Book review – Simon Napier-Bell – “Ta-ra-ra-BOOM-de-ay” plus some recent incomings

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I don’t seem to have read much this week, maybe because I went out one night and I’ve had quite a lot of work on, although I’ve written a post for Non-fiction November at least (I’m so enjoying taking part in this themed reading and blogging series!). I have read a bit more yesterday and today though and finished this one. And the last books I read were for NetGalley and I like to keep those ones free of random book acquisition chat, so see below for some incomings e-book and tree-book …

Simon Napier-Bell – “Ta-ra-ra-BOOM-de-ay”

(22 May 2018)

Almost the last of my May 2018 massive book haul from Foyles, which did include three books on music I’m having to spread out a bit. This one is subtitled “The (Dodgy) Business of Popular Music” and it’s a history of the business side of music – so publishing, record labels, promoters and managers – although it was a bit dispiriting to read that greed and payola have basically always run both the business and the choice of the songs we hear and notice. As a quote from music sociologist Dr Isaac Goldberg from the 1930s has it-

Everything we ever sing or whistle is the end result of a huge plot involving thousands of dollars and thousands of organised agents … the efforts of organised pluggery. (p. 288)

Everything has always been made as easy as possible, from simple sheet music onwards through to the non-threatening pabulum of the modern hit machine.

It’s good on the sociology behind new trends and fads, which the business kept up with until file-sharing, always edging in – for example the Tube being constructed meant people could come in from the suburbs to see shows and then buy the music, and the rise of colour TV ownership coincided with the launch of MTV. The changes in radio formats were interesting, with DJs coming in fairly late and amazing amounts of bribery going on. I did get lost in the machinations of the record labels but it’s all laid out for us.

The book was published in 2014 so streaming had not been going on long and it doesn’t cover this new development. I also noticed a few inaccuracies or oddities (Deadmau5 being spelled incorrectly; something weird about digital rights management on CDs letting viruses get into people’s computers and a claim that New Order’s “World in Motion” included the phrase “E for England” – I didn’t recall this and found it was only in the draft lyrics) which meant that I was slightly more wary of all the other assertions than I might otherwise have been. But an interesting read all told.


I had some nice book post in the last week or so. I needed to replace my lost (how?) original copy of Iris Murdoch’s “The Flight from the Enchanter” and some detective work in the IM group on Facebook found the date of the edition with the cover I had. Hooray! And my friend Zoe sent me Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage” which she and a few other friends have read and recommended. It’s the one about a black couple where the husband suddenly gets sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit and looks really good and important.

Then I feel duty-bound to record three new wins on NetGalley. “Miss Iceland is by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, whose “Butterflies in November” I enjoyed, and takes a trip to 1960s Iceland and a life of writing and expectations. Kiley Reid’s “Such a Fun Age” is a novel of modern issues, where an online influencer’s black babysitter is confronted for having charge of her two (white) children and the mum tries to make things right when she can’t really. “Tiny Habits” by B.J. Fogg is about how we can make small changes in our lives for the positive. So quite a range there!

Oops – edited to add I also received a lovely email from the folks at the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press with three excellent looking books which will be out in January. They chose to send me D. E. Stevenson’s “Vittoria Cottage”, first in her Dering Trilogy and I bet I find myself collecting the lot, Miss Read’s “Fresh from the Country” which is a standalone story about a new schoolteacher, and Doris Langley Moore’s “Not at Home” which is a just post-WWII story about renting part of one’s home to a relative stranger …

Have you read any of these?

Book reviews – Phillipa Ashley – “A Perfect Cornish Summer” and “A Perfect Cornish Christmas” #NetGalley @AvonBooksUK

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I’m reviewing these two together even though I suspect a third will come along to make up a trilogy (and hope so!) because I won “A Perfect Cornish Christmas” through NetGalley so picked up a copy of “A Perfect Cornish Summer” second-hand to read first – God forbid I read books in a series in the wrong order!

