Book review – Zoe Playdon – “The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes”

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A review of a fascinating book I have read through NetGalley today (and of course also a NonFiction November read), this covers a shocking 1960s legal case that was hushed up and suppressed, even though it continued to affect English and Scottish law for the next few decades.

Zoe Playdon – “The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes”

(14 October 2021 – NetGalley)

Zoe Playdon is Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of London and co-founded the Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity with Dr Lynne Jones MP (my old MP!) in 1994. She worked for 30 years on the front line in LGBTI human rights, including working with Baroness Helena Kennedy QC; it was during her working life that she came across the case but only in her retirement that she had the time to research and present it. The book hinges on the case of Ewan Forbes, a Scottish member of the aristocracy who was born female but identified as male, lived a happy outdoor life, got his birth certificate changed in the 1950s, as you could then, and married and was practising happily as a doctor when a series of deaths in the family with no adjustment of wills meant that his cousin suddenly challenged him for his titles and land on the basis of him not being born male.

This turns out to be all to do with primogeniture, the arrangement by which only males could inherit titles and land – seen to have been changed by the Queen regarding Royal Succession, where now the oldest child whoever they are inherits. But at the time, it put the wind up the Establishment, as it seemed to show that gender was mutable and there was no such thing as a clear man or woman. So the case was not only found in favour of Ewan, but on a very narrow basis, but was then suppressed by what we’d call now a super-injunction, having a knock-on effect on the April Ashley case and between them making it then illegal to change the gender on a birth certificate.

I’m not a legal expert, but English and other UK law is based on precedent, and that precedent is recorded publicly. Here, precedent was based on a suppressed, invisible case which Playdon had to get dug out of the archives by the highest legal authorities in England. She then studied the case and Forbes’ life and has in this book placed it within the context of 20th and 21st century trans people’s lives and liberties. As Forbes didn’t name himself a trans man (he left a memoir which had a narrative of always being male) and there are few records about him, Playdon did have to fill in a few gaps with “he must have felt this” and “he must have felt that” which left me a little uncomfortable. But her work setting this within the context of the way trans people had to conform to medical narratives, the way the medical establishment in the UK and US (here, pathologised in order for psychiatrists to make money back from medical insurance, among other motivations) and abominable treatment of trans people in the law and society is impeccable, even exhaustive, following it back to then and right up to date with the moves forward in legal protection and the backlash from some trans-exclusionary radical feminists.

I was aware of quite a lot of this history from other books on trans history I’ve read recently (although I was not aware that the notorious Charing Cross Hospital gender identity clinic gatekeeper, John Randell, was a secret and guilt-harrowed cross-dresser), but it’s a good thing to have these narratives presented with different perspectives and focuses. The book also reminds us that a narrative of pushing for accoutrements of their correct gender from a very early age and the obsession with trans people having operations to correct their bodies are constructs, not truths, created by a medical profession that sought to control and gatekeep, often very much not in the best interests of trans people themselves.

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this book available to read via NetGalley. “The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes” was published on 11 November 2021. It’s formed part of my NonFiction November reading.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Clock Dance”

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Well, we’re on to the last two books in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and the two that I’d not read previously – how exciting! Fortunately, I really enjoyed this one, a big return to form for me and also a nice, long, satisfying read. I’ve very much cherished this run through Tyler’s novels and I’m not sure quite when I should announce my challenge for next year – what do you think?

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Clock Dance”

(16 April 2020)

“My father was so mild-mannered that he thought it was impolite to pick up a telephone in mid-ring,” she said. “He always allowed a ring to finish before he answered.”

“Ha,” Ben said.

“It was marry such a person or be such a person, I used to figure,” she said.

“You might want to rethink that,” Ben told her.

“Excuse me?”

“Those aren’t your only two choices, you know.”

“Well, it can seem that way when you’re eleven,” she said. (p. 114)

Interestingly, this book came out about the same time as Barbara Kingsolver’s “Unsheltered” (which I bought, read and reviewed as it came out in 2018), and they both featured a middle-aged woman named Willa, of all things, who ends up caring for a grandchild (or should that be “grandchild” in this case?). How odd is that? Anyway, I loved the Kingsolver but I also loved this, and both fitted well in the author’s oeuvre as a whole, so I wouldn’t like to call it between then.

