Review-ish: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I must apologise for the terrible photos. I dropped my phone about a year ago, and smashed the glass in front of the camera. It’s worked surprisingly well.. until now. Now everything is in soft focus (unless heavily filtered). Its on my list of things to get sorted.

This has to be the chunkiest book I own at the moment, and a global pandemic and national lockdown seemed the ideal time to try and tackle it. I’d heard nothing but good things about it and the BBC series had come out so I wanted to read it before giving that a shot. I really would recommend the series whether you have read the book or not. Its exceptionally well cast and actually helped me to understand the narrative a bit better (goddamn skim-reading).

Susanna Clarke has created the most incredible world, blending magic with Georgian England, in an utterly unique way. I don’t think that I have ever read anything quite like it. She manages to bring real peril to the story as well as lighter and very funny moments.

The story itself is far too complicated for me to summarise here, plus I read this back in March and the majority of it has been replaced in my brain by lockdown rules, county by county. But it centres around two magicians, with very opposing viewpoints on the history and application of English magic. Its political and personal, brings up class and status, and the classic conundrum of whoever writes history controls the story.

I’m not going to lie, this is a big ol’ book, clocking in at 800 pages, and I found that it didn’t immediately grip me (although I’m very glad I stuck with it!) I just wouldn’t want anyone to dive into it expecting an easy time of it! And a warning, the book also has footnotes which can be essays in themselves. I debated whether to read them and decided to give them a glance and read them if I felt like it. I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do, but it made it possible for me to finish it. A quick skim of the Goodreads comments section confirms that those who are compelled to finish it, can’t praise it highly enough, but many just find the start too slow.

It would make a lovely autumn/winter lockdown read, but go in prepared to commit some serious reading time to it!

Would love to hear other readers thoughts on it so please do share in the comments section!

Kelly

Guest Review by Ceri Gwyther: The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns

(Narrated by Laurence Bouvard)

This is another one of those books that I found randomly on BorrowBox whilst training for a marathon. The problem (benefit??) with Borrowbox is that everything is always on loan so I end up finding novels that I would not normally choose. I nearly switched it off when I first starting listening, The Woman in the White Kimono started out like a bog-standard romance novel. These are not my cup of tea.

But, I had miles to go and nothing else to keep me going, and besides, Laurence Bouvard has really quite a captivating voice. I’m glad I persevered, but this book does contain some seriously upsetting scenes. I guess this would not be surprising if you read the blurb and knew your history. Quite obviously, I didn’t.

This book is the tale of two women. Naturally, their tales are intertwined. We start with Naoko Nakamura in post-war Japan, 1957. She has fallen in love with an American sailor who loves her back and sets out to win the approval of Naoko’s family. As with any love story between the occupied and the occupier, it’s not plain sailing. The second story introduces us to Tori Kovac the daughter of said American who has no idea of her father’s previous life and love, Naoko, until he drops clues on his deathbed. Tori is an investigative journalist and after a few hesitations, sets out to discover the story of her father’s youth. Could she have done anything but?

What starts out as a seemingly innocent story soon turns darker as we are introduced to the stigma and shame that befell the Japanese women who had relationships (both mutual and not) with the American gaijin. What is worse is what befell the children born of such relationships. I will leave it to the reader to discover some of what happened to these children by letting them read this book. Suffice it to say, that this is not an easy book to run too – it’s hard to catch your breath when you’re trying not to cry. That said, I’m glad that this piece of history has been well and truly seared into my memory banks.

Review-ish: Non-fiction round-up

Feminists Don”t Wear Pink by Scarlett Curtis, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

Lockdown certainly gave me a little bit more brain space to finish/get stuck into more non-fiction, so I thought I’d give a little round-up of three female-led/authored non-fiction books that I have finished over the last few months.

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and other lies) by Scarlett Curtis

This is the sort of book that I wish had existed when I was a teenager. By pulling on the experiences of a wide variety of contributors, the book manages to present many different and difficult concepts, without taking itself too seriously. And it gives a whole new generation of young people some honest, flawed and remarkable role-models, who certainly weren’t in the mainstream media spotlight when I was young and impressionable.