Phillipa Ashley – “A Perfect Cornish Summer”

(11 October 2019)

A nice Cornwall-set novel featuring an ensemble of characters, all in the West Penwith town of Porthallow (which I think is a sort of amalgam of Newlyn and other bits and bobs) for its Food Festival’s tenth iteration. Sam with her Stargazy Pies pie company has done well since the first festival, but then discovers a figure from her past, who tore her family apart, is returning for the festival. Gabe is coming home but has a secret. Bubbly Welsh-Chinese Chloe isn’t talking about the troubles that brought her fleeing to this small town – but she really needs to. A lovely idea to set it around the food festival and some good supporting characters: a nice, fun novel with a heart.

Phillipa Ashley – “A Perfect Cornish Christmas”

(07 October 2019)

We’re in Porthmellow again but slightly sadly we don’t really get more than a glimpse of the characters from Summer (this does make it work as a standalone; maybe having a plot arc that stretched across the books in the “Cornish Cafe” series didn’t work for people in that way, although I very much liked that). We have Ellie and Scarlett, sisters in their 30s caretaking their late aunt’s house just outside Porthmellow, whose family abruptly fractures on the Christmas Day that opens the book with Scarlett crashing into a pub that offers a welcome to the lonely at Christmas. They try to pull their lives together, though Scarlett pines for Birmingham (hooray!) and there’s a nice foraging subplot and of course romances. There’s not so much casual diversity as in the Cafe novels, which I missed, but still a good and engaging read and a nice study of a family trying to re-make itself. A few issues with it being an ARC which I hope were ironed out before publication.

Thank you for NetGalley and Avon Books for choosing me to read this in return for an honest review.

 

Book review – Clair Wills – “Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain” plus a new @ShinyNewBooks review out now #NonfictionNovember

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A review of what I consider an absolutely vital book to read if you live in the UK and care about the history and make-up of your local community, and a quick note of a Shiny review of a book I recently reviewed on here – Bernadine Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other” – on Shiny here in slightly more detail than in my review on here, and also featuring in my next Non-Fiction November post.

Clair Wills – “Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain”

(22 May 2018, Foyles)

An excellent, powerful, readable book which studies the first wave of post-war immigration to the UK, so the Windrush generation, but also European displaced persons, Irish immigrants, returning soldiers and reunited families, and interrogates their own words, finding these in fiction, interviews, letters to the paper, broadcasts, songs and even an epic poem at all, to give their experience of “us” (I say this from a position of being 63/64 Southern English and 1/64 Spanish) rather than our experience of “them”. It goes behind the headlines and legal proceedings to paint a varied and fascinating picture of how Britain was seen and adapted to (or not) by the people who came here looking for some kind of a better life.

Wills comes from a Irish family in which her parents emigrated to the UK, and this gives her legitimacy to write about these lives and other new lives in Britain, a new kind of history where she traces, after the introduction, quite movingly highlighting the different kinds of journeys people made to get to Britain, themes of the perceived characteristics of the immigrants – sometimes encapsulating all of them, sometimes specific to a particular group – and looks across the period at that aspect and how it changes. It also somehow traces these lives and writings basically chronologically over the period, from those first bachelors to family members and women’s new spending powers, set against the backdrop of how changes in legislation and politics affected these groups of people and their interaction with more indigenous folk (though of course hardly any of us in the UK are truly indigenous if you trace us back far enough).

Wills is very good and thoughtful on the wider themes and psychologies as well as the nitty-gritty of everyday life, and both aspects are fascinating. She talks of the temporal and geographical limbo people fall into when they move somewhere they think temporarily, intending to return home, then trapped by circumstance or even finding themselves not at home in either the old country or the mother country.

The racism and fear, with touches of anger at perceived welfare tourism, not calmed by rather patronising leaflets trying to explain we all have the same motivations and aspirations, is horribly and depressingly familiar and made me think that no one has really changed and society never will (however, there were people who welcomed their new neighbours then, much as there are people like me who value our diversity now, and we probably need to cling to that).

There are some amazing and surprising statistics in the book. Did you know that half of the passengers on the Windrush had been posted in the UK during the Second World War but then returned home, only to come back to seek a better post-war life? Or that in the 1950s, almost a sixth of the entire population of the Republic of Ireland was in the UK, and a far higher proportion of the working population?

