Book review – Bernardine Evaristo – “Manifesto”

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

Bernardine Evaristo – “Manifesto: On Never Giving Up”

(09 September 2022, The Heath Bookshop)

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

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

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

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

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

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

What an excellent book!

Book review – Eris Young – “Ace Voices”

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

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

(4 July 2022, NetGalley)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review – Nicola Rollock – “The Racial Code: Tales of Resistance and Survival”

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I was selected to read this book via NetGalley after it came out, and didn’t manage to get it read until this month, but I have now covered all my October NetGalley books. I was attracted by the title but wasn’t quite sure what this book was going to be like – it was different to what I’d expected but extremely well done and innovative.

Nicola Rollock – “The Racial Code: Tales of Resistance and Survival

(16 October 2022).

I argue that mainstream perceptions of racism are wrong and overly preoccupied with explicit or extreme forms of racism seen to exist only on the fringes of society. Instead, I draw attention to the existence of more subtle forms of racism which saturate everyday life and shape interactions between (and sometimes within) different racialized groups. These interactions help determine who is seen to belong, who is included and excluded from different social spaces and roles, and, crucially, help maintain a racial status quo where white people remain at the top of the hierarchy and people of colour are at the bottom.

After working out a lot about her identity and what race was when she got to university, Rollock became a well-known and highly trusted academic, eventually tasked by think tank The Runnymede Trust with carrying out an independent review of progress arising from the Macpherson report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Finding that in particular the recommendations on approaches to race in the police force had not been addressed, she further discovered in other studies and reports later that the same was true: nothing had changed. Suspecting there was something more than institutional, a sort of code in place, to retain racist structures and maintain the White-led status quo, she researched and produced this book to share her theory, as laid out in the quotation at the top of this review. And she then goes on, after setting out terms, etc. (she uses “racialized as White” and “racialized as Black” which I think are very useful), to evidence this.

The way she gives her examples of life in the structures of racism is innovative and radical and, while I’ve seen composite portraits in books on psychotherapy practice (most lately Susanna Abse’s), it’s not something I’ve seen used in a book like this exploring structural racism. In each area, to do with the world of work, seeking work and promotion, being drafted in to an organisation to accomplish change, networking, when to speak up about racist statements from people, etc., she uses examples from people she’s interviewed or her own experiences to weave a compelling story which shows in fictional form very powerfully what she’s talking about. So we’re inside the world of a middle-class, well-dressed Black man at an exclusive club who encounters an uncomfortable doorman (Black, so only showing body language), a posh White man who “doesn’t see race” and a posh White woman who claims to think he’s a waiter, or we meet a couple arguing in a car about whether someone should have called someone out and risked spoiling a party.

At the end of each story or group of stories is a section by Rollock detailing what she is showing here with back-up information, and there are also some short, hard-hitting vignettes with individual experiences. Particularly wince-inducing is the very clever list of “some of the ways in which white people seek to demonstrate their commitment to advancing racial justice while, in fact, holding steadfast to existing practices” which is called “A white person’s guide to preserving racism in the modern age”. And, as Rollock states, the footnotes are there to reference the sources but also to give tips on where and how to go deeper into various individual areas. Intersectionality is brought into play when looking at women and working class people and their experiences and the author is careful to show nuance rather than monolithic behaviour – in White people as well.

Although a lot of the statistics and situations Rollock is talking about can be encountered in other books on racial justice, this way of presenting them is visceral and really hits home. As well as more direct reportage style pieces there are a couple of savage satires near the end that are shocking – as they have every right to be, of course – and a straight-talking section on the phenomenon of people only being awoken to racism by George Floyd’s murder and rushing to quickly mine books on the topic then just as quickly move on (a real risk which can be mitigated by a drip feed of reading and sharing, in my opinion, but one that needs to be borne in mind). A genuinely innovative book that will hit hard and not allow the reader to skim past stats. There’s room for a range of books, of course, and I’m glad that this seems to have been commissioned before lockdown and George Floyd, giving hope that the recent resurgence in diverse publishing will continue and not suddenly lapse back down again.

Thank you to Allen Lane for choosing me to read this book in return for an honest review. “The Racial Code” was published on 6 October 2022.

