Book review – Salma El-Wardany – “These Impossible Things”

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The first of my NetGalley reads published in June, and the first of two books following three friends as their lives untwine. I’ll also say a few words about “100 Queer Poems”, which is an admirable collection but didn’t really have my sort of poem in it (no problem with the queerness, I would hope obviously, but I only do well with a specific type of poem!)

Salma El-Wardany – “These Impossible Things”

(19 March 2022, NetGalley)

The idea that Ali was all the things they had wished, hoped and fought for, that this man actually existed, was what kept the lies slipping out of her mouth, like when he asked her if she’d ever drunk before and she had easily and completely said no, erasing years of memories and committing those around her to the same lies she told.

We meet Jenna, Kees and Malak, three British Muslim young women who met at school and have stuck together ever since, arranging to go to the same university and keeping a tight friendship group, and watch them over a couple of years as their lives tangle and untangle. It’s a very plot-led book, so hard to talk about in some ways: two of them are dating White young men at the start, one at the end; two experience coercive control and/or domestic violence; all of them suppress their real selves to an extent for their families and culture; they argue and there’s a rupture when things are said that can’t be said, but of course they are all, always, inevitably there for each other when the really bad stuff happens.

El-Wardany uses the book to explore what pathways might be open to such young women: studying away from home but then maybe returning “home” to Egypt to experience life as one of the majority culture for once (although separated by relative wealth as an ex-pat), engaging with White friends and in-laws or immersing oneself back into one’s culture, getting your first job and dealing with micro-aggressions.

I liked the positive models of the three White young men in the novel, a boyfriend, an ex and a best friend. Maybe they were put in to mollify White readers, but at least they weren’t faded out like in “The Other Black Girl” and they are three-dimensional and model being supportive and understanding – I particularly liked the way one of them interacted with his girlfriend’s estranged family, urging politeness and understanding and using Arabic phrases sparingly and appropriately, a positive message of hope.

The book was well-written; I liked the drawing out of the focus now and then to look at an overview of part of a city and its inhabitants, both the families from the book and other more random people. I liked the sense of a cohesive culture and the scary aunties (reminding me of “Yinka”) and the fact that it didn’t feel I was being too pandered to with explanations of what everything was that wasn’t specifically White British. The descriptions of the importance of Islam to the three central women characters were nicely done and it was good to see prayer and practices woven through their lives as a positive.

In the end, the book is a great testament to friendship, both male and female. While women friends will blithely ignore the red flags in their friend’s relationship to “do her the great service of looking in other directions”, when those red flags come to fruition they are there in a heartbeat. The change between those two states is delineated carefully in this excellent novel. I will look out for more by this author.

Thank you to Trapeze for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “These Impossible Things” is published on 9 June 2022.

Mary Jean Chan and Andrew McMillan (eds.) – “100 Queer Poems”

(14 May 2022)

This is an important book, put together by two queer poets and featuring the work of 100 or so more, grouped into sections on life stages, ways of being in the world and the future. I’m sure many people will find much of worth here. Unfortunately, and I’m sure as a facet of their queerness and a necessary one both for the older pieces and the newer ones, most of the works were more allusive and elusive in their meanings than I am really comfortable with, preferring the more concrete. I also think the layouts were a bit challenging on Kindle and might work better on the page. But it’s not about me and I hope this book does its job of reflecting people’s lives back to them, showing them ways to be, or showing straight, cis people like me a different world, and I wish it all the best of journeys out into the world.

Thank you to Vintage for making this available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “100 Queer Poems” was published on 02 June 2022.

Book review – Sheila Gear – “Foula: Island West of the Sun”

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Publisher Michael Walmer kindly sent me a review copy of his reprint of Peter Jamieson’s “Letters on Shetland“, which forms part of his Northus Shetland Classics imprint, a while ago, and once I’d reviewed it and been enthusiastic about this series, he offered me another volume. As at least two other bloggers I know had reviewed this one, I knew it was the one I wanted, and I was not disappointed (you can read Kaggsysbookishramblings’ review here and HalfManHalfBook’s here). This book was only originally published in the 1980s but had obviously fallen out of print and Michael has done a good job rescuing it.

