!

Book review – Jon Mills – “Utility Furniture”


Another little book for Novellas in November, and just still in their week of Nonfiction, and it also falls under Nonfiction November. Not the TBR project, though, as I acquired it after the cut-off date for that one. I bought it after seeing it mentioned on Facebook by a furniture restorer I follow: I love Utility furniture and have one piece myself, more on that below …

Jon Mills – “Utility Furniture”

(18 October 2021)

This is a facsimile of the 1943 Utility Furniture Catalogue with a long explanatory introduction by Mills.

When the Blitz of 1940 started to destroy homes and their contents faster than people could rebuild their lives, the government introduced Utility Furniture, plain, and using a minimum of materials in only a few designs, which was only available to newly married couples or people who had been bombed out and lost their possessions. There were just enough pieces to furnish a home, they came in one or two finishes and sometimes a couple of different styles. They were pretty sturdily constructed and I know of at least two other tallboys like my own that are still going strong!

The introduction lays out what happened when and explains the coupon system for getting hold of the furniture (at your most local shop only). There are great little reproductions of coupons, adverts and lists, most usefully a list of where in a piece of furniture the CC41 Utility Furniture stamp was to be applied.

The scheme only ended in 1952, and what I hadn’t realised was that the designs for the original ranges were sent abroad to countries that wanted to start a furniture industry – Sierra Leone, for example, was still producing it into the late 1950s.

Interestingly, my tallboy came in three different designs to match three different bedroom suites – this design, one with square panels with horizontal dividers on the doors, and then one with the vertical panels but also vertical handles on the drawers. I’d love to know if any of my readers have any Utility furniture, especially different styles of the tallboy!

A great little read, and I’m glad I promoted it up the pile because of Novellas in November!

My Utility tallboy (the checks are a reflection of the floor, not part of the decoration)

This was Book 5 in my Novellas in November challenge and part of Nonfiction November! And it was published by an independent publisher – Sabrestorm Books.

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