Book review – Akwaeke Emezi – “You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty”

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I’m really glad that I tried this book for myself and wasn’t put off by other reviews I read. With the impression that the opening scene was an offputting mix of sex and death and the central character a transgressive artist who worked in fairly grim media, I picked it up to check for myself before writing a quick note about why I hadn’t read it, and was instead drawn in by the rapid plot development, attractive characters and good writing.

Emezi has published two works of more literary style fiction before this and warns their readers that this is a “romance”; however, it ponders a lot of deep things and although it is at heart a novel about millennials finding their place in the world, it’s thoughtful and considered.

Akwaeke Emezi – “You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty”

(11 March 2022, NetGalley)

There was a reason she’d fled from the garden that night, and a certainty that going on an early morning hike alone with this man was terrible idea. And, because Feyi was Feyi and she was alive, there was no way she could say no. ‘Four thirty,’ she replied, with a damned smile and a traitorous chill burning through her veins.

We meet Feyi having an anonymous hook-up at a party in New York, and she does at one point think of the car crash that killed her husband five years ago, but it’s not some kind of “Crash” mash-up of sex and death or anything. It is fairly explicit, and you might wonder why I’m OK with that in this book and not the last read; I can only say that the scenes are shorter here and seem to fit better with the urban and grittier vibe of the book (I’m not using “urban” as code for Black here, please note; the book is set partly among young artists and party-goers in New York rather than nice dog ladies in the South of France and the context does make a difference). She soon moves away from the friends-with-benefits gig with this guy and on to another person from his friendship group. Then her life changes when she’s offered an opportunity to exhibit her art in a big show in the Caribbean, goes there with Second Guy, determined to be her friend and not rush her, and meets his dad. Oops.

So yes, Feyi does sort of hop from man to man but she’s given morals and decentness and panic about falling for someone’s dad when she’s already messed around. The book is full of this angst and it is a bit millennial in that respect, but there’s also a lot of aspirational architecture and food, which is completely fair enough; who doesn’t want to read occasionally about high-end interior decor and amazing birds? The landscape is described beautifully and the supporting cast of characters from the art world are nicely and richly done.

The book is also diverse both in terms of the orientations of the characters (the two main characters could be described as bisexual but don’t describe themselves in any particular terms, there are a couple of lesbians and a gallery attendant who happens to be gay with no fuss made about it) and in terms of the different kinds of love portrayed. Although Feyi has had a sexual encounter with best friend Joy at one point, they’re loving friends now, sharing an apartment and all the details of their lives; Joy is a great conscience and counterpoint to Feyi and their video chats are hilarious, but their friendship is highly important. It’s made very, very clear that Feyi doesn’t need a particular man (or by implication woman) in her life; she has, and is, enough:

It didn’t matter how this went – it couldn’t matter how this went. She had a life in New York. She had Joy, and her work, and it had been enough before this, so it would be enough afterward.

Feyi is ambitious about her art, owns it and takes commissions on her own terms and the thing she really sticks up for when things get tough is her art, not her relationship; I loved this about the book. Her art is big and raw and about grief and hurt; it’s installation art rather than paintings and it uses unconventional media. It’s refreshing to have her discuss her art with a female curator and a female collector, both also with diverse Caribbean heritages, as well.

A good read, one step towards the literary from the straight romance genre still but nicely done by the author, and I would certainly read another of their novels, realising they’re quite different to this one. I’ve added my social justice – race tag to this to remind myself it’s an all-Black cast but there are obviously points made about societal racism, not wanting one’s art to go to an old White male collector, etc.

Thank you to Faber and Faber for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty” is published on 26 May 2022.

Book review – Sara Novic – “True Biz”

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A really interesting novel from NetGalley here about the D/deaf community in the US – not an area I knew much about, either there or over here (I would LOVE some recommendations on books, fiction or non-fiction, on the D/deaf community in the UK as I’ve had trouble locating anything but expensive academic works but I know they must be out there). I did check with a friend who has experience with the D/deaf community in the UK and confirmed that many of the issues are similar to those in the US, the only difference being that the NHS provides cochlear implants and the relevant training and support, where basic US health insurance gives implants without support, from the book. We’re onto books I’ve finished in May now, although this was an extra one I picked up in March and published in April.

