Book review – Tory Bilski – “Wild Horses of the Summer Sun”


At last I pluck a book from my TBR Challenge 2021-22! I bought this book in my 2020 Book Token splurge, where I save up my book tokens from Christmas and my January birthday and have a wild book-buying extravaganza to give myself some presents part-way through the year. I’m pleased to say that out of the seven books I bought in that splurge, I’ve read four, am part way through a fifth and will be reading the last two for Novellas in November and Aus Reading Month next month. Not too bad!

Tory Bilski – “Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: Iceland, Freedom and the Gift of Female Friendship”

(24 June 2020, book tokens)

These were our tales, these were the times, these were the women, and this was the place. (p. 235)

The book opens with a wild countryside canter on slightly out-of-control Icelandic horses, a special and protected breed which has remained the same and isolated since the Viking settlement. No horses are allowed onto the island and if one leaves, it can’t return – they are very vulnerable to disease.

Having been a horse-mad youngster, Bilski spots a picture of Icelandic horses on the Internet at the turn of the Millennium and decides to go to Iceland to see them. And I have to say that I fell in love with them when I saw them in real life on my own first trip to Iceland in 2014, and had a wonderful time riding a feisty horse called Freya on my trip in 2015.

Once she’s been once she’s obsessed (I can understand this; I went to Iceland once a year in 2014-17 and miss it dreadfully and yearn to go back) and then meets up with a group of women, led by the older Sylvie and her friend Eva, who are planning to go to stay on a farm in the north of the country run by Sylvie’s friend Helga. This turns into an annual event, and woven into the very normal story of Tory’s life (her son presents difficulties, her father dies and her mother is claimed by dementia, she has root canal surgery) are these annual trips (not every single year, c.f. root canal surgery) with a shifting group of women.

I’m afraid the horses and riding were the main appeal to me. The group of women sometimes includes oddities and a few times a woman who Tory and her ally Viv really don’t get on with (I did wonder what she felt when she saw herself portrayed in this book, if she did, even though her behaviour isn’t kind), and the glimpses of the Iceland I know and love. There’s also a parallel portrayal of the growth in the tourism industry of Iceland, so that by the time she goes last to the farm in 2015, there are millions of tourists, Reykjavik has grown exponentially and it’s no longer considered odd to go there.

I also loved the part where Bilski talks about being the go-to person for Iceland info and how she tries not to be too gung-ho about the place when recommending it, especially if the person is only wondering about going. I smiled at the group’s love of Jane Smiley’s novel, “The Greenlanders” while Bilski has only so far read the Vinland Sagas – I found the Smiley an excellent version of the saga style but I still have so many actual sagas to read I couldn’t spend hours reading a modern idea of one!

All good things have to come to an end, the lives of the core of women shift and then Helga announces she is closing the farm and moving to Selfoss. For once, Bilski’s husband comes to Iceland with her to see what the fuss is all about – although of course it’s about getting away from her home responsibilities as much as anything else – and Helga is happy with her plants and trees in the south. It’s poignant but not done for melodrama, and a good end to this interesting and open book.

Liz with Icelandic horse Freya, April 2015. It was April, it was cold, they made us wear these boiler suits; I am short.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 1/85 – 84 to go.

My 2021-2022 TBR project


When I admitted a week or so ago to Mr Liz that I’d ordered Dave Grohl’s new book, “The Storyteller” for myself and it was going to arrive on his birthday he set me a weird challenge. Now, he’s set me a challenge before, to ONLY read 104 books in a year – that was horrible and all I did was read magazines and watch rubbish TV so it didn’t achieve anything. I gave up in the June. This time, however, it’s a good one.

Can I read the WHOLE* of my print TBR by the time the book arrived next year, i.e. 5pm on 05 October 2022?