Sheila Gear – “Foula: Island West of the Sun”

(20 April 2022, from the publisher)

… none of us will ever make a fortune here – not in money. But the fragrance of a flower, the cry of an allen, the warmth of sun on one’s face are worth more than a few extra pounds. (p. 176)

In this book, written by a woman who married a crofter and raised their children on a tiny isolated island, farming sheep and ponies, we go round a whole year, seeing the jobs of the farm, the vagaries of the weather and nature (very much red in tooth and claw: not a read over the dinner table), the birds and flowers, and the friends and neighbours. It’s lyrical where it needs to be, blunt where it has to be, with plenty to say about romanticised views of living on a remote island and about the tourists who descend every summer.

The hardness of life as an island crofter is not skimped, but is told in a matter-of-fact way that doesn’t invite pity, just respect. Even if you want to sell your lambs you have to wait for the shipping forecast, hope the boat comes and find someone to keep hold of them on the main island in case they arrive early or the sale is delayed. Doing the washing involves getting well water in the winter or water from further afield in the summer, and Gear wonders if the local councillors would think differently about organising infrastructure if they had to do the same. Then there’s the constant battle to keep animals alive (sheep are particularly difficult and there are some upsetting scenes; but ponies and indeed people get lost off the steep cliffs, too).

It’s not all grimness: there is warmth in community and celebration and the description of trying to buy Christmas presents over the phone from the mainland is very funny. There are some lovely photographs of landscape and animals. There is also optimism, that maybe ways can be found to make things easier without having to try to use the heavy equipment other farmers use that is not sustainable on these small patches of ground, although the last pages are quite elegaic, wondering if love for the place is enough in the end.

There is quite a lot about the ponies, and it was lovely to read those same words found in “The Ponies at the Edge of the World” about particular ponies looking like “their sort of pony”, whether bought in or bred. A special book, imbued with love of place and a lifestyle that is still just about going (as shown in later books).

Thank you to Michael Walmer for sending me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.

Book review – Helen Ashton – “Yeoman’s Hospital”

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I took this one off the print TBR shelves to try to make a dent in them before starting 20 Books of Summer, and as I finished it on 2 June, I’m happy with that choice (I have one of its sequels in the 20 Books pile, “The Half-Crown House”). Another gift from Ali, this time when she drew me in the LibraryThing Virago Group Not So Secret Santa in 2020 (I’m glad to say this is one of my last books dating from 2020!).

Helen Ashton – “Yeoman’s Hospital

(25 December 2020, from Ali)

Stretching in time over 24 hours in 1943, this book gives a vivid impression of a hospital just pre the launch of the NHS, so run and paid for by charity and subscription not national insurance, with various staff thinking well or poorly of the rumours of the new system to come (in this it reminded me of one of Francis Brett Young’s novels, although not one I think I’ve reviewed on here). Published in 1944, it has that slight pathos and tug of a book written when the outcome of the war wasn’t known, which always gets me.

Even though we only have a full day and night at the hospital, we get very engaged with all the characters. Wilchester, the town we’re in, is beautifully drawn and realistic, and the back stories of the main characters are of course drawn in so there’s depth behind the bones of the story. We encounter senior and junior staff, from elderly surgeons to a brand new trainee nurse, and patients from boys with injuries to maternity cases to an elderly shepherd and his fretting wife, all beautifully done, too. There’s politics in the running of the hospital and between those pushing for promotion, and a couple of romances, gossip, personality clashes and, beneath it all, the suet pudding for the nurses and lack of nutrition for the townspeople and the general worn-outness of being several years into a war.

The effect of the war is felt on the infrastructure of the town, too – the description of what has happened to the old Duke’s house is a paragraph that summarises what happened to so many other great estates, the lake drained so as not to show up to aircraft, the corridors full of stored museum pieces and the son of the house lost and his widow already remarried – very poignantly done in only a couple of hundred words.

