Book review – Derek A. Bardowell – “Giving Back”

11 Comments

I’m still reading pretty slowly, and to be fair I think this was quite a substantial book (checking the print version, it’s over 400 pages) but I’m a bit disappointed I’m only reviewing my second book on the 8th of the month. Hopefully I’ll get some more reading time over the weekend. The combination of some plumbing work that took up a chunk of the weekend, then helping deal with the plumber who had to come out has cut it down a bit! I do know I’m fortunate to have time to read and I get to read more than many people, I just like getting my books read and sharing them!

Derek A. Bardowell – “Giving Back: How to do Good Better”

(21 June 2022, NetGalley)

With this book, I am calling on you to embrace a new way of contributing to a better world. I am not calling for you to stop donating to your favourite charities. Philanthropy should be personal, it should be about the heart, and for many, the element of self-interest or instant gratification will always be a factor. This book is not about whether we are generous or not; we are. It is more of a call to rethink the nature of our giving, to question who controls how we give, and to understand how changing the way we contribute can help us have a greater voice in our society.

Bardowell is a respected figure in philanthropy, who has worked both in direct front-line charity services and for funding providers, and in this book he shares his own journey and learning, including the mistakes he can see he made in not calling out or in bad behaviour by funders and taking a patriarchal view of funding and charities, and a history of how philanthropy has worked in mainly the UK but also the US. He calls for a radical new way to distribute philanthropic resources, whether that’s the money from big foundations or the time and money ordinary people can “give” (or give back, reparatively, as he and many others would have it, and rightly so).

The detail on how funding bodies and charities work is fascinating, the feedback on how people from Global Majority groups have felt and been interacted with by big organisations (not good, not well) and there’s great information on a range of game-changing people and organisations around the word, including Immy Kaur from Civic Square here in Birmingham, who I have the pleasure of knowing (through running). This is really positive and life-affirming and Bardowell makes a conscious effort to include as many initiatives as possible that are breaking moulds and working on real, systemic change. He does also list ways in which individuals could best divert their funds and energies, encouraging us to think less about giving to large organisations (he includes some excellent questions on social justice policies to ask larger organisations) and worrying about hierarchies and more about giving (back) to smaller, on-the-ground initiatives, run by the people they’re for.

There is a lot of extra material, a history of the Black Panthers and lots of history of reggae and hip hop music which, while interesting, and definitely in the case of dancehall music with a real tie-in to the social justice movements he talks about, but I feel this does dilute the central message a bit and might be a bit off-putting to those looking for direct suggestions they can put into action. Maybe there could have been a companion piece or website with this information, as it is interesting and relevant to an extent. I just wonder if it will mean some of the audience doesn’t read through right to the end.

So a useful, bold and provocative book which could have been a smaller or two books and perhaps had a stronger effect. I do encourage people to look out for it, though, especially if you’re having a think about where your hard-won cash and time might best go.

Thank you to Dialogue Books for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Lucy Delap – “Feminisms: A Global History”

19 Comments

I think I might actually completely my 20 Books of Summer (mainly because I’ve had a low NetGalley TBR this month) as this is Book 19 out of the pile (intro post here) and is also again part of my TBR project. I was pleased to note that I acquired this on 26 August 2021 when I started reading it on 26 August 2022, literally a year behind now! I bought it with a Christmas book token my friend Sian gave me, and recorded it in my State of the TBR post from 1 September (I’ve now read all of the print books recorded as incoming in that post). I’ve taken Book 20 off the shelf to start later today.

Lucy Delap – “Feminisms: A Global History”

(26 August 2021)

By no means are all the figures discussed in this book – many would not have heard of this word and some would angrily repudiate it. But they can nonetheless be placed within a critical feminist history, one that helps us understand feminisms’ tensions and possibilities across a broad canvas. (p. 339)

In this book, one of the attractive new Pelican series, Lucy Delap, a historian of modern Britain at the University of Cambridge, sets out to write a history of feminisms and allied causes around the world, from about the mid 1700s until fairly recently. She does have a global coverage, bringing in work done in various African countries, including Nigeria and South Africa, Asian countries like South Korea and Indonesia, Australasia, various European countries, including Eastern European, Chile and Peru in South America, as well as the US and UK.

After an introduction in which she sets out her stall, of course, and talks about what constitutes feminism and its history, countering the claim it started in the West by looking at, for example, the Egyptian Rasheed WOmen’s Conference in 1799 or rights claimed by indigenous Sierre Leone women in 1972, Delap takes various over-arching themes and looks at them across time and place, whether that’s dreams and utopias from the earliest work until now, spaces for publishing, meeting and organising, items like badges or dress. This feels like a slightly odd way of arranging things but allows her to draw threads together, show influence and dialogue between different strands and show the contrasts in the way people have done things. For example, in the clothing chapter she moves between the “rational dress” of the bicycle-riding New Woman through the politicised use of the hijab to the pink pussy hats of the anti-Trump demonstrations.