There are 85 books in this photograph. We have the normal TBR in acquisition order running top left to bottom right of the vertical ones (if you want to count them, Robin di Angelo’s “White Fragility” is hiding at the extreme top left. Then we have horizontally, books in series where I haven’t got the other books (but, how long have I had them?), an Icelandic trilogy that was in that pile even when I DID get the other books, the rest of my Maya Angelous and two loans, a great big Tolkien exhibition catalogue and an even bigger Icelandic Saga book I got excited by YEARS ago, a load of light novels I’ve bought when buying other things or to read around Christmas, and a loan from Matthew and the first in a series.

So 85 books doesn’t seem so much when you consider I finished 18 books last month and am on 126 for the year already. However, the oldest book in just the normal TBR is from June 2020, way over a year ago, and the project doesn’t include the following, which I will also be reading as normal:

Not included in the TBR project:

  • Other annual reading challenge books – so Anne Tylers this year and … next year
  • Review books sent by the publishers to review on my blog or for Shiny New Books
  • Review books from NetGalley
  • Other e-books on my horribly bloated Kindle
  • Books I’m reading along with Emma (we take a while to read each one so it seemed unfair to include them)
  • Any books that come in in any way from today onwards

Can I do it? Dunno. What do I get at the end of it? I told you so and clearer shelves (maybe!). Fancy joining in in some way? Comment below and commit to something.

I’ll be updating progress in my State of the TBR post every month, probably with a total, maybe with a photo … Wish me luck!

Book review – Daphne du Maurier – “My Cousin Rachel” #DDMreadingweek


If a good friend runs a reading week for an author every year and then gives you a book by said author for Christmas in the lovely new Virago edition, well, it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it! Here’s my contribution to Heaven-Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week and it’s SUCH a page-turner of a book – I started it on Saturday evening and there I was, frantically finishing it at lunchtime on Monday! I read “Rebecca” and “Jamaica Inn” last year and they were also page-turners, although I think I might now have exhausted the ones I can read, as I don’t like ghosty ones or anything too scary (“Jamaica Inn” was a bit scary for me).

Daphne du Maurier – “My Cousin Rachel”

(25 December 2020 – from Ali)

I felt strangely moved, as if all that I did and said was laid down for me and planned, while at the same time a small still voice whispered to me in some dark cell of matter, ‘You can never go back upon this moment. Never … never …’ (p. 171)

We open with a nice jolly gibbet (always good when you start a book over your tea …) and a big wodge of doomy foreboding as our narrator/hero moves from a childhood warning sign at the cross-roads to considering how he shouldn’t have had the fate he had, had he been different, and giving a few little clues to the story to come. It’s du Maurier at her gothic best, warning and foreshadowing and unnerving us.

Then we get swept up in the story, which winds up tighter and tighter, as we learn of our hero, Philip’s, ideal life, raised by his cousin Ambrose, secure in his position and happy in his community, with a godfather whose daughter Louise is his best friend. Then Ambrose goes to Italy for his health, meets a distant cousin, gets entangled, and it’s only when “My Cousin Rachel” arrives at the house to … well, to do what, exactly? that everything starts to get really complicated.

Rachel seems very different, and younger, rather than the evil old temptress Philip has imagined her to be. But is it all push from him and no pull from her or is she working subtle charms on him? Good old Louise sees clearly what’s going on – or what might be, it’s all very murky – but in a sad scene, Philip’s so hell-bent on destroying himself that he almost loses her friendship in the meantime.

There’s humour in the book, in the ministrations of the servants when a lady comes to visit and all manner of silverware is brought out, and in their touching gifts for Philip’s birthday. And du Maurier is partial to a house, isn’t she, and the descriptions of the house and its grounds, and the further fields, are lovely and engaging, too. But the main thing is the plot, ramping up and ramping up, little clues strewn for us to notice and feel clever then … well, the ending is one of many things that can happen, but certainly does work!

There have been a couple of films of this, I think, having had a look around for some way of resolving the unresolved bits of the plot, and it seems one of them at least takes a more conventional approach to the ending, adding a bit onto the actual book. I like it as it is: very exciting and absorbing.

