Books Read in 2021 – 12. The Problem with Men: When is International Men’s Day? (And Why It Matters)

Genre: Comedy, Cultural comment

Narrative Style: Essay interspersed with personal anecdotes

Rating: 4/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2021

Synopsis: On International Women’s Day, for the last few years, Richard Herring has taken it upon himself to deal with all the men on Twitter who want to know why there is no International Men’s Day. This book is the result of those interactions. He discusses why International Men’s Day is important, why men choose to ask about it on March 8th and what the wider political ramifications might be. In a humorous way, of course.

Time on Shelf: Not very long. I bought this earlier this year when it was on sale on Kindle for 0.99.

I like Richard Herring. He’s funny. I went to see his show, Talking Cock, in 2003 and it is one of the best comedy shows I’ve seen. I’ve always appreciated his efforts on International Women’s Day with all the annoying men who are only concerned with making the day about them. This book takes that one step further – looking at the reasons why these men insist on inserting themselves into International Women’s Day and what the wider ramifications are.

This is a simple book. It has one line of argument and it sounds very much like Richard Herring’s comedy style. And that is fine. It analyses the reasons why some men only want to know about International Men’s Day on International Women’s Day something which has always irritated me.

There are a number of levels at which this behaviour is problematic. First of all, there is the sheer arrogance of it. I don’t need to Google it, I know I’m right. Then there is the fact that these men are not interested enough in the answer to actually take on board when it is. The google statistics show that searches of this question peak on March 8th. It is some perceived injustice that drives them, a need to insert themselves into the narrative. Herring shares a story of himself as a young child having meltdown at another child’s birthday basically because it was not his birthday which sums these men up pretty well, I think.

Of course, as Herring points out, there is a more serious point to be made. These men are representative of a larger political movement that has gained ground over the last few years. When Herring first started advising the men who can’t use Google as to when International Men’s Day was we were yet to witness All Lives Matter and Straight Pride to name but two idiotic and dangerous responses to genuine abuse and injustice. It’s a symptom of the idea that if it’s not about me, it’s not important mindset. Cleverly, the right wing press has pointed white male anger towards oppressed groups rather than towards the oppressors who look so much like them. Herring has one chapter which asks is female equality the same as male equality and the answer is a single word. Yes. This is what these men need to learn.

This was worth reading, definitely as it’s very funny. It’s not very deep but it is successful in getting it’s message across.

Books Read in 2021 11. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John Le Carre (Contains spoilers)

Genre: Spy Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple viewpoints. Non-chronological.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1974

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: There is a mole in the upper levels of the British intelligence service. It is clear that it is one of a small group of men, currently in charge of the Circus (MI6). But which one. George Smiley, recently retired and so outside of the service, is given the job of investigating.

Time on shelf: Not long. I bought this not long after Le Carre died. I haven’t read much spy fiction and what I had read I didn’t love. (The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming and The Swimmer by Joakim Zander, for example.) They seemed to turn on acts of immense stupidity or the opposite – the narrator having so much knowledge that it is almost superhuman. Neither option is much fun. However, Le Carre is described as a master of the art so I thought if I was ever going to like this genre, this was a good place to start.

From the start of this novel, Le Carre’s skill as a writer is apparent. The opening line (The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.) throws you straight into the story. You are in the middle of something that is already in full flow and you have no idea what is going on. The narrative continues at pace and for quite a while, I was completely at sea, trying to make links, pull together events.

George Smiley has recently been retired when the novel starts. Control, the old head of The Circus has died and quite a few of George’s contemporaries have also been purged as the Circus is taken over by a close knit group of spies who are running an intelligence operation called Witchcraft. This is an intensely secretive operation which is producing suspiciously good information. One day, Smiley comes home to find Peter Guillam waiting in his living room and he is whisked off to permanent secretary, Lacon’s house to meet Rikki Tarr, a field agent with important information. So begin Smiley’s investigations and the reader’s confusion and excitement at the events that follow.