There’s a lot of intersectionality, necessarily (including a discussion of where the term came from and other terms that have been used for the double or triple burden of being, for example, a Black woman living with a disability. Intersections with class and race are brought out a lot, highlighting how White middle-class feminism and its concerns has often pushed aside other equally important issues (interestingly, it turns out to be not only African Womanism which looks at the fight as a class one, with men fighting on the same side, but this is also a feature of a lot of South American campaigning. An important thread that is emphasised here is the continued oppression of native and indigenous peoples of various countries, who have remained side-lined, patronised and/or ignored.

The book includes some great images, although it’s a small-format paperback and they’re printed direct on the page so some detail is lost. There’s a marvellous picture of a group of Maori women in rational dress from the early 1900s, for example.

There’s no call for action, because this is a historical work; however, there is clearly a need to reclaim these different activists and thinkers/doers and to consider all in our feminism today. A really interesting book in a good modern series.


This was book number 19 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 4 Book 13/28 – 15 to go (and I’m reading Book 14!)

Book review – Sue Anstiss – “Game On”

18 Comments

Galloping through the end of my 20 Books of Summer now and wondering if I will actually do it: this is Book 18 of the pile (intro post here) and is also once again part of my TBR project to get everything up to Dave Grohl’s book read by 05 October. This is also an Unbound book which I subscribed to and which arrived on 18 August 2021 (so I’m now “only” a year behind on my reading!) and I recorded it in my State of the TBR post from 1 September (out of the print books recorded as incoming in that post I have now read all but one and I’m currently reading that one!). I’ve started Book 19, “Feminisms” by Lucy Delap (the Pelican Classic near the bottom of the pile in the picture) so who knows, I might just do it (will I get them all reviewed, though?).

I’m a bit ashamed I didn’t read and review this excellent book when it arrived, however I’m working towards being able to do that sort of thing again and hopefully it will still pique some interest.

Sue Anstiss – “Game On: The Unstoppable Rise of Women’s Sport”

(18 August 2021)

My goal for this book was to celebrate the huge progress we have seen for women in sport, while also highlighting the inequalities that still exist today. I wanted it to be a joyful book, acknowledging all that has been accomplished, as well as being a rallying cry to action for the future. (p. 312)

Well, in my opinion, this book succeeds on all those fronts. Anstiss has been active both in working in sport behind the scenes and participating in sport; now middle-aged, she’s had a long career in both and she freely admits that initially she didn’t see the inequalities, coming up through a family that gave her the same sporting opportunities as her brothers and only slowly noticing the playing down of women’s abilities and strength, the homophobia in women’s sport and the whiteness of the main teams that did well in Britain. But she acknowledges all that and is now here with an intersectional perspective and a lot of research to show us where we came from, what we’ve been through, the state of play now (well, in 2020/21) and what we can do moving forward. To do this, she’s both done secondary research and conducted interviews with a lot of influential women (how I wish I’d been the transcriber on this project!). It’s enraging and inspiring in equal parts and she leaves us with a good game plan.

Anstiss takes us around the world, into lots of different sports, and also looks at sports writers and broadcasters, coaches and officials, board members and managers, as well as players. She’s really good at making connections and drawing points together (for example, the Title IX legistlation in the US that gave all women equal opportunities for federally funded activities, giving equal sports participation and scholarships to women and men, the proportion of women coaches dropped as men grabbed the now-more-lucrative contracts …). She’s containedly scathing about misguided attempts to tempt girls into sport by offering vapid dolls or pink outfits and committed to working at grassroots level to make things better.

There’s not too much of Anstiss’ own story woven through the book: she’s professional and astute and presents a lot of facts, figures and pertinent quotes in an interesting and useful way, but she does include her experiences in sport, for example taking up triathlon in her mid-40s just when menopause started to hit and realising her experience wasn’t going to be quite as she expected. Fair play to her for raising this issue, and that of periods and motherhood, of course, as well.

Starting with twelve game-changing moments in women’s sport (now, the Lionesses’ victory in the European Cup for football would be one of them), the chapters then take themes of either types of participants (coaches, participants) or wider themes such as sexuality and race (there’s not a chapter on disability, which is a shame, although some para-athletes and disability activists are quoted through the book). There’s a chapter on male allies (yes, Andy Murray’s there, but others as well, with some cheering quotes) and one on mass participation sports to balance the tales of elites. There are some truly shocking stories and some inspiring ones, too: I think she gets the balance just right. We get the usual ones about one’s womb dropping out if you run a marathon (I’ve done four and an ultra and appear to be intact in that regard) and also a lot of more modern guff about femininity and heteronomativity. The stats on pay and prize money are the most shocking: if you think women’s sport isn’t as technically advanced as men’s, consider all the women who are working full-time as well as playing for their nation and earning 10% of what the men earn, with less access to coaching, physio, etc. There’s an interesting chapter at the end about sport for development, a movement to use sport as a catalyst for improving women’s lives around issues like FGM and forced marriage, and an acknowledgement of the complexity of the issues there, and she ends with a great bullet-pointed list of what exactly we can do to advance the cause of women’s sport in the world.