Book review – C.L.R. James – “Minty Alley” #1936Club


I wasn’t going to take part in Stuckinabook and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings’ 1936 Club (they do a year-themed read twice a year) as I didn’t have anything from 1936 on my TBR and I’ve been being really careful to only do book challenges from my TBR. But then I realised that this book, which has been republished this year in the list Bernadine Evaristo has curated for Penguin, “Black Britain Writing Back“, I had to go and buy a copy and read it. And I’m very glad I did!

Simon’s page here and Kaggsy’s here explain everything and hold the lists of what everyone has read this week.

C.L.R. James – “Minty Alley”

(2 April 2021)

This was the first novel by a Black Caribbean author to be published in England, and as Bernadine Evaristo points out in her introduction, he came as a lone figure in the 1930s, way before the Windrush generation and their chroniclers, pointing out the debt Sam Selvon owes to this work of social realism (I re-read and reviewed his “The Lonely Londoners” recently (in fact for the last Year Club, the 1956 Club!). It’s the fairly simple story of middle-class Haynes, 20 years old, his mother dead, who needs to move into a working-class boarding house for complicated financial reasons. In Minty Alley he grows a spine and allows himself to get involved with the various characters who live there, all seen in comparison to him, brighter and more colourful.

The sea of life was beating at the walls which enclosed him. Nervously and full of self-distrust, he had been fighting against taking the plunge, but he would have to sometime. (p. 6)

While a lot of the details of living in 1930s Trinidad are of course specific to the time and place, there is a real universality about this book, too. It reminded me of works by R.K. Narayan set in India, and also Patrick Hamilton’s “The Slaves of Solitude” set in a wartime London boarding house – the petty quarrels, the issues of food, poverty and its genteel hiding, the problem of rubbing along with others. Haynes is fortunate in that he has the mother figure of his old servant Ella, always keeping an eye on him, even if it’s from a distance. The town of Port of Spain is almost another character, providing a web of gossip and almost a chorus. Nothing can happen in one street without the whole town knowing.

Haynes tries to stay out of the arguments and issues among his landlady, her niece, the irrepressible Maisie, her wandering-eyed and -handed common-law husband, her faithful servant Philomen and the other residents, but soon finds himself getting drawn in, in a number of different ways. He’s seen as a gentleman and thus is able to have a positive and/or calming influence on the rest of the house, even Maisie, although she gets one up on him too on occasion.

There was scarcely an occasion Haynes could remember in which Maisie either through inadvertence or malice, or both, did not with infallible instinct say or do the thing most calculated to ignite Mrs Rouse. (p. 168)

Of course events can’t just jog along and must come to a head, with a hilarious scene which is once again both specific and universal. It’s the kind of book you can’t stop reading, and I do wish James had written more than just this one novel (he wrote a lot of books of biography and politics, but no other novels).

So an engaging, charming and funny book with a sharp edge of racism (especially against the Chinese origin population) and colourism (before colourism was talked about, according to the introduction but something I’d also noticed). I really recommend it as a lovely read in itself, but with historical and sociological interest, too.

Other books from 1936 I’ve read and reviewed here (I know I’ve read others, e.g. the Agatha Christies, George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but before the book blog!) …

Daphne du Maurier – Jamaica Inn

Winifred Holtby – South Riding

Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind

Angela Thirkell – August Folly

Francis Brett Young – Far Forest

Book review – Mike Parker – “On the Red Hill” @Dewithon21


I always manage to do either Reading Ireland Month or Reading Wales Month each year, and it was the turn of Wales this time around! Dewithon is run by the lovely blogger Book Jotter and the project page for this year’s is here. I will admit now that I bought quite a worthy book on the pandemic in Wales, from an indie publisher, to read as well as this one, then when I had a look at it, it was less heart-warming tales of community and more blow-by-blow political history and figures. So I sent that to a Welsh friend who I knew would appreciate it, and concentrated on reading this one, recommended back last summer by my friend Liz.

Mike Parker – “On the Red Hill”

(28 July 2020)

Mike and his partner Peredur met an older couple, Reg and George, and immediately got on famously with them, becoming bonded and close, especially Peredur and Reg. Having witnessed Reg and George’s civil partnership in the small town of Machynlleth, as the two older men became frail, they ended up living in the cottage they’d moved into and run as a guest house a few decades earlier. This book is the story of that friendship, of the farmhouse and of the nature and town around them.