Sara Novic – “True Biz”

(25 March 2022 – NetGalley)

We meet February, the head teacher of a school for the deaf in a relatively run-down American city, the hearing child of deaf parents and bilingual in English and sign language, and Charlie, a teenager who’s transferred to the school after sinking at a mainstream school, de-languaged by the installation of a cochlear implant that’s never worked properly, without the accompanying high-intensity therapy that’s needed to navigate the world with one, while not having been allowed to learn sign language. Now she and her dad are learning ASL at night school community classes run at the school, while her mother still refuses to learn. Charlie and the other teenagers have the usual preoccupations with classes, lessons, friendships and relationships, all mediated through the various bits of tech that a person with a hearing disability need – from video phones to flashing alarm clocks to new apps.

The school is under threat and February’s relationship with her wife Mel deteriorates as she holds this knowledge to herself. Meanwhile, her mother, who is living with them at the start of the book, is becoming more overwhelmed with dementia: will a care home living with an old deaf friend of hers help? I loved that Feb just happens to be gay, just as Charlie’s roommate Kayla just happens to be Black – although their characteristics do throw up plot points through the book. I particularly appreciated learning about Black ASL and its origins and differences from ASL.

This was not the only learning point. The book is full of sign language lessons and exercises from presumably a textbook they are learning from themselves – although at one point, associated with a part of the story where Charlie is engaging in various risky drug and sex behaviours with her anarchopunk sometime high school boyfriend, we get an awful lot of interesting signs for various sexual activities (don’t look at these too closely while being a visual learner, as they will become engrained in your mind forever!). I liked the way Charlie’s experience of spoken and signed language is conveyed to us with dashes where she can’t understand a word, and signed communication is written in italics, spoken in plain type. The history of ASL is covered in boxes (I think this book would work better as a physical book than an e-book, actually, in layout terms) and current issues, like the apparent wish to eradicate D/deafness and its culture by implanting all babies or genetically engineering it out of them, and issues there around class and race, are explored through the characters’ lives and experiences.

I wanted this book to end on a more positive note, and was sure it would when a certain plot point happened. However, all is not light and positivity in the D/deaf community as regards culture and education, so this is more realistic. There were lovely points, for example when Charlie finally gets an interpreter in her implant appointments when she can understand enough ASL, and her dodgy high school boyfriend makes an effort to sign and be lip-read and is careful around consent. The different experiences of different kinds of people are explored with care and understanding. The author’s note thanks the Deaf community, of which she is part, and lists real schools that have already closed.

Thank you to Little, Brown for selecting me to read this book in return for an honest review. “True Biz” was published on 21 April 2022.

Here’s a great review by Grab The Lapels, who has been immersed in ASL and Deaf culture for the past year and gives a view on the book from that valuable perspective.

Book review – Bonnie Garmus – “Lessons in Chemistry”

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Another NetGalley book and one with a lot of hype, like Candice Carty-Williams’ “People Person” which I’ll be reviewing in a couple of days, and, like that novel, well worth the hype. I requested and downloaded it back in December last year but I think I’m doing well to review books in the month they’re published; I have seen a few reviews already that I’m going to go back to now I’ve collected my own thoughts.

Bonnie Garmus – “Lessons in Chemistry”

(15 December 2021)

And then there was the illogical art of female friendship itself, the way it seemed to demand an ability to both keep and reveal secrets using precise timing …

We open with someone called Elizabeth Zott popping handwritten notes into her daughter’s lunch box some time in the 1960s. But Elizabeth isn’t your run-of-the-mill 1960s housewife (and she’d contend there’s no such thing) and her daughter Mad has benefited from a scientific training which has left her a second-generation uncomfortable genius not fitting in well at school. Add in a kindly neighbour whose life they change and a dog called Six Thirty who has an extensive vocabulary but no way to express it (and is still there at the end, phew!), and you’ve got a lovely cast of characters to follow through the book.

Like “The Group”, in fact, this is a bit of a #MeToo book, even though obviously the movement hadn’t been coined when it was set. We follow Elizabeth from school through to university, where her perceived oddness, bluntness and scientific exactness mean she’s a fairly lone soul. She can see the sexism in academia but is powerless to change it (this is illustrated by a pretty shocking scene of assault: this is not a cutesy easy read by any means), and she also finds this when she starts to work in a research institute.

Not keen to have children, who she knows will mess up your career, Elizabeth ends up with Mad but without the love of her life, Calvin, the also probably neurodiverse scientist who sees her scientific but also romantic value. Resourceful to the last, I love that she builds a lab at home out of her kitchen, while pregnant, and then we get lots of details of how she uses that lab as a kitchen.