Here we follow Willa episodically, first in a chaotic household with her younger daughter, a passive, kind father (though he does seem to be one of Tyler’s “corrector” types with household systems on the go; she doesn’t really labour this, though) and a really quite scary, emotional mother who is always flouncing off out of the picture, leaving Willa to try to cope. As a result, she thinks that you can either be the quiet dependable one or marry one, and she’s spent her life, after one exciting event where she’s led to believe she’s at risk on a plane, and her subsequent choice to marry against her parents’ wishes, fading into the background and helping everyone at her own expense.

We hop through the years with Willa in an episodic structure until she’s married to her second husband (who is very much a “corrector” and who we will her on to escape from) as she deals with a call from her son’s ex-girlfriend’s neighbour: Denise has been accidentally shot in the leg and there’s no one to look after her daughter, Cheryl. Cheryl isn’t a blood relation of Willa but she flies out from Arizona back to Baltimore and fills in a caring role happily (Cheryl is one of Tyler’s at-first-glance unprepossessing, lost children, but she proves to be reliable and delightful) and slotting into the neighbourhood chorus of slightly odd people who live on the street and form a sort of found family.

When Denise recovers and Willa might no longer be needed, no one wants to see her go. An accidental revelation sees her fleeing, but Peter has lost his patience and refuses to collect her from the airport, while the lovely widowed doctor, Ben, gives her a lift at a horrible time in the morning. The end of the book is, for once, perfect (Tyler has had a habit of disappointing me with her protagonists’ choices). Oh, and there’s a charming dog who comes through fine, and an incidental cat, ditto.

There’s a really interesting sub-theme about how we grieve (how did I not see this theme running through so many of her books? Another legacy of reading them all), with Willa’s father explaining how he breaks the day up into chunks, while Ben has a different approach, in this thoughtful and carefully observed book full of thoughtful people making careful observations. I think in that quote above, Tyler’s still espousing the theme I’ve found throughout her books, that it’s OK to be who you are. Willa might not actually be that person, and she might be just about to find that out.

Have you read this one? What did you think? And when should I share my new challenge for 2022?

Book reviews – Anthony Ferner – “Life in Translation” and Katharine d’Souza – “Friend Indeed”

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I’m picking off two more of my Novellas in November and two more from my TBR Challenge as well today as I hack resolutely through my reviewing backlog (four more to go after this!). Also look out for another Book Serendipity moment at the end! I’ve also managed to fit in with the Novellas in November theme this week of Books in Translation – well, sort of, with a book ABOUT translation.

Anthony Ferner – “Life in Translation”

(26 February 2021 – from Kaggsy)

I make sure people know I’m a translator, not an interpreter. Interpreters are the flashy ones at conferences or meetings of heads of state, who translate on the hoof: the adrenaline junkies, high-wire artists, prima donnas. The larger the auditorium the better they like it. Whereas the translators are the backroom boys and girls of the language world. (p. 9)

Along with the Charlie Hill, this one came from Kaggsysbookishramblings earlier this year – thank you!

In this book, described as picaresque, which I can see, as our hero rambles around the world, having encounters and meeting odd people again and again, we travel from South America to London to Europe, seeing our hero learning the art of translation then working as a jobbing translator, notably coming up against machine translation at one point, and working in a Kafkaesque nightmare of a translation agency, coming up against enemies and meeting friends, working on a translation of a novel he will never finish. He’s engaging but pretty bad with women, and he lets lots of people down, but you do find your sympathies with him. It reminded me of David Lodge’s early campus novels with all the travel and naughtiness around conferences, and of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” with the interweaving of encounters with the same people in different places.

The discussions on translation are very interesting, especially when a radical scholar proposes that the translator should change the text to find new meanings, as opposed to being wedded to the overt meaning of the text; this seems to tie in with my adherence to reception theory, that the reader creates the text, except here I am not that keen on, for example, putting a feminist slant onto a translation of a misogynist writer – shouldn’t his sins be presented to the world as is?

This was published by indie publisher Holland Park Press, who specialise in English literary fiction and poetry and translations of Dutch classics.

Heaven-Ali’s review of this book is here.