I got given this as a particularly brilliant secret-santa present (our theme was the letter F) and have dipped in and out of it since then, and being a series of essays, it really lends itself to occasionally forays or just getting stuck in.

It felt quite similar to Deborah Francis-Whites, The Guilty Feminist, but pitched to a slightly younger audience, so I’d definitely consider buying it for the young women in my life.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

This wonderful book was an excellent accompaniment to Hello World by Hannah Fry which was our August book club pick. Both are written in a really accessible style, despite talking about big data, which is definitely not part of my normal world.

I was gutted to have missed Perez speak about this book at Hay last year, but I think she sold out pretty quickly! I recommend giving her a follow on Twitter (@CCriadoPerez) if you’re interested in how the data we collect (and don’t collect) disproportionately affects women.

Its the sort of book that once you’ve read it, you’ll never look at the world the same way again. When, as a woman, you go to use a tool that isn’t built for your sized hand, and now, when we see reports that young women have borne the brunt of unemployment, childcare and housework during Covid19 because of the way our infrastructures are built.

I highly recommend this to everyone, as its just fascinating and eye-opening.

Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

This was also bought for me as a gift! My friends know me well.

I had heard of Brown, through her TedTalk on vulnerability but had never actually read any of her books. It was interesting reading a book about leadership and culture change at a time when so many work places cultures have had to embrace change.

As I expected, she’s a compelling writer that presents her learning, and others, in a way that feels empowering and achievable at all levels. Communication has become so important, inside and outside of work, that I think I’ll be returning to this book again and again for ideas and methods. I have also heard that the audiobook is very well done, so great for anyone who prefers listening to non-fiction.

Has anyone else found that they have more capacity to pick up non-fiction at the moment? I know that there’s plenty of readers out there who prefer non-fiction, but I’m also aware that we’re generally reviewing fiction here. Always happy to hear your thoughts, and recommendations so please do share below!

Insole Book Club Notes – June

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

I’m going to use the excuse that I’ve been on my holidays for the reason that this post is so late, but we all know that I am just very easily distracted at the moment. Instead of writing this up, I have decorated my lounge and re-arranged the dining room. But today, with July’s book club meeting mere days away, I thought I’d finally get the notes typed up!

I’d say that there was an almost universal love for this book from the book clubbers. And we’d timed it really well with Radio 4 broadcasting an adapted version throughout June, and Evaristo winning Author of the Year at the British Book Awards. We very much seem to have our fingers on the pulse at the moment!

Although the style took a little getting used to, with the lack of punctuation, most of us adapted to it quickly and found that it added to the experience. One member mentioned that the informal style reflected the fluidity of identity of women. We loved that there was enough from each character to truly dive into their lives, and found that the interweaving of the stories made for a hopeful and optimistic ending. The stories were often heart-breaking, but were told with such energy, that they felt uplifting.

We felt that Evaristo did an exceptional job of highlighting the inter-sectionality of the experiences of black women in the UK and brought these often untold stories into the light. There were moments of such touching sisterhood, but these never felt cliched or unrealistic as they were balanced by challenging relationships.

We thought that the exploration of generational divides were particularly interesting and Evaristo make it easy to relate to each character. The different generations of women provided opportunities for humour, like Hattie’s desire for her family to just sod off and leave her alone.

Girl, Woman, Other is in the running to win the George Orwell prize, which is for political fiction. We discussed that many of us hadn’t considered it overtly political but we can see through the perspectives that she presents that it is a commentary on society, and in particular anti-racism/anti-sexism and inter-sectionality.

I was delighted to see that there is a Spotify playlist that includes all of the music mentioned in the book and I managed to find several character maps which were crucial during our discussion, and lent themselves well to a Zoom chat! I can’t begin to link to all of the online articles in which Girl, Woman, Other or Evaristo feature at the moment, but there’s plenty of further reading out there for anyone interested in her unique perspective.

This month, we’re also reading:

  • The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson
  • The Accidental Apprentice by Vikas Swarup

On Tuesday 28th July, we’ll be meeting to discuss Lanny by Max Porter. Feel free to share any book club recommendations below!

