Book review – Anne Tyler – “If Morning Ever Comes” #AnneTyler2021

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The first book in my Reading Anne Tyler in 2021 project and welcome to anyone who is reading along with me, catching up or finding this ages after. Please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads. All the reviews I am alerted to will be added to the project page when I can, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

My copy of this one was bought in April 2000 and read in May of that year (you can tell this is pre- me meeting my husband, as the gap between acquisition and reading gradually widened when I started seeing him to its current 12-13 months, where it has remained for many years now!). I recalled nothing of this book upon re-reading it.

It’s got a weird cover image of Edwardian ladies with parasols which left me confused until I was almost the whole way through the book; I still don’t really feel it’s representative of the book! It’s an American edition which I amassed when I was busy collecting her, having read my first one in 1997, but I’m not sure where I acquired it from now. Which edition did you read?

Anne Tyler – “If Morning Ever Comes”

(11 April 2000)

Although it is maybe a little patchy and uneven in places, this first novel is full of Anne Tyler’s later work, a sort of Overture (as indeed I remember Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net” being when I read that as part of my re-read of her novels). It’s quiet, it features a quirky main character who has trouble fitting into the world, and most importantly centres on a family that doesn’t talk about anything:

All I’m trying to do is stop one more of those amazing damned things that go on in this family and everyone takes for granted, pretends things are still all right and the world’s still right-side up. The most amazing things go on in this family, the most amazing things, that no one else would allow, and this family just keeps on- (p. 190)

… at which point the speaker is, of course, cut off and silenced.

People do things almost by accident, in a dream, coming back from college for an unspecified amount of time, getting married, carrying on a probably inappropriate family tradition. Most of the actual action takes place off-camera, and I recall that being a common AT feature – even when a husband comes home to collect his errant wife, our point-of-view character takes himself off and has to rely on reportage the next day. Some pivotal scenes are described directly, but they’re a side-scene to the main event (I’m thinking of the bagpiper at the time of the father of the family’s death here). It’s an effective way, if a slightly odd way, of doing things, showing how families and communities absorb events, perhaps.

Ben Joe is one of our classic male AT characters, awkward, not great with the girls, liking things to be arranged. His mother seems cold and distanced and as if she doesn’t care what happens in her marriage, and the rather marvellous Gram livens things up with her odd cooking, age-old bickering rows with her daughter-in-law and hilarious one-upmanship over grandchildren that flourishes in one scene that’s also a touching portrayal of the grandparent/grandchild relationship. People lose relatives somewhat haphazardly and Iris Murdoch might say contingency is everywhere in accidental encounters and links. And the language reads pure Anne Tyler somehow – when Ben Joe is reading all the bits of the paper really early on, we get this passage, which I think would fit into any of her novels:

He yawned and then set to picking out a ring set, ending with a large, oddly shaped diamond and a wedding band that was fine except for a line of dots at each edge that bothered him. (p. 10)

I loved all the detail, the community that remembers far back and changes (though in a different location from other books) and accepts eccentric families, incursions of strangers and their different ways of speaking and being, the details of Ben Joe’s sisters’ personalities being shown up and maintained through their lives in how they do their hair or deal with standing up suddenly while holding a needle. It’s a very domestic book in some ways, placing importance on how a family exists in a house and how the members take that with them if they ever leave.

That weird cover picture comes from one passage where Ben Joe talks about imagining his family, further back in time than they actually are, waiting for him. I still don’t think it’s that representative, but there you go! I thoroughly enjoyed this quiet novel, reading with a mounting feeling of anxiety for Ben Joe’s studies and future that is only partly resolved. I would have liked to know more of the lives of the Black families from the train, but this was a first novel published when the author was 22 and very good in those circumstances.


Do let me know if you’ve read along, joined me for this one or any others at any time, or come to this later and have thoughts on it. All comments welcome at whatever time, no pressure! Do visit the project page to see how it’s all going!

 

Book review – Margery Sharp – “Rhododendron Pie” @DeanStPress

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Margery Sharp Rhododendron PieI was really excited to find out that Dean Street Press were republishing in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint Margery Sharp’s first novel, “Rhododendron Pie”, as well as several of her others. While I know people who have read this novel, it was always almost impossible to find, and although it was on my “look out for these when in secondhand book shops” list, I didn’t think I’d ever happen upon it. You can see all the delights that have just come out on the Furrowed Middlebrow blog – they have also kindly sent me an ebook of Stella Gibbons’ “The Pink Front Door” which I will read and review soon, and have concentrated just on these two writers this time around. Of the Margery Sharps, I’m delighted to say I’ve only so far read “The Foolish Gentlewoman“, so I will be collecting the rest of these, including this one in hard copy, as I go, too.

Such a pretty cover, too, which sums up the setting of most of the book, with the sweet frame that all the books in this imprint share.

Margery Sharp – “Rhododendron Pie”

(01 November 2020)

What a delight this book is, and not a pale reflection of later work as some first novels are, but a fully formed excellent read, subtle, funny and moving. We meet two ancient Sussex families, the Laventies, shunned but gossiped about in the village for their poor entertaining and lack of community spirit, proudly standing apart with their superior intellects, morals and aesthetics, and the cheerful chaotic Gayfords who Ann, the youngest Laventie, grows up being taught to despise for their picnics and heartiness.