Book review – Chelsea Watego – “Another Day in the Colony”

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Here we have the last book I read for AusReading Month: fortunately, Brona, who runs the challenge, has allowed people to post reviews after the end of the month! I continued my theme of reading books set around social justice and Australia’s Aboriginal/Indigenous peoples along a sort of curriculum: I read “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” to get a background idea of the Stolen Generations and a summary of the experience of Aboriginal peoples from when the White invaders first came; then “Growing up Aboriginal in Australia” gave the experiences of Aboriginal people growing up from the 1940s to 1990s and now we have the lived experiences of one woman who is an Aboriginal/Indigenous [she uses both terms in the book, Indigenous more often and I’m trying to reflect that] writer, academic and campaigner. This is the third book that Bill from The Australian Legend kindly sent to me in January. His review is here and I urge you to read it.

I admit right now that I’ve been a bit nervous about reviewing this book. It is not written “for” me, the author makes it clear (and fair enough, of course) and it’s doubly not about my culture, being Aboriginal/Indigenous centred and about Australia. All I can really do is set down my reactions and the connections I have drawn with other works I’ve read or cultural issues I’ve noted: and like all great works, it’s both specific to its time and culture but can have general global points drawn from it. I’d encourage people to read it for themselves if they’re at all interested in learning about colonialism, current issues of the “settlers” in a claimed territory that is actually someone else’s and Indigenous people’s lived experience.

Chelsea Watego – “Another Day in the Colony”

(13 January 2022, from Bill)

It took me a while to realise that in teaching Indigenous anything I was meant to be teaching students to feel good about being a coloniser; that in my presence I was meant to be the site of absolution both for the institution and its students. Despite transcending our role in the academy as engraved objects carved into sandstone, to enter classrooms as educators we are still being called to accessorise white knowing and affirm white belonging. (p. 109)

Dr Watego is clearly angry, and she has good reason. She is also exhausted, and as we read this book, we can see why. She doesn’t want to, and doesn’t, explain terms, history and experiences for White / settler [her term] readers, and why should she? (this fits with a long-held view of mine which I know is contentious that it’s my job to look stuff up, not the author’s job to explain her culture to me when things are easily looked up; terms, yes, experiences, no, and we get them from this book).

I’d like to say Dr Watego’s experiences are shocking, but if you’ve read a fair bit of work by Global Majority and Indigenous peoples, unfortunately they’re not. Or not surprising. She experiences racism and exclusion in academia and expected to remove guilt from White students (I’ve read Black and Brown academics talking of that here). She’s blamed for all sorts of things outside her control. If she’s in confrontation with a White person, the White person will be believed (and let go and she’ll be taken into custody). If she dares to say that someone who claims to be Indigenous but has no connection to the culture which is so communal and relational is not yet wholly Indigenous, she’s told she’s wrong. She encounters White anthropologists who try to tell her about her own lived experience. She sees her own people denigrated for having poor health outcomes when it’s clear those outcomes are a direct result of the pressure and colonisation, institutional and intersectional racism, sexism and classism imposed upon them by a coloniser ideology that believes they should have died out decades ago. (This last reminded me of the blame heaped upon Global Majority People in the UK when they died disproportionately of Covid: it was biological or due to “lifestyle choices”, not of course because they were forced into poverty and overcrowded living and compelled to go out and do risky face-to-face work while the White middle class sat in our homeworking isolation.)

In this bold and usettling book, Dr Watego sets down her experiences on her terms. She is able to print a (perfectly reasonable, well-argued and massively referenced) article that ended up not going out in an academic journal because the publishers weren’t keen on the racist stereotyping and violence clearly portrayed in the book being exposed without having some spurious balance: she did claim room for a rebuttal and letter to the managing editors in the journal. She states powerfully in the final essay that there is no room for hope, only for sovreignty, and for standing your ground, not fighting back, for strategies and not solutions. You’re not going to read this to feel better about the world or your place in it, apart from the fact that there are people like Dr Watego who are managing to speak out and get published so others can see themselves reflected or learn about what’s happened and happening. There is a superb playlist in the back of the book of “songs that brought joy” while she was writing it, and I salute her (not that she needs my salute, obviously) for including that in what is a confrontational and at times very dense read.