When she’s on the point of leaving the lab for a second time, driven down by her sexist boss, she’s weirdly headhunted by Walter, a TV producer who needs someone to fill an afternoon slot and thinks she’s just the person to teach the nation’s women how to cook. So she does – but she also teaches the nation’s women how to think, do chemistry and value themselves, while fighting against the expectations from the bosses on how she will comport herself.

Meanwhile, female solidarity builds between both Elizabeth and her former enemy, the HR executive from the research institute and Harriet, the motherly neighbour with a horrible husband. This was a lovely theme and really well done. We can add to these themes a mystery about Calvin’s origins which is unpicked and solved by his resourceful daughter – this novel is packed full of incident but there’s plenty of room for character and it’s a feel-good read (with some wincey bits) that I heartily recommend.

Thank you to Random House for picking me to read this book in return for an honest review. “Lessons in Chemistry” was published on 5 April 2022 and is already being made into a TV series!

State of the TBR – May 2022

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Oh, the shame of my TBR shelf! For there is … a PILE! How could there be? But there is. It’s down to the amazing haul of books I scored from the Oxfam Bookshop Moseley in the month (see here for details). And I have (at least) managed to get it into the run of books, albeit sideways and in a pile, because I have taken several off the shelves since last month (I’ve realised I’ve included my big stash of Three Investigators novels in the pic – I normally move them aside and they play no part in my stats (OK?!)).

I managed to finish a grand total of TWENTY books in April, which I was really pleased with (helped by being near the end of a couple at the turnover of the month and finishing one of my readalongs with Emma). I managed to finish and review eight out of the nine e-books I intended to read, including the two non-fiction books published in March that I’d not got to that month, and only missing “The Go-Between” (not that one), which was published in January and adding in one more that I’m half-way through “True Biz”. (“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois” is resisting me but I will get to it.). I have two books finished in April whose reviews are written but will be published next week).

I started my new quarter of TBR challenge books and managed to complete five of them, so not brilliant but not hopeless, with 36 left to go.

Shiny New Books

I reviewed “This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music” edited by Sinéad Gleeson and Kim Gordon for Shiny New Books – an excellent and diverse collection of essays on women in music by women, which really had something for everyone.

Incomings

In print books, it looks like I was quite restrained until we remember the nine books from earlier in the month.

The publisher Michael Walmer offered me a choice of backlist books after I reviewed “Letters on Shetland” and I chose “Foula: Island West of the Sun”, a memoir by Sheila Gear about farming on a tiny remote island. Natalie Morris’ “Mixed/Other” was a book that Past Me had pre-ordered in paperback; it’s a book about multiraciality in Britain today. And I popped up to Oxfam Books to pick up two more Virago Travellers for Kaggsy and it’s therefore entirely her fault I spotted Robert MacFarlane’s “Landmarks” in the window (actually, it was Matthew who pointed it out to me …) and had to buy it.

I bought several e-books for Kindle this month:

Because I’d won Christie Barlow‘s newest Love Heart Lane novel from NetGalley, I felt I needed to fill in books 4-6 (“Starcross Manor”, “Primrose Park” and “The Lake House”) so I could get all the back story filled in. Simon at Stuck-in-A-Book heartily recommended E. Nesbit’s “The Red House” and I found a cheap copy, and David Harewood’s memoir “Maybe I Don’t Belong Here” on race and his breakdown, and John Barnes’ “The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism” were both on my wishlist and both in the Kindle sale.

I won a lot of NetGalley books this month again:

Lucy Dickens’ “The Holiday Bookshop” (published in July) sees the heroine running a bookshop in the Maldives, a bit different there, Josie Lloyd’s “Lifesaving for Beginners” (July) is an ensemble piece about female friendship and sea swimming and Camille Baker’s “The Moment we Met” (July) pits a busy Black woman against a dating app. Emily Henry’s “Book Lovers” (May) is an enemies-to-lovers light read set in the world of book editors and agents, “Daisy’s French Farmhouse” by Lorraine Wilson (May) was offered to me by the publisher and has the heroine find a new life in France and Christie Barlow’s “The New Doctor at Peony Practice” (May) is the newest Love Heart Lane novel set in Scotland. In non-fiction, “Birdgirl” by Mya-Rose Craig (June) is the memoir of a young woman committed to birdwatching and environmentalism, “Inside Qatar” by John McManus (Sep) looks at the rise of this tiny, rich and troubled country, and “The Ponies at the Edge of the World” by Catherine Munro (May) continues my interest in Shetland. “Why We Read” edited by Josephine Greywoode interrogates 70 writers on why they read non-fiction.