The faultline between the two families is subtle, and needs teasing out – and of course the practical and jolly Gayfords, who do also know how to stand up for themselves, do tease it out in the end:

[It’s] one of your family methods. Every now and then you do something deliberately ordinary, but in inverted commas, so to speak, just to see what it feels like.

They’re not Bohemian as such, the country setting allowing for eccentricities in families, but they’re certainly free-thinking and pretentious, no one really having a job but living as art (Elizabeth does write essays for literary magazines; Dick flirts with being a sculptor, but when the scales are lifted from her eyes, Ann realises how poor an artist he is). Ann as an adult finds it ironic that of all the young women in the country who might be presented with the option to live in sin, she’s about the only one whose family would heartily approve … but does she, when it comes down to it?

We open and close the book with children’s birthday parties, and while Ann seems to toe the family line through the first part of the novel, her reaction to the flower pie which is a family tradition she inherited from her older siblings says everything about her. She’s been trained to start her sentences with “but”

because it made them sound translated from the French. Why this should have been an advantage was too subtle to explain.

(how delicious that is!), however her natural vitality and love for simpler things is always fighting to get to the forefront. As she experiences a bit more of the world – a trip to London, staying in love interest Gilbert’s friend’s impossibly arty flat; a couple of innocent outings with John Gayford and encounters with his peculiar Aunt Cecilia, and a wedding that moves her unexpectedly – her true nature gradually dawns on her.

We suspect Mrs Laventie, made an invalid by a riding accident and existing under a series of beautiful throws, brought back by her husband after each of his indiscretions, might just be the saving of her daughter when she falls ill and Ann – and only Ann – finds out just what goes into running this big house of luxury and aesthetics – oh, yes, hard work and elbow grease. So everything is set up with little clues so very competently and beautifully.

The side characters, from the flapper waif, Delia to John’s enormous family and the villagers, are beautifully drawn, too, even if some of them are ‘types’, and Aunt Cecilia is a joy:

Did you hear she ran into a charabanc the other day on the way to Arundel and the magistrate said he was sorry to learn that the driver had had to complain of her language? Rather a triumph, I call it. She asked after you.

You start wanting something for Ann that she doesn’t know she wants herself, and bit by bit, village event by village event, we build to it. Margery Sharp was already a master of her art in her first novel, and it’s an absolute delight.

Thank you to Dean Street Press for sending me an ebook of this lovely novel in return for an honest review.

Book review – Ryan la Sala – “Be Dazzled” #NetGalley @Ryality @Sourcebooks

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First book of the year finished a day or so ago, so I’m already behind on my reviews – maybe it’s a good thing that I was reading three books over the turn of the year, or where would I be? I am trying to keep my NetGalley books up to date with the new ones, and this YA novel set in the world of competitive cosplay was published yesterday so is brand new and lovely!

Ryan la Sala – “Be Dazzled”

(24 October 2020)

We meet 17 year old Raffy, cosplay creator, with a memorable opening at the Boston Convention Centre; he’s here for the Con of his life, taking part with his friend May in a competition that could secure his financial freedom through sponsorships, but if his mother knew …

Evie is a conceptual artist who runs a studio and gallery (some of the funniest scenes feature her and her artist friends although they’re not all as flaky as they seem) and absolutely despises crafts. So while Evie really doesn’t care that Raffy’s gay, she would be right onto the fact that he’s crafting all day and night and seeing a football player who is incredibly conventional. Said Luca has the opposite kind of parents, so he’s hiding his sexuality AND his increasing interest in crafting. Oh, and they broke up a few months ago in this dual time-narrative book where the two timelines converge in the last few chapters.

I was fascinated to learn about the details of the cosplay costume-making hobby – there were lots of descriptions of the process, including all the designing and making and presenting on social media streams. A world I knew nothing about, and I always like to learn from my reading! The crafting supplies shops that feature heavily have all the standard traditional crafting stuff but also things like thermoplastics and the constituents of wigs for the increase in cosplayers using the shops.

The plot is a bit artificial but it is a novel, and it is a YA novel, where things are often that bit simpler and there are more important things than a totally believable plot. It didn’t take away from it, anyway. Yes, of course Raffy is forced to engage with his ex, and we know that from the blurb, but it is well done. I liked that the powerful adult figures in the story, apart from two of the judges, were women, and I also liked that there is a lot about friendship and what that means, whether it’s setting boundaries or hiding an entire party for someone (that, to be fair, you instigated) when their mum gets home. May, who steps in when Raffy needs a partner for two-person cosplays, has her own agency and job as a comic book creator and I loved the shout-out to her just when Raffy could have forgotten her. She doesn’t get dumped for Luca, and in fact inserts herself happily into the narrative at the end.

There are interesting descriptions of Raffy and Luca’s relationship – Luca is controlling and needy but Raffy becomes aware of this and also that there is more than just crafting. It looks towards the end that Luca has grown and learned, so we can feel hopeful about at least their friendship moving forward. I’m glad that the bits of not-quite-gaslighting he did were not rewarded. The messages are subtle but important.

