Elizabeth Is Missing – by Emma Healey

22 09 2020

The final book in the stack from Mum!

Before I read this, I knew it was about a woman with dementia who was convinced her friend was missing. What I didn’t know was that she narrates the book.

I’ll be honest, I really struggled with the first few pages as I adjusted to it – it was almost upsetting to read stuff that is so familiar and close to home, from the perspective of the person who is confused. You can feel her deteriorating through the book, which is tough, but laced with humour as well.

Once I got used to the style though, it was an excellent book – the narrator suffering from dementia is such a clever idea. Maud switches between struggling to work out what’s currently going on (other than being sure that her friend Elizabeth is missing, there’s a note in her pocket that says so), and flashing back to when she was a child and her older sister went missing. Essentially it’s two stories being told in parallel, but one reliably, and one not.

I guess it’s really a mystery book, and that’s what had me hooked, trying to work out what’s happened in her past, and what on earth is going on in her present. It really was a good read, I read it in seven days, crazy fast for me!

It turns out that there’s an adaptation of it on iPlayer at the moment, so hoping to watch that this week, trailer below!





A Thousand Splendid Suns – by Khaled Hosseini

15 09 2020

Having really enjoyed The Kite Runner, I jumped straight on into this one, which while not a follow on story, is the next book Hosseini wrote, and is equally well spoken of.

Both books follow roughly the same time period of 1970s to the early 2000s, and are probably equally miserable, but while the two books are not technically linked, it’s very easy to contrast the two:

  • The Kite Runner really focused on the lives of boys and men in Kabul, the centre of this book was the female characters.
  • The Kite Runner covers escaping from Afghanistan and life outside it, but this mostly stays in the midst of it.
  • From a more technical perspective, The Kite Runner was told in the first person, but this is third person (and 50 pages before the end switches from past to present tense).

The first quarter of the book we meet Mariam who lives with her mother in a shack outside a town called Herat, and learn what brings her to Kabul and follow through her backstory. The second quarter we move on to Laila, who had a mention in Mariam’s story as the baby of a neighbour, but they haven’t really overlapped; again we hear her backstory up to the point where her and Mariam’s worlds collide. That brings us to the last half of the book, where we see their relationship and their struggles together.

Just like his first book, he manages to share a miserable story in a brilliant way which is so readable. It also feels really educational, I learnt a lot about the geography and history of the area. This book feels like you get more of the history than the previous one as most of the book stays in the country.

A couple of my favourite out-of-context quotes:

  • “Mariam set about cleaning up the mess, marvelling at how energetically lazy men could be.”
  • “Rasheed regarded the Taliban with a forgiving, affectionate kind of bemusement, as one might regard an erratic cousin prone to unpredictable acts of hilarity and scandal.”





The Kite Runner – by Khaled Hosseini

5 09 2020

The next book in the pile I borrowed from my mum is The Kite Runner, I picked it up because it’s always listed on those lists of “books to read before you die” etc, which normally means, it’s quite good!

I was warned before I read this that it’s not a cheerful book, both by friends who’ve read it, and by the quotes on the front cover: “devastating” and “heartbreaking” are pretty stark! And the warnings were right, it’s not happy, it’s a miserable book, but that doesn’t mean it’s not very good! In fact, partway through the book one of the characters says something which I think sums it up: “Sad stories make good books.”

The story follows Amir as he grows up in Afghanistan with his friend Hassan, through his escape to America when the country is invaded, and to when he has to one day return. At some points it just feels like a book of one awful thing after another, in fact, when I was 70 pages from the end I was on the phone to my mum and said how there was probably time for something else horrible to happen, and I wasn’t wrong!

But for those of you who are put off by this, I will reassure you that it does end on a hopeful note, and it was one of those books I just couldn’t wait to pick up again each time I wasn’t reading it. Normally at night I read a fall pages and can’t keep my eyes open, but one night I was reading this til 1am, definitely addictive!





The Chrysalids – by John Wyndham

24 08 2020

My mum cites this as her favourite book, so it was about time I gave it a read – she lent me her copy.

It was published in 1955, but these days would probably be put in the dystopian category that has become so popular. Living in a place called Labrador, it’s a fairly simple existence since Tribulation happened, but there is an idealism within society that if anyone or anything isn’t completely perfect (think extra finger, slightly misshapen crop of corn), then it is to be destroyed. There is a community on the Fringes of those who’ve been outcast, and further out than that, the badlands.