Tarr tells his tale in an extended flashback. Smiley takes quiet note asking astute questions. Afterwards, he is set up in a hotel with Control’s information and begins to work through it methodically, interviewing people as he goes. Smiley is a methodical, careful man. Loyal too, even to the wife who has cheated on him many times, even with close friend and fellow spy, Bill Haydon. Le Carre gives hints and clues to who the mole is and what is actually happening. He does it in just the right amounts and at just the right speed to keep the reader interested. The pacing is perfect.

Le Carre uses a lot of jargon – lamplighters, the Circus, pavement artists, to name but three – which gives the novel an authentic feel. Le Carre worked as a spy and it is evident that he knows what he is talking about. The events, the characters, the style of the narrative voice all have a legitimacy. I thought that this jargon was from his days as a spy but it transpires that Le Carre invented a lot of it and it has then been taken up by actual intelligence agencies. Some, such as mole, have fallen into common usage. It is unclear how widely used this word was in intelligence work before this novel.

There are somethings that made me uncomfortable. It starts to become clear that Bill Haydon is the least trustworthy of the four suspects. This is established in a number of ways. He has a lot of liaisons including with George’s wife. He is described as ‘dashing’ and being like Lawrence of Arabia. It is also suggested that he and Jim Prideaux were more than friends. Jim was ‘always so thick with Bill’. Bill is very keen to have Jim repatriated and threatens to resign when The Circus won’t pay the price. When Bill recruits Jim, Smiley remembers the description of Jim’s physicality that Bill sends and it is intensely homo-erotic. In the logic of the novel, all this adds to Bill’s untrustworthiness and is equal to the way that he is playing on both teams in his professional life as well. At one point someone says ‘they said he went both ways’ and while it is clear they mean sexually, when it transpires he is the mole, the full meaning of it becomes clear.

This is obviously a tired, not to mention offensive, trope. I don’t want to be too hard on Le Carre. He didn’t invent the link between being gay and being untrustworthy. Gay spies were considered to be at a bigger risk of being blackmailed especially when homosexuality was illegal. The novel was written in 1974 and is set in 1973, only six years after the Sexual Offences Act. Not only that but Le Carre would have been working in intelligence in the fifties when Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess suddenly fled to the Soviet Union after sharing secrets throughout the war. Burgess was gay and Maclean was bisexual. It probably seemed logical to Le Carre to frame Bill Haydon in this way but for me it spoiled the reading of what otherwise was a very enjoyable book.

Overall, I think I would read Le Carre again. I enjoyed his style and I enjoyed piecing the puzzle together. I’m still not entirely sure about the genre as a whole though. Now that I’ve read a master at the game, I’m not sure what else could live up to it.

Books Read in 2021 – 10. The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi

Genre: Bildungsroman, Indian Literature

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1990

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Karim Amir lives with his English mother and Indian father. He is looking for adventure – preferably sexual but any sort of adventure will do. When his father starts to give lessons in mysticism and meditation, Karim is thrown into a new world of punks, creatives and he starts to move away from his childhood world.

Time on shelf: I’ve wanted to read this from the early nineties when I watched it on the telly. So although I have only recently acquired a physical copy, it has been on the list for a long time.

I like it when you start to read a book and from the very first lines, you know that you are going to enjoy it. That was the case with this one. Karim’s narration is lively and funny from the very first. It is pacy and exciting. It is never quite certain what will happen to him next. It’s a definite page turner.

Karim is on the cusp of adulthood. His identity is still quite fluid. He is English and Indian and he likes boys and girls so he doesn’t fit into any group fully although he tries really hard to do so. This makes him an interesting character as you can see his efforts to try to be what others want him to be. He is confidante to many but has to try to work out his own issues on his own.