Katharine D’Souza – “Friend Indeed: A Novella”

(26 November 2020)

She has to be at this event though. This needs all three of us and the date has been set since we turned sixteen. It was a pact: three people, three ambitions, three promises. It’s time to finish what we started and I, for one, will be dressed for success. (p. 2)

This is a pretty short book and very plot-driven and sharp, so it’s hard to review without giving stuff away. We meet three friends who encounter each other at school and form a pact to meet up at various intervals through their lives. Jane, our (unreliable) narrator, seems the most put-together and approachable, neither a boring 80s retro housewife or a bitchy newspaper columnist, but as events wind up to their big birthday meetup in London – their 50th, and I have to say I’m glad I don’t have any such arrangements with any friends having read this! – her life and her narrative start to spiral apart.

I loved the Birmingham and 1980s and 1990s setting, of course, with details of school and work life. The book is full os twists and surprises and telling little details. But I did miss d’Souza’s long-form work and her room to stretch and expand, and hope there will be another full novel soon. You can find out about her books here.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Books 13 and 14/85 – 71 to go – and they were Book 7 and 8 in my Novellas in November challenge

In another Bookish Beck serendipity moment, these two books featured a very loose episodic structure, jumping between sort of glimpses and moments, which was also a feature of Charlie Hill’s “I Don’t Want to go to the Taj Mahal“ and Anne Tyler’s “Clock Dance”, which I’m reviewing tomorrow. In addition, the central characters of both of these books reviewed here start out in Birmingham, with mention of the train to Selly Oak in “Life in Translation”.

Book review – Alice O’Keeffe – “Skylark”

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I really enjoyed Alice O’Keefe’s first novel, “On the Up“, which I read via NetGalley in October 2019, so I was intrigued when the publisher got in touch to offer me a copy of her new novel. Then I was a bit unsure when I saw it was based on real events, as I’m not keen on novelisations of real life, preferring to read nonfiction if I want facts. But then it did look tantalising, I said yes, and when I read the first few pages I was hooked in.

Alice O’Keeffe – “Skylark”

(23 September 2021 – NetGalley)

Where once she’d flitted between squats and encampments, she now nested quietly in her little council flat. Sometimes she wondered where her world-changing passion had gone, the almighty anger and conviction that had propelled her out of Henfield and into the squats and encampments. In moments of confusion and frustration, she wondered whether Dan had somehow leached it out of her. But most of the time she was content with her smaller existence, relieved to be away from the increasingly bitter disagreements between the people she loved best. When she remembered the old triumphs, it was almost as though they had happened to someone else, some old friend she had lost track of along the way.

It was clear from the info on NetGalley and on the book buying sites that this is a novel about the Spycops scandal, where it’s fairly recently emerged that male police officers went undercover to spy on activist groups in the UK, engaging in relationships with mainly women, I think, and even having children with them, before suddenly disappearing, leaving them bereft and knowing they’d been cheated, but not what had happened. O’Keefe has clearly done a lot of careful research, and she adds meat to the bones of this, taking the perspective of a woman who this is done to, but also to a limited (and I think well-done) way the feelings of the police officer involved, too (the review in The Guardian said we didn’t get enough about his motivations and feelings; I would argue that we did, but that the main focus and sympathy was with Skylark, as it should have been).

We open in a police interrogation – or so we think: we quickly realise this is a preparation interview, where Dan is practising his new identity in order to go undercover. Similar update interviews appear throughout the book, later moving on to interviews with a counsellor after the scandal has come out and he’s spent years on sick leave and seeking support himself.

Then we have the history of Skylark and her friends – she started off running away with road protestors as a late teen, with her best friend, escaping suburban life and expectations and a horribly stunted family unit and forming their own worldchanging group. When we meet them, along with Bendy Aoife, always doing yoga in meetings, Big Moll, who could create a stew for a camp out of a few frozen turnips and Mouse, quiet philosopher, they’re planning more of their road-closing parties, changing the world through showing people a different way of living. This is just starting to turn when Dan comes along, reliable, big-armed and practical, showing up at meetings and taking on all the crappy jobs no one else wants.