Review-ish: Natives by Akala

‘Never mind that Britain has a German royal family, a Norman ruling elite, a Greek patron saint, a Roman/Middle Eastern religion, Indian food as its national cuisine, an Arabic/Indian numeral system, a Latin alphabet and an identity predicated on a multi-ethnic, globe-spanning empire’

A while ago now, this interview of Akala on Channel 4, popped up on my Facebook timeline and I immediately ordered a copy of this book. Akala is a rapper, educator, journalist and activist, and Natives has been held up alongside Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race as one of THE books to read to educate yourself on racism in the UK.

I love David Olusoga’s book cover quote about how Akala ‘picks apart the British myth of meritocracy’. This quote does a much better job than I can of expressing the thoughts I had throughout reading this about how we have all fallen into this meritocracy trap.

I started it as soon as it arrived, and then dipped in and out until lock-down allowed me the space I needed to finally finish it. As expected from a lyricist, Natives is brilliantly written; evocative and emotive. Like Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Akala explores race, heritage, empire and colonialism, but its through the lens of his personal experience that these topics come alive.

In Chapter 8, Why Do White People Love Mandela? Why Do Conservatives Hate Castro? Akala presents a highly researched and fascinating insight into the wide-spread hero-worship of Mandela, and taught me a huge amount about Castro’s Cuba that I, and I imagine many others, never knew.

Natives has an exceptionally high rating on Goodreads, and for good reason. Akala’s humour and style make this a particularly accessible read, one that I will certainly be recommending.

Unfortunately, BBC only put up Akala’s dramatisation of this book called Ruins of Empire briefly, but if you want something to watch I would highly recommend Black and British: A Forgotten History which expands on many of the historical Chapters in Natives.

Please feel free to share comments and recommendations below. I’d love to get a conversation going!

Review-ish: The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

‘His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.’

It feels like decades ago that I finished this, although it was just in March, I think, at the beginning of lock-down. Its one of those books that has kept popping up on my radar and I was really keen to use some of my extra reading time to read something less contemporary.

This is going to be a real snippet of a review, as I have such a back-log and I’m super keen to share everything else that I’ve been reading over the last few months. And to be completely transparent, the only notes I wrote for this were ‘tense’. That’s it.

That’s not to say it wasn’t good; it was well written, brilliantly paced and incredibly tense. But I spent much of the book thinking about the film, which is a real shame. This is one I really wish I had read first.

I have just discovered that this is the first in a series, which surprised me as it felt like a very complete piece. Reading through the Goodreads reviews to prompt my memory, I agree with many that Highsmith certainly takes you on a vivid and compelling journey through 1950’s Italy, and tests your moral compass as you find yourself willing Ripley to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, but I wouldn’t say that its best thing I’ve read recently.

As I so often say, it can be as much about timing as it is about the actual book, and maybe this just wasn’t quite the escapism I needed. Also, the film is so well-known and has a style all of its own that eclipsed the writing for me a little. But as a psychological thriller it hits the mark.

Has anyone read any vintage classics that they would recommend? Please don’t mention Catcher in the Rye as I also tried that and found it very tedious!

Happy reading!

Kelly

Insole Book Club Notes – May

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

In the three weeks or so since the book club met to discuss Why I’m No Longer… , Eddo Lodge has become the first Black author to top the UK bestseller charts (The first. In 2020. Unbelievable) and has widely and publicly discussed her mixed feels on her success – Guardian article here.

Despite being released way back in 2017, record sales have been prompted by the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests world-wide and the recognition that we all have a role to play in educating ourselves. Performative anti-racism, allyship, antifa and white privilege have become mainstream conversations and I feel like these have shifted awareness into a new and more productive place.

The bulk of our conversation around Why I’m No Longer… initially revolved around our complicity as white people/people with particular privileges, and how it is important that for many of us, this wasn’t a comfortable read. A few of us noted that chapter on feminism was particularly difficult, but also insightful.