A well-researched, impeccably written, passionate, angry where it should be and celebratory book that I will be recommending to many.


This was book number 18 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 4 Book 12/28 – 16 to go (and I’m reading Book 13!)

Book review – Candice Braithwaite – “I Am Not Your Baby Mother”

22 Comments

Another book ticked off my 20 Books of Summer books list (intro post here) and one that Ali kindly passed to me in July last year (she read it for her book group and you can see her review here).

This is the twelfth book I’ve completed from my 20 Books project (and I’m currently reading Book 13) and once again also comes off my TBR 2021-2022 total. I do really want to read some Virago books for All Virago/All August so I’d better keep reading along!

Candice Braithwaite – “I Am Not Your Baby Mother: What It’s Like to be a Black British Mother”

(16 July 2021 – from Ali)

I personally don’t want to reclaim the term baby mother. It can stay on the shelf, thanks. I want black women, black women who happen to be mothers, to be given space to share their multifaceted, motherhood journeys – irrespective of their family make-up, current financial situation or number of past lovers – with pride. I want black women to know that their version of motherhood is as righteous and as sacred as any other and deserves to be as protected as any other woman’s. (pp. 4-5)

That’s not too much to ask, right? I mean, I’m a White woman and not a mother (not from choice) and I can see that’s something that should be standard. But clearly it’s not.

Braithwaite’s content creation started with a blog and Instragram account and a campaign called Make Motherhood Diverse. I’d twigged that bridal magazines and ads were pretty fully White but hadn’t gathered the lack of representation in baby and mum blogs and Instagram accounts: here Braithwaite tells it how it is and demonstrates how she is an agent for change.

Because the author started as a blogger she has a very accessible and readable style. This means that even quite distressing content can be read and absorbed and it continues to be a compulsive read (it’s also a fairly short book, coming in at just under 230 pages). She cleverly structures it around the stages of pregnancy, birth and childhood, weaving in her personal memoir and sometimes horrific experiences among more general stats and stories. I’ve seen the stats about the higher mortality rates among Black mothers and infants before but this really brings it home; like Kendi’s wife in “How to Raise an Anti-Racist“, Braithwaite has serious complications around the birth of her first child which are negated and downplayed until it’s almost too late.

She consistently turns stereotypes on their head, from the baby mother with no father in the picture to her care-provider in her own youth being her grandfather. She looks at the ways women feel they have to compete to have the right equipment, examining her own need for the trendy buggy that leaves her facing microaggressions on a doorstep a long way from home, and the ways the teachers at her daughter’s school once they’ve moved out of London downplay a racist incident and seem to feel more compassion for the child who was racist. She opens up about the desire of Black families to place their children in private schools to combat the disadvantage they experience in state schools (I had no idea of the private school thing; there’s always something to learn) and worries about her son growing up in London, hence that move, and talks openly about mental health issues and how Black communities are affected by them but also push back on talk and treatment.

It’s all blisteringly honest and she’s unsparing in her call for action at the end. While she’s been burned making comments on social media to call unthinking racism out in publications that only feature White mothers and is honest about her own ignorance of the struggles mothers of other races, other types of families or who live with disabilities faced until she started campaigning, she urges readers to fight for true representation and to try to get people talking about the issues she highlights: “What will you do when nobody is watching?” (p. 227).

One thing you could do is look up the statistics for maternal mortality in your NHS region and see how they break those down. On a quick search, I could only find stats for the West Midlands that divided ethnicity by people born in the UK and people born in the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, which isn’t really the point, is it? Something to look at more deeply and get going on.


This was book number 12 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 4 Book 6/28 – 22 to go!

Book review – Angie Thomas – “On the Come Up”

14 Comments

Another book from my 20 Books of Summer books list (intro post here) and a June 2021 acquisition (I bought this in my Summer 2021 Book Token Splurge, picture here (scroll down), ordered from Hive or Bookshop.org (this year’s one will be done IN A LOCAL INDIE BOOKSHOP that’s about to open!) and I’m pleased to say that I have read all of the books in that picture apart from “Wanderland”, which is waiting to be a me-and-Emma read).

This is the eleventh book I’ve completed from the 20 Books project (and I’m currently reading Book 12) and also comes off my TBR 2021-2022 challenge pile so things are feeling a bit more manageable and positive for both of those challenges now …

Angie Thomas – “On the Come Up”

(30 June 2021 – Book Token Splurge)

Thousands of people just heard me act like that. Millions more may see the video. They won’t care that my life is a mess and I had every right to be mad. they’ll just see an angry black girl from the ghetto, acting like they expected me to act.

Supreme laughs to himself. ‘You played the role,’ he says. ‘Goddamn, you played the role.’ (p. 346)

I really enjoyed “The Hate U Give” when I read it in 2018 and have been looking forward to this one for ages. Set in the same location as the earlier novel, Garden Heights, the events in it happen a little after the killing and protests referenced in that book, so there’s a heightened awareness amongst the inner-city Black kids who are again the focus of the book about the dangers out there from police as well as gang members.