It’s a lovely and affectionate portrait of the 90s protest movement, just at the turn of when the more violent and organised groups got involved in what had been a generally gentle and rave-culture-orientated movement. Things are getting more settled, and after a life of living in camps and up trees, Skylark has just moved into a council flat, originally with her partner Mike, who has become slow and drug-addled after being a key activist for years, and is getting used to living in one place, with things around her. She has a job at a local play centre run by a tour de force of a brightly clad woman who is great at getting publicity and funding (a great side portrait in itself) and then things really seem to come together when she meets Dan. Yes, he’s away with work a fair bit, but he’s solid and dependable, though a little secretive at times.

Even when Skylark starts to find some odd things not adding up – a driving licence in a different name, the odd slip-up, she doesn’t allow herself to suspect anything. There are bigger things at stake, maybe, the movement fragmenting, members saving themselves (I love how The Rev, her oldest friend, reinvents his underground art practices and becomes a darling of Blair’s Britain, while still claiming and craving freedom – it’s really very cleverly woven together, and he provides a very poignant moment later on).

Against a background of increasing violence, of joined up movements around the world, of debate about the violence and joining up with other movements, Skylark finds herself pregnant, a tipping point that will propel us forward a decade, to when her child starts to ask questions. Is their found family enough to keep them safe?

Thank you to Hodder & Stoughton for offering me a copy of this book to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Skylark” is published on 25 November 2021.


In a nice serendipity moment for Bookish Beck, this was the second book in a row I read that featured the rave culture of the 90s (Charlie Hill’s “I Don’t Want to go to the Taj Mahal“).

Book review – Charlie Hill – “I Don’t Want to go to the Taj Mahal”

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I’ve been racing through small books, so sorry for all the posts in a row and hope you’ve been coping wiht them – something for everyone, maybe, and reviews of short books are usually shorter than reviews of long books, at least, right? This one was from Kaggsy of The Ramblings, sent in a parcel with another book and I recorded its arrival in my March State of the TBR post. The other book came from Ali to her and this is to go from me to Ali (glad I checked the note!) so will pass it to her next time I see her.

I’ve previously enjoyed Hill’s other books, “Books” and “The Space Between Things” (read pre-blog, the only mention of it on the blog from when I bought my best friend a copy) but this was the first actual work of non-fiction/memoir by him I’d read.

Charlie Hill – “I Don’t Want to go to the Taj Mahal”

(26 February 2021 – from Kaggsy)

I’ve always liked the idea that writing is an activity that is intimately connected to death. That we wrete against death, to delay it somehow, or lessen the power of its hold over us. I’m not sure how effective it is, mind. (p. 98)

This is the story of Charlie Hill’s life in vignettes, never more than a few pages in length, sometimes a paragraph, often funny, sometimes haunting, and all soaked in South Birmingham, in Moseley and Kings Heath and Stirchley, in places I know or remember or have heard of, back when the Trafalgar was a scary pub to go in, so it was almost a visceral experience, reading about his wanderings and wondering where I was at the same time. It’s also soaked in an alternative, rave culture, made poignant at the end when he talks about the survivors from those years he still sees around – something that chimes with the next book I read, interestingly.

So he goes through a succession of crappy jobs, sleeps with a succession (or a spiral, as there are exes we go back to) of women, lives in a succession of dodgy houses with odd housemates and generally lives on the edge of things; however, ‘normal’ life does claim him to an extent in the end, and he does settle.

Here he is, crashing a forklift he shouldn’t have been driving: this gives a flavour of the flat narration and wry amusement of the book.

The only thing that stopped the forklift from going over on its side, with me underneath, cryshed honest into concrete, was a metal post that bent to 4 degrees and left it balancing on the edge of the ramp like a metaphor, not that I had much time for metaphor at Harrison Drape. (p. 19)

This book is published by Repeater Books, who appear to be an indie publisher or small radical imprint – they have some very interesting-looking books if you have a peek at their website.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 12/85 – 73 to go – and it was Book 6 in my Novellas in November challenge and part of Nonfiction November!

Nonfiction November Week 3: Be the Expert / Ask the Expert

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It’s Week Three of Nonfiction November and it’s The Thousand Book Project’s week – see the main post here.

Week 3: (November 15-19) – Be The Expert/ Ask the Expert/ Become the Expert with Veronica at The Thousand Book Project: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert). 