The book has an interesting structure: in four parts, after the prologue, in each we get an element, a season, a direction and a person. So it starts with chapters called Air, Spring, East and Reg and follows that pattern, the seasons mainly being about Mike and Peredur’s first and subsequent seasons in the cottage. It’s a structure that does work well, revisiting, weaving around, sometimes taking in more detail, sometimes skipping over.

The countryside theme is interesting, and apart from Derek Jarman I’m not sure I’ve read any LGBTQ narratives set firmly there. As he says early on,

If the countryside appears at all in gay histories, it is usually only as a place to escape from, and as swiftly as possible. For many of us, this is a pattern that never fitted … (p. 5)

Although from near Birmingham, Mike yearns to move to Wales and just does it – much like Reg and George did, from Bournemouth, and with warnings no doubt for both. He finds local farmer’s son Peredur, who has always loved the farmhouse from nearby, and is assumed easily into his family. For Reg and George, they lived for 18 years in an illegal relationship, going right through to legitimation in a civil partnership.

It’s a moving book: the younger men certainly absorb the older men’s possessions and soon cast off a friend who advises them to clear out the traces. They worry they’re indistinguishable “to some of the local ladies of a certain age, the ones who squeeze your thigh after a large gin and tell you how much they ‘love the gays'” (p. 113) but you can tell they love the continuity and settling in to the house.

It’s not all jolly ladies and farm families. There’s a strong strand through the book about power and sex, and the abuse of power to get sex, most notably in George, but also in Mike’s past and done to and by him. There’s also nature red in tooth and claw, and although no domestic pets are lost horribly, there are a few squeamy bits and one picture I’m glad is not in colour.

Iris Murdoch and John Bayley are mentioned late in the book, with mention of Martin Amis’ famous discussion of them losing a pork pie, consumed by the wreck of their kitchen, when talking about slightly shambolic houses. He also said, “They want rain, gloom, isolation, silence” (p. 335) which rings a bell with Mike, even though he seems to suffer SAD and be glad of the clear winter light.

There are loads of photographs through the book, old ones of Reg and George, newer and arty ones, which really bring it to life. It’s in a nice decent-sized font, too. A lovely book soaked in Welsh and Wales, and a great one to read for Dewithon.

State of the TBR February 2021 and Book Confessions #AnneTyler2021 #ReadIndies


I completed ten books in January, not too bad, as I certainly had a lot of work to do (I mean, hooray, Brexit hasn’t scuppered my business, but I’m hoping I can rein the hours in a little bit this coming month). Two of those I haven’t reviewed yes, so watch for notes on those this coming week. I also managed to continue my trend of running just over 100 miles in the month, something I was really pleased with given the snow and ice we had in the second half of the month. And I had a lovely birthday.

I have had some incomings (see later) so the TBR is looking like this at the moment, no real proper piles but a small one on the back shelf of the newest books. Some have come off the pile that was in the oldest part of the TBR last month so all good progress I feel, and my NetGalley review percentage is back over 80% again.

I do have a slight issue in that a few books at the start of the TBR aren’t really suitable for reading over meals, so I’m darting around in the order a bit. Also, it’s all a bit monocultural at the front end so I’m hopping between the older and newer ones on the front shelf (and into the Kindle) to maintain some diversity. I’m currently reading “Girl” by Kenya Hunt, which is a set of very interesting essays by a Black woman who has lived in both the US and the UK, on the Kindle.

Next up

Next up I have these lovelies.

I’m already reading Isabella Tree’s “Wilding” a chapter a week with my best friend. Some of the chapters are proving quite “chewy” and full of theory and biology, but others are simpler to get through and we’re certainly enjoying and learning. Two review books: “Digging up Britain” by Mike Pitts is an examination of British archaeology through the lens of new techniques and theories, and I’m reading it for Shiny New Books, and I’ve been asked to read Peter Whitfield’s “Iris Murdoch: A Guide to the Novels” for the Iris Murdoch Society Review as it’s a book about her novels by someone just outside academia, as I am and was when I wrote my book about Irish Murdoch and the Common Reader.