Our central character, Bri, is 16 and a talented rapper – a talent she inherited from her late dad. Her mum, eight years sober and trying to keep the household together, and her older brother, with a degree in psychology and a job in a pizza place, aren’t that keen on her rapping, wanting her to concentrate on her education. But it’s her life and when she gets notoriety following a rap battle at the local venue and then a song she puts out after she gets thrown to the floor by her school security guards, she has an opportunity to better their lives but also has to make a choice as to whether to go with her own authentic self or the view of her that outsiders will have. Added complication: her one song was written ironically but will not (and is not) seen in its full layers of meaning by its audience.

I love all the supporting cast – first we have gay Sonny, who is his own self and friend and a fully rounded character but serves to remind us of the challenges of being gay in a hyper-masculinised community and Malik, talented film-maker who speaks his truth to Bri and isn’t always appreciated, who are at the same school, a White-majority arts school that could be accused of using its Black and Brown students to gain kudos and funding, There’s a coalition of students standing strong together against the racism of the school, modelling how that could be done. Aunt Pooh, who supports Bri’s career but whose money comes from drug dealing is a positive character who’s shown as having lost her way, and Bri’s paternal grandparents are firm and stern and really don’t like her mum. Mum Jay has two good women friends, Sonny and Malik’s mums, and I like how her life is portrayed, struggling for her family but giving back to the community, too. Her pride but resourcefulness and struggle to accept welfare is very moving. The White characters, James the record exec who has all the stereotypes in the book and (literal) Karen, the pro-gun woman who reports Bri’s song, and the headmaster, who does listen and learn, demonstrate pretty well all the ways you can impose stereotypes, racism and micro-aggressions onto people different to yourself but also do better. So we can learn from the book, but it’s not didactic or preachy in the slightest as far as I read it.

I think this is aimed at YA audiences, although very readable by adults; as such there’s a quite sweet romance, as there has to be, and also a certain amount of wish-fulfilment as the plot unwinds: characters surprise, a school principal is willing to learn, and it turns out that standing by your authentic self, even if it loses you an opportunity, is a valuable thing to do. Well, yes, wish-fulfilment but also a positive message and a hopeful one, too. Just as good at “The Hate U Give” and I must pick up “Concrete Rose”, too.


This was book number 11 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 4 Book 5/28 – 23 to go!

State of the TBR – August 2022

25 Comments

Having a look at last month’s picture, I still feel like I’m doing OK – the top shelf has shifted along again and there’s still a little space at the end. It is a bit shocking however that I’m onto books acquired in June and July 2021, which means that all these books have arrived in the last year (the vertical ones). Oops.

I completed 15 books in July, with two more on the go. I read seven of my ten ebook TBR books, DNF’d two and didn’t start one, but did read an extra one I won during July, too. I didn’t read all of my print TBR, reading four, including my huge Larry McMurtry, “Moving On”, the 800-pager that took up most of my week off. I’m currently on book 11 of my 20 Books Of Summer, which are all also from my TBR challenge – I now have 24 books to go on that from now until 05 October and none of that is strictly ideal – I don’t think I’ll get either challenge finished (obviously, there are worse things to worry about and at least I am getting through my books and keeping more up to date).

Shiny New Books

My review of “Going to Church in Medieval England” by Nicholas Orme, which I read and reviewed here for the Wolfson History Prize, came out on Shiny New Books – do pop over and have a look.

Incomings

I was actually quite restrained with print books in this last month.

I saw “It’s a Continent: Unravelling Africa’s History One Country at a Time” by Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata mentioned on another blog and had to snap a copy up. Then I was thinking about world Englishes, as you do, and found Edgar W. Schneider’s “English Around the World”. Claire Coleman’s “Lies, Damn Lies” I bought after seeing The Australian Legend’s review and will fit in with Brona’s Aus Reading Month in November. I went to the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham in my week off and spotted “A Brief History of Black British Art” by Rianna Jade Parker, which felt relevant after watching Lenny Henry’s “Caribbean Britain” TV series, and for the same reason ordered a copy of “Life Between Islands”, on Caribbean art, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Tate Gallery I didn’t manage to get to. Michael Walmer kindly sent me his new novel re-print, Jessie M. E. Saxby’s “Rock-Bound: A Story of the Shetland Isles”, part of his Northus Shetland Classics imprint, and Kaggsy of the Bookish Ramblings sent me (and Ali) Reshma Ruia’s British Asian novel, “Still Lives”.

I won just the six NetGalley books this month:

“Black Voices on Britain”, ed. Hakim Adi (published Sept) is a collection of African, Caribbean, American and British voices from the 18th to early 20th centuries. “Black England” by Gretchen Gerzina (Sept) is about Georgian England and “Black Victorians: Hidden in History” by Keshia Abraham and John Woolf (also Sept) does the same for the Victorian era. Diya Abdo’s “American Refuge” (Sept again) collects stories of the refugee experience, Eris Young’s “Ace Voices” (Dec) collects what it means to be asexual, aromantic, demi and grey-ace, and Kamila Shamsie’s “Best of Friends” (Sept again!) is a novel about friendship spanning thirty years.