Stories of her own family are skilfully woven in, giving another layer to the story, as we meet people from broadcasters to bachelors, lovers to brothers, people who stayed in their own community, worked in their own language and wrote in their own language to activists who took the US as an example and fought for change in the wider community. Some immigrants were less visible and faded from view, and this is most true perhaps of the European displaced persons, tested for infestations and humiliated, but assimilating while trying to hold on to their own cultures. Many voices are featured and differences as well as similarities brought up and examined.

A really vital book to read, but readable as well as informative, I hasten to add, in case I’ve made it look a bit dry!

Book review – Bernadine Evaristo – “Girl, Woman, Other” #amreading

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I had seen mention of this Booker longlisted then shortlisted then, of course, (joint) winner several times, and while the theme of following twelve, mainly black, women’s lives in 21st century Britain had appealed massively, I kept hearing that it was “in poetry” which did put me off. Then I bought one of her previous novels, “Mr Loverman” in Cornwall. THEN she won the split Booker and even though I was all poised to borrow Ali’s copy (Ali having started and put it aside in the summer but restarted and enjoyed it recently), but then I felt like I should somehow “encourage” Evaristo by buying the book. Even though she was clearly selling (in Foyles, there was a split table of the two winners, with equal space for both but more books gone on Evaristo’s side). It just felt right. So I did. By this time, I’d transcribed an interview with her and knew it read out loud well. But it was in poetry, would I be able to cope … However, spoiler alert: it’s not in poetry! It’s written in a sort of experimental, informal form, with sentences starting wherever on the page, but it’s perfectly readable, not too experimental and a very, very good read.

Bernadine Evaristo – “Girl, Woman, Other”

(19 October 2019)

This is just a marvellous book. We meet twelve women, loosely grouped into four sets of three who are related in some way, but throughout the book there are meetings or passings, and Chapter Five, “The After-party” and the Epilogue tie more strings together. It’s so beautifully done, and while I don’t want to give away any plot points that aren’t immediately discernible, I will share that at one point in my reading I gasped out loud and shouted, “Well played, Bernadine Evaristo, well played!” And messaged Ali, because she was the only person I knew who had read it and was immediately messageable.

The wonderful thing about this book is the insights into black British history it gives us – insights which white cisgender straight women like me can appreciate, insights in which black and othered women can surely see themselves reflected – a rare thing the more intersectional you get. I love the way it starts off tight inside London in one level of a cultured milieu and then spreads tentacles out far away, to America, and, more fascinating to me, the north of England, and a part-Ethiopian farmer in her 90s.

This book covers, variously and not exhaustively, straight and gay relationships, women and non-gender-binary people, race, class, pretension, domestic violence within same-sex relationships, parents, children, teachers, students, adoption, identity, education, conforming, rebelling, melding with the mainstream, having an embarrassing mum and dad, finding your feet at university, intersectionality, veiling, contraception, work, rape. But you know what it’s not: po-faced about Issues. In fact, the other thing I love about the book is its puncturing of bubbles of self-importance. This is done throughout the book, by characters to each other. Evaristo’s very much into showing the characters showing each other and themselves up rather than pointing it out for us, and it’s done very effectively and – crucially – amusingly. Yazz, the daughter of the once sidelined, now mainstream playwright and director Amma, has her own pretensions shown up by her university mates, for example.  Nzinga the activist who comes into Dominique and Amma’s lives is the most skewered, perhaps, with her exhortations to never wear black socks “(why would you step on your own people?)” or pants, which has Amma robustly turning on her. Similarly, Megan/Morgan learns a lot about gender and sex from Bibi but catches her out correcting them before they’ve learned everything and turns that mirror to face her.

I loved all the stories, but particularly those of Bummi, LaTisha, Megan/Morgan and Hattie. Bummi is a marvellous character, caught between her own Nigerian heritage and her daughter Carole’s need to cast off all her culture, or so it seems. She’s irresistable:

what is more, if you address me as Mother ever again I will beat you until you are dripping wet with blood and then I will hang you upside down over the balcony with the washing to dry

I be your mama

now and forver

never forget that, abi?