Karim mostly sleeps with women but his great love is Charlie, the son of his father’s mistress, Eva. Charlie is attractive but vapid. He easily follows trends as he has no real opinions of his own. He is not worthy of Karim’s adoration which is unshakeable for most of the novel. Finding punk in its early days, Charlie changes his band to fit in with this exciting new movement and is successful without having any talent or caring particularly about anything. He wants fame and he finds it in America. He seems to represent the selling out of the punk ideal or the idea of capitalism as a destructive force. At least, finally Karim realises that he is not worth his time and comes back to take up an acting job in a soap opera.

Karim doesn’t just tell his own story – there are many others given as he describes the lives around him. There is his father, Haroon who leaves his English wife for a more glamourous version where he gives talks about meditation and mingles with the white middle classes who lap up his spiritual musings and Jamilla, Karim’s cousin whose father arranges for a husband to be sent to England from India. When she refuses, he goes on hunger strike. To name but two. There are a lot of minor characters as well. Sometimes Karim seems a little lost in amongst all this chaos and excitement as if his story is being drowned out by all these other voices and people.

The novel talks about race, class, sexuality and is an astute observation of the late seventies. Because of the energy of Karim’s narrative, this never seems political or heavy going. It uses Karim’s issues with finding his identity to highlight some of the issues in British society. It is easy to feel for Karim and hope for him and I was so relieved when he finally realised that Charlie was no good. At the end, he has certainly fulfilled his wish of moving away from his childhood home and he is surrounded by friends and family and appears happy. The main thing, however that is driving this happiness, is the fact he has money which suggests that this happiness may be short lived. I was hopeful for Karim at the end of the novel but I couldn’t say whether he would continue to be happy.

Books Read in 2021. 9. Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens (contains spoilers)

Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction, Romance

Narrative Style: Third person, changes between two time frames

Published: 2018

Rating: 2/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: The locals of Barkley Cove call Kya the Marsh Girl. She has lived there alone, abandoned by her family, one by one. She is an outsider and they do not trust her so when local man, Chase Andrews, is murdered all eyes turn to her. Owens gives us two parallel time lines – the story of Kya’s abandonment starting in 1952 and the police investigation in 1969-70.

Time on shelf: Not very long. I saw that a lot of people seemed to be reading this and liking it so when it came up on my Kindle daily deal email in November, I bought it.

I started out quite liking this book. The early chapters describing Kya’s childhood were touching. The novel starts with Kya’s mother walking away from their shack in the marshes. Kya never understands why her mother has left and cannot believe that she will not come back. Next, her brother Jodie leaves, leaving Kya with her alcoholic, aggressive father. It was compelling and I couldn’t help but worry about what might happen to her.

The love story between Tate and Kya was also touching. It started with Tate leaving feathers for her. He has to slowly build Kya’s trust. It is sweet and innocent. The writing was often quite beautiful here. The descriptions of nature and of life in the marsh were the best part of this book. Tate encourages Kya’s love of nature and teaches her to read. Later, he helps her find a publisher for her drawings and descriptions of the the wildlife and nature of the swamp. I wasn’t 100% convinced by this part of the storyline but I liked the idea of Kya being self-taught and independent. It fitted with her character.

Tate goes away to study and, although he loves Kya, he believes she will never leave the marsh and they will never be able to have a normal life so he too abandons her. Enter Chase Andrews, a more worldly man – clearly meant to be a direct contrast with Tate’s sweetness – who persuades Kya to trust him with wild promises he has no intention of keeping. He keeps seeing other women, indeed he plans to get married, while he is seeing Kya. When Kya finds out that he is engaged to someone else, she refuses to see him. He does not take this well and he attacks Kya, attempting to rape her. She manages to get away but she knows that he will not rest until he has exerted his will over her. As these details are revealed, they give the reader just enough reasonable doubt about Kya to wonder whether or not she did it. And, of course, there were other questions as well – did she do it in self self defence for example.

If all the novel had been like this, it would be fine but the parallel narrative of the police investigation in 1969/70 was not so convincing. The two detectives – sheriff Ed Jackson and his deputy, Joe – weren’t very well written. They were little more than their jobs for a start. They don’t stand out as characters in their own right. They don’t even have to do too much policing as people keep arriving to tell them things rather than them having to investigate. They, and the townspeople, are quite keen for Kya to have killed Chase so if any evidence suggested that she didn’t do it – such as when they realise that Kya was out of town on the night of the murder – they very quickly found a reason for her to still be a suspect.