A lot is so different – patients wondering how to pay for treatment, a hospital almoner sorting it all out – them some things are so familiar – a laparotomoy being done because “That’s what they calls it when they don’t know what they’ll find and won’t say what they’re looking for” (p. 49) – change that to a laparoscopy and it’s not much different today! It’s probably the same for a new nurse now as it was then, and we sympathise with Joan as she’s batted around her new ward but calmed by the competent and motherly Sister Abbott.

A lovely book, some gruesome bits, but a totally absorbing world. I have one more Wilchester book to read and will certainly look out for copies of the others, or hope that Dean Street Press might reissue them!

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 7/41 – 34 to go.

Book review – Mary Morris (ed.) – “The Virago Book of Women Travellers”

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I’ve been reading this hefty tome for a little while now, starting it last month to fit in with the LibraryThing Virago Group’s themed read on “Life Stories” as all the pieces in the book are excerpts from the real lives of intrepid women travellers. This is actually a reprint of a volume published in 1993 which I dimly recall having and reading – it’s been updated in that death dates and places have been added to the short biographies of the women that precede each excerpt. This was a gift from Ali, who was sent it by the publishers; it’s a big hardback that’s a bit hard to manipulate.

Mary Morris (ed.) – The Virago Book of Women Travellers”

(20 May 2021, from Ali)

We find 300 years of travelling women here, from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (born 1689) to Leila Philip (born 1962) and they travel across all the continents and regions of the world (apart from the Poles). In the introduction Morris explains their main criteria behind selecting pieces was the quality of writing and the vision behind the writing; she states that she “regret[s] the absence of more multi-cultural voices. It is our hope that in the future both the gender and racial gaps will be bridged, but for now the voices we present are those we found” (p. xxiii) and it would indeed be good to have a new collection that covered a wider variety.

These women are intrepid, brave, cheeky and defiant. Some of them dress as men to get where they need to go, some of them go alone, some accompanied. Dear Dervla Murphy, who just died recently, took a teenager on a huge long jungle walk; other women completed feats of travel under their own steam or were conveyed somewhere and stopped and observed it. Several sing the praises of a good, stout skirt. Cities and country, rivers and deserts are all covered and described by these indomitable women.

Although most of the pieces are straight travel, some are more thought-pieces and anthropologist extraordinaire Margaret Mead’s excerpt on training fieldworkers as she returns to ground she’s covered over decades, carefully considering the changes she’s seen and how these should be recorded.

An entertaining volume with something for everyone.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 6/41 – 35 to go.

State of the TBR – June 2022

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Well, looking at last month’s picture, the TBR is about the same but with fewer review copies balanced on top, so that’s a win, right? I’ve left my stash of Three Investigators novels in the pic although they don’t count in the “official” TBR somehow. Sorry for the slightly wonky picture.

I only managed to finish fifteen books in May, that’s still one every two days or so but I’d hoped to read more. I don’t have any read in May to review fully here but there are two reviews for Shiny New Books that I haven’t mentioned on here yet. I read or am still reading all of the print TBR I said I MUST read. I read and reviewed seven out of the nine NetGalley books I had TBR for May, DNF’d one and have one still to read (“The New Doctor at Peony Practice”; I need to read the first six in the series, I’ve got the NEXT one now too, but the publicist at the publisher is fine about the delay). I read and loved “The Scapegoat” for Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week.

I picked two books off the TBR out of my new quarter of TBR challenge books but haven’t finished them yet, so still have 36 left to go.

Shiny New Books

I reviewed Jude Rogers’ “The Sound of Being Human” for Shiny New Books – a wonderful memoir of her life in and with music and exploration of how music shapes our lives.