I learned a lot from this book. How there could come to be a part-Ethiopian Geordie of the generation above mine. How you can move from the sidelines to the mainstream but is it you or the mainstream that’s moved? How different families can look and behave. How business has to be done when there aren’t traditional ways to get funding or get ahead. How a transwoman can know she’s a woman even when “reject[ing] conformist gender bullshit as above, I still feel female, I’ve known it since like forever, for me it’s not about wanting to play with dolls, it goes much deeper than that” (p. 321). That’s the clearest explanation I’ve seen on how a cultural production like gender interplays with deeper identities of biological sex. This part of the book even bravely sets out the idea that “others might adopt a trans position as a political statement … it’s why women became political lesbians years ago” (p. 338), which is not something I’ve seen written down or really heard said before. From these very modern discussions we can move in an instant to banker Carole, not sure what kind of play she’s going to see:

the thought crossed her mind it might be the black lesbian sisterhood nod, she scrutinized them more closely, guessed many of them could be lesbians, even the ones wearing head-ties were wearing very practical shoes (p. 419)

There’s the othering, but there’s also a laugh in there. and that’s typical of this highly readable novel.

So from traditional storytelling of sometimes age-old stories to a very high standard with twists and turns that are expertly done to discussion of the very cutting edge – the bleeding edge – of gender politics, this book gives a snapshot of modern black women in all their guises, teachers to students, farmers to bankers, liberal arts-makers and transgressors to conservatives and Leave voters.

There are tantalising glimpses of the women Evaristo could have written about: transgender Bibi, Linda the film and TV props business owner. I’ve read that she considered including even more – perhaps a thousand – women, and I’d read that book, too.


Also read recently: “No Need to Ask” which is a history of the early maps of London’s Underground, the ones before the iconic diagrammatic map, written by David Leboff and Tim Demuth and acquired from Lorraine for my BookCrossing Secret Santa last year. Great maps which get more and more confusing as the lines proliferate, and thank goodness someone sorted it out! It’s the end of the month and I have too many posts left to write!

Book review – Garth Cartwright – “Going for a Song” #amreading @garthcart1

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You’ll have to wait for my review of “Girl, Woman, Other” (which I fairly ploughed through over the weekend) (spoiler alert: I loved it) as I’ve managed not to get round to writing up a review of this excellent read from the other end of my TBR. Why I read half the books I bought from Foyles with a gathering of book tokens in May 2018 almost immediately and am only now tackling the other half is just one of those mysteries. They’ll be going pretty quickly now, though, as I can’t access the up-to-date end of things behind a Terrible Pile. Anyway …

Garth Cartwright – “Going for a Song: A Chronicle of the UK Record Shop”

(22 May 2018, Foyles)

A good if exhaustive (not one for a fickle read but a book you need to sit down properly to) examination of UK record shops from their first inception to their last guttering out, or plucky survival in a few cases. It bobs around the years a bit as it takes themes for chapters from types of music as they arise and sees those genres through: I can’t really see how else it could have been done, but there is a little bit of repetition and cross-reference.

I learned a lot. It was interesting to find out that 78s were originally available in hardware and other shops, and I didn’t know that the album got its name from the practice of selling series of linked records (all a composer’s symphonies, for example) in a bound folder. Supercilious record shop staff have apparently been with us right from the start, and that’s recorded, however much of the history Cartwright documents is almost invisible in the public record – including the existence of a whole record shop, distribution and label-owning family, the Alis, and many of the shops features here, so he does an important job of making them known and saving what details there are. Lots of oral history and interviews flesh things out and nice connections are made between the known locations of musicians and the known or possible shops they frequented.

I was particularly interested in the Birmingham side of things and also the shops of Berwick Street, which I used to haunt in my London days. I was sad to learn of the demise of Cheapo, Cheapo, where I picked up many peculiar low-priced favourites, although I was never on any level of intimacy with its staff or owner as Cartwright clearly was. A massive labour of love, written from the inside and the outside, also filled with wonderful images of the shops in question and their ephemera.