The evidence builds and Kya is the only suspect so, after some difficulty, they arrest her. We then have the court case which presented evidence that is new to the reader. Some of this evidence seems patently ridiculous. The prosecution contend that Kya came back from Greenville, where she was meeting her publisher, by a late night bus, disguised as a boy, killed Chase and then got the bus back, this time disguised as an old woman. There were other equally preposterous details and I really thought I couldn’t believe that they were being put up as evidence. It was absurd. The bus was late. She didn’t have time to commit the crime. But still the police were still determined she did it. It was ridiculous.

She is found innocent. Of course. And she carries on with her life. Tate has come back into her life and they get together, both working in the marshes into their old age. No one ever found out who killed Chase. There were no other suspects. It was a mystery. And that was irritating. I thought we might never find out. However, after her death, Tate finds some of Kya’s things under the floorboards in their shack. He finds poems that Kya has written under the name of Amanda Hamilton (which, irritatingly, Kya has recited often throughout the novel), one of which describes Chase’s murder. He also finds Chase’s necklace, which Kya had given him, and which was missing from the body. So all those ridiculous things, the barely convincing evidence was true. I found this ending incredibly annoying and it tainted the whole book for me.

This could have been a powerful lesson about prejudice but as Kya was actually guilty of the crime, I’m not sure what point the writer was trying to make. Very disappointing.

Books Read in 2021. 8. Middlemarch – George Eliot

Genre: Romance, Classics

Narrative Style: Omniscient Third Person Narrator, Chronological

Rating: 3.5/5

Published: 1871

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Middlemarch is a slice of Victorian provincial life. It examines the inter-related lives of Dorothea Brooke, Fred Vincy, Tertius Lydgate, Will Ladislaw and Nicholas Bulstrode. Eliot touches on love, politics, money and the nature of marriage in her description of life in Middlemarch.

Time on Shelf: A long time. We bought this in the early nineties when classic novels were being sold for £1. This is where most of my classics came from. I have made a couple of attempts at reading this before but have never got further than 100 pages. This was added to my reading list after me and my husband watched a nation’s favourite books style programme and this was one that I hadn’t read. I was determined to finish it this time. Not least because he was breathing down my neck all the time.

Okay, so I made it through this time. And I’m glad I did. It was worth it. It was a struggle in the beginning to keep reading. Eliot’s style isn’t particularly hard to read but it isn’t a style I particularly enjoy. Everything is so very long winded. I’m sure this could have been told in less pages with less words per sentence but then I’m very much a modern girl in that sense. Eliot’s long, so long, sentences meant I wasn’t getting very many pages read at a time. Not helped by the fact that my copy was only 682 pages rather than the 800+ of a lot of editions. The print was tiny and as I’m now of an age to need reading glasses, it was hard to read for extended amounts of time.

But persevere I did and it started to flow for me. After about half way through, I started to enjoy it. I wouldn’t say I couldn’t put it down but I was interested to see how things would work out. There are a lot of plot strands but it is not hard to follow. Having said that, I did sometimes lose track of all the incidental characters. They were like the characters you might find gossiping in the Rover’s Return on Coronation Street who you might recognise on screen but struggle to name.

Part of the problem for me with the start of the novel is that I really didn’t take to Dorothea. I admired her decision to marry Mr Casaubon but it seemed absurd to me. And once Will Ladislaw appeared on the scene, it was fairly apparent how things would go. Obviously, there were obstacles but they were always going to get there in the end. I found other plot lines more entertaining.

There was a lot of comedy to be found. More than I was expecting anyway. Dorothea’s uncle, Mr. Brooke, was particularly amusing with his bumbling attempts at politics. The romance between Mary Garth and Fred Vincy was also sweetly amusing as she would not accept him until he made something of himself. Eliot mixes the lighter moments with more serious events such as the death of Mr Casaubon and Fred’s disappointment when he does not inherit his Uncle’s land as expected.