Our narrator, David, is a ten year old who has a mutation that isn’t visible, he can communicate with “thought shapes” with a handful of others who have the same ability. Because it isn’t visible, he hasn’t been shunned, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before they’re discovered.

I started the book unsure if it was a children’s book or grown ups, but it’s definitely a grown up book, it gets pretty dark!

The thing I don’t quite get, after reading the entire book, is why it’s called The Chrysalids… I googled and got some suggestions, but it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me!

Oh, and one more thing, they don’t have the letter Z in their alphabet, but this is only mentioned a good way into the book, and the temptation to go back and reread and see if they used any words using the letter Z before that was huge, but I’m a slow reader so decided against it!





The Good Immigrant – edited by Nikesh Shukla

9 08 2020

Never in my life did I think I’d choose to read an essay collection; but when the focus/intention is something so important, the tone is relatively auto-biographical, and the reviews are so strong, it seemed worth giving it a go.

I think what surprised me most about this book (though of course it shouldn’t have) was the variety. As “21 writers explore what it means to be black, Asian & minority ethnic in Britain today”, not once did I think it was getting repetitive. The contributors are from all sorts of backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities [which, interestingly, spell-check doesn’t recognise as a word?!]. Some are UK born, some immigrated, and they talk about different things, some more on a specific topic, some more just telling their story. It gives a great insight into a world that those of us with white privilege just haven’t experienced.

At the start of the book there is a mini-bio for each author (and their twitter handle), but then it just dives right in, the first essay being from Shukla, and going on from there.

To give a flavour of what sort of things the book covers, I’ve put some example paragraphs and sentences below:

  • “A comedian, Kumail Nanjiani, an avid gamer, once expressed his delight that the Call of Duty series finally set a level in Karachi,[…] He was appalled, on playing the game, to see that the street signs were in Arabic. Not Urdu. He talks about the effort put into making each follicle on each soldier’s head stand out, into making their boot laces bounce as they ran, the millions spent developing this game, and how at no point did anyone decide to Google the language of Pakistan.” – Nikesh Shukla
  • “There was one thing I’d never considered about mixing red and yellow: a drop of yellow into red paint won’t do much to change the colour, but one drop of red into yellow and the whole pot is tainted forever.” – Varaidzo
  • “When we talk about race, the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ are familiar. ‘Brown’ too has come into play. I use the word ‘yellow’, offensive as many find it, because this is how I believe I’m seen.” – Vera Chok
  • “There was a point in the past when I stopped dressing ‘prettily’ because when I was out with ANY white man, no matter his age or looks, I was talke over and looked down on. It was assumed that I was his escort or mail-order bride.” – Vera Chok
  • “It transpires that my family were the unwitting pioneers of multiculturalism in St Neots – as far as Dad can recall, they were the only South Asian family in their immediate area, perhaps even the whole town. I assumed that Dad and his family must have felt ostracised. I was wrong: Dad can’t recall ever feeling that way. Whereas the segregated immigrant communities in the big cities were bearing the brunt of xenophobia, no one in St Neots seemed to have any problem with my family joining their community.” – Himesh Patel
  • “The only thing worse than racism is inaccurate racism.” – Nish Kumar
  • [Referring to teaching a class of year 2 children about writing stories] “When it came to sharing their stories, I noticed only one boy had acted upon my suggestion, naming his main character after his uncle. He had recently arrived from Nigeria and was eager to read his story to the class. However, when he read out the protagonist’s name, another boy, who was born in Britain and identified as Congolese, interrupted him. ‘You cant say that!’ he said. ‘Stories have to be about white people.'” – Darren Chetty
  • “It is interesting that the classifying seems to be done y those with lighter pigmentation.” – Sabrina Mahfouz
  • “What the comment made by the young women highlights again is this problematic assumption of an individual’s heritage based purely on an aesthetic they appear to fulfil.” – Sabrina Mahfouz
  • “Portrayals of ethnic minorities worked in stages, I realised, so I’d have to strap in for a long ride.
    1. Stage One is the two-dimensional stereotype – the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner. It tightens the Necklace.
    2. Stage Two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on ‘ethnic’ terrain but aiming to challenge stereotypes. It loosens the Necklace.
    3. Stage Three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. In the Promised Land I’m not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. In the Promised Land, my name might even be Dave. In the Promised Land, there is no Necklace.”