I’m still reading Clair Wills’ “Lovers and Strangers” and have also been reorganising my bookshelves a bit, as I managed to score two tall “CD Rack” bookcases from a local charity shop in the week, which have fitted in the remaining 20cm-wide gaps in the house where a book storage item can fit. I now have all my Iris Murdochs, hardback and paperback, together, and a new collection of Sport and Nature upstairs. Iris Murdoch is on the landing, indeed!

 

Book review – Ian Jeffrey – “How to Read a Photograph” @Thamesandhudson @Shinynewbooks plus incomings

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The last of my reviews from the lovely Thames & Hudson’s Autumn catalogue came out on Shiny New Books this week.  Ian Jeffrey’s “How to Read a Photograph” takes the subjective matter of what is a good photograph and aims to answer it by showing us great photographs from a range of photographers from Fox Talbot to contemporary photography artists. For each we have a potted history and then a detailed examination of some seminal photos. There are old favourites and new artists to discover: this helped to cement my understanding of what I really like in a photograph. Reading it is a great learning experience and it’s an interesting read as well as a great reference book.

Read my full review here. Thank you to Thames & Hudson for sending me lovely books in return for an honest review.


When you find yourself downloading a photo and calling it October 2019 7 and it’s got more than one book in it, you know you’re in trouble.

I had to buy myself a new copy of Marianne Grabrucker’s “There’s a Good Girl”, about raising her daughter in the 1980s and noting all the examples of gendered behaviour and speech around her, after I read and reviewed “The Gender Agenda” (my review here), which riffs off this book, and then discovering I couldn’t find my own copy. I must have loaned it to a harrassed parent one day! I managed to score the exact Women’s Press copy I used to have (well the edition, not my actual copy; that would have been weird) from Abe Books and I am tempted to read it again now!

Taking a day out to Alderley Edge to meet one friend and accompany her to another friend’s house for lunch, a lovely forest walk and a long chatty lunch (thanks, Kerry!) didn’t stop Laura and me from darting into one charity shop on the rather well-groomed high street before I caught my train home. I grabbed Bill Jone’s “The Ghost Runner”, which is about the endurance runner, John Tarrant, who accidentally lost his amateur status but joined in races anyway. I’d heard about him from other books so had to get this for just £1 in the Age UK shop. I put Jo Brand’s proper autobiography (vol 2) back on the shelf and now I wish I’d picked it up, so I sense a return visit on the cards!

I have started reading “Girl, Woman, Other” and my goodness, I’m enjoying it, however it was too large a hardback to fit in my handbag for the journey, so I got on with Clair Wills’ “Lovers and Strangers” which is a history of post-war immigration into the UK, and very good it is, too, covering all kinds of people, from Irish people and Displaced Persons to the more familiar Windrush travellers.

 

 

Book review – Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay – “The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die” #NetGalley

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Knowing I was still teetering on the edge of 80% reviewed status on NetGalley, I took my Kindle downstairs and opened this book to start reading over breakfast. Imagine my surprise as the percentage at the bottom of the page racked up – it only took me a little over an hour to read this very short novel. I know I read fast, but that makes it short even for me. This was one of a number of books I won back in June – I’m safely back at my decent percentage reviewed now and looking forward to winning my 100 books read badge when I’ve completed everything else on my bookshelf.

Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay – “The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die”

(NetGalley, 25 June 2019)

A most peculiar novella, written in alternating chapters highlighting a woman and her daughter, which was pretty confusing as the daughter started her first chapter without having been introduced in her mother’s part of the book.

We see how things change for generations of women in a small North Bengal town. From a poor family herself, Somlata lives with her husband with his family, once rich, now fallen on hard times and living off selling their gold and land. Haunted by the ghost of her aunt-in-law, who whispers poison into her ears, and was a child bride, widowed at 12, Somlata is able to open a shop with her husband and use it to restore the family’s fortunes – the running of the shop and manipulation of her male relatives is fun to read. Her daughter rides a bicycle in the street and goes on a picnic with her schoolfriends and teachers.

The ghost is fun and the whole family set-up would be interesting but it just comes to a sudden screeching halt. Others have criticised the plain language; to me, that’s the language of R.K.Narayan and the like, but this would have so much more to give if it was just filled out a bit more and given more flesh on its bones.

I received this book via NetGalley from John Murray in return for an honest review.

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