So that was 15 read and 13 coming in in July – still tilted vaguely in the right direction!

Currently reading

I’m currently reading Angie Thomas’ “On the Come Up”, the excellent follow-up to “The Hate U Give” (the characters aren’t connected but the location is as it’s set just after) and Elizabeth Fair’s “The Marble Staircase”, which is one of the Dean Street Press Furrowed Middlebrow imprint books they kindly sent me for review (out today, review coming soon). I’ve also taken “Square Haunting” by Francesca Wade off the shelf as it’s my and Emma’s next read and we’re starting it this week.

Coming up

Coming up next in print books, I have my Larry McMurtry for this month, “All My Friends are Going to be Strangers”, the lovely book from Michael Walmer and the remaining nine and a half books on my 20 Books of Summer list (books 11-20; see their descriptions here):

My NetGalley TBR for August is a lot calmer than it has been:

“Femina” by Janina Ramirez, which I had left over from July but am committed to getting read, is an alternative history of the Middle Ages, told through the women of history who have largely been forgotten. Anne Booth’s “Small Miracles” is a heartwarming novel about three nuns whose convent is slated for closure. “Giving Back” by Derek A. Bardowell promises to redefine the role of charity and reimagine philanthropy through a reparative lens, and Mohsin Hamid’s “The Last White Man” is a satirical science fiction (I think you’d call it?) novel about what happens when White people’s skin starts to turn dark overnight. Then of course I have my two Dean Street Press novels to finish, including Susan Scarlett’s (aka Noel Streatfeild) “Clothes Pegs”.

With the ones I’m currently reading (not including my readalong which will take a while), that’s 2 books to finish and 16 to read. Can I do that? Hm, possibly not!


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

Book review – Sabeena Akhtar (ed.) – “Cut from the Same Cloth: Muslim Women on Life in Britain”

16 Comments

This is an Unbound book that I subscribed to back in May 2020 and which arrived with me in May 2021. I’m very proud to see the variety of names in the back, testament to the wide variety of people from different backgrounds who supported the book. I’ve got really bad at reading my Unbound books as soon as they arrive, however hopefully that will change soon, plus this is one of my Emma and Liz Reads books, so necessarily took a while to get through (if you want to find them all, click on the link there or click on the category in the category cloud). We finished “The Wild Silence” near the end of April, so this one has taken us about 10 weeks. We read one or two essays per week, usually on a Thursday evening.

Sabeena Akhtar (ed.) – “Cut from the Same Cloth: Muslim Women on Life in Britain”

(24 May 2021)

As a Muslim, writing and making art isn’t separate to the act of living, and living cannot be separated from the act of worship; the intention is the same. (p. 292, Sumaya Kassim, “Riot, Write, Rest: On Writing as a Muslimah)

This is a collection that was put together in order to give “visibly Muslim” (i.e. hijab-wearing) women a space where they could speak freely about their lives and interests. It ranges widely, from the purely political to the more purely personal, from angry to funny (often in the same piece), from theoretical to practical, from knotty and tangled to clear and easy to read. Each piece had its value and we had lots to talk about when we were reading.

It was a bit challenging to find a fairly sociological-sounding and tough piece at the beginning to start off with, and we both felt a bit disheartened that we were going to have to think hard all the way through and read and re-read, unpick and check we’d got it (we have no need for easy books but we do this to relax and enjoy and the first one was HARD). However, there were fewer of this kind of essay and more of the approachable kind as we went through, and of course each style has its place and the lack was in us!

We learned a lot. Emma was very careful to look stuff up, terms and names (some writers explained more than others; there is also a useful glossary at the back as there were quite a lot of religious terms here), I tended to coast a little more, getting a general understanding (this is how we tend to do our Reading!). We both enjoyed the deep dive into the life of spiritual, religious Muslim women like those we see daily in our neighbourhoods. We were shocked, but not surprised (worn down, maybe) by the daily toxic environment all the women live in but some chose to write about, and were both previously unaware of the anti-Black sentiments among the Muslim community, certainly in the UK, that many of them wrote about, with Nigerian, Somali and mixed heritages women speaking about colourism and prejudice from the communities they should feel safe in.

The pieces that detailed women’s daily lives were fascinating to us and a good learning opportunity. Khadijah Elshayyal’s “Covid-19 and Recalibrating my Ramadhan Reality” was a good example of what happens when men run the show and don’t think about what women might have to deal with, and showed resourceful women sorting things out but also being honest about their struggles, and a few pieces looked at life at school or work. There’s a theme around whether things have really changed since writers’ mothers came to the UK a couple of decades ago which is interesting and sad. The religious theme strung through the whole book was often beautiful and sometimes jagged and challenging, especially when women’s writing came up against the patriarchy, as in the last piece quoted at the beginning of this review.

