Other Names For Love – Taymour Soomro (Harvill Secker 2022)

Pakistani author Taymour Soomro’s debut sees teenage Fahad very reluctantly accompanying his father to his upcountry farm estate in Abad, an area developed largely from jungle as his power-hungry father is keen to tell everyone.  Fahad would rather spend his summer with his mother in London or Karachi but Rafik wants to toughen him up, show off his own power and influence in the area and present Fahad as the next generation.

Fahad is unable to fit into his father’s image of him.  Things seem to improve when ex-London resident and Rafik’s cousin Mousey returns home but his motives challenge Rafik’s plans.  A young man, Ali, is introduced to Fahad as a role model but Fahad finds himself attracted to him.

Tradition and the importance of family are two unsurprising themes here with those unable to sustain those values being swept aside.  The characters are unable to express their feelings to one another causing long lasting frustration and resentment.  Rafik’s need for power and prestige cannot allow anyone to stand in his way.

The story is well told and there are some lovely moments especially in the interactions between characters, Fahad with the “young thug” Ali and also with his aging father in the latter stages of the novel but for me it did not have the resonance I was expecting.

The author switches from father to son’s perspective within the third person narrative and there are jumps in time which gives a jerky, disjointed feel at times which sometimes I can actually appreciate in novels but here I think it affects the reader’s relationships with the characters.

I didn’t feel that I knew the characters well enough.  There is so much potential within the cast here, Rafik, Fahad, the mother, father’s cousin Mousey and Ali have all potential to blend into something outstanding but I felt the author was only allowing me to have a superficial understanding of them as if something was being held back.  I felt this particularly with main character Fahad, on this occasion leaving the reader to fill in the gaps influences the reader’s response to him.  I felt I wasn’t being pulled in to the novel as consistently as I could have been.

I do feel however that Taymour Soomro has provided us with a very visual work and there are considerable poignant, subtle scenes.  A TV/film adaptation could work very well indeed incorporating these beautiful small moments within the novel into a visual narrative.

Other Names For Love is published by Harvill Secker on 7th July 2022.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

This Might Hurt – Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2022)

Stephanie Wrobel’s 2020 debut known in the UK as “The Recovery Of Rose Gold” was a 5 star little gem of a novel.  Its Munchausen By Proxy theme (although never actually specified in the book) fascinated me and it had an “under the surface darkness” which I loved.  It just missed out on my Top 10 Books Of The Year.

So, naturally, I was keen to read the author’s second novel although I must admit that when I heard the main setting was an island retreat for those who want to be fearless I didn’t experience the same anticipation as I did for the debut but I was keen to add the name of Stephanie Wrobel to my list of authors with two or more 5* reviews on this site (and because I am so stingy with my top rating she would have been only the 10th author to achieve this).

However, and as the title states, “this might hurt”, for me this book fell quite a bit short of my top rating and compared to her last book I felt so disappointed that I contemplated a two star but then appreciated that I had set the bar so high in my mind for this particular author and that 3 stars was the most fitting for this work.

Firstly, I found the narrative structure confusing.  I read enough books not to be confused by characters, but here I was, I thought maybe I was being misdirected on purpose and expected some big reveal but it never happened, I had just got characters confused.  I also love a bit of darkness but here I couldn’t get to grips with the sadistic nature of fearlessness or why these particular characters saw it as desirable.

There’s a number of first-person narratives here.  A child is being bullied into her father’s vision of reaching her full potential, being made to score “positive” and “negative” achievements and facing punishment if her score does not make his grade.  A young woman is at an island retreat getting her life back together when her sister receives a “I know what you did” type email and she goes to the island to confess a family secret.

The plot did not have enough to really hold me and unfortunately and surprisingly, considering how I felt about “Rose Gold”, the characters did not come alive  for me.

There are pluses, however, I liked the sense of isolation on the island and the not knowing whether anything was what it seemed was done very well.  It is another accessible, commercial read.  It is in comparison with Stephanie Wrobel’s previous work that this, for me, feels a little flat.