One powerful lesson that was reiterated for me here (which I did learn when reading a book by a non-Indigenous Canadian about Indigenous Canadians last year and bought a new book instead) was to go to “own voices” for books about Indigenous and Global Majority peoples, which I do do on the whole, but I need to stay in this space and not go back to White people’s, even if not Australians’, narratives about Indigenous/Aboriginal peoples like the one I read last year. And I recommend this powerful and strong narrative by very much an “own voice”.


This was Book 3 for AusReading Month and Book 12 for Nonfiction November.

Book review – Anita Heiss (ed.) – “Growing up Aboriginal in Australia”

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Back to AusReading Month and I’m continuing my theme of reading books set around social justice and Australia’s Aboriginal peoples along a sort of curriculum: I read “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” to get a background idea of the Stolen Generations and it gave me a short history of the experience of Aboriginal peoples from when the White invaders first came; this book charts the experiences of Aboriginal people growing up from the 1940s to 1990s and “Another Day in the Colony” which I am starting now, will fill in a lot more gaps hopefully (I don’t think I’ll get to “Lies Damned Lies” but can save that for next AusReading Month of course). This is another of the books that Bill from The Australian Legend kindly sent to me in January. His review is here and we largely agree on the pieces that most struck us, interestingly.

Anita Heiss (ed.) – “Growing up Aboriginal in Australia”

(13 January 2022, from Bill)

… this anthology is not one of victimhood: it is one of strength and resilience, of pride and inspiration, demonstrating the will to survive and the capacity to thrive against the odds. Growing up Aboriginal in Australia paints a landscape of a country that has created leaders who form strong communities, with a generous heart and passion for change. That is why this anthology matters. The goal is to break down stereotypes – many of which are identified with these pages – and to create a new dialogue with and about Aboriginal Australians. (Introduction, p. 2)

This excellent book takes 50 submissions from Aboriginal people living in Australia which (sometimes loosely) follow the theme of growing up. Some of them relate in a straightforward manner what it was like to be a child in Australia, some take the idea that they are still “growing up” and some just fill us in on what life continued to be like. I don’t think I’d heard of any of the contributors, but some are well-known writers, academics, musicians and sports players and some are ordinary people. The ages of the contributors range from 13 to people who must be in their 80s and this gives an excellent perspective as some are from the Stolen Generations (Aboriginal people, especially those with lighter skins, who were taken from their families and ‘raised’ on missions and in special schools to ‘protect’ them from taint by their darker-skinned relatives) or are children of people who were stolen, or look back to a fractured family line because of this vile policy: we really see how that has reverberated through the generations.

I learnt a lot reading this. Many of the contributors described their anguish at being lighter-skinned, asked to prove their Aboringinality, told they could and should ‘pass’ for non-Aboriginal, were questioned on what proportion of their heritage was Aboriginal and found they were too light-skinned for some of their family group or activists but too dark-skinned for European-origin Australians (this chimed with the works I’m reading on people with dual heritages elsewhere in the world, but with special horrors to do with their geography). I also hadn’t realised that Aboriginal people were only accepted as actual PEOPLE in the 1960s when there was a referendum about ‘allowing’ them to appear on the census and vote – before that, they were counted as sort of part of the flora and fauna [Edited to add: this is actually a myth, please see the comments and links by my Australian blogger friends below]. And I was completely unaware that people were captured and removed from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and other islands and used for labour.

It’s not all doom and gloom: there’s a lot of humour, a lot of anger and pushing back, and a lot of people finding their Aboriginal heritage and connecting with it, learning the traditional ways and cultures of the different Aboriginal groups and becoming workers or activists or educators in their communities and beyond. Interestingly, although I re-read his review after I’d finished the book and put down some thoughts, I liked similar essays to the ones Bill chose: for example, “Two tiddas” by Susie and Alice Anderson, who record a dialogue about their feelings about being Aboriginal, and Dom Benrose’s powerfully sarcastic apology to “Dear Australia” for basically existing or pushing back: “I am sorry I can’t tot paint, play football or run really fast” (p. 17). There’s a lot of intersectionality, too, looking at race, class, gender and/or sexuality, with Celeste Liddle in “Black bum” unable to separate her experiences of being Aboriginal from those of being female.