A book that cheers, that celebrates being your own person, and that also celebrates hard work and ingenuity as well as attractiveness and creativity.

Thank you to Sourcebooks Fire for making this book available to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

State of the TBR January 2021 and reading stats / best books of 2020 #AnneTyler2021

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It’s finally time! I never do my Books of the Year until the first day of the new year, just in case I read something a-maz-ing in the bit between Christmas and the New Year. I’m aware you’ve already had a book review to read today – I meant to write that yesterday after finishing the book but we were having our boiler replaced and I was sitting in my study with two cats and reading on a chair rather than typing on a swiss ball. So one review for 2020 came out in 2021 which is untidy but unavoidable. More horror to come when you see how  many books carried over into this year when I claim I like to finish a book with the end of the year …

So here is my TBR as it stood at the end of December. Actually not too bad, although in one of a run of slight disappointments (I mean, having no hot water or central heating for a week over Christmas makes light of reading issues but still) I had not achieved one-shelf-TBR status or even “I have read all the books I received for Christmas last year” status as I had hoped. But I was down to one and a half shelves and no piles.

This is after I added all my lovely acquisitions from Christmas (they go on the back shelf and everything else shuffles round). So it all still fits, right??? I have added “Digging up Britain” to the pile to read first – this is a lovely review book I’ve received and probably not mentioned. Anyway, there it is, State of the TBR.

Even worse than all this excess is the fact that I’ve found myself reading THREE books over the turn of the year. Three.

“Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed” by Catriona Davies, bought at the Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance in October 2019, is a great read but a bit raw for dinner time, hence starting a NetGalley book published today, Ryan La Sala’s “Be Dazzled”, set in the fascinating world of cosplay crafting. “Wilding” by Isabella Tree is my latest readalong with best friend Emma; we started it on New Year’s Eve and it will take us through a few months I would expect.

Up next is of course my first Anne Tyler of my (re) reading project for this year! The project page is here and I will add links to people’s reviews to the page as we go and enjoy the chat in the comments, too.  I’ll be reading two of the novels a month, in order of publication, adding in the final two at the end of the year (once I’ve got “Redhead at the Side of the Road” in paperback to match the others!

This is a deeply odd copy of “If Morning Ever Comes” which I bought in April 2000 – what’s with all the Edwardian ladies. Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to re-reading this one which I must have read a few months after acquisition. I hope a few of my readers will be joining me in one or two if not all of them!

2020 stats

For the second time, I’ve kept breakdowns of various book stats. I will try to compare them with 2019 as I go.

In 2020 I read 159 (116 in 2019) books, of which 83 (62) were fiction and 76 (59) non-fiction. So just a bit more fiction, unsurprisingly as I hid in some when times got tough! 94 (79) were by women, 56 (35) by men, 8 (1) by both (multiple authors) and 1 (1) by a non-gender-binary person.

Where did my books come from? Lots more from bookshops online this year, which was down to the pandemic with the new ones I read, I would imagine (not just Amazon, but Hive and Bookshop.org). Lots of gifts still.

bookshop online 31
gift 26
netgalley 21
charity shop 18
publisher 17
from publisher 11
bookshop physical 8
bookshop online secondhand 8
bought from publisher 5
Bookcrossing 4
bookshop secondhand physical 3
lent 2
book signing event 1
author 1
from shelves 1
won 1
bought from author 1

Most books by far were set in the UK 99 (74) with the US second 24 (17) and then 12 other countries plus  fantasy worlds and the whole world.

I read books by 76 (53) different publishers, the most common being Virago (13, down to Angela Thirkells) and Dean Street Press (10 – review copies (thank you!) and gifts) .

I read most books published in 2020 (39), which is down to Shiny and NetGalley. I read books from many different years, recent ones a lot but a little bump from 2009 and 2010. All decades from the 1890s were represented.

Onto diversity of authors and themes. 79.25% (88%) of the authors I read were white (as far as I could tell), with 12% People of Colour (I put everyone who was non-white in this category after a lot of fretting) and 1.26% a mix of White and POC authors. The UK is apparently 87% / 13% so I was pleased to increase my diversity count this year. 121 authors were British and 26 American, the others from 9 other countries or a mix. Out of the 159 books I read, I assigned a diversity theme to 43 of them (39/116 last year but I changed what I recorded, not counting Women’s Issues), so 21 (8) about race, 8 (6) LGBTQI+ issues and 10 covering both, 3 disability and 1 LGBTQI+ and disability, none about class. This doesn’t meant such themes didn’t come up in other books, just that they weren’t the main theme. As I wished last year, my intersectional reading has gone up.

Top 16 books of 2020

And finally, my top sixteen! Well, that represents just over 10% of my reading, so I think that’s OK. Links to reviews. 12 women and 4 men (about right), 10 non-fiction and 6 fiction (although I read a lot of fiction this year and it was all good, a lot of it was light escapist reads). These are in order of reading in fiction then non-fiction, not of rating!