This Might Hurt is published in the UK by Michael Joseph on 3rd March 2022.  Many thanks to the author and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Mouth To Mouth – Antoine Wilson (Atlantic 2022)

Here’s a title I flagged up as one of the potential highlights of 2022 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  The narrator, a writer en-route to Berlin is delayed at JFK Airport and meets a man he vaguely knew twenty years before.  They share drinks in the lounge and this man, Jeff, regales the narrator with what has happened to him in the intervening time. 

It centres around an occasion when he reluctantly saved a man from drowning and his interest in the man he saved verges on the obsessive as he inveigles his way into his life.  This theme reminded me slightly of Ian McEwan’s impressive “Enduring Love” but the subject matter is handled differently here.

There’s an element of suspension of disbelief required for Jeff’s story forms virtually the whole of the book suggesting this is one long flight delay, for his account is so detailed, our narrator must hardly have got a word in.  It is a recounting of a tale told second-hand which seems a brave narrative style for a whole novel as that distance means characters are not fleshed out in the way that they could have been.

It is an interesting conceit but to be honest it didn’t really blow me away and whilst involved, and it is undeniably well-handled by Wilson, I didn’t feel that once-remove really pulled me into the actual narrative.

I can see why some readers would really like this book and I can also see why it might leave some unconvinced.  Unusually for me, I’m somewhat stuck in the middle.  I wonder if it might just be one of those books that do not completely win me over but leaves an impression which lingers hauntingly, lasting longer in my imagination than books which I had a stronger immediate response to.  Time will tell….

Mouth To Mouth is published in the UK by Atlantic Books on March 3rd 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Love Marriage- Monica Ali (Virago 2022)

I haven’t read Monica Ali for 18 years since her outstanding debut “Brick Lane” which was my runner up Book Of The Year back in 2004.

This is her fifth novel which shows once again her great skill at creating characters who will really resonate with the reader.  In this book this is particularly the case away from the two main protagonists as she gives us an extremely memorable supporting cast. 

Doctors Yasmin and Joe are planning their wedding.  Yasmin’s father is a straight-laced Indian GP, who keeps himself to himself and likes nothing better than diagnosing case studies with his daughter.  Her mother wears mis-matched charity shop clothes and handles each situation through cooking.  Joe’s mother is a feminist writer and intellectual, infamous because of a naked photo which Yasmin’s brother Arif takes great delight in.

Ongoing preparations for the wedding causes both families to implode, Joe to seek therapy and Yasmin to act completely out of character.  There is a delicious lightness of touch which makes it an enjoyable read and yet there is darkness in each of the lives which gradually become revealed to Yasmin who is a self-declared maker of “all sorts of misjudgements and assumptions” which is only too common when dealing with all of our responses to family.

I enjoyed the obviously well-researched medical setting; the lives in the hospital compared to the lives in the two very different family settings.

It doesn’t feel as essential a book as “Brick Lane” which felt so right at its time of publication and has since become a modern day classic but this is a strong, highly satisfactory read.

Love Marriage is published in the UK by Virago on February 3rd 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. 

The Love Songs Of W E B Du Bois – Honoree Fanonne Jeffers

Attracting much critical acclaim in the US and an Oprah Book Club pick which ensures high sales this is a big book in terms of size and themes, coming in at just under 800 pages and an extraordinary debut from an award-winning poet.

It is both an epic saga taking in generations of an African American family from Chicasetta, Georgia and in a parallel first-person narrative an intimate, unflinching study of the youngest member Ailey, focusing in very close detail on her upbringing and academic studies.  A family tree at the front of the book is vital as one narrative begins with the Native American inhabitants of the land moving to the rise of the plantation and slavery moving through the generations slowly slotting things into place as Ailey begins her own studies of her family history.

The historical narrative is powerful, beautifully written and impressive.  This is a long book, however, and it does at time sprawl which can place demands on the reader.  This author loves detail and this is most evident in Ailey’s account which is so closely observed and meticulous in its detail.  It was here that I felt the odd twinge of frustration, especially in Ailey’s college years and her response to American academia.  However, this is a book which will leave the reader feeling changed, this long time spent in the company of Ailey’s family (you can’t rush through this book) will provide the reader with a change of perspective in terms of American history, race and feminism.

It never gets any easier reading about slavery and it is important that it doesn’t.  Ailey’s contemporary account highlights the more subtle forms of racism, including what is referred to here as “Black Tax” where the African-American has to work harder to achieve the same results.