Then, I have my next Anne Tyler 2021 project read, “A Slipping Down Life” – and I do actually remember reading this one first time round! If you’re interested in joining in with my Anne Tyler (re) reading project, do have a look at the project page and join in when/where you can – no pressure but I’m loving chatting about her novels and seeing what other people think of them! And the next book from the shelf is Danny MacAskill’s “At the Edge”, which is the story of his life as a trials cyclist and adventure / trick cyclist extraordinaire.

I also intend to read some books by independent publishers to join in with Kaggsysbookishramblings and LizzySiddal’s “Read Indies month“. So many of my books AREN’T by independent publishers, but just on the front shelf, I have one from Lonely Planet, a reprint from Jane Badger Books, three Persephones, a Dean Street Press, a British Library Publishing book and an Unbound book, plus a self-published one that came in recently, so hopefully I’ll be able to get to a few of those. Are you taking part in this challenge?

New books in

These four books rather bizarrely arrived on the same day! I have mentioned the Iris Murdoch one already. “Grayson’s Art Club” is Manchester Art Gallery’s catalogue of the Grayson Perry’s Art Club exhibition which was put together in association with his TV programme during Lockdown 1 – unfortunately I don’t think it ever went live but this lovely book details the pieces there and reproduces the conversations he had with various artists and arty celebrities during the show and is a lovely memento.

Paul Magrs has a new novel out, “Hunky Dory” about a cafe in Manchester and the diverse folk who haunt it and I cannot wait to read it, and lovely Ali gave me Dorothy Whipple’s “Random Commentary” from Persephone Books, which is a slim volume suitable for those who have read all her novels and need more – it took its time arriving but was very much appreciated.

Did you have a good start to your reading year? Doing any fun challenges?

Book Review – Simon Barnes – “On the Marsh” #NonFicNov


This was a book I actually finished at the weekend, so still during Nonfiction November, but didn’t get time to review, frustratingly. So now I’ve read or started everything I planned to read apart from “Homesick” – and at least “The Good Immigrant USA” will now ‘do’ for #DiverseDecember!

I’m also pleased that I’m almost caught up to being a year behind, after having slipped back horribly in getting through the books I bought the longest ago, and even when picking newer books off from time to time. It’s all good.

Simon Barnes – “On the Marsh: A Year Surrounded by Wilderness and Wet”

(02 October 2019, The Works, Penzance)

This book has contributions from Edmund Barnes and Cindy Lee Wright. Cindy is Barnes’ wife, she has done beautiful illustrations for the starts of each chapter, and Barnes also includes moving passages of appreciation for both her art and for her support of their family. Edmund – Eddie – is a young adult who has Down’s syndrome and has contributed both a his character to the book and his rather lovely poems scattered through it.

I did worry that I would find too many personal incursions into this book – not because I don’t like reading about people living with different conditions, but because I like my nature books to be about the nature. But here, the theme of Eddie’s life and the effect being on the marsh has on it, as he passes through a big year where he leaves school and starts college, learns more about nature and learns some potentially hard lessons about his beloved horse (don’t worry, though), is woven beautifully through the book, with promised excursions and repeated joys bringing a daily structure to the book which echoes the monthly and annual one. There is some polemic, and why the hell shouldn’t there be, about the odd unkind educator and the very existence of people with Down’s syndrome, but the main theme is carried through with aplomb.

There’s polemic, too, about nature conservation, about keeping wild lands joined up, and a lot of musing on what ‘wilding’ and ‘rewilding’ are and what we should do to our land – Barnes makes the excellent point a couple of times that “our land” can be anything from a massive estate to a window box, but it all matters and it all involves decisions (we’re thinking of climbers and fruit trees to plant to offset our next-door neighbour’s huge extension, for instance). He mentions Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” a couple of times, and visits the farm where it’s set, which is making me eager to pick that one up. But the joined-up nature of wild places is the most important thing for him:

It’s part of something that covers the nation: a vast and spreading web of places where the wild things are. And every strand depends, at least to an extent, on all the others; when you break a single strand you weaken the entire web. (p. 63)

We come off the marsh in fact to visit his neighbours and friends around and see how they manage their land and what they think of his. There’s quite a lot about the local nature reserve at Minsmere, which is lovely to read about. 