Emma and I agreed we were glad we read this book, even if some pieces were challenging intellectually or emotionally (the Grenfell chapter was hard to read, but necessary). It was good to see the women included able to share and be honest about their experiences and their experiences of being asked to relive or suppress those experiences. I’m glad it got to Unbound and was published, and I recommend it: there really is something for everyone here.

Book review – Carlene Bauer – “Girls They Write Songs About”

13 Comments

My sixth NetGalley read out of the ten I have lined up – that’s what the first two days of a week off will do for you, even if you’ve not gone anywhere (having a true “staycation” in my house).

I had seen this novel around and on NetGalley but it took a mention on A Life in Books’s “Books to Look out for” themed posts (here) to propel me into requesting it. And I’m glad I did!

Carlene Bauer – “Girls They Write Songs About”

(08 June 2022, NetGalley)

She was the person with whom I’d changed my life into something like myth. Someone who I thought needed to remain in my life until death. So I swallowed words and banished thoughts because we still had miles to go.

Rose must have been the only person I’ve ever truly loved, because she was the only person I’ve ever made excuses for when she failed to live up to the image I had or wanted to have of her.

Rose and Charlotte arrive in New York from almost identical backgrounds of near-poverty in New Jersey, being the only girl like them, needing to get out, and almost identical plans to become a hot writer on a music magazine then write books and get their names known. In fact they go for the same job: Rose gets it, Charlotte’s her editor, and so begins half a lifetime of vying with each other but also being (eventually) the very best of friends, second daughters to each other’s mothers, competing over the same man in different ways, but going to see bands (music is so important in this book, which I loved), having hysterics over nothing, wearing weird thrift-store outfits, editing each other’s work, typing articles in the middle of the night and saving each other from dodgy situations.

We see them grow up and one of them gets what the other doesn’t think either of them want or need, a well-off husband and a family, the other continuing to lead that rackety sort of life, working their way through men’s beds and writing. When it comes down to it, is it better to have two published books or two houses? Two published books or two children? The book came alive in the early stages and again when one woman has children the other is very close to. At times, the bitter marriages got a bit John Updike-y, but what this book probably really is is Marilyn French’s “Women’s Room” for this generation of young feminists; well, young women.

I say this because we are shown the range of lives a woman can have, single, married, faithful, having affairs, having children, having abortions, having a career, having a marriage, being a home-maker, being a home-wrecker, taking from other women, giving to other women. Set-pieces have both women on stage at various points discussing aspects of love and womanhood. Our narrator mulls over the choices she’s made and the undeniable superior importance of friendship. The most “political” thing she says she does is help her friend have an abortion, by lending her the money; I can see how this happens as they are almost exact contemporaries of mine, and if they hadn’t hit certain books aged 17-21, and absorbed certain ideas, they’d have been caught between second wave feminism that was about to run its course and the Riot Grrl movements of third wave feminism which were a bit confusing and I think inform this book. On sexual politics and creativity, she updates Woof’s Room of One’s Own:

It takes real work for a woman to sustain the creation of something outside herself that is not a child. Real will, because we are always going to be tempted in a way men aren’t to wander off the road and find some place to get knocked up so we can relieve ourselves of the burden of trying to figure out what everything in life is really worth, and then, as a reward for this abdication of responsibility, get ourselves worshipped as if we’d climbed Mount Everest when all we’d done was let nature take its course. Men don’t walk around with a door inside them that they’ll constantly have to worry about – should I open it, should I keep it shut, does it lock, well, wait, if I lock it, can I call a locksmith to get it back open, how long does it stay open, what’s the data on what happens if you’ve left it open for a really long time, can anything get through? Should I shut it or keep it open?

As well as all this detail and thought and interrogation of feminism, this book is beautifully written, long looping sentences that go into stream of consciousness but can also be followed. From a description of being on the phone in two apartments that are situated like positions on a clock face around a central corporate tower to the Moon and its relationship to New York inhabitants to the above discussion of the balance between producing art and producing children, it’s just stunningly laid out. An example:

We’d been taken there for drinks by men in the twilight of their prime and agents at the dawn of their ascent, and whenever we sat at the bar we felt as if we’d been asked to sit for a portrait that would one day prove legendarily bewitching.

There’s one thing I have to mention and which I have fed back in the publisher feedback section on NetGalley. Twice the book uses an ablist slur (to clarify, after a comment: a term that used to be used to refer to people living with a certain disability, now not used but not pejorative in itself is used to refer in a pejorative sense to two people who are not living with a disability but to show a negative opinion about them), related to the one the singer Lizzo was almost cancelled for and rescinded in a recent song. Once it’s in the narrative, once in reported direct speech; both times another word could have easily done and this author has a beautiful, considered, poetic writing style which implies to me that she could and should have replaced it (maybe she has in the published version; maybe someone can let me know!). It’s a minor point but it can’t be waved aside as being “of the book’s time” etc. as it’s perfectly easy not to use it, and other words used then aren’t.

Thank you to Oneworld for selecting me to read this book in return for an honest review. “Girls They Write Songs About” was published on 7 July 2022.