I know I am not the intended audience for what the author unapologetically describes in her Coda as “a black feminist novel” and “undoubtedly a woman’s novel” but I was very impressed.

The Love Songs Of W E B Du Bois was published on 20th January 2022 by 4th Estate in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and NB magazine for the review copy. This review, along with many others of recently published books can be found at the Review Centre on the NB website.

Devotion- Hannah Kent (Picador 2022)

That’s 3 out of 3 novels I’ve read now by Australian author Hannah Kent, a prospect I’d so anticipated that I highlighted this new title in my “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post.

Her 2013 debut “Burial Rites” recreated nineteenth century Iceland, incorporating Icelandic sagas into the narrative and a use of documents and reports which really impressed me but I gave the slight edge to 2017’s “The Good People” set in a nineteenth century Irish village entrenched with folklore and fairies in a dark, foreboding read.  It’s three good four star reads in a row as far as I am concerned but maybe if forced to rank them “Devotion” would be at number three.

We are still in the nineteenth century but we begin in Kay, a Prussian village and a small community of Old Lutherans facing persecution for their beliefs.  Amongst them is narrator Hanne, an adolescent who sees herself as “forever nature’s child” and as an outsider to the rest of the community content with adhering to the traditions of the forefathers.  Into this mix comes a new family, the Eichenwalds with mother Anna Maria, a midwife from outside the region, whose unconventional  treatments arouse suspicion and daughter Thea who recognises Hanne as a kindred spirit.

So far this feels like we are on typical Kent territory with her doing what she does so well evoking a small community battling with tradition and a fear of new ideas but this is very much a book of three parts, with a marked tonal shift in each.

The second part ramps up the adventure stakes with the community’s response to persecution and the third, with what happens afterwards becomes more lyrical, spiritual and poetic. Compared to her other novels this has the same focused intensity but here the plot events bring about a sense of space which gives contrast to the pressures of small space living

This is very much a love story between Hanne and Thea as suggested by the “Devotion” of the title and this is the unifying strength between the three parts.  This is touching, often heart-breaking and effectively conveyed throughout. 

There seems to be a 4-5 year gap between Hannah Kent’s novels, which always feel thoroughly researched and may explain this but her third novel should cement her reputation as a very good historical writer and will give new readers who come to her via this publication a chance to catch up with her work so far whilst waiting for her next book to appear.

Devotion is published in the UK on February 3rd by Picador.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Looking Around…….

For my last retrospective post, looking back over 2021 I like to have a look around the blogosphere and see the books which have impressed other bloggers during the last twelve months. I always expect that there is going to be a modicum of consensus and that there would be the odd book which appears on Best Of the Year lists time after time, but this is rarely the case and it certainly is not so for this year when there’s a wide range of books being recommended but not often the same book in more than one list.

I can usually find one of my Top 10 books in another blogger’s list but this year I have not been successful in discovering this. I might have thought that it was me, that I was out of touch, or that I’d read the wrong books this year but there are so many lists with no overlaps that I am certainly taking nothing personally!

There’s just a couple of titles I’ve seen appearing more than one list, both feature in the Top 5 of Jen at Books On The 7.47, Yaa Gyasi’s “Transcendent Kingdom” and Torrey Peters’ “Detransition, Baby” . Also on this list is one that I’ve highlighted as wanting to read (on my Looking Forward list for 2020), the Women’s Fiction Prize winning “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke (I do it have sat on my Kindle waiting for me) as well as the non-fiction 2021 publication from an author I read for the first time this year, Bernardine Evaristo. and her “Manifesto: On Never Giving Up”. Megan Hunter’s “The Harpy” (I’m not sure if I’m thrilled or appalled by the front cover of this one) makes up a good-looking Top 5 here.