He’s got a nice turn of phrase – his horses turn into dragons on a frosty morning “I found I had exchanged them for a stable of dragons, three twin jets of smoke billowing over the three half-doors” (p. 73).

In one very exciting passage, he also reveals that his grandfather lived basically half a mile from where I live now! My next but one read has featured Peckham, too, so everything really is a web of knowing and places!

Barnes’ African sojourns also feel natural to relate here, talking about the lions he loves and the naturalists he’s spent time with and, notably, seeing migratory birds on the marsh that he has also seen on that other continent, thousands of miles away. As well as Cindy’s lovely animal illustrations, there is a pleasingly drawn map at the front. I learned a lot reading this book (are baby spoonbills really called ‘teaspoons’ by birders, though?), it’s the everyday small pleasures, recognising a birdsong, seeing a new creature, seeing the same creature again and again that really stuck with me when I finished this book.


State of the TBR December 2020 and Book Confessions #DiverseDecember #Magrsathon @PaulMagrs


I have been trying to clear the decks and not buy new books in order to prepare for the Great Christmas and Birthday Influx and I don’t feel I’ve really succeeded at either! I did finish 12 books in November, six of which were off the physical TBR (the others were a mix of review books and Kindle ones). I set out to read one book for Australia Reading Month, which I read (“The Three Miss Kings“) and I took part enthusiastically in Non-Fiction November – I set out five books to read, finished three and started one, and read a bit more non-fiction through the month, and posted my four themed posts and enjoyed linking up with more non-fiction readers.

So this is how the TBR stands, at least it’s not two full shelves, I suppose, and has moved along. The pile to the side is Christmas books which will be read between Christmas and New Year (apart from one of them, see more below) and the ones on top are my remaining Thirkell war novels and three lovely British Library books I haven’t been able to get to yet.

I’m currently reading these three. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” has been a thought- and discussion-provoking readalong with my best friend Emma – we took to reading books together during lockdown and enjoy a bit of time on a Thursday evening. We’re quite slow with these as we sometimes have a chat rather than a read, but it’s a lovely thing to do. We have one chapter and the afterword left of this. I just started “The Good Immigrant USA” to go with my read of the UK version, and am learning new things with this one, too, and Jonathan Gornall’s “How to Build a Boat” is just getting started. The first two will be contributing to the DiverseDecember reading challenge hosted by The Writes of Womxn (thank you to Ali for alerting me to this one) – they will be blogging about Black Brown and Indigenous writers who identify as women but we’re free to read anything and use the hashtag. More on that below – including not pushing myself to read loads and feeling I’ve failed!

Up next, Emma and my next read together will be Isabella Tree’s “Wilding” which was discussed in “On the Marsh” which I’ve just finished and I’ve been looking forward to reading for ages. Of course those BL books will be devoured, too. For my LAST BOOK in my Paul Magrsathon I was going to re-read his lovely “Stardust and Snow” which I read on Christmas Day last year, but then he brought out this “Christmassy Tales” volume which includes that one and a host of other short stories. I have already dipped into it to read his Fester Cat story (from the book he wrote by his late lovely pet) and I am not going to be able to resist it now we’ve got into December – there’s a story about a Christmas Trilobite! I will be reading the four light Christmas novels I bought in October between Christmas and New Year, and I have assigned myself Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan novels to read for DiverseDecember. Yes, I have “Brit(ish)” and “Black and British” and various other books but I don’t want to force the issue or read all my BLM books in a rush, so I will enjoy these and see what else I can add in.