I wasn’t sure what to use for Be The Expert, then I realised people have been asking me about this, even recently, and I have an important point to make about timing …

Be the Expert (Guide?) – Books on Social Justice and Equality I’ve read this year

So this topic, especially Black Lives Matter, was certainly not just for 2020, even if the proliferation of lists and recommendations seems to have gone a bit quiet. I have continued reading books on social justice, marginalised people and equality/equity through this year (and always will do), using the groundswell in publishers’ interest to pick up books as they’re published. The book in the image is a case in point, “Black British Lives Matter” edited by Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder pulls together pieces by Black British artists and activists and is just out and on its way to my bookshelf as I write this.

So here are the nonfiction books on social justice, marginalised people and equality I’ve read this year, all recommended (there’s a leaning towards the British experience here: our racism and class issues are quite different from the US, although just as insidious, and I’ve been trying to start from where I am). They’re in order of when I read them, not otherwise arranged. Note, these are books from the last year. I am adding categories for social justice – race, gender sex and sexuality, disability, class and neurodiversity this week so you can find all the books in a category on the blog not just these newer reads.

June Sarpong – “The Power of Privilege” – unpicking privilege and what we can do about it

Nikesh Shukla (ed.) – “The Good Immigrant” / “The Good Immigrant USA” – immigrant experiences in both countries

Reni Eddi-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” – history and a call to action

Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (eds.) – “Loud Black Girls” – essays by British Black women

Catrina Davies – “Homesick” – working class and housing inequality

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff (ed.) – “Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children” – stories from people who came from the Caribbean to Britain in the 1950s and their descendants

Kenya Hunt – “Girl” – essays by a Black woman

Sathnam Sanghera – “Empireland” – the effect of Empire on Britain today

Christine Burns (ed.) – “Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows” – vital essays on the history and experience of trans people in the UK

Mike Parker – “On the Red Hill” – older and younger gay male couples and their different life experiences

Guvna B – “Unspoken” – race and class in South London

Jeffrey Weekes – “Between Worlds” – an exhaustive history of the gay liberation movement in Britain

Maya Angelou – “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” etc., – race relations in the US and Africa; so many statements we are still hearing today.

Danny Assaf – “Say Please and Thank you and Stand in Line” – the Lebanese community in Canada

Jonathan van Ness – “Over the Top” – a happy but still traumatic LGBTQIA+ life in America

Kit de Waal – “Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers” – class alive and well in Britain in this set of memoir pieces

Akala – “Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire” – race and class in Black communities in London and the UK

Juno Dawson – “Gender Games” – growing up trans in Britain

Anita Sethi – “I Belong Here” – woman of mixed heritage explores the British countryside

Nadiya Hussain – “Finding my Voice” – a British Bangladeshi life

Trystan Reese – “How We Do Family” – a trans man, his husband and their fight to have a child

Johny Pitts – “Afropean” – exploring African communities across Europe

Stormzy – “Rise Up” – class and race in music in the UK

David Olusoga – “Black and British” – history of Black people in and in association with Britain. Seminal. TV series also recommended, though different.

Damien Le Bas – “The Stopping Places” – the life of Travellers in the UK and Europe

Sophie Williams – “Anti Racist Ally” – provocative ideas and concrete things to do

Emma Dabiri – “What White People Can Do Next” – you thought the above was provocative!? Really made me think.

Pete Paphides – “Broken Greek” – growing up in the Greek Cypriot community in the Midlands

Armistead Maupin – “Logical Family” – creating a family when yours rejects you for being gay

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and Timi Sotire (eds.) – “Black Joy” – there’s joy, but often in overcoming challenges

Johnny Agar and Becky Agar – “The Impossible Mile” – a life lived well with cerebral palsy in the mix

Michaela Coel – “Misfits” – a call to be a misfit and to extend the ladder down to help other marginalised people in the entertainment industry

Shon Faye – “The Transgender Issue” – debunking the myths and showing the struggles of the trans community; a call for lifting all marginalised people through mutual aid

Hassan Akkad – “Hope, not Fear” – inspiring story of a man who escaped from Syria and joined the NHS, campaigning for refugees and low-paid workers

Raynor Winn – “The Salt Path” – class and homelessness and health

Anita Rani – “The Right Sort of Girl” – race and class and growing up unconventional in a traditional Indian expatriate community in Yorkshire

Something for everyone there, right?! and of course there are more to come!