There have been a couple of nods to books that have made my Top 10’s in the past. Jessica at The Bookworm Chronicles has one of my former Books Of The Year “The Count Of Monte Cristo“, acknowledging that it took her 3 months to read in her Top 10, Jacqui Wine’s Journal has selected my 2016 #3 “Black Narcissus” by Rumer Godden, Bookish Beck has “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton (#7 in my 2014 list) on her Backlist reads and Kim at “Reading Matters” has “The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa my 2020 #4 in her list. She also has a couple of books that I read and enjoyed but which didn’t make my Top 10 this year, the Booker Prize winning “The Promise” by Damon Galgut, and “Mrs March” by Virginia Feito. These two are also on the Top 8 New Books list produced by Cathy at 746 Books who also has Ira Levin’s “A Kiss Before Dying” in her Books on her Shelf list. I really loved that when I read it as a teenager and must give that another go, especially as re-reading his “Rosemary’s Baby” was such a good experience. At “Reading Matters” I was also reminded me once again of a book that I’ve wanted it to read since I highlighted it pre-publication back at the start of 2019, Graham Swift’s Brighton Pier set “Here We Are”. There’s also a book from the 1930’s which I haven’t heard of before but which also is acknowledged at Jacqui Wine’s Journal “The Fortnight In September” by R C Sheriff based on a family holiday to Bognor, which sounds like it might be right up my street and worth investigating in 2022.

Margaret at “Books Please” went for another book I really enjoyed which didn’t quite make my Top 10 cut Ambrose Parry’s “Corruption Of Blood“. Also in her list is one which my very good friend and work colleague and Video Blog partner Louise had been recommending I read all this year, (she is always brimming with excellent recommendations as can be seen on our World Book Night YouTube posting which can be found here), I also know this is by Graham Norton’s favourite author, Mary Lawson, and her Booker longlisted “Town Called Solace”.

Many of the bloggers I’ve looked at seem reluctant to pick out their ultimate book of the year. Those that have include Bookish Beck who has gone for “Living Sea Of Waking Dreams” by Richard Flanagan, who I have still never read, Linda’s Book Bag has “Always In December” by Emily Stone, Andrea Is Reading has gone for the book which was also the Daily Telegraph’s Book Of The Year “Crossroads” by Jonathan Franzen, which seems to have generally split those I know who have read it, so it might be The Marmite Book Of The Year (love it or hate it). Fiction Fan’s Book Review’s Literary Fiction pick is Patrick McGrath’s “Last Days In Cleever Square”. There’s a dead heat at “Novel Deelights” between “Wolf Den” by Elodie Harper and “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir.

On JacquiWine’s Journal’s aforementioned recommendations there ‘s one from my Books I Should Have Read In 2021 post “Mayflies” by Andrew O’Hagan as well as one I’ve recently bought “Passing” by Nella Larsen which brings back the quandary I am in as to which I should do first, read the 1929 novel or watch the 2021 critically well-received film adaptation which is on Netflix in the UK. Another that is waiting on my Kindle is a book which made Fictionphile’s Top 4, “Last House on Needless Street” by Catriona Ward together with a book the aforementioned Louise has said really gripped her between Xmas and New Year “The Searcher” by Tana French, an author I must certainly investigate this year.

So many links in this post! I think it’s important to link up some of us who are out there promoting great reads at the start of the year. Right, let’s get on with some reading!!

Looking Back…..Looking Forward

This is my end of year report, looking back at the 10 titles I had eagerly anticipated last year and seeing how many of them I actually got around to reading as well as picking ten more choices for 2022. In 2020 I got round to reading five out of the ten titles , in 2019 three out of the ten and four out of ten the year before. Let’s see how I did in 2021.

Memorial – Bryan Washington (Atlantic Books)

I read this in January, the month it was published, and it was my first five star read of the year and narrowly missed out on my end of year Top 10. I’d read Washington’s prize-winning short story collection “Lot” but this cranked up to a higher gear for me. The central male couple straddle cultures and the set-up leaves Black American Benson with his partner Mike’s Japanese mother, who he had never previously met, whilst Mike goes to Osaka to be with his dying father who had deserted the family years before. Cue much family tension and bonding over cooking.

The Prophets- Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus Books)

An astonishing debut which ended up as number 2 in my end of year list with its haunting appeal hanging over me from January for the rest of 2021. I said “it could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.” I hope this becomes a big seller in paperback when it is published later this month.