    – Riz Ahmed

  • “My ‘random selection’ flying to LA was so reliable that as I started travelling more, I went through a six-month stretch of being search by the same middle-aged Sikh guy. […] I’ve had my films quoted back at me by someone rifling through my underpants, and been asked for selfies by someone swabbing me for explosives.” – Riz Ahmed
  • “The racism practised by white British people extends to all, not just those of a lower caste. Racial discrimination does not distinguish between Dalits and Brahmins; to racists, all Indians are the same.” – Sarah Sahim
  • “From India to Africa, the Caribbean, all over the world, skin bleaching is big business and the shade of your skin is your freedom or your prison. […] Britain, where white people dye themselves as brown as tea stains. […] Wherever you live, wherever you are from, it seems it is all about shade.” – Salena Godden

There’s also sections on: Visiting ones country of heritage and not fitting in their either, stereotypes of different African countries inspired by the hashtag #IfAfricaWasABar, and much else besides.

Definitely a good book for exposing us to what life is really like out there.





How to be Champion – by Sarah Millican

21 07 2020

Needed a bit of light relief after my last read! I think I picked this up in The Works for a couple of quid forever ago, and over lockdown she’s been reading through it on her instagram for folk, and I thought I may as well get it read!

The subtitle for the book says it’s an autobiography, but in reality, it’s somewhere halfway between that and a self-help book. Nice short bite size chapters about all sorts of things from her life (chapters range from “Things I’ve been bullied for”, to “My favourite room in the house”, and everything inbetween), the majority ending with “how to be champion” tips. As you’d expect from a comedian, it’s a funny book, but she’s also done amazing work including #joinin and Standard Issue.

Some of my favourite quotes are below:

  • “People who wear glasses are all potential superheroes.”
  • “I have always believed in grassing people up, or as I call it ‘calling people out on bad behaviour.'”
  • “When I was about twelve I asked my parents how old I had to be before I could have a boyfriend. I wasn’t super keen but I like to know the rules so I don’t break them.”
  • “There’s no social mobility at school; if you’re a dowdy nerd, you’re a dowdy nerd for five years.”
  • “There’s nothing worse than an accurate insult.”
  • “The way I see it, I get my car checked regularly, why wouldn’t I do the same for my brain?”
  • “But art in all its forms is subjective. Comedian Chris Addison once said that people are too afraid to say something is not their cup of tea.”
  • “Plus how wonderful it is when seeds you’ve planted start to grow. My friend Juliet said it’s like the slowest-ever firework display.”





Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race – by Reni Eddo-Lodge

12 07 2020

I’m only one of many many people who have bought this book this summer after George Floyd’s death – there were recommendations for it everywhere. The author herself has said she doesn’t “like the idea of personally profiting each time a video of a black person’s death goes viral”, and so asked people to get it from libraries and/or donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund along with their purchase. This spike in purchases made her the first black British person to top the paperback non-fiction chart in the UK, something which she responded to, saying, “The fact that it’s 2020 and I’m the first… is a horrible indictment of the publishing industry”. I’ve become acutely aware over the last month or two of how white-based my British history education was at school, and how pretty much everything we learnt about our history was in a positive light. So this was a book I wanted to pick up.

Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog article in 2014 which had the same title of this book which was published three years later, and the post is included in the book’s preface. The gist of the sentiment behind the title is that most (not all) white people won’t admit there’s a problem, and won’t listen to engage further in that. I’ve noticed that a lot of people will tell you that while we may have a problem with race in this country, America is much worse, and leave it at that. (As an aside, when looking for books to read on this subject, I had to go into the blurbs to work out if the books were USA or UK based as they’ve give very different backgrounds, and for now I’m wanting to learn more about my country!)

The book is divided into seven chapters (and an eighth in editions printed after 2018). Below I’ve put key points and/or thoughts and/or summaries and/or quotes from each chapter. It was a really helpful book if you want to educate yourself more in this area.