Ask the Expert – Books on Returning (especially to Africa)

I’ve read quite a few books this year that have featured returns to African roots, whether that’s Afua Hirsch in “Brit(ish)” packing up her English life and going to live in Ghana for a few years, Alex Haley finding his tribe through language then finding his people in “Roots” or Maya Angelou living in Egypt and then Ghana, too, in her autobiographies, and discussing at length the experiences of mostly Americans who have ‘returned’ to Ghana. Toufah, of course, bravely returns to The Gambia to help justice be done, although she’s not away in Canada for very long. On the TV, Afua Hirsch’s African Renaissance series showed Jamaican people who have moved to Ethiopia to connect with the foundation of Rastafarianism, and I caught a bit of Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson on the TV, which had him reconnecting with his ancestral Benga tribe in Gabon and being welcomed into it in an emotional ceremony. So these returnees have been following me and interesting me.

I am aware of the book “Return” by Kamal Al-Solaylee, which looks at various returnees and includes a chapter on Africa, and I’ve read Jackie Kay’s “Red Dust Road“, in which she traces her Nigerian roots. Ore Agbaje-Williams and Nancy Adimora’s edited collection, “Of This Our Country” about Nigeria and Britain has some examples of writers who have gone from Britain to Nigeria. But there must be more narratives, preferably but not only modern ones, about people who have found their roots in Africa or tried going and living there and re-establishing a link with their ancestry and/or families.

Suggestions, please!

Book review – Jon Mills – “Utility Furniture”

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Another little book for Novellas in November, and just still in their week of Nonfiction, and it also falls under Nonfiction November. Not the TBR project, though, as I acquired it after the cut-off date for that one. I bought it after seeing it mentioned on Facebook by a furniture restorer I follow: I love Utility furniture and have one piece myself, more on that below …

Jon Mills – “Utility Furniture”

(18 October 2021)

This is a facsimile of the 1943 Utility Furniture Catalogue with a long explanatory introduction by Mills.

When the Blitz of 1940 started to destroy homes and their contents faster than people could rebuild their lives, the government introduced Utility Furniture, plain, and using a minimum of materials in only a few designs, which was only available to newly married couples or people who had been bombed out and lost their possessions. There were just enough pieces to furnish a home, they came in one or two finishes and sometimes a couple of different styles. They were pretty sturdily constructed and I know of at least two other tallboys like my own that are still going strong!

The introduction lays out what happened when and explains the coupon system for getting hold of the furniture (at your most local shop only). There are great little reproductions of coupons, adverts and lists, most usefully a list of where in a piece of furniture the CC41 Utility Furniture stamp was to be applied.

The scheme only ended in 1952, and what I hadn’t realised was that the designs for the original ranges were sent abroad to countries that wanted to start a furniture industry – Sierra Leone, for example, was still producing it into the late 1950s.

Interestingly, my tallboy came in three different designs to match three different bedroom suites – this design, one with square panels with horizontal dividers on the doors, and then one with the vertical panels but also vertical handles on the drawers. I’d love to know if any of my readers have any Utility furniture, especially different styles of the tallboy!

A great little read, and I’m glad I promoted it up the pile because of Novellas in November!

My Utility tallboy (the checks are a reflection of the floor, not part of the decoration)

This was Book 5 in my Novellas in November challenge and part of Nonfiction November! And it was published by an independent publisher – Sabrestorm Books.

Book review – Jessica Nordell – “The End of Bias”

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I was really glad to win this from NetGalley back in June because I had a hunch (and I was correct!) that this would be a good pairing with Pragya Agarwal’s “Sway”, and so it proved to be. However, this meant I had to read “Sway” first (see my review here) and that was quite a substantial book and so was this!

Jessica Nordell – “The End of Bias”

(24 June 2021 – NetGalley)

I found a hidden topography of interventions, a patchwork of scrappy, inventive organisations, researchers, and lay people rooting out discrimination through curiosity, creativity, and brute force.