Girl In The Walls- A J Gnuse (4th Estate)

This was a four star read for me in March. Debut writers are really having to be original and inventive to stand out from the crowd and Gnuse certainly did this with his creepy thriller. 11 year old Elise lives in the space of a house she formerly lived in, now owned by a new family and their teenage boys. Nobody suspects she is there until a younger boy turns up unannounced to the house. This is a high-quality commercial thriller which will really have readers holding their breath.

Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Picador)

This is a book that seems to have done quite well sales-wise since I read it in February. I’ve asked a few people who read it their opinion and it feels that it doesn’t quite match the expectations which readers have when starting it. I found it entertaining but it did not blow me away and I gave it a three star rating. The 1970’s lighthouse setting is great, as claustrophobic and intense as you might expect. A modern day narrative strand sets out to explain what is set up as a classic locked-room mystery. I said at the time; “After months of lockdown I think we are all in a better position to appreciate better Stonex’s writing and have stronger ideas of these lives than we would have done a year or two ago, making this a very commercially apposite proposition.”

Hot Stew-Fiona Mozley (John Murray)

I rated this three stars in March, an enjoyable urban tale which is very different from the author’s Booker shortlisted debut “Elmet” and I applauded the author for that. Early reviews compared to it to a modern day Dickens, I said of this. “It’s all likeable and in a way I can appreciate those that are seeing this as modern day Dickens but it all feels a little unresolved which Dickens would not be.”

Many Different Types Of Love – Michael Rosen (Penguin)

Read this in March and gave it a five star rating with it ending up at number 4 in my Books of The Year. I said “This was the best non-fiction work I have read this year. I’m not sure how ready I am to read about the Covid-19 pandemic, it might still be a little too much too soon but I was certainly prepared to make an exception for this collection of prose poems from a writer I very much admire who nearly became a Covid death statistic.” Moving, funny and with loads of heart from Rosen and those who cared for him.

Kitchenly 434- Alan Warner (White Rabbit)

This one passed me by. It got good reviews so I will hopefully get round to this butler and rock star tale. This year saw a well-received film adaptation of the book of Alan Warner’s I’ve read which I love “The Sopranos” retitled “Our Ladies” which suffered from multiple rescheduling because of the pandemic which I also haven’ t seen but hope to do so.

Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

Like Fiona Mozley, here was an author who did something very different, with this book I rated three stars in September, an understated crime novel which featured on quite a few end of the year lists but I think perhaps my own expectations were a little too high which led to me feeling a tad disappointed. I said “I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.” 

People Person – Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze)

This was scheduled for September but didn’t materialise. I’ve seen it listed on the BBC news website “Books To Look Forward To In 2022” and it is now due for publication at the end of May.

Diary Of A Suburban Lady – Lucy Mangan (Souvenir Press)

Retitled “Are We Having Fun Yet?”, I certainly did when I read it in September and rated it four stars. Written in diary format, I said  “It is a very commercial work, written in a genre where fans will be loyal and supportive, it feels fresh and contemporary, so it’s a shrewd move which could sell very well indeed.” The paperback is due in June.

Woo-hoo! That’s 8 out of 10 read and one of those I couldn’t read because it hasn’t been published yet. Here are ten more titles which have attracted my attention pre-publication and I will certainly be looking out for in 2022.

The Heretic – Liam McIllvanney (Harper Collins) ( due out on 20th January)

Follow-up to Scottish Crime Book Of The Year “The Quaker” which I read back in 2018 which introduced DI Duncan McCormack in a late 60’s Glasgow setting. This location was the setting for my current Book of The Year. Could McIlvanney’s Glasgow make it two in a row? This book shifts forward in time to the mid 70’s. Last time round I was impressed by the feel of the period and the character of McCormack so this is certainly one I want to read.

Devotion – Hannah Kent (Picador) (due out on 3rd February)

It’s been five years since Hannah Kent’s last novel “The Good People“. “Devotion” is her third, I’ve read both her others and have given them four star ratings. Set in Prussia in 1836, I’ve found Kent’s previous works to “be saturated with the feel of the times” so expect real authenticity in its setting. We are being promised “a stunning story of girlhood and friendship, faith and suspicion, and the impossible lengths we go to for the ones we love.