  1. Histories
    A broad sweep of black British history (presumably kept high level as there was so much else she wanted to fit into the book!). It goes back as far as the slave trade and as recent as the London riots, and the vote to leave the EU. (Grenfell happened two weeks after the book was published, and is mentioned in the additional eighth chapter). This is what I feel highly uneducated in and want to learn more of (I’ve bought a couple of other books which I imagine may have a similar outline, so if anyone’s read anything that gives a fairly accessible history of Britain and the colonies, I’d be interested in recommendations).
  2. The System
    The chapters starts with the story of Steven Lawrence. Growing up I was aware of the name Steven Lawrence, and had a rough idea that he was a black boy that was killed, but didn’t know much beyond that. We hear here how his family had to battle and battle to get justice, and how it was nineteen years until anyone was convicted for his murder.
    It then looks at the flaws in our systems, for example the discrimination found when applying for jobs. There’s a great example of when the NFL were required to interview at least one Black of Minority Ethnic candidate for any management position, not to recruit, just to interview, and doing that alone meant that panels saw candidates they may not have otherwise considered, and over the next decade, 12 new black coaches were appointed.
    It also covers the failings in the concept of colour-blindness. “White children are taught not to ‘see’ race, whereas children of colour are taught […] that we must work twice as hard as our white counterparts if we wish to succeed.”
  3. What is White Privilege?
    She describes White Privilege as an absence of the negative consequences of racism, and explains that what some would describe as reverse-racism is just prejudice. The difference between racism and prejudice is that racism is prejudice plus power. She also speaks to a mixed race woman who was brought up without race ever being discussed and how that affected her.
  4. Fear of a Black Planet
    A lot of this chapter focuses on the fear of immigration. She goes for Nick Griffin, and then, because of British defamation laws, gives him a chance to go back, and so rang him. To quote her introduction to the interview: “Our conversation was so surreal that I publish it here in full.” It’s worth a read.
    Later in the chapter in relation to Katie Hopkins: “Freedom of speech means the freedom for opinions on race to clash. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean the right to say what you want without rebuttal, and racist speech and ideas need to be healthily challenged in the public sphere.”
    She also discusses the tendency towards white heroes and black baddies in film and television, and the uproar that came when in the stage show “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” when the role of Hermione was given to a black actress.
  5. The Feminism Questions
    The focus of this chapter is the overwhelming whiteness of the feminism movement, and the concept of intersectionality which is the crossover of two discriminations, racism and sexism.
  6. Race and Class
    I found this chapter really interesting. Traditionally the UK has had three classes: Upper, Middle (paid monthly and own your home), and Working (paid by the hour and rent your home). But in 2013 the Great British Class survey was commissioned by the BBC and discovered that we now have seven classes (which I put here for just general interest!):

    1. The elite
      Wealthiest and scoring highest economically, socially and culturally
    2. The established middle class
      Next wealthiest and love culture
    3. The technical middle class
      Have money but not very social
    4. New affluent workers
      Middle income, but high on socialising and culture
    5. Traditional working class
      On average, the oldest class
    6. Emergent service workers
      Lower in financial security
    7. The precariat
      The most deprived group

    But the focus of the chapter is on how race and class are intertwined: the proportions of people of colour are much higher at the bottom of this scale than at the top, and therefore more likely to be living in poverty. She discusses how the gentrification of poorer areas in London forces poorer folk out, and because of the proportions, therefore people of colour out. As well as the gender pay gap, there’s also an ethnicity pay gap.
    “There is a suspicion laid at the feet of people who aren’t white who succeed outside of their designated fields for black people, those fields are singing and sport.”

  7. There’s No Justice, There’s Just Us
    This chapter wraps up the original book. White people are wondering when there will be an end point to all this, but she says racism will be with us for a long time, any change is incremental – it’s gonna be a long haul.
    “The perverse thing about our current racial structure is that it has always fallen on the shoulders of those at the bottom to change it. Yet racism is a white problem.”
    “I don’t want white guilt. […] No useful movements for change have ever spring out of fervent guilt. […] Support those in the struggle, rather than spending too much time pitying yourself.”
    “If you are disgusted by what you see, and if you feel the fire coursing through your veins, then it’s up to you. […] It can be as small scale as chipping away at the warped power relations in your workplace. It can be passing on knowledge and skills to those who wouldn’t access them otherwise. It can be creative. It can be informal. […] It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re doing something.”
  8. Aftermath
    This chapter was added a year or two later, and covers the rise of anti-immigrant politics, and how so many things written about in the previous chapters had progressed since publication, and how the conversation has become so much more centre stage – and this is still long before the events of 2020!