Incomings

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

I’m reading and reviewing Nicholas Orme’s “Going to Church in Medieval England” for the Wolfson History Prize book tour, something I’ve been taking part in for several years now. It looks fascinating and approachable and I’ll be reviewing it on 15 June. I saw mention of “Iceland: People, Sagas, Landscapes” by Hans Swik on Paul’s Half Man Half Book blog and had to track down a copy for myself (I had a lucky catch of a copy on Abe Books); a super book of photos and essays. “Haramacy” edited by Zahed Sultan is my latest Unbound subscription copy to arrive: it’s essays from the Middle East, South Asia and diaspora. And Hayley from Rather Too Fond of Books highlighted Patrick Hutchinson’s “Everyone Versus Racism: A Letter to Change the World” by the guy who carried a White counter-protestor to safety out of a Black Lives Matter protest last year and I had to pick up a copy.

I bought NO e-books for Kindle this month.

I won a few NetGalley books this month again:

I haven’t actually read Ibram X. Kendi’s well-respected earlier books but was intrigued by his “How to Raise an Antiracist” (published July), which concentrates on bringing up children to be actively antiracist. I was offered Emily Kerr’s “Take a Chance on Greece” (July) by the publisher and it looks like a fun holiday read with a setting somewhere I’ve only been once myself. “Refugee Wales: Syrian Voices” edited by Angham Abdullah, Beth Thomas and Chris Weedon (November) continues my strand of reading about Wales and its diverse populations. I was offered “100 Queer Poems” (June), selected by poets Mary Jean Chan and Andrew McMillan by the publisher on the strength of my review of “Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head”; it collects past and contemporary poets together. And the Reverend Richard Coles’ “Murder Before Evensong” (June) was a must-request when I was reminded by Hayley that I wanted to read it: I assume we’re in Richard Osman territory but it should be fun, too.

“The Wilderness Cure” by Mo Wilde (August) looks like it came from an email where the first 100 to request get the book: it’s the author’s description of living off free and foraged food for a year. Emiko Jean’s “Mika in Real Life” (September) is a novel about a woman trying to create a relationship with the teenage daughter she gave up for adoption when she was a teenager herself. Tasneem Abdur-Rasheed’s “Finding Mr Perfectly Fine” (July) is a novel about a Muslim girl in London trying to find Mr Right before her mum finds him for her. And Christie Barlow’s “New Beginnings at the Old Bakehouse” (July) is the one I mentioned in the Love Heart Lane series that is waiting on me reading the first six, with the PR’s blessing.

So that was 15 read and 13 coming in in May – not too bad!

Currently reading

I’m currently reading “The Virago Book of Women Travellers” edited by Mary Morris, which Ali kindly passed to me as it’s a massive, heavy hardback; it fitted in with the LibraryThing Virago Group’s life stories theme for May and it’s full of wonderful tales (I have skipped those that are in the Travellers books I bought recently so I get the full effect when I read them). I’m loving Sheila Gear’s “Foula” about life on a remote Shetland island, and I’m also loving Helen Ashton’s “Yeoman’s Hospital” which is a novel set over 24 hours in a wartime regional hospital and fascinating. I’m still reading “Cut From the Same Cloth?” with Emma, too: these essays from British women who wear the hijab are so interesting.

Coming up next, the start of my print TBR …

Obviously I’m prioritising “Going to Church in Medieval England” and then I have my Larry McMurtry, “The Late Child”, sequel to “The Desert Rose” which I loved in May. Then it’s also the start of my 20 Books of Summer project (see my introductory post here), so Ruth Pavey’s “A Wood of One’s Own”, Helen Ashton’s next Wilchester novel (they’re hard to find so it’s not the next one after “Yeoman’s Hospital”), “The Half-Crown House”, Stella Gibbons’ “The Bachelor” and Jeffrey Boakye’s “Black, Listed”. Hopefully I’ll get through more than those and the three books I’m currently reading.

My NetGalley TBR for June is nice and small which should help with the above.