Love Marriage – Monica Ali (Virago) (due out on 3rd February)

This is Monica Ali’s 4th novel. I haven’t read her, inexplicably, since her most famous novel, 2003’s “Brick Lane” ended up as runner-up of my favourite reads of 2004. Featuring doctors as the main characters this is being touted as “a story about who we are and how we love in today’s Britain – with all the complications and contradictions of life, desire, marriage and family. What starts as a captivating social comedy develops into a heart-breaking and gripping story of two cultures, two families and two people trying to understand one another.” That description certainly get the thumbs up from me.

Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins) (due out on 3rd February)

A debut book already picked up for a television adaptation. This is a tense, edge of the seat thriller. I don’t actually read that many of these but there is something about this Louisiana swamps set serial killer tale which I find very appealing. I like small town mentality in my thrillers, where everyone knows everything about everybody and apparently this book will really deliver on this. Author Jeffery Deaver has said of it; “Author Willingham takes us on an unstoppable journey through the psychology of evil, and of courage (in many senses), all told in a pitch-perfect literary style.”

A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus Books) (due out on 17th February)

Another debut with a big buzz, the first in a British crime series which will feature a character called Pretty Boy and his desire for revenge. It’s being talked about as a British version of “The Wire” and we can expect it to be gritty, brutal yet full of dry humour. The author is currently training to be a solicitor but might find himself needing to change the day job if this book really takes off in the way some suspect it will.

Mother’s Boy – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press) (due out on 1st March)

A Cornish historical novel from a writer who can really impress me and who is a great storyteller. I think, judging by what I’ve read it is a fictional account of the life of poet Charles Causley focusing on his war experiences. His last novel, 2018’s “Take Nothing With You” was the best of his books I have read and featured in my 100 Essential Books strand. I hope this will be as good.

Mouth To Mouth- Antoine Wilson (Atlantic Books) (due out on 3rd March)

Lots of praise for this American author’s first novel already. The story of an author who wants to find out more about a man’s life he saved. Andrew Sean Greer who wrote “Less” which won him both a Pulitzer Prize and a four star review from me says it is; “the best book I’ve read in ages. Narratively ingenious, delicately written, intriguingly plotted, it is literature of the highest quality. I see you now, dear Reader, with this novel in your hand and already losing track of time “ That is an impressive recommendation.

Memphis – Tara M Stringfellow (John Murray) (due out on 7th April)

A debut from African-American writer who here explores three generations of a Memphis family. It comes with a recommendation from my runner up for Book Of The Year author Robert Jones Jnr who describes it as having “an endearing and unforgettable cast of characters who find strength in vulnerability, safety in art, and liberation in telling the truth.

Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador) (due out on 14th April)

The author of my Best Book of 2021 looking to make it two in a row. A love story between two men from working class Glasgow- one Catholic and one Protestant. The publishers are promising “a gripping and revealing story about the meaning of masculinity, the push and pull of family, the violence faced by so many queer people, and the dangers of loving someone too much.” Considering how well everything was handled in the Booker winning “Shuggie Bain” I have high hopes for this one.

Theatre Of Marvels – Lianne Dillsworth (Penguin) (due out on 28th April)

A debut from a Black British author. I love a Victorian London setting and anything with a hint of the Gothic and here the author is said to come up with the goods in her tale of an actress from Crillick’s Variety Theatre. The author has an MA in Victorian Studies and early reviews are praising her ability in bringing the setting and location to vivid life. There’s a real buzz about this author and this book which will continue to build up to publication.

That’s 10 books to look out for all in the first four months of the year with that date of 3rd February looking like a good one for book-lovers. Here’s to lots of good reading in 2022!

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes -Zoe Playdon (Bloomsbury 2021)

This is the first book by LGBT+ activist and human rights specialist and Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at University of London Zoe Playdon.  This is an author with an impressive CV and this book comes out of a five year research project which she only had the time to begin after retirement.

It’s both a simple story of basic human rights and an incredibly complex web of legal ramifications which attempts to put into context society’s treatment of individuals who do not belong in the gender to which they were assigned at birth and tracks how much of society’s response to trans people has developed from a court case from 1968, the details of which were hidden from the public.  The author states;

“Most people are unaware that until the late 1960s trans people lived in complete legal equality with everyone else.  Ewan was the reason that changed.”