So that was 20 read and, along with the 9 of the Oxfam haul, 28 coming in in April – oops!

Currently reading

I’m currently reading Katherine MacInnes’ amazing “Snow Widows” about the wives of Scott of the Antarctic et al. and Jude Rogers’ super “The Sound of Being Human” (started in pdf but I wanted to get the book) for Shiny New Books. “Cut from the Same Cloth?” is my current read with Emma (got off to a very theoretical start but looks like a good mix of essays by British women who wear the hijab) and my e-book novel is “True Biz” by Sara Novic, a novel set in a school for deaf people in the US which is fascinating.

Coming up next, my print TBR that I must read …

I want to get my teeth into “Foula” and I need to read those two British Library Women Writers novels, Rose Macaulay’s “Keeping up Appearances” and Maud Cairnes’ “Strange Journey”. It’s Real LIves month in the LibraryThing Virago Readers group so time to tackle this substantial “Virago Book of Women Travellers” and it’s Heaven-Ali’s Daphne du Maurier Week this month and she kindly loaned me “The Scapegoat to read for it … and there’s also of course my Larry McMurtry.

My NetGalley TBR for May is fairly full, and because it includes that Love Heart Lane book, I need to read books 1-6 of that series first (I have the first three as a cheapy omnibus e-book).

So from those incomings above, I have “Why We Read”, “Daisy’s French Farmhouse”, “Book Lovers”, “The Ponies at the End of the World” and “The New Doctor at Peony Practice”, then I have Sara Cox’s novel of community and pottery, “Thrown”, Susanna Abse’s therapists’ tales, “Tell me the Truth About Love”, Akwaeke Emezi’s “You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty” (I hear this novel opens with a shocking scene so hope I can deal with it!) and Clare Pooley’s new community-based novel, “The People on Platform 5”.

With the ones I’m currently reading (not including my readalong which will take a while), that’s 21 books I think I’m going to read this month, and that’s not including getting a few more off the print TBR, too! I do have a weekend away with two longish train journeys coming up this month at least …


How was your April reading? What are you reading this month? Have you read or picked up any of my selection?

Book review – Lara Feigel – “The Group”

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Another print book from my TBR Challenge 2021-22 and another of the books that Bookish Beck kindly sent me in December 2020. This one riffs off Mary Macarthy’s novel of the same name, which I reviewed in 2007 but didn’t really remember – looking at my small review from then, it did cover a lot of the same ground, updated for the #MeToo years and likely to be as representative of its times going forward as the original.

Lara Feigel – “The Group”

(24 December 2020, from Bookish Beck)

So here we are then. Five exact contemporaries who once shared a cluttered, thin-walled student house off the Cowley Road, all privileged, white, middle-class, all vestigial hangers-on, left over from an era when we received free educations at our elite university and then emerged into a world where we could still just about find jobs and buy flats, provided with opportunities for selfishness and leisure by our cleaners and our childminders. Nothing very eventful happens to us, but that gives more room for the ethnographer in me to get to work. (pp. 11-12)

The narrator, Stella, and Priss, Polly, Helena and Kay, met at university and amazingly all ended up in London, now around 40 and living busy middle-class lives (Polly started off working class but is now working as a doctor) revolving around what read to me as a married, childless 50-year old with what one might term a quiet life an exhausting existence of marital troubles, milky babies and affairs. The narrative voice is cool and emotionless, even when describing emotions, and did remind me of Doris Lessing’s narrator in “The Golden Notebook”, so it was interesting that Rebecca mentioned this in her review (see link below).

It was interesting, like a sort of soap opera, and covered lots and lots of contemporary issues – is it OK to have a revenge affair, has the time of White middle-aged, middle-class men come to an end, is it OK to have affairs at all, is it OK to have a baby if it ends a marriage, is it OK to be a woman and still be the primary caregiver, what do you need to be able to write if you’re a woman, and also a hefty dose of #MeToo, as the uncle of one character / boss of another is facing losing his job over allegations from a series of women. That’s a lot to pack into a book and Feigel does it pretty well.