New books in

The aforementioned “Christmassy Tales” arrived last week and I also bought my friend Katharine D’Souza’s new novella “Friend Indeed” on the day of publication. I wish I’d got it read for Novellas in November but it will be a Novella in December instead. Bizarrely, Past Me decided to do some Amazon pre-orders in August and September and I was somewhat surprised to receive Jane Linfoot’s “Love at the Little Wedding Shop by the Sea” (book five in her series) and Sairish Hussain’s “The Family Tree” (shortlisted now for the Costa First Novel Award” following the fortunes of a family emigrating to the UK. Both obviously “me” but do I recall ordering them? I do not.

Did you have a good reading month in November? Tempted to join DiverseDecember? Bought anything new or holding off? Is there room on your shelves for Christmas incomings???

Book Review – Nikesh Shukla (ed.) – “The Good Immigrant” #NonFicNov


I’m still a little bit disappointed with the amount of reading I’ve got done this month, especially for Nonfiction November. I have now read the Ada Cambridge for Australia Reading Month and “The Secret Teacher” and this one for Nonfiction November (plus a couple of short reads not pictured here). I have started Simon Barnes’ “On the Marsh” and might finish it by the end of the month. And this is the eleventh book I’ve completed this month, which is not actually too shabby. But still, I had wanted to read at least the other two in this picture by now.

Onwards to this excellent, moving, important and shocking read, however. And at least the date I acquired it shows I’ve always read books about people who have lives different to mine!

Nikesh Shukla (ed.) – “The Good Immigrant”

(25 September 2019)

From the Editor’s Note onwards, this book speaks powerfully of the lived experience of people who have moved to the UK or been born here who have heritage that is not directly and completely from here. The purpose was, among writers who do not write exclusively about race, to provide “a document of what it means to be a person of colour now. Because we’re done justifying our place at the table”. And where did the title come from? Shukla explains that it was suggested by a comment from contributor Musa Okwonga: … the biggest burden facing people of colour in this country is that society deems us bad immigrants – job-stealers, benefit-scroungers, girlfriend-thieves, refugees – until we cross over in their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.

The contributors come from all sorts of backgrounds, African, Asian, what we confusingly call East Asian or Southeast Asian (and this nomenclature is discussed in the book). Some are funny, some are angry, some are both. All reflect direct lived experience and offer a simple way to access people’s lived experiences while educating oneself rather than demanding stories out of people. Like reviewing a book of short stories, I’m not going to cover every piece in here but pick out a few that really stuck out.

One thing my friend Sarah warned me about, and she was right, was how shocked I’d be reading the people of East/Southeast Asian heritage’s experiences of British life. Vera Chok (who is ethnically Chinese but physically from the UK via Malaysia) talks in a matter of fact way of the stereotypes applied to her, the things that have been shouted after her. Did you know that East Asians are the third largest minority ethnic grouping in the UK yet experience the most racist incidents (yes, she backs this up with figures)? However, she was not able to find many reports on this, just as I have struggled to find more nonfiction works by East Asian authors about their experience in the UK, something I’d like to add to my reading if I can (any suggestions out there?).

Reni Eddo-Lodge pops up to remind us that most of the Black history we learn at school seems to be about America, Kieran Yates gives a brilliant description of code-switching as she goes from confident British Asian to inadequacy but loving in in her Punjabi village to mixing with the cool kids in Delhi, and Coco Khan talks movingly of her mum’s covert sympathy as she covers for her and her friend as they spread their wings a little, an opposite narrative to one we’re often presented with. Riz Ahmed writes about the similarity between film auditions and interrogations at airports, noting the match between his ethnicity and those who stop and search him again and again at Heathrow, and Salena Godden’s piece is a cleverly constructed discussion of shade and othering as she negotiates the world as a person of mixed heritage.

Worthwhile but not worthy, entertaining but thought provoking I’d encourage everyone who’s at all interested in people’s lives outside their own demographic to read this. I can’t wait to read the US version now and compare it.