From the incomings above I have “100 Queer Poems” and “Murder Before Evensong”, then “These Impossible Things” by Salma El-Wardany (three British Muslim women against the world, then something happens to divide them), “Dele Weds Destiny” by Tomi Obaro (three Nigerian women against the world, then one of them marries a White man and moves to the US, we see their friendship over 30 years), and Mya-Rose Craig’s “Birdgirl” (story of a young environmental activist).

With the ones I’m currently reading (not including my readalong which will take a while), that’s 3 books to finish and 11 books I plan to read this month, plus more off the 20 Books of Summer and a couple of Love Heart Lane e-books if I can. Seems doable, right?


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

Big Reveal: My 20 Books of Summer Pile

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Every year, the lovely Cathy at 746Books runs the 20 Books of Summer challenge, and I’ve taken part every year since 2015, though I certainly haven’t completed the challenge every year (my master 20Books page is here). The challenge starter page is here and there are over 85 people taking part at the moment, which is astounding and lovely, including lots of bloggers I read already.

I usually create my pile out of my print TBR, taking the earliest books on it although also adding some Viragoes and the like in at the end for All Virago / All August. This year, I’m being even more strict, and only the two Dean Street Press books I have coming up are slotting into August, although maybe I’ll be able to fit more in if I finish early.

What’s NOT included in my 20 Books pile?

  • Ebooks whether NetGalley or downloaded from Amazon
  • Review books sent by the publisher or author specifically for review on Shiny New Books or my blog
  • Books for other challenges I might do along the way (I don’t think I have anything falling into that category this time)
  • Books I am reading along with my best friend, Emma
  • Books I’m part-way through at the turn of the month

What IS included in my 20 Books pile?

  • The oldest 20 books on my print TBR that don’t fall into the above categories.

THE PILE

And here they are!

Ruth Pavey – A Wood of One’s Own – all about owning a bit of woodland and I think rewilding

Helen Ashton – The Half-Crown House – mid-20th century novel

Stella Gibbons – The Bachelor – another mid-20th century novel

Jeffrey Boakye – Black, Listed – the experience of Black men in the UK

Elton John – Me – the autobiography

James Ward – Adventures in Stationery – something we probably all like, right?

Anna McNuff – The Pants of Perspective – solo running the length of New Zealand

Alex Hutchinson – Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance – what it says on the tin

Martin Yelling and Anji Andrews – Running in the Midpack – running and improving when you’re not a new runner and you’re not an elite (might get promoted up the pile as reading with Wendy)

Mikki Kendall – Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women White Feminism Forgot – required reading for White feminists

Angie Thomas – On the Come Up – novel set in America by the author of The Hate U Give

Candice Braithwaite – I Am Not Your Baby Mother – Black women’s experience of maternity

Anna Aslanyan – Dancing on Ropes – translation and why it’s important

Nicholas Royle – White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector – he collects a particular imprint

Rob Deering – Running Tracks: The Places and Playlists that Made me a Runner – running and music in this Unbound book I subscribed to

Sue Anstiss – Game On: The Unstoppable Rise of Women’s Sport – finally we’re seeing more coverage, and this is another Unbound book I subscribed to

Lucy Delap – Feminisms – a history that aims to cover worldwide, not just White developed nations feminism

Edward Hancox – Every Last Puffin – he visits puffin sites in this book I took part in a crowdfunder for

Carola Oman – Nothing to Report / Somewhere in England – two Dean Street Press reprints of WW2 novels.

So, four mid-20th century novels, two nature books, three running books, two general sports books, two books on feminism, three books on Black people’s experiences, two books on music, book on books and words and one on stationery. Five fiction and fifteen non-fiction (a bit unbalanced but I will read other fiction during the summer). Twelve by women, seven by men and one by a man and a woman, sounds about the usual ratio. Will I do it? I really don’t know. But I’ll enjoy trying.

Are you doing 20 Books of Summer this year?

Book reviews – Maud Cairnes – “Strange Journey”

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I’m grateful that the British Library Publishing people send me these great reprints in the British Library Women Writers series: I reviewed “Keeping up Appearances” a couple of days ago and here’s the other new one, a more magical adventure than that, and great fun.