Abi Daré – “The Girl with the Louding Voice” – astounding, poignant and optimistic portrait of a young girl creating herself

Bernadine Evaristo – “Mr Loverman” – what a memorable character, but his wife gets her own story, too

Candice Carty-Williams – “Queenie” – you love her, you fear for her, you grow with her

Brit Bennett – “The Vanishing Half” – updating “Passing” for the 21st century, an astounding work

Dorothy Evelyn Smith – “Miss Plum and Miss Penny” – the dark undertones beneath staid village life

Paul Magrs – “Christmassy Tales” – I’ve so enjoyed my Magrsathon this year, but this was an outstanding collection of stories I absolutely loved

Lennie Goodings – “A Bite of the Apple” – her story and the story of Virago Press

Helen Lewis – “Difficult Women” – a great work of synthesis and reclamation of women’s stories

Margot Lee Shetterly – “Hidden Figures” – so much more than the film, but complementing it beautifully

Emma Dabiri – “Don’t Touch my Hair” – the personal and the historical come together: I learnt so much from this book

Philip Marsden – “Rising Ground” – love of landscape and fascinating information

Jacky Klein (with Grayson Perry) – “Grayson Perry” – the definitive massive book of his career, with input from the artist

Jon Bloomfield – “Our City” – and my city, too, a magnificent work on the immigrant populations of Birmingham

Stephen Rutt – “Wintering” – made me think of geese in a new way

Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené – “Slay in your Lane” – such an important survey of young Black women’s lives and experiences, done so well

Reni Eddo-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” – a readalong with Emma that benefitted from a slower read – uncomfortable in places; vital

Honourable mention to the lovely publishers Dean Street Press for their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint (one represented here; many more read and enjoyed) and British Library Publishing for their Women Writers series – both are reliably excellent and I’m also grateful for the review copies as well as the gifts from friends, it’s been a year with big stand-outs but there’s a joy in knowing you can go for an imprint and know you will have a good time. Thank you for that.


So there we go. I know you’ve already published your books of the year if you’re a book blogger and I promise I’ll look at them soon! Happy new year!

Book review – Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (eds.) – “Loud Black Girls” @4thestatebooks @wmcollinsbooks

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I will be doing my Books of the Year post later on tonight – promise – but I wanted to make sure I’d got this last book I finished in 2020 reviewed and shared first. This is the follow-up to “Slay in Your Lane”, which I bought to read first (and did – review here), just showing once more that being given free books via NetGalley doesn’t undermine book-buying activities, and is a set of 20 essays by young Black woman writers asking “What next?” Who could resist asking to read this one?

Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (eds.) – “Loud Black Girls”

(14 July 2020 – NetGalley)

Where “Slay in Your Lane” memorably and excellently laid out the societal position of young Black women and the barriers and hurdles they face, as well as the ways in which they have banded together for support and to build each other up, most notably as social media has come to the fore, this takes a wide range of women writers, activitsts, poets, journalists, etc., to talk about their view on the state of the nation or various topics that are most important to them. From people ‘returning’ from the UK to live in a Nigeria they weren’t born in to portrayals of women in Black Panther via descriptions of initiatives to deal with violence and the fear of violence in Black urban communities to thoughts on turning 30, there’s something here for everyone. Writers include people involved with the gal-dem collective (see my review of their book here) and other collective activists as well as those writing more in isolation.

The introduction by Bernadine Evaristo highlights that the days of young Black women being silenced are hopefully now over and that they can be loud and proud without being shushed and squashed. She talks about other books that have come out and been important (most of which I was glad to see I have read, such as “Don’t Touch my Hair” by Emma Dabiri (review) and “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” by Reni Eddo Lodge (review) as well as “Brit(ish)” by Afua Hirsch (on the TBR).  Elizabeth and Yomi then talk about how the book came about, and pushing forward the idea that it’s not about helping people find their voice so much as empowering them to use it. So this book is both a celebration and an honest assessment of the state of things, but it’s a move forward into the future where “Slay” was about the present.

Then we’re on to the essays. I can’t write about every single essay, but will pull out a few here that really made an impression. There is no filler in the whole collection, however. Abioloa Oni talks fascinatingly about her experience of living in the UK having grown up – and become confident in herself as a result – in Nigeria, visiting several times then making the move over here: “I began to appreciate the privilege of growing up in a country where I had been the norm. Being in a system like that during my formative years had cloaked me in self-confidence”. Fiona Rutherford’s piece on taking control of your finances digs deep into how she got into a financial mess, how she got herself out of it and how vital financial literacy is, especially for Black women.