It was good to witness the downfall of Bulstrode and Eliot does not stint from punishing him for his past ills, showing how his piousness is a cover for a very dubious past and how he is undone by his desperation to hide it. I wasn’t totally convinced by the character of Raffles who turned up at various points to extract money from Bulstrode. He seemed a little like a caricature. Nonetheless, he sends Bulstrode into a tailspin as he tries to stop people finding out about his past. It was very satisfying to observe.

There are some clever twists and turns to the plotting. There is no doubt that Eliot was a master of her craft. The characterisation is vivid. You really get a feel for Middlemarch and its inhabitants. Even so, I didn’t love it and I doubt I’ll rush to read any other Eliot. At least not for a while.

Books Read in 2021 7. Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

Genre: Music, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of points of view.

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2020

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Utopia Avenue are a band put together by Levon Frankland. They are an unlikely bunch, mixing folk, psychedelic, rock and jazz influences. The novel follows their rise to fame and how they deal with their personal issues.

Time on shelf: Not very long. I’ve read four Mitchell novels before so I was excited to read this one.

Well, this was a disappointment. From very early on, it was clear that this was not going to be the usual Mitchell tour de force that I normally enjoy so much. The first character we are introduced to is Dean Moss, a gullible, uneducated bass player whose life is falling apart. Cue entrance of Levon Frankland who is putting a band together. They then proceed to pull together the other members of the band, all of whom are at crisis points in their musical careers. So far so predictable. The band suffer the usual setbacks in the start of their career – bad gigs, sinking singles and so on. Until, of course, things start to go well.

There isn’t much in the way of overarching story here. There is the story of the band and each of the members have a personal crisis. Dean had a troubled childhood with an abusive father, Elf Holloway thinks she may be gay but is unable to accept it (at least at first) and Jasper de Zoet has mental health issues. However, none of these things really have any momentum. There is no pace. In one chapter (the only one he gets) drummer, Griff is in a car crash which kills his brother. He doesn’t want to stay in the band. And then suddenly he is back in the band again. Because he gets no other chapters, we do not know his motivation. (Incidentally, Griff was a badly drawn stereotype of a Yorkshireman whose one trait was to say fook all the time. It made me question whether Mitchell had ever met someone from the North.)

The most interesting – and the most Mitchell like – of these storylines is Jasper’s. He has an interloper in his head who wants control of his body and briefly gains it. This is more like the Mitchell we all know and love and is the sole reason this didn’t get one star. Jasper is cured by horology, one of Mitchell’s trademark ideas. This is the only part of the story that isn’t straightforwardly realistic. I could have stood a bit more of it.

It isn’t only the plot that is problematic, however. It is the constant cameos of dead pop stars. Okay, so a band in London in the 1960s would meet some other pop stars, of course but these appearances are so frequent and are so blandly written that they quickly become tedious. Mitchell seems to think that the insertion of the name is enough and so does little to flesh out Brian Jones, Keith Moon or David Bowie (to name but three). They get there full name every time they are mentioned as if the reader is going to be as tickled by their appearance as Mitchell clearly is. I was familiar with some of these people but not all of them. A little more work at characterisation might have been helpful.

The one time Mitchell does expand his powers of description, it is quite successful. In a chapter set in the Chelsea Hotel, Elf fails to recognise Leonard Cohen so Mitchell has to describe him properly so the reader can work it out. Leonard comes across as wittily flirtatious, urbane and charming. Much as you might imagine really. By comparison, the other cameos felt lazy and self-indulgent. In fact, the one chapter from Levon’s point of view seems to have been included solely so that Mitchell could include an extended (and completely cringey) cameo from Francis Bacon which made me question which came first, the story or the star turns.

So overall, a disappointing read which saw me begin to anticipate the cameos rather than what might happen in the plot. A chapter in the Chelsea Hotel, I guess we’ll be meeting Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin then. It was tedious and didn’t feel like it had been written by a writer as good as Mitchell. What a shame.