Maud Cairnes – “Strange Journey”

(19 March 2022, from the publisher)

It occurred to me then, that I really had no private life at all. I had never objected before, and I suppose that I should not have done so now, had I not had something to hide. (p. 142)

In this novel, published in 1935 and one of only two she published, Maud Cairnes cleverly and successfully attempts a body-swap story. Polly Wilkinson, a suburban housewife with just enough money to employ a part-time help, the redoubtable Gladys, is waiting for her beloved husband to return from work when she sees a luxury car glide by and wishes she could swap places with the lady in it for just a moment. Back in she goes and nothing happens until suddenly she goes all dizzy and finds herself probably not too far away in place, and certainly at the same time, but in a very different world: the world of Lady Elizabeth, who has a perhaps less-beloved husband and an extraordinarily different way of life.

As she negotiates both upper-class life and works out who on earth is who in the house, there are shades of du Maurier’s “The Scapegoat“, especially when it’s the dogs who seem to notice there’s something amiss. She feels like she gets dropped in it a bit by Lady Elizabeth (especially when she comes round riding a horse, of all things!) but gets her own back by demonstrating a good standard of bridge, which Elizabeth has never been able to play, and also works a little on one couple’s love affair and her own husband. Meanwhile, Elizabeth turns out to be able to be braver than Polly at work events.

Do they meet or how do they communicate? How does it turn out? When they both encounter the same chap who’s interested in psychic phenomena, are they able to hide their secret, which at least Polly is worried shows some sign of mental health disturbance? Well, you’ll have to read this enticing short novel to find out! I loved it.

Interestingly, reading the standard introductory and afterword pieces, the author was more of the upper class echelon; I totally believed Polly, too, although there were many details of Elizabeth’s house that would have come from experience. In fact she shows the constraints of a suburban mid-war life really well, as the quotation at the top shows. A really well done book and I think a favourite in the reprint series so far.

Thank you so much to the British Library for sending me this book and others in the series in return for an honest review. You can buy all the British Library Women Writers books (and more) at the British Library Shop (https://shop.bl.uk/).

Book reviews – Rose Macaulay – “Keeping Up Appearances”

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I’m doing quite well with my print TBR, as I’m reading “The Virago Book of Women Travellers”, “Strange Journey” and “Foula” at the moment. I’m grateful the lovely folk at the British Library send me these lovely reprints in the British Library Women Writers series and I feel bad it’s taken me this long to read and review them. This is a series of reprints of lost classics which are handily held by the British Library, curated by the excellent Simon from Stuck-in-a-Book and well worth a look at. Many of them have interesting twists or conceits and several have quirkily magical elements (as with the next one; this is “straighter”).

Rose Macaulay – “Keeping up Appearances”

(19 March 2022, from the publisher)

Born of one father, but of two quite different mothers, Daphne and Daisy looked alike, though Daphne was the better looking, the more elegant, and five years the younger. But in disposition, outlook, manners, and ways of thought, they were very different, Daphne being the better equipped for facing the world, Daisy for reflecting on it, though even this she did not do well. (p. 6)

This book treats the horrible worry of knowing your own real self is more wormlike, vulgar and cowardly than the self you’ve presented to the public and to people you want to impress – and older than you’ve made out. That carefully curated front is just that, curated, and underneath is messy reality. What if your worlds overlap or even – horrors! – collide? What if the facade is peeled off? What if you’ve lied to maintain the illusion but the lies are coming unravelled? And what if you’re not a highbrow who reads hard, foreign novels but you write gossip and pabulum for the newspapers?

Well, all of those are fairly modern concerns, aren’t they – what lies beneath the selfie, etc. – but actually it was published in 1928 and is dealing with flappers and people who are struggling with post-first-world-war upheavals in crossing class boundaries. I have to say that I didn’t pick up on the big, well, is it a plot twist or just a revelation (but I’m glad to say someone else I talked to about it didn’t either) but we basically have a young woman from a lower-middle-class background who is trying to maintain a place in slightly higher circles – not to mention a love affair – which involves her in pretending to enjoy brisk walks in nature and having a stiff upper lip in a crisis – not to mention all the different terms and words she’s expected to use in both places. As well as the background, she writes little pieces in the papers and novels about the Modern Girl, both very sub par to her do-gooder friends, who are more likely to be writing to the papers on political grounds.