Ewan Forbes Semphill was an unassuming figure to have caused such a seismic shift in attitudes.  A religious man, born in 1912, a gifted and popular local doctor in the small Scottish community where he lived, he liked dancing and was happily married.  Ewan, however, was born the Hon. Elizabeth Forbes-Semphill, a member of one of Scotland’s distinguished families and whose father had the dual titles of a baronetcy and a barony (he was the 8th Baronet Forbes of Craigievar and the 17th Lord Semphill).

The child became known as Benjie and had a very outdoorsy existence made miserable when forced to don dresses and pose as the “Hon. Elizabeth”.  With money, prestige and a supportive mother came the opportunity to tour Europe and receive revolutionary new treatments and Benjie became Ewan.  His gender was reassigned and an action which would surprise many who battled in later decades to achieve this, his birth certificate was changed without that much fuss.

Ewan slipped easily into the life he wanted to follow and that might have been it if the concept of primogeniture did not raise its ugly head.  With titles succeeding along the male line Ewan’s right to succession was challenged by a cousin he had barely met who forced a court-case to get Ewan to prove he was male who had been wrongly assigned to a female gender at birth.

It is an extraordinary tale of a man who just wanted to get on with his life but became inevitably and continually swept up in developments even though he lived largely under the radar.  I found this clash of the simplicity of Ewan’s life as a Highlands doctor against the whole maelstrom of long-lasting legal ramifications not easy to read.  There were so many big issues going on here that I found it hard occasionally to maintain focus in this format.  Perhaps it was too ambitious to condense a five year research project into one book for the general reader who may be grappling with these concepts of gender and sexual identity for the first time.  It is a demanding work but at the heart of it is this one man who probably never saw his life as extraordinary.

The actual tale of Ewan Forbes I loved.  His hidden case did have me lost at times but the author does bring it back to contemplate the legacy of the case and the gap that still exists in terms of trans rights and the ongoing threats to the existence of trans men and women.  There is some hope with greater acceptance, and strong following and support for a new wave of activists as well as Joe Biden’s pledge to improve matters in the US, following shocking policies from the Trump administration as well as the gradual removal of long-lasting practices which contravened basic human rights, in both US, UK and world-wide, even in places we might consider “enlightened”.

I do think just a little tweaking would have made this work a little more accessible and would have got it the wider audience it deserves but it is a sobering, thought-provoking and at times quite extraordinary read.

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes was published by Bloomsbury on 11th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Lily – Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus 2021)

I haven’t read Rose Tremain for 8 years since I discovered her via her 1989 publication “Restoration”.  I absolutely loved it and it ended up in my Top 3 books for 2013. For some reason I’ve not got round to her novel from a decade later “Music & Silence” which I have had on my shelves for some years.  On reading the description of this, her latest and 16th novel, I felt it was time to revisit her as an author.

Nineteenth century settings are always going to win me over.  We start with an abandoned baby in an East London park at night and wolves who chew off her toe.  She is rescued by a Police Constable and taken to the London Foundling Hospital.  This is the story of the first 17 years of Lily’s life.

Subtitled “A Tale Of Revenge” we know from early on that guilt hangs over the young girl.  She sees herself as a murderer but we don’t know who or why.  The story is told in a third person narrative from her past and her present as a 17 year old employed as a wigmaker.  Some of these switches are a little abrupt I felt which tended to jar rather than build up the suspense as intended.

I was totally captivated by Lily’s story.  I really enjoyed the author’s writing style, use of language and ability to bring Lily’s world to life with some great characterisation.  It did, however, feel a slighter more understated work than I was expecting, plot-wise it hovers towards the sentimental and predictable and I felt disappointed that some plot-lines fizzled out.  Since finishing the book I read an interview with Rose Tremain in The Daily Telegraph Review section (30/10/21) where it is described as a recovery novel following a pancreatic cancer diagnosis which has led to her not being able to retain as much historical research as she has in the past which might explain the route she decided to take with this book.  She also says an initial inspiration came from hallucinations from drugs she was taking or anti-nausea which conjured up Victorian type children asking her for help.

I relished the writing and story-telling here.  It’s not going to end up in my end of year Top 10 like “Restoration” but I was certainly rooting for Lily throughout.

Lily is published by Chatto & Windus in the UK on 4th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.