Books Read in 2021 6. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway.

Genre: Classics, Masculinity, Adventure

Narrative Style: Third person, Chronological

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1952

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: The Old Man and the Sea tells the story of Santiago, an aged fisherman who is having the worst run of luck of his life. It is eighty four days since he has caught a fish. On the eighty fifth day, he catches a huge marlin which pulls him out to sea.

Time on shelf: A long time. I’m not sure where this one came from. I think it may have been my husband’s and so it arrived when we moved in together some 20+ years ago. I have made one attempt to read this – in about 2005 – as it was one the GCSE syllabus – but I failed to finish it. As it is not a long book, this should give you some indication of how much I was enjoying it.

This was one of the first books my husband mentioned when he suggested that he would come up with a reading list for me. He has read it and he really enjoyed it. He wasn’t impressed that I didn’t finish it last time I decided to read it early in the year so that it was out of the way.

So what to say about this book. My main problem is that I wasn’t interested in the story. Partly, I suppose, because the plot of the novel is so well known there wasn’t much tension. I knew he wasn’t going to get the fish home. So there was very little tension. Not that Hemingway can be blamed for this.

I quite enjoyed Hemingway’s pared down style. There is nothing excessive about it. nothing extraneous to the plot. So I think I would like to read another Hemingway novel even though this story didn’t particularly grab me. I also enjoyed the relationship between Santiago and the fish he has caught. He is fully aware of the fish’s power and beauty and as such, treats it with a level of respect you might reserve for another human.

I understand that this is an allegory. The sea represents life. The battle with the fish represents life’s ultimate futility. And so on. Very clever and all but it didn’t make it a more interesting story for me.

Books Read in 2021 – 4. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Genre: African-American, Masculinity, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person Omniscient Narrator. Moves between 1960s and 2010s.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2019

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Archeologists find a secret graveyard behind an old reform school. They soon realise that they have the bones of many boys. The story then moves to tell the story of Elwood Curtis, a boy who is sent to the Nickel School for Boys for the sheer bad luck of hitchhiking and being picked up by a black man in a stolen pick up. Life for all boys at Nickel is hard but it is considerably worse for the black boys as Elwood is soon to discover.

Time on shelf: Another fairly recent purchase. As lockdown has seen me unable to potter around second hand book shops like I would normally do, I’ve been getting my book buying kicks from Amazon for my kindle. This has seen me buy a lot more recent novels than I would normally.

This is a raw angry book that never lets up. The prose is pared down and details are given in an almost factual manner. It is a tragic story but also one of hope as we are given some post-Nickel story for one of the boys. It isn’t merely an account of the abuses that Elwood and the boys face at Nickel but is also about why it seems that for all the progress made, we are still seeing horrific racist abuses on the news today.

The novel begins with the modern day archeologists finding the secret graveyard at the back of Nickel Academy, a reform school in Florida. This is based on the finds at the Dozier School for Boys n 2014, also in Florida. The fatality count from the digs at Dozier has reached eighty but could easily be much much higher. While this is clearly horrific, Whitehead gives the tragedy a very human face.

The action then moves to the life of Elwood Curtis, in Jim Crow era Florida. Elwood is a serious, sensible boy who listens to Martin Luther King’s speeches and works in the kitchen at the same hotel as his grandmother. There seems to be a gap between what King says in his speeches and what Elwood feels in his life. His parents left him with her when he was six. It is the small details of Elwood’s history that are particularly painful. One of his grandfathers died in jail after a white women accused him of not getting out of the way on the street, the other was killed in a bar brawl with some white men over who was next on the pool table. His father had been in the army but when he came home, he found white men lynching black men in uniform so he and Elwood’s mother runaway, leaving Elwood without a word. Because these details are passed on in such a matter of fact way, you know that these are not facts that are unique to Elwood’s life but common to many.