Throughout the book club, we’d read a number of books by international black authors, so we felt that it was interesting and very useful to read a British perspective and there were many issues that Eddo-Lodge raised that were new to us.

Pretty much all of us had never heard of the Cardiff/Newport riots, which is appalling, and we collectively found the history chapter enlightening and were also shocked at how much history had been erased within the education system.

We found Eddo-Lodge’s explanations of systemic racism in UK informative and found it useful to discuss it in comparison to prejudice. We reflected on diversity versus inclusivity. Particularly in workplace environments where sometimes action is taken because its the law rather than a true commitment to diversity; doing something because its the right thing to do and a creating a workforce that is stronger for its diversity. One member shared a really useful HR example about innovation and how diversity is crucial for new ideas. ‘You don’t know your own blind spots’

We talked about positive discrimination and how those that oppose it often come from a place of idealism, stating that we live in a meritocracy. We also discussed how the press have had a central role in making out that positive discrimination has failed.

We examined Nick Griffin’s theory, citing Professor Coleman from Oxford University, that by would Britain become majority non-white, and his beliefs that that would be a bad thing. We talked at length about the far rights arguments around ‘British’ values and the white working class. We were shocked at the statistics Eddo-Lodge presented on poverty and how it disproportionally affects people of colour. We don’t talk about class anymore, we talk about socio-ecomonic deprivation.

Considering the ingrained biases in education, what impact will Covid19 have on the futures of black children, when students are given their predicted grades as exam results? The reality of having to work twice as hard to get half as far echoed through so many of the books that we have read through book club.

Ultimately we took on board the authors message that its on us to do the work and for us to seek out information to educate ourselves and we’d recommend Why I’m No Longer… as a great place for people to start.

Further reading/watching:

We’re also currently reading:

  • We, the Survivors by Tash Aw
  • Island Song by Madeleine Bunting
  • Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
  • Elephant Moon by John Sweeney
  • The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy
  • My Own Country by Abraham Verghese

Please do get involved in the discussion below. Please share any further reading/watching recommendations!

We’ll be meeting in June to discuss Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo! Why not read along with us?

Education

I wanted to write this after the events of this week, and do anything that I can to feel less helpless.

George Floyd died needlessly on Monday. On Tuesday, we discussed Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. And have I just seen that a black CNN reporter has just been arrested live on air?I couldn’t wait until I’d written up the book club notes to say something, as that’s the key message I took out of Eddo-Lodge’s book; we all need to listen, yes, but we are complicit if we continue to say nothing.

Offbeat Book Club has always been about diversifying reading habits and has provided me and other book club members with a wide variety of viewpoints and experiences over the last 18 months. You can see a list of the books we’ve read as a group and write ups of the discussions here. And you can see what I’ve been reading and some reviews here.

But with this post, I mostly wanted to highlight three books in the feature image as a starting point for educating yourself on racism and the experiences of people of colour living in the UK and US. Importantly, all three document the authors own experiences, examining the wider world.

  • Natives: Races and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Other fellow book clubbers will have plenty of other recommendations so I urge them to share them in the comments below. To my mind, reading widely and learning about experiences that are different to our own is the very least we can do.

I highly recommend checking out 75 Things White People Can Do For Racial Justice by Corinne Shutack on Medium. Although the political actions are US focused, there were useful recommendations of things to read and watch, as well as suggestions about boycotting certain retailers that fund white supremacist groups or exploit prison labour. Medium itself is a great platform for finding long-reads from a diverse range of authors.

If you’d like to support an organisation that is taking action against police brutality and tackling incarceration issues, many people are suggesting that Minnesota Freedom Fund would appreciate donations to support their work.

There’s also: Color Of ChangeThe Movement For Black LivesStand Against Racism & Inequality (SARI)Stop Hate UKShow Racism The Red Card, and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (Nabbed from this Stylist article by Kayleigh Dray).

Wishing and hoping for justice for all those who have lost their lives as a direct result of the actions of those who are supposed to protect us.

Insole Book Club Notes – April

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

We have to thank our friends at NDCWales Book Club for this recommendation, it was great to share recommendations with another book club. In turn, we suggested My Sister the Serial Killer for them, which is a quick read that we’d pretty much all enjoyed.