Jendella Benson writes in detail about her place in the digital revolution of social media and how it helped her find people like her and group together for strength, charting developments from anonymous chat rooms to the image-heavy social media of today: “From this digital den, real-world change emerged” through sharing of the #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and #oscarsSoWhite hashtags, among many others. Musician Nao has an interesting view on Brexit as a vehicle for change as inequalities and racism have been brought out into the open and can now be discussed – provocative but why shouldn’t she be? Phoebe Parke takes a personal and wide-ranging look at being mixed race and dealing with questions, ‘coming out’ and the Meghan Markle effect and there’s more excellent provocative writing from Siana Bangura with her “Black Feminist 10-point (ish) Programme for Transformation” in which she argues the terms POC and BAME should be replaced with GMP (Global Majority Peoples), considering that Black and Brown people actually make up the majority of the world’s population: “The moment you no longer speak of yourself as a minority or someone powerless is the moment your oppressor realises you are conscious of your oppression”. Her final point is no less powerful, and one I will seek to follow up in my reading:

Let’s face it, this struggle is a lifelong one – and that is not a loss. What is a loss is if we can never find time for joy along the way. I’ve had enough of the consumption of Black grief, pain, sorrow and strife. Striving for Black joy must be central in our quest. It is foundational for any vision of freedom. As much as there is suffering, cruelty and calamity everywhere, there is also resistance, there is also love, and there is always us.

What a great collection of essays: highly recommended, although I also suggest reading “Slay in Your Lane” first to gain a full understanding of the context in which most of these writers are producing their essays.

Thank you to William Collins / 4th Estate Books for allowing me to access a copy via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book reviews – two light Christmas reads from Jane Linfoot and Cressida McLaughlin #amreading #bookblogger

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Four Christmas novelsBack in November I ordered a little pile of Christmas books to read over the festive period. But then I didn’t read enough of my actual TBR and Kindle (esp NetGalley) books to really be able to commit to reading all four of them, so I’ve put two aside for next year and just read these two. I did of course also read Paul Magrs’ “Christmassy Tales” which was a stand-out read for me that I will re-read next year. I’ve ended up saving the two books set on Scottish islands, so that will make a nice pairing next year – and who knows, I might get the other books in their series in the meantime (only if I’m a Very Good Girl for at least the first half of the year …)

The reason I say that is that one of these books is a standalone (or possibly the first in a series) while the other is the second in a series, and I didn’t find the latter as emotionally engaging – I suspect you do need to have read the first one first to really care about the characters.

Jane Linfoot – “A Cosy Christmas in Cornwall”

(November 2020)

Jane Linfoot doesn’t shy away from putting her characters through trauma and this one is no exception – our heroine Ivy is still recovering from an awful car accident, scarred physically and psychologically, and the only way she can cope is by throwing herself into doing things for other people. So she’s down in Cornwall, providing the advance party at a seaside castle which she’s going to style the whatsits out of for her best friend’s sister’s perfect Insta Christmas. But TeamChristmas comes up against the grumpy caretaker, more used to other kinds of guests, and a battle ensues to make things pretty before the guests arrive. When they do, we end up with testosterone-laden baking competitions, a merry band of silver surfers and a very cross client. It’s all a whirl and very amusing, but with jolts back to reality when Ivy reacts badly to certain elements but has to keep her feelings to herself. Cleverly, Ivy and her love interest have met before, so chemistry has been simmering, allowing quick developments over the Christmas period.

I loved the mentions of Santa, Mr Santa and their Christmas pony sleigh and the wedding shop itself from the Little Wedding Shop by the Sea books. Less lovely was the boiler going, as I was reading this all wrapped up after our own boiler had gone! But it is a classic Christmas event, so I will forgive the author that one! There is a dog and the dog is fine.

Loads of details and a gentle poke at the idea everything has to be picture perfect, with a good side helping of doing your own thing and being the best you you can make this a satisfying and jolly read. And it’s set in Cornwall, by the sea!

Cressida McLaughlin – “The Canal Boat Cafe Christmas”

(November 2020)

This is in a series and there has been a lot to contend with in the first book, including a fire and some other trauma and the main character, Summer, inheriting her mum’s canal boat cafe and deciding to run it herself, after running off with a group of travelling canal boat dwellers, and getting together with hunky wildlife photographer Mason.

Now Summer has decided she wants to make things more formal with Mason but before she can formulate her plans, she’s invited by those rovers to go down to Little Venice in Camden to attend a Christmas market. Will there be intrigue from an ex of Mason’s trying to make trouble? Of course. Will there be ice on the canal? There’s also lots of lovely detail about running a canal boat cafe, some lovely friendships, some peculiar drinking venues and two distracted people forgetting to communicate with each other … oh, and a certain larger gentleman with a white beard and twinkly eyes! And two dogs, which are fine.

One annoyance I had (which I don’t recall from this author’s Cornish Cream Tea Bus novels) is that the book was originally published as two short e-books, and half-way through this one we get a wodge of repetitive exposition which is there for if you are reading the second one without the first or a while afterwards. It wouldn’t have taken much editing to excise this and it jerks the reader into a bit of confusion and a lot of thinking how the publisher has worked on their monetising. it’s quite hard to find the correct editions of the Cream Tea Bus so I’m assuming the same will happen with this one – so watch out.

Otherwise, an undemanding and romantic book with the realities of canal boat life firmly to the fore and a nice Christmas read.


I’m getting back to non-Christmassy books for a bit now. Have you read any good ones?  And sorry to bombard everyone with reviews but I don’t like having reviews hanging over from one year to the next! I still have a Christmas acquisitions post to write, and my Best Of 2020 (and stats) will come out on 1 January, just in case I finish something a maz ing on New Year’s Eve!