In a Bookish Beck Book Serendipity moment, both this and the book I was reading in paperback at the same time, “Moving On” by Larry McMurtry have mentions of Iris Murdoch, and while you would imagine I see my favourite author everywhere, it’s not hugely common to see her mentioned, and certainly not in two very different books published in 1970 and 2022! In the McMurtry (and there might be more; I haven’t finished it yet) we get a conversation between a nice but worldly man and a young wife in out of her depth:

‘Maybe you’ve been reading too much Iris Murdoch,’ he said. ‘Your coming out here like this reminds me a little of her stuff. People are always getting ont bed with one another out of the blue.’

‘No I haven’t,’ she said, beginning to feel a little less wretched. ‘I don’t read very good books, really. I read a lot of magazines.’ (p. 134)

whereas in this novel, a character reads another character’s copy of “The Bell”, and they end up discussing

… how Murdoch’s thoughts about fiction might have been more valuable than the fiction she coud not stop writing. Whereas with Virginia Woolf, said [name redacted; spoiler], and from coffee to the motel we finished that sentence together.

I don’t agree with that comment, but it’s lovely to see Murdoch being discussed!

Book review – Ibram X. Kendi – “How to Raise an Antiracist”

21 Comments

Back to NetGalley reads today and at this point I’m half-way through my 10 books to read for July, having actually finished 6 as I had one that came in suddenly and was published in June. And at the time of writing this review, I was already part-way through “Girls They Write Songs About”. I haven’t read any of Kendi’s other well-known and best-selling books, just really because they concentrated on the US experience of racism and antiracism and I was trying to catch up with the books published in/about the UK first. Then this one popped up on NetGalley and I just had to go for it.

Ibram X. Kendi – “How to Raise an Antiracist”

(23 May 2022, NetGalley)

We raise a critical thinker in much the same way as we raised an antiracist. Asking, not telling. Modeling, not lecturing. Radically changing the environment and ourselves.

As I say above, I haven’t read any of Dr Kendi’s other books, but going on this one, I will do so. I don’t know if the personal and almost confiding nature of the narrative, with personal experience woven in with academic research and calls for action, is a feature of all of his work, but it made it an attractive read, making me feel we were all in it together if we want equity for all peoples and an end to systematic as well as personal racism, and understanding that antiracism is a journey and we can exhibit aspects of both antiracism and racism (especially given that racism includes seeing racism yourself and doing nothing about it, the kind of “default” “neutral” status people try to claim as “I’m not racist”) as we move along that journey.

Although Kendi was working on his “How to be an Antiracist” when his daughter Imani was born, but he admits it didn’t strike him till much later that alongside he and his partner Sadiqa child-proofing the house against accidental injury, they should have been child-proofing her against racism. Then he admits he finds it uncomfortable to have to do that, to introduce the idea of racism to his small, innocent daughter.

He then takes the background of first Sadiqa’s treatment when she was pregnant (she is a paediatrician and knew something was wrong anyway but was naysaid and disbelieved until it was suddenly clear that something was very wrong; this is set against figures showing that the maternal mortality rate for Black women in the US is more than three times that for White women); their first moments with their baby; Imani’s daycare (where only White dolls were available; this is compared to the famous sociological Doll Test); and her first school – as she’s only five by the end of the book, we then follow Ibram and his brother’s journey through their own school lives (encountering racism from caregivers and teachers; compared with research on racist and ablist perceptions and actions of teachers, underfunding of schools, overdiagnosis and underdiagnosis of learning disabilities, etc.). So all through the book, he takes personal experience expressed clearly and honestly, then compares it to the research that has been done on all types of children and families, and then offers points to work on, learning points and action points.

One small issue I have with the book is of course that it’s a US-based book, so the stats and experiences include Latinx and Native (as he calls them) American people, with South Asians being lumped together, where the UK experience obviously has a smaller proportion of GMP populations but more people from South and East Asia as a proportion. But obviously the issues are very similar, and the statistics here will be similar based on our populations. I still have a bit of trouble getting my head around the levels of school grades in the US, and while he talks about class-based issues and poverty, I’m not sure the class issues are the same in both countries. This is obviously not a criticism, just an aspect of reading this book from here, and there are plenty of books that show the UK stats and issues (for example, “Brit(ish)“, “Slay in Your Lane“, “Natives” and some upcoming ones here, too).

Anyway, the powerful options he suggests are useful anywhere: teaching critical thinking, discussing what has happened in the news or what the child has seen. He extends this nicely to cover other issues such as gender, people with disabilities and the accommodations they might need, class and poverty issues, showing how we can influence the children in our lives to see and notice inequity and protest against it. There’s a call for both changing ourselves AND society at the end:

We must stop problematizing children and start problematizing power and policy – and ourselves. We can parent better. We can teach better. We can care for the child better. But there are limits to what we can do as caregivers, especially when resources are lacking, when kids are irritable from hunger, when parents and teachers keep getting evicted from homes or buildings, or because the state, through its policies, is imposing a racist curriculum onto parents and teachers.