The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – by Suzanne Collins

25 06 2020

When a trilogy has been such a huge hit as The Hunger Games was, both as books and films, then a prequel published a decade later is going to be one of two things – excellent like the originals because the author has waited until they have a good story, or awful and they’ve just written it for the cash. I would say this falls into the former category – I really enjoyed reading this!

It’s set about 65 years before the original books, with President Snow an 18 year old in his final year of school, and following the tenth annual Hunger Games competition. The event is far more primitive than the high tech entertainment we were familiar with in the original books, and is just run in an amphitheatre with a few weapons lying around, though the same revolting basic rule still governs it – last alive wins.

Ten years of the games means it’s ten years since the war, and as yet folk haven’t really got into following the games which were created to remind the Districts who is in charge. The Head Gamesmaker is looking for ways to engage both those in the Capitol and in the Districts more, one way they do this is to have final year students in the Capitol mentor a tribute each, and this is where Snow comes in, mentoring the female tribute from District 12. His family has fallen on hard times since the war, but is trying to keep it quiet for the sake of their position in society, and a good result in the games could get Snow a University scholarship to secure his future.

I won’t give anything away, but even at over 500 pages I flew through it! I have one issue with Snow’s character that I’d like to discuss with anyone who’s read it, but won’t leave spoilers here!! But essentially, if you enjoyed the original books, I think you’ll like this.





The Color Purple – by Alice Walker

14 06 2020

One of the key things I’ve got out of the BLM awareness the last couple of weeks is the need to educate ourselves better. There have been various books recommended, and this was on a fiction list I saw early on (which I can’t find anymore), and it had been sat on my shelf for a long time, and so it seemed a very sensible time to pick it up.

The book is written as letters, initially from the main character, Celie, to God, (though later on this varies a bit and includes letters to and from her sister). Through these letters she essentially tells us the story of her life as a black woman in the American Deep South between the world wars, and of those around her.

It’s not been the easiest book to read, but for a broad variety of reasons:

  • Because she’s talking to God, there’s a lot of assumed knowledge! She talks about people without explaining who they are, and it takes a fair bit of focus to work out what she’s on about at times, particularly at the beginning when everyone she talks about it new to you.
  • No quote marks for dialogue!
  • When Celie is writing (so, for most of the book), it’s written in the dialect she spoke in, the author has referred to this as “black folk language.” It very quickly becomes normal, but was a bit of an adjustment at the start.
  • Time seems to move along without explicitly telling us. By the end of the book I’d say 30-40 years have passed, but it’s not at all easy to see this happen. Someone might refer to how they now have three more children than when you last saw them, or that someone you thought was a kid is nearly as tall as the adults. Hard to keep track of so I just sort of let it happen!
    A quote which just felt so true of life, especially right now: “Time moves slowly, but passes quickly.”
  • Finally, some of the actual content is upsetting, and could be triggering for some. On page one alone, Celie, aged 14 is violently raped by her Pa.





Little Fires Everywhere – by Celeste Ng

2 06 2020

Yes it’s another of those books that’s been everywhere and then adapted for TV. But my theory is, there’s got to be a reason it’s been everywhere and that someone’s put money into making a screen adaptation. It’s gotta be good.

The Richardsons live in an overly planned suburb of picture perfect houses where everyone seems to live picture perfect lives. Mia and her daughter Pearl arrive to rent a small home owned by the Richardsons, having moved house every few months of Pearl’s life and don’t quite fit in with the ideal, but Pearl quickly forms friendships with the Richardson children.

The book starts with a rather dramatic incident, and then flashes back a year to show us how things got to that point. There are back-stories to be discovered, one of which takes a good 50 pages to tell when we finally get to it!

It’s set in the late 90s, which gave some lovely nostalgic moments.

It turns out, yes there is always a reason books go viral (is that a thing? books going viral? oh well, you know what I mean), because it’s a story that grabs you and keeps you interested.