 

Book review – Mary Essex – “Tea Is so Intoxicating” #BLwomenwriters @BL_Publishing #bookbloggers

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This is one of the British Library’s new, beautiful Women Writers reissues, which I was fortunate enough to be sent by the publisher – I have been a little lax in getting to it and reviewing it, for which I apologise. It was an excellent, quirky read, with the usual excellent additional material you can expect from this reprint series. I have “O, the Brave Music” to read and will get to that as soon as I can.

Mary Essex – “Tea is so Intoxicating”

(29 August 2020)

It’s always interesting to have a book with an entirely unsympathetic main character – or a person who you assume is the main character, in this case Commander David Tompkins, who has never developed an attractive character or the knack of getting on with people. However, this and his one adventure into matters of the heart notwithstanding, first he runs off with someone’s wife, then he determines to start a tea house, with no experience or bonhomie, against the express wishes of said wife and the friends from whom he tries to get money, which is bound to fail. Oh, dear! However, it turns out that Germayne, the stolen wife, is really the central character, and while she’s pretty ineffectual, you do have to worry for her and like her, with her inappropriate woolly stockings and drooping hems. Because it’s set in a village (and I do so love a book set in a village) there is also a bluff pub landlord, a farmer and a termagant lady of the manor, as well as a retired colonial officer, and we also have introduced what can only be described as someone who purports to be a dolly-bird while actually being a calculating woman of steel, and Germayne’s daughter, a terrible bobby-soxer waiting to be released into society. And is Germayne’s first husband going to stand by and see her ruined?

The author was hugely prolific under a number of pen-names and she handles her content skillfully and confidently, with a slightly flat and artless narrative voice that I really liked. She has the skill to drop in a character or event then come back to it chapters later.

The book comes with a 1950s timeline, a biography of the author and a preface, as well as an afterword by series consultant Simon Thomas which takes in the author and the history of tea shops, making this a great package. It’s another pretty book, too, with French flaps and a pattern and silhouette. These really do make lovely gifts.

Thank you very much to British Library Publishing for sending me a print copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Book review – Jonathan Gornall – “How to Build a Boat” #amreading

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I’m terribly behind in my reviewing: I finished this one near the start of the month but seem to be doing everything out of order. This is a book I bought in one of my favourite bookshops – the Edge of the World bookshop in Penzance, last time we were down there in October last year. This photo is the one I took of all my purchases from that trip – I note I read the Jo Brand really quickly (I think I started it on the train home) and “Mr Loverman” was read in February this year, but “On the Marsh” very recently. I have “Wilding” all set up to read with Emma, and “Homesick” I’ve just started, and the other one is this one. Not TOO bad?

So, the last book I reviewed, “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” confounded my expectations in one way. This one was different from what I expected in a different way …

Jonathan Gornall – “How to Build a Boat”

(03 October 2019, Edge of the World Bookshop)

This is subtitled “A Father, His Daughter and the Unsailed Sea” and the back cover implied it would be all about an unskilled man learning how to work with wood and make a small sailing boat. Which it was, but a lot of it was about his misadventures trying to row across the Atlantic in a former life (which was fine) and his autobiography, life as a journalist and excitement at becoming a father for the second time aged 58. This was sweet, and the autobiographical bits about his relationship with his mother were resolved during the progress of the book, but I’d have liked more about the actual building of the boat – which is typical of me and my dislike for too much personal stuff in such books, and the author was probably exhorted to add more of that.

The technical bits were fun, although they soon got so complex that at least some sort of line drawing or diagram somewhere in the book apart from the nice woodcut on the front cover would have been useful. The personalities around boat-building in his local area are interesting, and I liked the writing technique of starting and finishing the book with him poised with a hose, choosing between two methods of checking whether the boat is seaworthy. But I can’t say I massively engaged with this one as much as I’d hoped.

Book review – Reni Eddo-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” #DiverseDecember

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This is such an important book, on all those diversity lists that have been coming out of course; I had had it on my wishlist for a while and bought it with a voucher early on in lockdown when my photo group were doing a lot of lovely pay it forward gifts and I received one for a bookshop. I then didn’t read it for a while, but I’m glad I had the delay, because what I ended up doing was reading it alongside my best friend Emma from early October to early December. We have been having Reading Night on a Thursday through lockdown, reading a chapter of a book in our separate cities but at the same time, with a Facebook Messenger conversation going on. We started with “Rewild Yourself” and we took our time, sometimes having a video chat if we really wanted to talk, sometimes not managing to slot it in. But reading the book slowly like this really allowed me time to think about what I’d been reading and its relevance to my life and circles and what I could maybe do about things.

Reni Eddo-Lodge – “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”

(28 April 2020 – bought with voucher for Topping & Company from Helen)

Lots of people have read this, of course, and a few people have talked about feeling defensive about what they read, so I tried to read it with an open mind and an attitude of learning and acceptance, rather than, “Yes, but, yes, but”. This came across most about the chapter on feminism, and while I was never part of the “movement”, having fallen between two stools (or perhaps waves!) due to my age, I could see there that work I’ve done with a feminist lens had some major sins of omission. I’m not going to lambast myself for my actions, but merely try to learn, and I was relieved to work out that my sins have indeed been of omission rather than commission. I was also very pleased to find some positive suggestions for action, something I’ve been searching for and hadn’t really expected to find here, listed so clearly.