The afterword builds a picture of the backlash in the US after George Floyd’s death and the growth of the BLM movement – I hadn’t realised about all the curriculum changes made since then by White supremacist activists trying to remove “critical race theory” from schools to as they claim protect their children from hating their own race (research shows White children don’t end up hating their race from being educated about racism; there’s a chance Black children will stop self-hatred when that education is there). I don’t think that’s a thing in the UK, where curriculum reform is adding GMP history into schools, though I’m not entirely sure on this.

A great book with lots of really powerful and useful, practical points. The referencing is done well, with authors’ names being given in the text but with no footnotes or endnote numbers to break the concentration and a reference list done by chapter and page at the back – suitable for a book like this, I think. I loved that he acknowledged his wife as “The real Dr Kendi” and thanked his editors in detail at the end. If you are raising, teaching or around babies to teenagers and want to explore introducing antiracism in their lives, I recommend this book.

Thank you to Bodley Head Publishers/Vintage Books for selecting me to read this book in return for an honest review. “How to Raise an Antiracist” was published on 7 July 2022.

Book review – Tasneem Abdur-Rashid – “Finding Mr Perfectly Fine”

16 Comments

A Muslim romcom novel centred on a North London woman working for her local council and trying to find The One before her mum does? That appealed to me on the NetGalley site and I was happy to receive it. I’ve got a little ahead of myself with my reviewing as this one isn’t out for a few days yet, but you’ll be able to get hold of it soon.

A good read although there were maybe some issues with the editors wanting the author to add details that distracted slightly.

Tasneem Abdur-Rashid – “Finding Mr Perfectly Fine”

(6 May 2022, NetGalley)

Zara’s 29 and she decides to put all her energies into finding a husband before she turns 30, fearful her mum will select one for her. Mum’s on the case already, enlisting the world of the scary aunties we know so well from so many other novels, and sharing biodata sheets, while Zara embarks upon the world of apps and matchmaking events disguised as networking events and the like. Or maybe she’ll just meet someone in the run of her ordinary life …

Zara soon meets Hamza, a kind and jolly Egyptian man who shares many of her values, the poor man being questioned several times on all sorts of details. There’s just one problem: there’s not that spark. He’s also a bit controlling, although this seems to be put in to give more reason to not like him than as a real red flag, which I found a bit confusing. Then there’s an annoying man who rubs her up the wrong way – there IS a spark, but he’s totally unsuitable. As an undertone to all of this we have the horrible way her last relationship went, and a lot of unpleasant misogyny from various prospective suitors, ranging from insult to assault.

Zara’s from a Bengali background and from this comes something I don’t think I’ve seen in other books about young Muslim women: she doesn’t date or hang out with non-Muslim or White guys, but she does interact with an Egyptian and a Turkish Muslim and in both cases encounters the differences in their cultures and how they practise their mutual religion: this is really interesting and the best part of the book for me where they negotiate their differences and similarities (there’s a very sweet bit where an Arabic family choose a Pakistani restaurant for the Bangladeshi family and can’t cope with the spices).

Something I found a bit tricky, and it looks like Muslim / Bengali reviewers on NetGalley have found this, too, is the over-explaining, which makes it feel like the book’s written – or has been tweaked – for a White/non-Muslim readership. Yet the author explains in her Afterword that she wanted to write the book giving her representation that she wasn’t able to find herself in her extensive novel-reading. Bengali words are passed over without comment or loosely translated, the names of the five prayers are parsed, which is kind of understandable, but then at one point we have an explanation of what Ramadan is, which surely I would be expected to know or at least look up. I know this is probably in an aim of being accessible and getting a wider readership, but from reading blogs by Black and South Asian readers I’m aware that over-explanation can alienate them, and as a White, non-Muslim reader who does read quite diversely, I’ll admit, it distracts me out of the story, too.

[Edited to add: after discussion with my friend Leila, who I very much respect and who knows more about GMP publishing in the UK than I do, I retract some of this. Personally I do find it a bit jarring, but as she pointed out, maybe not all readers are in a very multicultural city and have read a lot of different books like I have and maybe a reader in a less-diverse area might not know about these concepts. There is an interplay between audiences here, too, given that publishers want to sell books and so books in this category do need to appeal to the larger White audience to get the sales – apparently 78.4% of the British population identify as White British so that’s a large audience not to get. I suspect the solution is our friend the glossary, so people can choose to look things up or not. But I’ll be more accepting of explaining in future.]

This was an attractive and well-done novel. I liked Zara’s sisters and friends and her feisty mum, and where others have disliked the ending, I thought it was believable and loved Zara’s growth in confidence and self-worth. I’ll definitely look out for more by this author.

Thank you to Zaffre / Bonnier Books for selecting me to read this book in return for an honest review. “Finding Mr Perfectly Fine” is published on 21 July 2022.


In a Bookish Beck Book Serendipity moment, both this and “Harish Hope” feature a home backer whose cakes are so good they should feature in a cafe – and might end up doing so!

Older Entries