Variations

Variations is a collection of short stories inspired by real events that explore transgender history in Britain. The stories take a variety of forms, from diaries, letters and oral history interviews to blogs and screenplays. Across the collection, Juliet Jacques follows a series of trans people and their experiences from the 19th through to the 21st century. She opens each story with a paragraph that contextualises what follows and regularly includes footnotes with further context. This gives such an air of authority that I began to question whether this book gathered together fiction or fact. In a way, it does both. Jacques has written a history of trans experience but disguised it as fiction.

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Muscle and Mouth

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Read 29/04/2022

Rating 5 stars

I heard Louise Finnigan read from her short story Muscle and Mouth at a literary event recently. The story is part of the Fly on the Wall Press Shorts series. It’s about Jade, an A-level student in Manchester who has ambitions to study at Durham University. Continue reading

The Good Immigrant

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Read 19/04/2022-29/04/2022

Rating 5 stars

The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays by 21 British writers who “explore what it means to be Black, Asian and minority ethnic in Britain today”. It was published by Unbound in 2016. In the six years since it first appeared in print, the world has moved on and the white devised acronym BAME is rightly seen as reductive now.

On the back cover is a question that each of these essays seeks to answer: “What’s it like to live in a country that doesn’t trust you and doesn’t want you unless you win an Olympic gold medal or a national baking competition?” Continue reading

Sugar and Slate

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Read 15/03/2022-29/03/2022

Rating 4 stars

Sugar and Slate is a memoir about growing up mixed race in North Wales. Paula chose it as this year’s Dewithon book and I managed to find a library copy. It’s partly fictionalised and the author’s reminiscences about her own life are punctuated by poetry and dramatic scenes that tell the story of her parents and the broader stories of nationality, race and belonging. Divided into three sections, Africa, Guyana and Wales, the book examines how these places have impacted and influenced the author’s life, and how their presence as points in the slavery triangle explain how the author came to exist. Continue reading

Such A Fun Age

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Read 27/01/2022-29/01/2022

Rating 4 stars

I had Kiley Reid’s debut novel Such A Fun Age on my library wishlist but took it off again after I read some lukewarm reviews here in the blogosphere.

Then my employer decided to set up a reading scheme, that they’re calling The Big Read. It aims to encourage staff to think about different perspectives and think more critically about our work and our audiences. Our first book is Such A Fun Age, and we were each given a copy at the start of December. It seemed rude not to read it.

The story concerns Emira, a 25 year old black woman who is drifting a little in life, working as a transcriber and a babysitter, and Alix, one of Emira’s employers, a 33 year old mother of two. It explores the friendship groups of both women, shining a light on Black experience through Emira’s story as well as on the pressures on all women to be someone, to have purpose, to be fulfilled, all while looking good, through the stories and interactions of all the female characters. There’s also a story arc around the differing relationships between men and women, in particular men who want to appear as feminist and Black allies but whose actions are still underpinned by a certain level of chauvinism and white saviour behaviour.

It’s a book that got some hype. It was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. The cover is blazoned with praise, as is the front fly, and there are three pages of praise quotes. I’ve a friend who said that the hype is to be believed. I’ve a workmate who said that it’s good but a bit overegged. But what do I think? Continue reading

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain

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Read 09/01/2022-27/01/2022

Rating 4 stars

I like Sathnam Sanghera. He makes difficult, emotive subject matter accessible. His documentary about the Amritsar massacre led me to Kim Wagner’s book Amritsar 1919. I haven’t yet watched his Empire State of Mind series, but I reserved his book Empireland somewhere in the distant past of 2021 and it arrived from the library at the start of this year.

Empireland begins with a set of acknowledgements that include the following statement, “… I’m going to spend as little time as possible fretting about definitions: almost every term used in discussion of empire, from ‘colony’ to ‘commonwealth’ to ‘colonialism’, to say nothing of ‘race’ and ‘racism’, can be contested, their meanings changing over time.” Sanghera goes on to say that immersion in definitions produces long academic books, and his ambition in writing Empireland was to create the opposite.

He has succeeded. Empireland is Sanghera’s personal exploration of who he is, as a British Sikh, and how empire has created the environment he grew up in, as well as influenced the language and attitudes everyone in Britain has, across race, gender, religion and politics. Continue reading

In the Pines

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Read 01/01/2022

Rating 4 stars

Paul Scraton is a British writer who lives and works in Berlin. I’ve read his psychogeographical novel Built on Sand, which is still one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, and his walking travelogue Ghosts on the Shore, that tells the history of Germany’s Baltic coast via a personal cartography.

I’ve been eager to read his fiction collaboration with German photographer Eymelt Sehmer since it was announced by the publisher back in spring. In the Pines continues Scraton’s exploration of our relationship with landscape and what it says about us. Continue reading

The Trial

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Read 28/12/2021-31/12/2021

Rating 4 stars

The Trial is my Czechia book on my European literary tour. I’m still at the beginning of my journey with Kafka. I read The Metamorphosis a fair few years ago, which I loved and have re-read, and then I bought a copy of The Castle from a book fair in Hebden Bridge. I struggled with it while reading, finding it quite soporific, but in the months after reading it, found myself still thinking about it. It’s taken me seven years to pick up my next Kafka, though. Continue reading

The Equestrienne

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Read 28/12/2021

Rating 5 stars

The Equestrienne is a novella that I picked up speculatively, prompted by Meytal Radzinski’s Women in Translation initiative. Every day during 2021, Meytal has tweeted about a non-Anglophone female writer whose work may or may not, more often not, have been translated into English. A different writer every day. It’s quite a task and a great source of authors for anyone wanting to broaden their reading.

Uršuľa Kovalyk is a Slovakian writer from Košice who now lives in Bratislava. She campaigns for women’s rights, and is the director of the Theatre With No Home, which provides opportunities for homeless and disabled actors.

Košice is close to Slovakia’s border with Hungary. I thought I would visit there on my virtual tour of Europe, rather than the Slovakian capital. Continue reading

Dead Souls

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Read 27/10/2021-17/11/2021

Rating 5 stars

Next on my literary tour of Europe, I’m off to Russia. Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls is set in an unspecified Russian provincial capital, only referred to as N—. This undefined location means that I can fudge my journey on the map and visit Kaliningrad. This city is also a Russian provincial capital, but in a small exclave of Russia that sits on the Baltic coast between Lithuania and Poland, the Kaliningrad Oblast. Continue reading