It was great to get together again with the lovely Insole Court Book Clubbers, albeit digitally. It was interesting to talk about how our reading habits had changed over the past month, during lockdown.

Some found The Seven Deaths easier than others. It seemed to quite often hinge on whether you could give it a few hours of solid reading at a time. Reading or listening to it in short bursts made it quite difficult to follow.

We talked about the various different tropes that the author used, body swapping, etc, but how it may have gotten a little overly complicated. In particular, revelations about Anna felt a little tacked on. Especially as the twist had already been revealed at that point.

For some of us, the twist felt a little bit rushed and could have benefited from fleshing out for us to buy into it. But we also chatted about the fact that the reveal didn’t leaving us with too many questions, so the author achieved an entertaining murder mystery.

We all were intrigued by the descriptions of the various personalities and how they were cumulative, pushing in more and more as the book developed. This was cleverly done and unusual. We were interested in which of the physical behaviours ‘stuck’ from each character and how this helped with the plot. This reminded us of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; how much of who you are is made up of your memories?

We made comparisons to The Good Place, and Dante’s Hell – and the premise of a hell of your own making. The vividness of the world was captivating, and probably successful because of how you relive the world through so many different perspectives. The image of the ramshackle stately home is also well-known in mystery novels, so quite easy for us to grasp.

We spent some time discussing the title after discovering that it is published as The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle in America. It doesn’t appear that the number in the title relates to deaths in the novel, but is more about sensationalism.

Generally we would recommend this to our friends/family – reviews are good, and its been well received. We felt that the violence, although dark, wasn’t voyeuristic or gratuitous. And its a solid enough mystery to keep you going through, at least until the reveal.

I thought it might be interesting to share what we’ve been reading, as we normally finish our meetings with recommendations. So to continue the tradition, whilst quarantined, many of us are comfort-reading Bill Bryson, as well as:

  • Hillary Mantel
  • Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to comment along below!

Kelly

Review-ish: She Said by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey

Photo by Rach who is currently borrowing this during lockdown!

‘You should be the hero of the story, not the villain. This is very doable.’

I brought this in a childish fit of vengeance from A****n when I finally got some money back off of them after getting hacked in October. This was my way of giving them them middle finger.

In She Said, Kantor and Twohey, journalists for the New York Times, relive the experience of breaking one of the biggest stories in their journalistic careers, exposing the Harvey Winstein scandal. They chart their progress, from the initial whisperings to the after-math, including the testimony of Blasey-Ford against Brett Kavanaugh.

It is so compellingly written that I read the first half in one sitting, whilst occasionally huffing and sometimes exclaiming out loud. Your heart can’t help but break at what these women, including the journalists, went through. I happened to read it at the time of Weinstein’s trial, which I began to follow obsessively. It felt like a turning point.

The journalistic process, and how it has changed in the age of ligitation, was eye-opening to me, and I believe its made me more aware of where I get my news from and how credible it is. To make such a long, drawn-out and oftentimes painful process so interesting to the reader, is a testament to their exceptional writing. And its not gossip, or needlessly provocative. They state the facts and the facts speak for themselves.

The authors don’t fail to note that Ronan Farrow (of the New Yorker) was also instrumental in breaking the story, and he documents his own story in Catch and Kill (which I haven’t read yet). I found this fascinating and really warmed to the authors for their generosity of spirit in this (as well as the fact that Kantor replied to a Tweet of mine!) From what I can tell, they acknowledge everyone who helped to bring this about, including women critical to the wider #MeToo movement. There’s no ego in this book, other than Weinsteins, I guess.

She Said not only addresses the industry structures that protect people like Weinstein for decades, but also the laws that allow such abuses of power to happen and take away the victims voices. The prevalence of non-disclosure agreements in just this one instance was staggering, and I dread to think how many other people have been silenced in this way.

This has really helped me to understand how genuinely good and definitively entertaining non-fiction can be, so I’m keeping an eye out for more like this. Has anyone read this or Catch and Kill?

Kelly