The omniscient narrator / first-person viewpoint choice does get a bit messy – we’re both in Stella’s head and observing the inner lives of the other characters, all very well until Stella’s present and then it gets a bit clunky:

I arrive, wearing a blue dress bought in yesterday’s lunch hour from a shop I usually think of as too young for me. Kay notices it, thinking that the sleeves are too baggy for my shoulders and that I look too determinedly fashionable. She thinks that it would look better on Priss. (p. 223)

Because quoted direct speech lacks inverted commas, at first you think this is reporting Kay’s spoken reaction, then you realise it’s in her head; at the end of this scene, Stella leaves and Kay feels irritated, jumping around in people’s heads again. There is a lot to be gained from this choice of point of view but it does pull this reader, at any rate, out of the narrative at times. And then, later on, Kay herself sits down to write a novel at last, which feels very like this one!

I also got a bit confused as to whether parts should be funny or not. There wasn’t much that was relatable to me, but I did enjoy reading about these people’s chaotic lives, full of secrets and revelations and shifting opinions on each other, making me appreciate my relatively calm time of it. I did like the variety of experiences and the different types of families that were being made; there was also some welcome and unfussy ethnic diversity. And in the end, in a massive echo of the next book I’ll be reviewing on Monday …

We have so much power between us, if we can take ourselves seriously, with our grief and rage and love and desire.

And our laughter, Polly said, laughing. Don’t forget that.

Maybe that’s what we’ll do in our forties, i said. Learn to use our power. (p. 318)

You can read Rebecca’s review and comparison with the original novel here.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 5/41 – 36 to go.

Book review – Eley Williams – “The Liar’s Dictionary”

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I’ve been making some good progress with my TBR Challenge 2021-22 this month, and at the time of writing this review, I’ve finished this and another one from the layout here. Maybe I will do it after all! I’m into the books that Bookish Beck kindly sent me in December 2020 now, and what a lovely variety of review copies of novels and non-fiction they are. Here’s a really quirky and fun novel that I feel had something of the tone and setting of “The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line” (and as such, I’ll be sending it to Emma, who also enjoyed that one).

Eley Williams – “The Liar’s Dictionary”

(24 December 2020, from Bookish Beck)

Mallory is a paid intern at an obscure dictionary, helping with a project to digitalise it in the hope that something can be made of it. Her boss, David Swansby, is the last heir to the unfinished dictionary project that bears his name and the huge crumbling building in central London that used to house a whole hive of busy lexicographers but is now home to Mallory, David and a cat called Tits, with the lower floors hired out for events. Mallory sits out her days, underemployed but enjoying the wordplay, but also every day taking calls from a person threatening to destroy their world. Meanwhile, her more practical girlfriend, Pip, who is more about action, enjoys the coffee shop job where they met but is becoming more and more frustrated by Mallory’s refusal to be her authentic self, including admitting their relationship to others.

In 1899, Peter Winceworth is one of that hive of lexicographers, researching words and writing out slips to go into the great work. He’s constantly looking for words for things that don’t yet exist, one of the delights of the book. Rivalrous with his colleagues in an office teeming with cheeky cats (although the cats have diminished to one by the modern-day sections, we assume this has happened naturally and even though the book has some shocking episodes, no harm comes to any cats; hold calm with the pelican bit and it will come good). At a horrible party, he meets an irresistible woman … but of course she’s connected to his bitterest rival. After a terrible day involving rushing around on trains to nowhere, explosions, discoveries and fright, he takes his hobby of making up slips with invented words and their spurious definitions and combines it with his work, inserting mountweazels into the august dictionary.

Back in the modern world in alternating chapters, Mallory is tasked with finding these invented words. But will she find them all, why are they there in the first place, and can she cope with the hoax and threatening phone calls? Both plots work their way gradually through, with lovely wordplay and fun all the way through both texts. We know it will be playful after the preface, which purports to be a serious piece about dictionaries but of course isn’t. I did think one part of the 1899 plot was a bit weak, but it involves a strong and independent woman so we’re good there, and all ends satisfactorily and with an air of positivity that’s common to both protagonists after you’ve raced through all the short chapters to get there.

You can read Rebecca’s review here.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 4/41 – 37 to go.

Book review – Sairish Hussain – “The Family Tree”

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I had been pretty desperate to pull a real-life, physical book from my TBR, as I have been terribly guilty of only reading physical review or challenge books and NetGalley ebooks recently. And how glad I am that I took this one off, such a good story, if a traumatic read at times, and so absorbing. I apparently bought this on a pre-order in the autumn of 2020 and it turned up slightly unexpectedly in November of that year – I have at least now read all of the four books I acquired then.