Of course the book comes from that famous blog post where Eddo-Lodge laid out the idea that she was so sick of people talking over her, denying their and others’ racism, denying institutional racism, that she was just giving up speaking to White people about race at all. She does qualify this in the Preface:

I’m not talking to white people about race unless I absolutely have to. If there’s something like a media or conference appearance that means that someone might hear what I’m saying and feel less alone, then I’ll participate. But I’m no longer dealing with people who don’t want to hear it, wish to ridicule it, and, frankly, don’t deserve it. (p. xii)

The reaction she got to the original blog post inspired her to write a book picking up various themes and strands – and this new paperback edition also has an Aftermarth section which talks optimistically of the “renaissance of black critical thought and culture” and also in a British context, rather than having to “[rely] heavily on the American narrative as a tool to find ourselves” (both p. 235). This book was published and the new edition came out way before George Floyd’s murder and the huge increase in Black Lives Matter narratives and purchases by well-meaning allies: it is useful to be reminded that many of those books on those many lists were out there, waiting for us, when we went searching them out, and so many more have been written and published and promoted since. Now it’s our job to read those books and share about them.

This book is just so useful. First we are given a background to the racism of today with the Histories chapter, reminding us of the American slave trade and Britain’s role in it, leading into Eddo-Lodge’s own search for more information on Black people in Britain after slavery, which leads into her looking into Black History Month, how it was set up and how it differs from the US version. There’s lots of this positive information and it’s interesting to consider that I knew quite a lot about the bad stuff (the 1919 race riots, the systematic setting up of an atmosphere of discrimination for those who sought to move here quite legitimately, etc.) but not about the establishment of Black History Month or Dr Moody of Peckham who founded the first campaigning organisation for Black people, the League of Coloured Peoples, in 1931. She looks into perspectives on riots (or uprisings) and how the racism inherent in our society

does not erupt from nothing, rather it is embedded in British society. It’s at the very core of how the state is set up. It’s not external. It’s in the system. (p. 56}

A quick pause to say this is not the book I thought it was. I thought it was one long, well-argued polemic from a personal perspective. But it’s a lot more than that: a survey of history and sociology, heavily referenced and based on lots of different sources. I have purchased and read all sorts of different books and just thought this was what it was not (not surprised a Black writer writes in this way of course, in case anyone has read that into that).

The chapter on the system looks deeply at Stephen Lawrence’s murder and the institutional racism and corruption that led to the huge delays in getting him justice. I knew quite a lot about this, but there was still a lot I didn’t know about, and it’s so important to have this example after looking at the historical context. Here, the personal does jump in and shock us – Eddo-Lodge notes that she was 3 when Stephen Lawrence died and 22 when two of his killers were jailed. The wider context is looked at and shamed and shares information about Black children’s chances (or lack of) in education and then work, a condensed version of what I also read recently in “Slay in Your Lane” but is worth repeating for different audiences. Eddo-Lodge also shares her own journey from being suspicious of positive discrimination to accepting the need for it – a brave thing to include, and good evidence of people’s ability to change their mind. This chapter ends with a powerful call to action:

In order to dismantle unjust, racist structures, we must see race. We must see who benefits from their race, who is disproportionately impacted by negative stereotypes about their race, and two who power and privilege is bestowed upon – earned or not – because of their race, their class, and their gender. (p. 85)

I can’t really go on to describe the whole rest of the book in detail as this will be the longest post ever. Eddo-Lodge explains white privilege, while honestly sharing where she is an insider, for example only realising about barriers to people living with mobility issues or parents/guardians with buggies when she tried to take a bicycle on public transport. I did love this honesty and humility that shone through the book (as I’d expect from any writer). This bravery extends when she seeks to offer a balanced view by contacting the vile right-winger, Nick Griffin to ask him questions about his “Fear of a Black planet” as she puts it, in an effort to understand where these views come from.

The famous chapter on feminism and its rejection of intersectionality was shocking to read, and I wish I had been involved in the actual movement – although would I have done anything? I am uncomfortably aware that I am pretty sure my research for my postgrad on sources of information for women experiencing domestic violence, which had a feminist lens, did not take account of race as it should have. Hopefully as I say below, sharing and discussing texts that do have an intersectional element (i.e. look at the intersecting issues when someone is living with two or more characteristics that make them more vulnerable to prejudice and institutional harm, such as being Black and working class, working class and disabled, Asian and female, etc.) will hopefully help to start to redress that. Again, I salute Eddo-Lodge for her personal and political honesty and for the call to action for feminism to embrace intersectionality. Talking of class, I (and Emma) got a bit lost in the new research on the classes of Britain, not being able to locate ourselves, there, but the chapter on race and class wasn’t there for us, but to show that intersection, too.