Elwood is aiming high. He starts to go to protests, inspired by a new teacher at his high school. He works in a neighbourhood shop but refuses to let other boys shoplift. (This earns him a beating.) On the morning he is arrested, he is trying to make his way to college where it has been arranged that he will take some classes. He waits for a black driver and is sat in the passenger seat when the police stop them for being in a stolen car.

The rest of the novel deals with the brutality of Nickel. The school is terrible to all the boys but the black boys fair worse than the white. So many of them, like Elwood, have no parents, there is no one to care should they disappear. Elwood learns early on the horrors of perceived disobedience when he is taken to the Ice Cream Factory and beaten brutally. This is what keeps the boys in line – the threat of violence. There is also sexual abuse. Whitehead doesn’t go into details. He doesn’t need to. The mention of Lover’s Lane is horror enough.

And there are deaths and disappearances, for example when one of the boys, Griff,, the champion of the black dorms, put up to fight against the best white boy. He is asked to take a fall in the third by the supervisor who has bet on the match. When he doesn’t – he claimed to have muddled what round it was – he quickly disappeared. Supposedly he has run away but, of course, we know this is not the turth. Griff has been a bully, an unpleasant character but no one deserves his fate.

One of the things that Whitehead portrays very well is the friendships that develop between some of the boys – particularly between Elwood and Turner who get to do some work off the grounds – usually labouring in various ways for important white people, presumably to keep them on side so they don’t investigate Nickel too closely. The friendship with Turner is the one positive thing to come out of Nickel.

We are also given Elwood’s life in the future. He has managed to set up his own business. He is doing well – within a certain definition of doing well. But he can’t quite move beyond Nickel in his mind. And having your own removal company comes nowhere near the future that Elwood should have had. Through this, Whitehead shows us the continuing effect of trauma and the way it stops lives in their tracks.

At the end of the novel, Elwood finally agrees to meet with other Nickel boys, something he has always refused to do. He has things he needs to tell, and there are some twists which I don’t want to reveal but which I would never have seen coming. Like the bodies being removed from the ground, Elwood needs to bring some things out into the open from the deeper reaches of his mind. Similarly, Whitehead suggests, we as a society need to look at these traumatic events head on and deal with them. Maybe then we can stop repeated these terrible, traumatic patterns.

Books Read in 2021 3. Autumn – Ali Smith

Genre: Literary fiction.

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of points of view. Non linear.

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2016

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: It’s 2016. The UK has just voted to leave the EU. Daniel is 101 years old and lying asleep in a care home bed. Elisabeth, who was his next door neighbour when she was a teenager, visits him. The novels shows Daniel’s past and Elizabeth’s present.

Time on shelf: About a year. I bought it because I was curious to read a novel that was such a quick response to Brexit.

I’m genuinely not sure what to make of this novel. On the one hand, it is a realistic rendering of Elisabeth’s life after Brexit. It also gives some details of Elisabeth’s and Daniel’s conversations. On the other, it is an account of Daniel’s memories and dreams that are often absurd and non linear. I found it hard to pull these two very different styles together.

The novel begins with a dream like chapter where Daniel believes that he has died. He is naked and his body returns to its younger state and he seems to be in some sort of woodland with some other naked people. It isn’t made clear what is happening. The action then switches to Elisabeth who is trying to renew her passport and has opted to have the post office check it before she sends it off. This leads to a frustrating and very funny episode where Elisabeth’s photos, and consequently her whole head, are deemed wrong.

The whole novel shifts around like this and there are also chapters dealing with Christine Keeler and the artist Pauline Boty who Elisabeth writes about for her dissertation. It is a bit disorientating and pretty far from a traditional narrative. Not that this is a problem necessarily but it didn’t seem to add up to much.

I’m guessing it’s about time and the different ways we experience it. Daniel’s dreams are as real as any of Elisabeth’s experiences. He sleeps – the care home assistants say that he is near to death – and who can say that his sense of time is less accurate that Elisabeth’s as she sits reading to him. But again, I found it hard to see the overall point that Smith was trying to make or what pulled the whole thing together.