One tiny criticism I had is that I struggled to find a pattern or structure in the book, so while it showcased diversity in ages, backgrounds and experiences, you sort of dotted from one to another without a clear pathway through it. The introduction by the editor only explains they came from 120 submissions and notes on why the anthology matters, which is great, but I’d have liked to understand the selection and organisation principle. This is a minor point, though: the thing that matters is the diversity, own voices and chances for people to express themselves and readers to find themselves mirrored or to learn.

At the end of his review, Bill notes that many people of his generation and younger don’t understand/accept that racism existed and still exists in Australia and adds his hope that school children are all reading this book: I add to that hope and also think it’s very important to know about these issues outside Australia, hence being very glad to have had the opportunity to read this powerful, fascinating and moving book and share about it here.


This was Book 2 for AusReading Month and Book 7 for Nonfiction November.

Book review – Janet Pywell – “Someone Else’s Child”

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Because I’d read and reviewed Janet Pywell’s “Someone Else’s Dream” last year, she got in touch with me and kindly offered me a review copy of this, the second in the Westbay Romance series. I’d liked the diversity as well as the seaside community setting (a favourite of mine) in the first book and had finished my review by saying I’d read more in the series, so I accepted and downloaded it when I got back from our recent holiday.

Janet Pywell – “Someone Else’s Child”

(14 November 2022)

Everyone has a story and when everything else is stripped away, it’s kindness that’s the most important thing.

Femi, a dual-heritage, single woman living in the seaside town of Westbay, had a difficult childhood including time in a foster family, and she was determined to offer that kind of support to some children herself. Someone who likes to help, she also works shifts in a medical centre and is an RNLI volunteer, with some exciting rescues featured in the book. As we meet her, she’s looking after 17 year old Ricky, who’s just starting to become a bit more independent, and 13 year old Albert, who’s quiet a lot of the time and yearning for his dad to be the hero he knows he’s really not, both of them British and having suffered early neglect. Into the house comes Ahmed, a Syrian refugee placed with them as an emergency, and Femi must negotiate the new home dynamics and try to settle him in while making sure her other two boys are OK and juggling a whole suite of social workers.

There are a lot of issues in this book, from abuse to living as a refugee, and fractured families, but all treated well and sensitively, with the author obviously having done her research, but refraining from shoving it all into the book. The various social workers around the family are explained carefully and the status of a fostered child made clear, so we can understand Femi’s take on things and decisions, too. She’s a lovely, strong (physically and emotionally) character with bravery in both aspects; the only thing I was a bit unsure of was that she describes herself as needing to lose weight time and again, and although that’s a hook to hang different characters’ reactions on, it could have been done without.

Anyway, Femi is also on her own journey of accepting her past and also has the possibility of a new friendship – or more – once she overcomes her very understandable reservations. A crowd of supporters around them, some from the previous book and some new ones, makes the sense of community palpable and believable, and the book is never scared to address issues like the different experiences two refugees only two years apart will have.

Thank you to Janet Pywell for offering me a review copy in return for an honest review. “Someone Else’s Child” is published today, 22 November 2022!

Nonfiction November Week 4: Worldview Changers

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Week 4: (November 21-25) – Worldview Changers: One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book or books has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in? (Rebekah @ She Seeks Nonfiction)

I found it tricky to find books for this week as I wanted to do this on books I’ve read since 1 November last year. However, some of my books for the second question I read before last November.

What nonfiction book or books has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way?

I came up with Symeon Brown’s “Get Rich or Lie Trying“, which is an exposé of the world of internet influencers, or rather those who try desperately to monetise their lives for various reasons, including hauling themselves out of poverty, and who are used and abused by companies who know their desperation.

Damian Hall’s “In it for the Long Run” opened my eyes to the actual environmental costs of the hobby of running – I have only travelled far to race once, and combined it with a holiday, but it made me think, and it made me pre-order his new book, as yet unread, “We Can’t Run Away from This” (pictured here), which covers the issue in more depth.

Finally, Sabeena Akhtar’s “Cut from the Same Cloth?” opened my eyes to the anti-Black prejudices which exist in the Muslim community in the UK, as well as showcasing the huge variety among hijabi women here, which I already knew a little more about.

Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in?

A book that profoundly changed my worldview last year was Shon Faye’s “The Transgender Issue“. I hadn’t really understood that in order to gain medical acceptance and treatment, trans folk had to follow a pathway, a narrative, which was very restrictive and limited how they were ‘allowed’ to experience the world. Once I’d gathered that, I was able to understand the issues a lot better and fit in a few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle for myself.

With all the opprobrium, misunderstanding and vileness that gets thrown at refugees and asylum-seekers across the world, I’d love people to read one of these two important volumes I read this year. “American Refuge” looks at people who have come from all over the world to one town, and “Refugee Wales” tells the stories of Syrian people who have come to South Wales. Equally important would be “The Good Immigrant” and “The Good Immigrant USA

Finally, for people in the UK to understand that people who look the same as them or people who look different to them, depending on the reader, have been here since prehistory, I’d recommend two big books, David Olusoga’s “Black and British” and Hakim Adi’s “African and Caribbean People in Britain“. Olusoga does have a shorter version aimed at younger people which is comprehensive, too, and there was an interesting TV series.


Three books that opened my eyes in different ways and one and a selection to change everyone’s world. What did you pick for your week and what books have opened your eyes this year?

Book review – Mariama Ba (trans. Modupé Bodé-Thomas) – “So Long a Letter”

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A last review from my holiday last week: I read this one on the plane on the way home (I like to have a print book to hand for flights in case I’m told to turn my Kindle off, although in fact I was very absorbed in Jonathan Coe’s “Bournville” as we landed in Birmingham!).

I received this book in my Birmingham BookCrossers’ Not So Secret Santa parcel last December from the lovely Sam (alongside a Christmas book I read on Christmas Day and another book I haven’t read yet). It would have fallen under the Novellas in Translation themed week for Novellas in November had I reviewed it last week but I’m not really doing the themed weeks so it’s all OK!

Mariama Ba (trans. Modupé Bodé-Thomas) – “So Long a Letter”

(16 December 2021, from Sam)

Waiting! But waiting for what? I was not divorced … I was abandoned; a fluttering leaf that no hand dares to pick up, as my grandmother would have said. (p. 56)

I don’t think I’ve read a book set in Senegal yet, though I might be wrong, and I’m very glad I’ve read this classic of women’s writing. It was originally written in French and Ba obviously has a quite different attitude to colonialism that people who came after her, as her (apparently fairly autobiographical) main character loves her French-administered school and relishes the education she receives there. I’ll note I’m not being clever and percptive about attitudes to colonialism here: as this is an edition published in the Heinemann African Writers Series, there’s an excellent and fairly academic introduction. Kenneth Harrow also points out this is an early example of African feminist writing and I can really see that in the deep commitment to female friendship that is shown throughout the novel.

We meet Ramatouolaye at her husband’s funeral. She’s writing it all in a letter to her best friend, and we get the immediate present first, all the rituals and family stuff going on, all rooted in her Muslim faith. Unobtrusive footnotes help us through the details, as there’s a lot about payments, clothing, etc., but underlying it all is the fact that now she is widowed, she’s going to have to tread carefully to retain her own agency and life. Added to all the confusion is that there’s a second, much younger, wife involved – and this also happened to her friend, although in that case, it was down to manipulation by her mother in law and she has walked out of her marriage, all the way to America. We learn these details gradually, but we’re basically shown very cleverly two different ways that a woman can get into this kind of situation and react to it. Always, their strong friendship binds them and keeps them going.

Ramatouolaye must negotiate several suitors and these are very amusing points in the book where she gives at lesat two of them what for and engages in interesting political discussions with the last She also has a neighbour who is able to predict the future and also has very strong opinions on the right thing to do. She acts as a kind of Greek chorus, not always welcome, but another strong female figure. Added to these figures is her grandmother, whose precepts and advice she remembers more and more as she travels through her own life.

Ramatouolaye must also negotiate the changes in her children’s lives as they grow and push the boundaries, from the older children smoking to the youngest boy playing football in the street, a risky business, and then one of her daughters finds herself in the oldest predicament of all. Will she do the right thing or the kindest thing? We leave the book on a positive note, a reunion with her dearest friend on the cards. What a lovely book, funny and perceptive and empowering and so much packed into under 200 pages. Highly recommended.