As I mentioned above, I was surprised and cheered to find a section on what White people can do to be anti-racist and allies – a list of positive, clear, visible things, such as taking on administrative or financial assistance to groups doing vital work while leaving their running to the people actually affected, intervening in bystander situations and talking to other White people about racism issues (which Em and I did a lot while reading this book together, very revealingly and interestingly, and which I’m trying to do by continuing to showcase books like this with detailed reviews on this blog – I don’t of course know the demographics of my readership, but I know a lot of my commenters are of a similar demographic to me and I hope they find something of interest, while readers of colour might see some practices of allyship, something where we who seek to be allies should always be seeking to develop and learn.

The Aftermath chapter as I said above gives a lot of home: Eddo-Lodge has seen readers of colour feel supported by it and White people reflecting on how race has shaped their own lives – as we did as we read it. And no, it’s not controversial, as people have suggested: it’s all there in the sources, it’s sensible and thorough, honest and detailed, and something people can definitely use to educate themselves.

Book reviews – Claire Huston – “Art and Soul”, Chloe James – “Love in Lockdown” plus two bits of Shiny-ness @ShinyNewBooks @ClaraVal

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I’ve got two contemporary romance reads today, both with a twist, and I just want to do a quick moment of praise for Claire Huston. She contacted me to ask me if I’d like to read her novel, “Art and Soul”. Now, I do get emails about books quite a lot, and they are often not the kind of thing I read, or there’s not really enough info for me to go on. They are also often form emails, pretty obviously sent out to loads of book bloggers. Claire was different. She had obviously read my blog (shocking, honestly), she referenced pics of my TBR she’d seen and how she didn’t expect me to get to the book immediately. She had picked up on the fact that I mostly read non-fiction and literary fiction but that I’d also read books by several authors that meant I might want to read her book. She followed my blog and has engaged with it. There was a standard bit about the book, which is of course fine and told me enough about it. So I said yes, and then I did wait a bit to read it (sorry) and – it was good! Hooray! But what a splendid introduction, which worked in that I read the book, am doing this review here and will also pop one on Amazon.

I have another book after that which I picked up from NetGalley and is the first lockdown novel I’ve read. I had slightly mixed feelings about it, but I did read it through and felt interested that I’d probably read an early if not the first example of this topic being novelised!

Lastly, a couple of Shiny New Books links to round off the year (I’m already reading my first one for 2021).

Claire Huston – “Art & Soul”

(30 August 2020 – ebook)

Becky is a life-fixer (not just a life-coach), knowing each client will loathe her for her interference at some point but love her at the end of the process. After having a baby and concentrating on being an invisible fixer at weddings, she’s getting back into the client work and pitches to irascible artist Charlie, in a creative and personal slump, who does not want to be fixed. Yes, of course there will be a spark there, but it’s an unconventional story and romance with just as much interest in the other characters – gallery owner Virgil and his scary assistant, Becky’s best friend, the rather uncompromising Ronnie, and Phoebe, Charlie’s daughter. Another unforgettable character is Becky’s son, Dylan, and I loved the way the other characters interacted with him.

While it’s a very modern romance, with Becky standing for no nonsense and Charlie cleaning and caring, and there are fun literary references scattered through as well as commentary on how we talk about art, what impressed me most was Claire’s control of her plot – while the central story is simple and understandable, there are machinations along the way and also strings of subplots that swirl around the main action, all handled absolutely impeccably and in an assured way that is surprising in a first novel. Bravo for that! A thoroughly enjoyable read that will keep you on your toes.

And no, I didn’t spot the E.M. Forster reference, which I had forgotten about until I revisited the email Claire sent me!

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

Chloe James – “Love in Lockdown”

(03 November 2020 – NetGalley)

The first lockdown novel and specifically written to make “you smile, as well as perhaps shedding a few tears and given you a small pocket of sunshine, even if it is only for a while”. Sophia and Jack live in two flats with balconies in a block, and once they get chatting after the Thursday clap, they draw closer, helping each other as well as their local community. All the First Lockdown stuff is here – the claps, the loo roll shortages, only going out once a day, shielding, and it’s odd to read this so soon in a novel – I’m not sure if it’s Too Soon for me. With Sophia’s mum a doctor and her flatmate a midwife, Jack shielding due to a health condition and other characters being elderly, sometimes it feels a little  bit like an infomercial reminding us about hand sanitiser, but it does capture the details of this strange time – including, pleasingly, people making scrubs for the local hospital. 

In the afterword, we learn that some of the details in the story have come from people closely connected to the author – so she’s obviously written it partly for them and writing from the heart and from lived experience does make it come alive and feel less planned and didactic. The story is well done and the plot handled deftly: we root for our two characters and the side-characters, too. I’m glad I read it, even though it felt a bit close to the bone at times.

Thank you to Avon Books UK for making this available to read through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Shiny Loveliness

I’ve recently reviewed both of these books on this blog, but I also reviewed them in a different, longer and perhaps more serious mode for Shiny New Books.

Nancy Campbell’s “Fifty Words for Snow” with its worldwide cover and lovely snowflake images is an ideal winter read or Christmas gift – read more.

Rory Fraser’s “Follies” takes us through the history of buildings with no purpose, with a gorgeous watercolour of each one – another great gift idea for any time of year – read more.

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