Maybe you need to read the whole series for it to completely make sense but after being so nonplussed with this one, I can’t imagine I will bother.

Books Read in 2021 – 2. The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

Genre: Alternate History

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2005

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In Roth’s alternative America, Roosevelt doesn’t win his unprecedented third term in 1940, instead heroic aviator and rampant isolationist Charles Lindbergh wins and immediately signs an understanding with Adolf Hitler and refuses to get involved with the war in Europe. He then embarks on a program of policies which will change the future for America’s Jews. The Roth family live in New Jersey in a Jewish neighbourhood and they immediately find themselves on the sharp end of a new wave of anti-Semitic persecution.

Time on Shelf: I’ve been meaning to read some Roth for a while. He has been on the long list of greats that I need to read for a long time. I watched the mini-series of The Plot Against America last year and really enjoyed it so when it came up on my kindle deals email I jumped at the chance to read it.

This is the fourth alternate history book based on the second world war in some way that I’ve read and it is easily the best, probably because it was the most believable. Unlike the others, this isn’t a story of spies or policemen (like Fatherland by Robert Harris or Dominion by C. J. Sansom) but the story of an ordinary family trying to cope with the changes to their world. You could say The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick is about ordinary people but it is too strange to be a realistic read. It also helped me to understand why this is a topic that novelists – and readers – seem drawn to. The ultimate in what if questions, it helps us to understand what might have happened in order to ensure that we never let it happen again.

The novel starts slowly. We get to know the Roths and their life. They are expectant of a Roosevelt win. Their elder son is a keen artist and has many drawings of Lindbergh of whom he is a great admirer. Philip, the younger son, is a keen collector of stamps. They are living a fairly ordinary life. They are not rich, they work hard but they have a small amount of happiness. The way this changes is slow and sometime subtle but no less sinister for that. In fact, it allows Lindbergh’s supporters to ignore the complaints and continue in their support of the president.

The master class policy in this case is the setting up of the “Just Folks” scheme, a part of the Office of American Absorption which sees Jewish children sent away to stay with Christian families for “Apprenticeships”. The Roth family view this as a sinister attempt by the government to drive Jewish families apart but some view it – including the powerful Rabbi, Bengelsdorf – as a positive way for middle America to learn that Jewish people are just like them. It is this duality that I found particularly disturbing – that the clear discrimination of the Jewish people was turned around by the government and its supporters as nothing of the sort. It was like two roads which had been running next to each other and which start to move further and further away from each other until the two viewpoints are poles apart and completely irreconcilable. And it works. When Sandy is sent away for the summer to work on a tobacco farm, he returns having absorbed the Christian values of the family he was sent to and is quickly in conflict with the rest of his family.

The novel is written from the point of view of “Philip Roth” a Jewish boy growing up in New Jersey, no doubt with some of Roth’s actual childhood memories (when he and a friend follow Christians home on the bus for example). This gives it a sense of realism that it may not have had was it was narrated through an adult’s eyes. Philip watches these events but he does not always understand them, a feeling that is somewhat shared by the reader. Finally, that Philip is narrating these events from some point in the future gives hope that this will not be forever.

At the novels end, the Roths are in pieces, all still alive but much damaged by events. There has been rioting, violence and they have lived in fear of their lives. Lindbergh has disappeared and the country is in a state of martial law. Although things look grim for them, we know from the news story style of the previous chapter that their ordeal will soon start to be over. Although, as has been seen in current America, things do not immediately change just because a new person has been elected into the White House.

Finally, reading this book at this point in time made it very easy to imagine this happening. It didn’t seem impossible that it might happen in the US because it was happening in the US. A reality star who was popular for all the wrong reasons, who constantly shouted about fake news, who had a very clear list of whom he viewed as Un-American; the parallels couldn’t be clearer. And while the US now has hope for the future, in the shape of Joe Biden, the story is far from over. We just have to hope that it will start to get better when he is inaugurated, in a few days time.