Sairish Hussain – “The Family Tree”

(27 November 2020)

Saahil spoke of success as thought it was waiting around for him like a faithful pet dog. It would come rushing to him as soon as he whistled. He’d worked hard enough for it and more importantly, Saahil wanted it badly enough. (p. 85)

This is the second book I’ve read recently (“Yinka, Where is Your Huzband?” being the other) where the author has written in an author’s note that they wanted to write the book they wanted to read, where they saw themselves represented. In Hussain’s case, she’s written a great book about Pakistani Muslims in a Northern British town which has not one arranged marriage plot or row about headscarves or any other stereotypical plot point. What it is is a fresh, approachable, well-researched and at times visceral portrayal of an ordinary family going through events that could happen to anyone.

We open with Amjad caring for his baby daughter, Zahra after his wife’s death in childbirth. He wraps her in his wife’s beautiful pashmina shawl, with its image of a tree with birds fluttering around and in it, and this shawl will see us through the next 500-odd pages. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but we watch Amjad doing his best, helped by his mum and his best friend Harun and Meena, who step in to help and support the little family, completed by Amjad’s son Saahil and Harun and Meena’s son Ehsan, Saahil’s best friend. We watch the kids growing up, close as anything, and then Saahil and Ehsan are finishing university and going for a night out which for the one gobby, handsome boy and the other quieter lad will change their lives forever.

Bringing in themes of addiction, revenge, homelessness and betrayal, we watch events slowly unfold for another decade, but secrets will always come out, people who have gone away can almost never stay away, and various characters will have to decide whether or not to forgive.

The family drama is set against the changing times in the country. Zahra has never really known the UK before 9/11, as she’s eight when the attacks occur, and she becomes an ardent feminist and highly politicised, writing a provocative blog that she knows will be undermining her opportunities to work as an investigative journalist for the BBC – will she get any chances? Her cousins in Birmingham don’t think so, with their middle son offering a vignette of the institutional racism of job applications.

I loved the main and supporting characters, Ammi with her lack of English and range of colourful swearwords, Libby, Zahra’s best friend, and Ken, an older White bloke who comes into their lives and provides an unexpected strength to them (I also liked the White characters being the side-kicks). Having Ken in the mix, as well as Zahra and Saahil’s university friends, allows Hussain to demonstrate learning points and microaggressions without making it laboured or didactic. I liked how one character is shown regaining dignity through his religion, while mosque is a central point for Amjad and different kinds of imam are shown.

I’m glad the current upswell in publishing of works by Global Majority People is continuing and allowing writers like Sairish Hussain to write what they have wanted to read for a long time and give representation to others in their communities. A genuinely suspenseful, heartfelt and moving first novel, this is a good and recommended read.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 2/41 – 39 to go.

Yet more Another Bookish Beck Book Serendipity : this was the second book in quick succession (the other being “Blessed is the Daughter …“) to mention Crimewatch. I can only think this is an example of Baader-Meinhof Syndrome (you see something once and it’s suddenly everywhere) although I really can’t think of Crimewatch being mentioned anywhere else recently!

A Haul!

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So, my friend Jen kindly informed a few of us in our BookCrossing group that the Oxfam Bookshop in Moseley had a load of Viragoes in the window. Upon rushing up there yesterday (after doing an urgent bit of work, naturally), I discovered three piles of Virago Travellers, those slightly elusive travel books they republished, usually written by doughty women about, at the very least, donning a thorn-proof skirt and hoicking themselves up onto a donkey, but often dressing as a man, to travel through all sorts of exciting places in the 1850s-1950s sort of time period.

Readers, I was restrained. OK, I already had some of them. But I did want to leave some for others to discover and I couldn’t “rescue” them all. They were all donated from / on behalf of (look, I didn’t push to know: too sad!) the same person, and when I asked the nice chap who’d got them out of the window display for me, he and the manager brought out the novels that had come in at the same time – unfortunately I had all of those except one. Then it would have been RUDE not to have had a look around the shop proper, right? and the travel section yielded some lovelies. The haul in full …

Virago Travellers:

Flora Tristan – “Peregrinations of a Pariah” – French writer visits Peru in 1833 to claim her inheritance – she’s a pariah because of her divorce.

Gertrude Bell – “The Desert and the Sown” – The famous traveller’s journey through Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, first published 1907.

Alexandra David-Neel – “My Journey to Lhasa” – In 1923, she was the first European woman to visit the city of Lhasa. She was adept in Tibetan ascetic practices to keep warm.

Flora Tristan – “The London Journey of Flora Tristan” – More of the French traveller, exploring London in 1826-39.

Edith Durham – “High Albania” – Seven years of travel in the Balkans in – yes, a “waterproof Burberry skirt”.