This was Book 4 for Novellas in November.

Nonfiction November Week 3: Stranger than Fiction

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Week 3: (November 14-18) – Stranger Than Fiction: This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic. (Plucked from the Stacks)

I mention here a book I also chose for Pairings, so sorry about that – but it was one of the strangest and most shocking books I have read this last year. Of course, I’ve read a lot of books about social justice that have made me pause and shocked me, but I’ve become used to reading about people’s inhumanity to others such that it’s believable and just represents more to learn.

Donna McLean’s “Small Town Girl” is a memoir by a woman who was deceived by an undercover police officer whose job it was to infiltrate activist groups. The Spycops scandal has been going on for years (decades) and is so shocking, the thought that these men (which it was) went so far as to get into serious relationships with women, sometimes having children with them, while living a double life, just blew my mind.

Even though I worked on this book and heard his story before the book came out, I was still amazed by Nimsdai Purja’s superhuman ability to scale high mountains very quickly; he has a weird physiology which makes him less susceptible than most people to the issues that can come with being at high altitudes and when he set out to climb the fourteen peaks higher than 8,000 m, recorded in “Beyond Possible“, he was aiming to break a record by a bit but ended up … well, you’ll have to read the book or watch the Netflix documentary to find out!

The pandemic was stranger than fiction in the first place, wasn’t it, the stuff of nightmares and science fiction. This book, “Pandemic Solidarity“, outlines the lengths people went to to help others in their communities, and the lengths they had to go to. It was inspiring and moving but also a record of these extraordinary times. I’ve not read much pandemic literature, although it does keep cropping up in my reading now, but this was an important one.

I shouldn’t have been shocked by what I read in Sue Anstiss’ “Game On“, which of course as well as being about the rise of women’s sport was also about the suppression of women’s sport. Stopping a lively and successful women’s football league in the 1920s, what women journalists faced in sports writing, and the fact that this book had to be published by subscription via Unbound (yes, I subscribed) in order to get published …


Four books I can describe as being stranger than fiction. What did you pick for your week and what’s the most stranger-than-fiction book you’ve read this year?

Book review – Huda Fahmy – “Huda F Are You?”

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I found out about Huda Fahmy’s brilliant cartoons on her Facebook “Yes I’m Hot in This” page and I read her first book of cartoons, “Yes, I’m Hot in This” a couple of years ago. Last year, she published her first graphic novel – I would probably call this autofiction, as she admits it’s somewhat based on her life but not totally, so it comes under the fiction heading and still gives a compelling picture of life as a young Muslim hijabi girl in North America. I pulled this short book off the shelf to read for Novellas in November, as it has under 200 pages. I don’t often read graphic novels as I find I skim through them too quickly, comments on that in the review. But it was great, and Matthew just read it, too!

Huda Fahmy – “Huda F Are You?

(6 December 2021)

Instead of the usual quotation at the top of this review, I’m going to add a photo of one of the pages, as there’s not really enough text to quote. It gives a good impression of what the book looks like, and also the moving quality of Fahmy’s work – with just a few lines, we see the fear and worry on her mum’s face as she travels to the US with her new husband:

This coming-of-age novel is lovely – heartbreaking but funny and very instructive if you want to know what life for Fahmy and her character was like. I loved getting to know her family (including her mysterious sister, drawn see-through with dotted outlines!) and the disparate friends she gathers around her as she starts to make sense of high school. We see Huda going to Halaqa (as she describes it, like Bible Study), and being able to learn more about her heritage and to improve her Arabic, and also meeting the cool and inspirational Sister Amal, who pops up from time to time through the text, and we see her finally start to push back at the racism that’s becoming rife at school – complete with profiling and abuse from teachers, alongside her friends.

Matthew really enjoyed this one, too – he chuckled at some pages but found it sad, too, and in many ways a typical high-school coming-of-age novel. We do root for Huda and I will definitely buy more of Fahmy’s work (I’m aware I’ve missed one of her books and will pick it up soon)


This was Book 2 for Novellas in November.

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