Of course it’s never really profitable to lie, and Macaulay gently mocks those who try to get above their station (as well as the whole newspaper industry, publishing and people who try to get involved in other governments’ businesses: there are lots of targets here). The book felt a bit cold at the start but I warmed to it and it’s impossible not to feel for our heroine as her carefully curated life starts to fray at the edges, with some quite shocking moments as her work is revealed, although I also felt for her family, getting left behind by her ambition and desperation that comes out as snobbery.

A novel very much of its times but also relevant to today’s times, I think.

As usual with this series, we find a 1920s timeline, a short bio of the author, a Preface talking about the post WW1 quest for identity and an Afterword discussing the lowbrow, middlebrow and highbrow in publishing at the time.

Thank you so much to the British Library for sending me this book and others in the series in return for an honest review. You can buy all the British Library Women Writers books (and more) at the British Library Shop (https://shop.bl.uk/).

Book review – Catherine Munro – “The Ponies at the Edge of the World”

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The last of my NetGalley books published in May that I’ll get read in May, and ever such a good one – another non-fiction book after a spate of novels, and absorbing, moving and full of information. This would be a good companion piece to Sheila Gear’s “Foula” as well as Peter Jamieson’s “Letters on Shetland“, and indeed Munro visits Foula in this book, as well as spending time on mainland Shetland and various others of the islands.

Catherine Munro – “The Ponies at the Edge of the World: A Story of Hope and Belonging in Shetland”

(27 April 2022)

I felt the presence of time, the ancient breed of sheep roaming the hills, the people who nurture and understand them, the birds, ocean and seals, eternal, ordinary and magical. I noticed my body and the feeling of flow between me and the surrounding world, a surprising lack of tension.

I’m counting this as a travel book rather than a nature book as such, as it’s steeped in both the human social atmosphere of the Shetlands and the animal and bird life. It is full of the author’s life and reactions, too, but that felt natural and not forced or inserted at the demand of an editor, and her careful thinking and teasing apart of her own thoughts and what she’d told by others is intelligent and well done.

Munro was living an almost hand-to-mouth existence in Scotland, in precarious employment but yearning for nature and open spaces, when she managed to secure a funded PhD place to study animal domestication, specifically of Shetland ponies, in the Shetland Isles. Off she and her husband go (especially after reading “Snow Widows”, I liked the theme that her supportive husband followed her on her research journey) and settle in to a small house in a tiny community, digging in and working out how to exist there amongst the close-knit community and learning about the lives of the pony breeders and their charges.

I have to say here that I am particularly impressed that Munro managed to get a PhD and this book out of her year in Shetland; working with doctoral students, the time and other pressures are immense (and, indeed, she discusses this when starting a family but not getting any time off) and it’s astounding to have produced both!

We meet other wildlife as well as the ponies, including an orphaned lamb she rescues and the bird life of the islands. It’s all beautifully described, dialect words mixing with scientific ones naturally and authentically. The landscapes and weather are also superbly described and then we come to her fellow-islanders, respected and admired, their personalities drawn and their relationships with their animals carefully and considerately unpicked.

Munro’s central idea is that good, ideal domestication involves teaching the ponies how to interact positively with humans while retaining their own natural abilities and senses, letting them make their own decisions and learning from and with them. Shetlanders have strong ideas about what their animals are like, as a breed first, and then as individual studs, and Munro tries to describe how this happens and its deep value. Working with other people’s ponies, she gets an idea of how it works herself, too – the descriptions of her and others’ interactions with the ponies are moving and fascinating.