Virago Modern Classic:

Edith Wharton – “The Mother’s Recompense” – Not one I’d previously come across: a woman who abandoned her husband and daughter 20 years ago is summoned back to New York by that daughter.

Others:

Mike Carter – “All Together Now” – The son of the man who organised the People’s March for Jobs in 1981 does the same walk just pre-Brexit vote to look at what has happened to the working classes in the meantime.

Patrick Barkham – “Islander: A Journey Around our Archipelago” – I can’t resist a book about islands and this looks at all Britain’s isles, from a great and perceptive nature writer.

Vikram Seth – “From Heaven Lake” – More Lhasa! The novelist hitchhikes through Sinkiang and Tibet.

Have you read any of these? I couldn’t leave any of them behind, could I, now???

Book reviews – Maya Angelou – “And Still I Rise” and Warsan Shire – “Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in her Head”

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A double review today of two shortish poetry books, both written by Black women about gender and racial oppression, among other things, each including a very famous poem, one published a good 30 years before the other and both saying similar things. The Maya Angelou was part of the box set I’ve been reading along with Ali and Meg, and the Warsan Shire came to me via NetGalley. Even though I’ve got an English degree and should be good at this stuff, I don’t read much poetry and am not the best at writing about it, so forgive these short reviews and go and read the books!

Maya Angelou – “And Still I Rise”

(April 2021)

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I rise. (“Still I Rise”, p. 41)

This book was originally published by Virago in 1986 and collects the two books, “And Still I Rise” (1978) and “Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?” (1982) which were published in the US. There are themes of womanhood, violence against women, resilience, music and power. “Men” is a heart-wrenching description of how a man can be gentle at first with a young women, moving to violence and pain by degrees; “Phenomenal Woman” celebrates women and reads like a jazz song (and is mentioned in “I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” in a bookish serendipity moment). “On Aging” is funny but relatable: let her age and let her still be strong, and it was interesting to read “A Caged Bird” and think of the first volume of her autobiography. “Still I Rise” is the famous one here, and stands out, readable and understandable; where the poems became more opaque and metaphorical, I got a little lost, as I tend to do. I’m glad to have read this collection.

I read this book in March. This one rounded up my read of the Virago boxset along with Ali and Meg: I now have a pictorial celebration of Angelou’s life and three volumes of her essays to read. It was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 1/41 – 40 to go.

Warsan Shire – “Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in her Head”

(21 December 2021)

No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.

[…]

No one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land. (“Home”)

Like Angelou so many years before, Shire addresses issues of violence against women and racial violence, although in her case the context is a British one and around immigration. Some of these poems are hard to read (again), some are funny; some interact with Somali culture, some with Islam, some with British popular culture; all are thought-provoking.

Here, “Home” is the famous poem; who hasn’t read that and if not wept, at least had a hard think? Many poems are addressed to “Hooyo”, defined as “Mother” in the glossary, and cover different aspects of a young woman’s and an immigrant’s life, creating her own way through the world in the absence of a tangible mother figure. I did love the glossary, which includes entries for, for example, “Baati: Somali house dress […] Buraaanbur: A traditional poetic form composed by Somali women, accompanied by dance and drumming, performed as a celebration. Crimewatch: British television program that reconstructs major unsolved crimes in the UK”.

Poems talk about Victoria Climbié, the Ivorian child who was murdered in London, and unnamed victims of violence and hatred, but the whole collection rises above tragedy with its power and clear eye. Highly recommended.

Thank you to Random House / Vintage for selecting me to receive this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in her Head” was published on 10 March 2022.

State of the TBR – April 2022

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Looking at my TBR shelf I notice that it’s about as full as it was last month (though with more review books) so at least it hasn’t got any worse, has it …

I read 13 books in in March, which I was pretty disappointed with, although I was having a very busy time at work in the first couple of weeks, and it’s still not too bad (note that there are a few more books in than out last month, however!) I only managed to finish and review seven of the eleven NetGalley ebooks I intended to read, although I have since finished two more (“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois” is STILL proving hard to get into but I will persist). I have two reads from March left to review which is fine as I like to be reviewing in advance in case I don’t have time during the week. One of these was the Maya Angelou poems that finishes my set and I read my Larry McMurtry 2022 book for the month. The Angelou was number 13 out of 53 in the second quarter of my TBR Project, so I have 40 books left to read of that (I’m reading one at the moment) in six months, which makes 6.66 books per month and means I need to get on with that! I read two books for Reading Wales 2022, both by Richard King, “Brittle with Relics” and “The Lark Ascending” and bought another.