As I was hoping, although this book started off with good, clear definitions of implicit or unconscious bias, this part was a lot less exhaustive than in “Sway” and we soon got into the other side of things – the way in which organisations, in the main (though these vary between kintergarten classrooms, university departments, police departments and others) have addressed and sought to reduce bias and its effects. The main biases looked at here are gender and race, with some class mixed in, too (there’s nothing on ageism or disability, for example, which “Sway” covered a little, and gender has to be assumed as being binary as there is so little research on nonbinary gender and bias at present). But the precepts and general ideas covered here are applicable in other areas, too, of course.

Nordell opens with the case of Ben Barres, a trans male professor, who discovered with his different gender a whole set of advantages and lack of discrimination – he’s even praised for his work being “better than his sister’s” when of course both sets of work were done by the same person. Of course, Nordell hastily moves to make the point that the advantages trans men can enjoy can also disappear in a moment if their trans status is discovered – she’s very careful in her assertions and also talks a in detail about how she’s identified and addressed her own biases. We move on to other experiments where having a control has allowed bias to be seen, and then look a little at how bias is formed and more about how it’s evidenced.

The main interest in the book is in the detailed case histories of organisations which have reduced bias. In all cases, and Nordell is careful to point this out, it comes down to a mixture of personal work and cultural/organisational work – so the power of diversity is only unleashed in a ‘learning’ environment where people see the differences between themselves but opt to learn from those differences, and for that to happen, the culture needs to make that possible. There’s also reference to systematic cultural change needed throughout society, and that’s perhaps the hardest to achieve.

Removing bias from everyday practices is essential but not sufficient for creating a truly inclusive environment. To foster a climate that includes all, everyday practices must be built on a foundation of learning from and valuing differences. And this environment need not be a workplace. These dynamics play a role in places where people live, worship, and learn.

Nordell ends with a call for personal, organisational and systemic change, which will benefit both those on the receiving end of bias and those who have acted with bias. She asks us to pause and examine where we’ve got the beliefs we subscribe to (like a newsletter, as she describes on branch of research as stating) and the associations we hold unconsciously (which spam us). A good, careful and powerful book that gives the examples and best practices you might be looking for.

Thank you to Granta Books for approving me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The End of Bias” was published on 23 September 2021.

I’ve read this book for Nonfiction November!

Book review – Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason – “Saga Land”

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I’m excited to have read my first of two books for AusReading Month, hosted by Brona’s Books at This Reading Life. It took her spotting this one on my TBR shelf and letting me know that it was by one Australian by birth and one by residence for me to realise I had more than one book for this challenge this year!

It also comes under NonFiction November, AND my TBR reading challenge (in fact, it’s one of the older books on my main TBR) so all good. Certainly not a novella, though, at a hefty (but very readable) 447 pages plus 50 illustrative plates.

I bought this book as part of my 2020 Book Token Extravaganza – arrival post here and post about the Extravaganza here (I have now read or am reading 6 out of the 7 books purchased, with the final one to read this month).

Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason – “Saga Land: The Island of Stories at the Edge of the World”

(15 July 2020)

Audun and the Polar Bear is a small, finely wrought fable, but it holds many of the qualities of the great Icelandic sagas: the tale is told tersely, and contains real historical figures. The main character’s honour is central to the story, and Audun quietly holds to it, at the risk of great suffering to himself. Also typical of the sagas is the beautiful strangeness of the tale. (p. xxv)

Fidler and Gislason met when they did a radio programme together in Australia and then ended up chatting about Iceland and the sagas for ages afterwards. This book is a lovely mix of travelogue and saga retellings as they share the story of their obsession with the sagas and their two trips to Iceland, one in the summer, one in the winter, along with Kari’s interesting personal story of searching for his heritage.

Kari was born as the result of an affair between his Australian mother and Icelandic father – his father already had a family and forbade Kari’s presence to be made known. Eventually, Kari did speak up, and he met his father and bonded with his siblings (he’s written his own book about all this, which I might have succumbed and bought within moments of seeing it mentioned in this book …). Part of his father’s small legacy to him was being told that he was a direct descendant of Snorri Sturluson, the great chieftain, lawgiver and saga writer / collector, and a lot of the book a) retells Snorri’s story and b) tells the story of Kari’s slow attempt to find out if this is true – because the population of Iceland is so small, there’s a database of everyone’s genealogy going back to mediaeval times, however Kari wasn’t linked properly to his father originally.