Short reviews of short books: Rory Fraser – “Follies” and June Sarpong’s “The Power of Privilege” #NovNov #NonFicNov


I thought I couldn’t take part in Novellas in November as, well, I didn’t have any novellas to hand, but Bookish Beck and 746 Books include non-fiction in their challenge and I did have some short non-fiction! Of course this also acts as another post for Nonfiction November, too! So two very different books here, but I can tie them together by saying that both are crying out to be bought for other people – “Follies” as a Christmas gift and “The Power of Privilege” to help people be the change they want (or need) to be.

Rory Fraser – “Follies”

(5 October2020 – from the publisher)

Coming in at 111 pages, Rory Fraser’s debut book, “Follies”, newly published by the fairly new publisher Zuleika Publishing, fits the nonfiction novella bill perfectly.

If you’re interested in architecture, history or architectural history, you’ll enjoy this small, attractive book, with 25 watercolour illustrations, on follies.

What is a folly? Officially, it’s “an elaborate building set in a beautiful landscape that serves no purpose other than to improve the view” (p. x) but there prove to not be very many true follies like that, and indeed the first one he visits, at Walsingham, as well as a shell of a Wren church in London later, is actually part of a ruined building left to stand incongruously in its surroundings. There are also mounds, caves and that famous fibreglass shark embedded in a suburban roof, as well as the more expected classical temples or gothic frills in lovely parks.

Fraser hops enthusiastically through history, kings, landowners and peers, sharing what he learns with glee. We’re looking at folklore one moment and Empire the next, always with something new to read about. It’s also something of a garden history on the grand scale, looking at the development of the landscapes in which follies often exist, framing huge swathes of land, as at Stowe, or a view of a city, as in Bath.

A great gift idea coming out at just the right time. Thank you to Tom at Zuleika for providing me with a copy in return for an honest review. A full review will appear in Shiny New Books next week and I’ll share that here then.

June Sarpong – “The Power of Privilege: How White People can Challenge Racism”

(1 October 2020)

I’ve always read pretty diversely but I’ve been buying, reading and reviewing some more of the non-fiction that’s come out as part of the upswelling of interest and activism after the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum across populations. I’m reading “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” alongside my best friend at the moment, for example. But what I was looking for was some direct ways that I could be an ally and help combat racism, and this book (and also Sophie Williams’ “Anti-Racist Ally” which I have but haven’t read in time for this review) offers that.

Sarpong is a journalist who has a senior diversity position at the BBC and is able to draw from both this and her experiences as the child of Ghanaian immigrants growing up on a council estate in London to put this useful book together. She’s recently published a longer work called “Diversity” which demonstrates the power of diversity to benefit companies and society economically as well as socially. I would imagine that talks to those in high power, as this one does: there’s an emphasis on including elite (not just privileged) white people in the conversation and a lot of the action points are for those who have power in companies and society. She also includes white people with less privilege, e.g. people of the working class and/or on a low income, people living with disabilities, people with an LGBTQ+ identity and makes it clear she understands privilege is a continuum, with well-off white male captains of industry and politicians at the most privileged end.

We get a good explanation of basic terms – racism, othering – then we’re taken through some statistics and reports about the position of Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic people in the UK. This does have a lot of US information which I found a bit distracting from the main text. It’s also bang up to date, talking about how the disparities highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic are impossible to ignore and how it’s time to change things.

As with my attempts to join in with general inclusivity and “better together” campaigns before, I’m a bit hamstrung in my pro-cohesiveness and anti-racism work by the fact that I’m not part of any formal groups – I’m self-employed and work alone and I’m not a member of a faith group or large volunteer organisation (apart from parkrun, and I will be taking steps to look at that). It’s not the place to list what I I I am going to do: suffice it to say that in the ten clear points Sarpong offers, from educating yourself about Black lives now and in history to standing up against racist incidents to helping your white friends think about race there is something that everyone can use to help improve society and challenge racism. Action 10: Act Now has some particularly useful summary lists of things we can all do.

Oh and one for Bookish Beck’s serendipity – like “Work” which I review in Shiny on Thursday, this book talks about moving from a “scarcity” mind-set where we’re all fighting for small pieces of a pie to broadening out to build something that’s more than the sum of its parts.


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