Going further, the landscape is seen as another actor in the interplay of humans, animals and the islands, and this is very plausible, each having an effect on the other two. Humans and animals are interwoven and back up each others’ attributes:

… across Shetland, island breeds are included as active participants in the stories of hard work and resourcefulness and tare so central to local identities. Connections between animals, history and contemporary life and closely interwoven in ways that are powerfully symbolic, but the shared attributes between people and animals inform and are informed by everyday embodied relationships with the animals they love.

There’s no call to action here, but a description of what works and a worry about what might happen if things move otherwise. It’s good to see changes and adaptations in the way Shetland ponies are used – for example, their innate good relationship with children and vulnerable people makes them ideal therapeutic animals – which might secure their future.

I should probably add a content warning for pregnancy loss here as there is a fair bit of detail, although it’s not a sad book as such when seen overall. And Munro derives a lot of healing from the places she stays in Shetland, again in a natural and authentic way: even when she’s visiting sacred sites and monuments, it’s more matter-of-fact than woo, an acknowledgement of special, “thin” places in the world and the weight of history.

A lovely book I’m very glad I read.

Thank you to Ebury/Rider Publishing for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The Ponies at the Edge of the World” was published on 19 May 2022.

Book review – Susanna Abse – “Tell me the Truth about Love”

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Almost the last of my nine NetGalley books published in May (I’m currently reading “The Ponies at the Edge of the World” and I have not managed to finish all the Love Heart Lane series so haven’t got to “The New Doctor at Peony Practice” yet; I DNF’d “Why We Read” and I’m pleased I’ve done so well (let’s not mention the four NetGalley wins I’ve just had, right …). A really interesting read about psychoanalysis in practice that started a little underwhelmingly but hooked me in.

Susanna Abse – “Tell me the Truth about Love: 13 Tales from the Therapist’s Couch”

(19 Mar 2022, NetGalley)

Abse is a long-standing psychotherapist, dealing with couples and families. In the introduction, she explains that each chapter tells a story about problems and behavioural patterns she’s seen in her practice over and over again, but that for reasons of confidentiality, none of them are about a specific patient or patients. Because of this, I thought they were going to be cold or unbelievable; actually the composite portraits she provides feel authentic and real, and I could feel invested in the process and outcomes.

The types of conflict range over misunderstandings, mismatches, arguments, affairs and decisions. I was pleased (and my friend Thomas will be, too) that one of the twelve chapters was about the love lost from a friendship, rather than a romantic relationship – such an important part of so many people’s lives. Abse’s thesis, and I find this valid, is that our romantic relationships are modelled on our early family relationships, unconsciously of course, and that this is what can scupper or promote healthy relationships. A lot of her work involves unpicking this and helping people to be more aware, and then to alter their behaviours if they have to / want to. There’s fascinating detail about transference and other psychotherapeutic concepts; there is very little jargon and it’s all explained very well.

I also appreciated the insights into the therapist’s work itself, both with couples and with her own peers and internal work. She is honest about how when she was a new, young therapist she wanted to sort out the whole world, and about how she reacts to people and has to sometimes fight to remain fair and impartial. She shares her mistakes and frustrations. This extends to sections written about the lockdown, when she first caught Covid and then had to adjust to working remotely via Zoom, sharing interesting details about how it was harder to stop warring couples fight when everyone was on a screen.

At the end, she both issues a call for people / the NHS to accept the need for long-term psychotherapy for some people rather than the reliance on the “quick fix” of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which can help some but not everyone (she does acknowledge this is a funding issue, too). She also acknowledges that the reader may feel frustrated, not knowing “what happened next”, and shares that she, too, feels that, as she rarely gets any news past the last session in her consulting room.

An honest and open, and also fascinating, read – push on past the worry these are “fairy tales” and inauthentic to see that she uses some metaphors and fairy tale chapter titles to explore real people and feelings. You might find something useful in here, too – I know I did.

Thank you to Ebury Press for selecting me to read this book in exchange for an honest review. “Tell me the Truth about Love” was published on 19 May 2022.

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