The travelogue is excellently done, the two authors tell alternate chapters, which works really well, often looking at the same episode from both their viewpoints. In the summer, they travel to Thingvellir and the farmlands of Hliðarendi (oddly enough, they don’t visit the petrol station of the same name, which thrilled me when I was there in 2014!), then to the western dales and the fjords of the northwest. In the winter, they fill in Snorri’s areas as well as experiencing Reykjavik in the endless night. The saga retellings and the story of Snorri are really well done – accessible and modern enough to engage, but correct enough to please the expert or other obsessive. They also don’t retell WHOLE sagas, either bits of them or a sort of summary of the main points, unless they are really short, which makes the book less uneven than it sounds. There were some new-to-me sagas, and the meeting of Reagan and Gorbachev and the chess contest between Spassky and Fischer are also told in this style, which was a nice touch.

I got very excited when I saw Gunnar’s farm’s name on a service station in 2014

The writers are decent, emotionally literate family men who have a special fondness and affinity with the sometimes dark and blood-soaked sagas of a different age and place. Their love for the topic really shines through, as does their friendship. This is a really special and lovely book, and one I will no doubt ready again. Heartily recommended, whether you know the sagas and Iceland or not.

There are pictures printed straight onto the page throughout the book and a set of colour plates, also on the standard paper, at the front and back. It was lovely to see places I’ve been and photographed (e.g. Snorri’s hot pot) and, along with watching Alexander Armstrong’s TV series on Iceland, made me desperate to get back there for a fifth time.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 11/85 – 74 to go – and it was part of Nonfiction November and AusReading Month!

Book review – Nick Hunt and Tim Mitchell – “The Parakeeting of London”

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After being in the midst of two substantial books, I’ve finished “Saga Land” (review tomorrow) and decided to pick off some Novellas in November for my upstairs reading. I’d already decided this would be my first, both because it looked cheerful and because NovNov is doing nonfiction this week (I’m not sticking to their categories faithfully but it seemed polite to try). So a cheerful work of short nonfiction – and also a book off my TBR Challenge 2021-2022!

I bought this in my Book Token Splurge this year, when I collect up my book tokens from Christmas and my January birthday, times I also acquire books, and spend them on a big mid-year treat. It’s the first of those books I’ve read (unsurprisingly, as that’s quite recent in my TBR), but there are two more of that set on my Novellas in November pile.

Nick Hunt with photos by Tim Mitchell – “The Parakeeting of London”

(24 June 2021 – bought with Christmas/Birthday book tokens)

Despite their colour, their numbers, their noise, the process went largely unobserved. That is perhaps one of their oddest and most impressive qualities: they pas from rarity to ubiquity in an astoundingly short space of time. People go from never having seen them – or even never having believed in them – to vaguely assuming they have always been part of the urban landscape. They are like gentrification itself. First they are nowhere, then they are everywhere. (p. 13)

What a charming book this is! Eschewing (most) traditional scientific and ornithological methods, taking on instead what they call “gonzo ornithology”, Hunt and Mitchell roam the parks and cemeteries of London, talking to ordinary (and not so ordinary) people about their thoughts on parakeets, also examining the main origin myths of the birds (and finding no evidence for any of them).

We learn about the spread of parakeets across London (and Europe), the fact that they are a bird that lives as far into the cold lands as the Himalayas, hence not being bothered by our winters, and about their flyways, the paths the birds routinely take between feeding and roosting spots. When people talk about them, it’s not just about parakeets, but they open up about travel, belonging and immigration (in good and bad ways). And, while they spot them from a distance (once, hilariously, just as someone is telling them the parakeets have all gone for the area), they eventually get to see them up close.

The main section of the short book alternates myths, facts and chats, with portraits of the interviewees or, if those are not permitted, scene-setting images. The author bios pleasingly have a photo of each, parakeet on apple in hand. While Hunt writes the main text, there are some notes on the photography methodology by Mitchell in the back, and last of all, there are some reproductions of postcards that people sent in to them (with more on the project website). A super little book that would be a great gift for the bird or nature lover, London person or psychogeographer in your life.

The book is published by a micro indie press, Paradise Road.

They’re not just in London – here’s one of the lovely parakeets in my local park in Birmingham!

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 10/85 – 75 to go – and it was Book 4 in my Novellas in November challenge and part of Nonfiction November!

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