Shiny New Books

I reviewed “Brittle With Relics” for Shiny New Books as well as on here (see link above) with a less emotional and more “professional” review.

Incomings

In print books, you would think I have NOT been restrained this month as I was last month. But actually it’s all down to review copies coming in (thank you!), books being pushed on me and Unbound books getting published, oh, and needing to buy the second book in a series when I won the third one on NetGalley. So really, I only slipped up with Ted Edwards’ “Fight the Wild Island: A Solo Walk Across Iceland” which I suddenly found at a good second-hand price (so that hardly counts, either!).

I was kindly sent “Snow Widows” by Katherine MacInnes (the story of the widows of Scott of the Antarctic and his expedition mates and what happened next: how cool is that?), “This Woman’s Work”, edited by Kim Gordon and Sinead Gleeson, about women and music; Rob Cowan’s poetry book, “The Heeding” (OK, the publicist sent this to me in error but I peeked at it and was drawn in, it came in Feb, actually); and Maud Carnes’ “Strange Journey” and Rose Macaulay’s “Keeping up Appearances” which are the two latest in the British Library Women Writers reprints series.

Then “100 Voices” ed Miranda Roszkowski is an Unbound book I subscribed to, showcasing 100 women and their stories of achievement; my friend Meg pressed “Detransition Baby” by Torrey Peters onto me, saying I had to read it; and I had to buy Nicola May’s “Starry Skies in Ferry Lane Market” because I have book 1 already and won book 3 on NetGalley.

I bought two e-books this month: Malala Yousafzai’s “We are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls” and Charlotte William’s “Sugar and Slate”, a memoir of growing up Black and Welsh which was the readalong for Reading Wales this year – I was holding out for a print copy but none was to be found that was affordable and I won’t leave it till next March!

I won a lot of NetGalley books this month (but not toooooo many are published in April, thank goodness):

“Tell Me the Truth About Love” by Susanna Abse (published in May) is tales from a therapist on love and relationships; Sara Cox’s “Thrown” (May) is a novel about community and, yes, pottery; Osman Yousefzada’s “The Go-Between” (Jan) is a coming-of-age story set in 1980s and 1990s Birmingham where the author crosses two worlds and cultures; Nicola May’s “Rainbows End in Ferry Lane Market” (Apr) is third in a series about a small community; Salma El-Wardany’s “These Impossible Things” (Jun) charts the lives of three British Muslim women over the years; Sara Novic’s “True Biz” (May) is set in a school for the D/deaf and examines both the pupils and the head as it struggles for survival; in “You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty” by Akwaeke Emezi (May) a Nigerian woman struggling with grief goes to the Caribbean and finds love and friendship; and Candice Carty-Williams’ “People Person” (Apr) has a woman in South London finding she has five half-siblings …

So that was 13 read and 18 coming in in March – oops!

Currently reading

I’m currently reading Sairish Hussain’s “The Family Tree”, a multigenerational saga set in a Muslim family in the UK, because I had to take something from my standard print TBR. When I took this picture earlier today, I was reading Warsan Shire’s “Bless the Daughter Raised by A Voice in Her Head” but I’ve finished this amazing hook of poetry already, as it was both short and powerful.

Coming up next, my print TBR that I must read …

… includes the review books already mentioned, TWO Larry McMurtry’s (they are short ones) to finish the Duane/Thalia series, and that middle Ferry Market novel. I would ideally like to get something else from the normal print TBR, too.

My NetGalley TBR for April isn’t too bad:

So from those incomings above, I have “The Go Between” by Osman Yousefzada, “People Person” by Candice Carty-Williams and the two Ferry Lane Market books (books 1 and 3). I also have Julie Shackman’s “A Scottish Highland Surprise”, which the publisher kindly offered me via NetGalley, and Bonnie Garmus’ exciting looking “Lessons in Chemistry”. Elizabeth Fair’s “The Native Heath” was sent to me by Dean Street Press ages ago and somehow got overlooked: it fits in with Kaggsy and Simon’s 1954 Challenge so out if comes! I do also have “Shadowlands” and “The Ship Asunder” left over from my March NetGalley TBR, however I notice that all but one of the April ones are novels, which should help me get through them relatively rapidly, I hope …

That’s 15 books to read this month, which I hope I can manage, but hopefully I’ll get a few more off the print TBR, too!


How was your March reading? What are you reading this month? Have you read or picked up any of my selection?

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