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.  This 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.

Mr Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo (2013)

I’ve had a copy of Bernadine Evaristo’s joint Man Booker winning “Girl, Woman, Other” unread on my shelves for some time now.  I’ve never read her before and felt I needed another book rather than the prizewinner to be my introduction to her and I thought this would fit the bill.  My hesitancy is because I’ve found responses from people I’ve asked about “Girl, Woman, Other” to be a little mixed and some people just don’t seem to get it.  I thought this would offer a more traditional narrative style and would perhaps be stronger on plot which would enable me to really get into Evaristo as a writer.

It has succeeded.  I really enjoyed this and I’m now sure it won’t be long before I read something else by her.  This is a very character-led piece, a tale of a rogue, Antiguan born Barrington Walker who emigrated to London in 1960 in the early days of his marriage to Carmel, but unbeknownst to her he was following his male lover, Morris, with whom he continues a secret relationship until the 2010 setting of the story when they are both in their seventies.

Barrington in his first-person narrative has seen much change and believes that social acceptance of his love for Morris is now more likely but acknowledges that this would not be the case from his church-going wife nor one of his two daughters.  His narrative is clearly structured and very much from his own point of view.  Running alongside this is a second narrative which reflects the thoughts of Carmel, looser in tone, which gradually reveals her responses to her marriage.

I loved the characterisation, I love the way the author gets the characters to play off one another with real authenticity.  I love the relationship between these two men who have found it necessary to hide their love for decades.  I love the vibrancy of Barrington’s narrative even though he is undoubtedly exasperating.

This was Bernardine Evaristo’s second novel which has had a new lease of life following her Man Booker success.  I’ve seen it appearing on recommended lists in recent times although at time of publication it passed me by.  I think it would be an ideal reading group book as the viewpoints of the characters would provide much discussion.  This is a very strong four star read.

Mr Loverman was first published by Penguin in 2013.  

Carefree Black Girls – Zeba Blay (Square Peg 2021)

This is a difficult review to write for a white middle-aged man and I am sure that the author would appreciate the fact that I would find it difficult- it means that the issues she raises have hit home.

I selected this book on the basis of its subtitle “A Celebration Of Black Women In Pop Culture”.  I have often used this site to applaud the contribution of Black women within music, the arts and literature and thought this celebration was something I really wanted to be a part of.  The subtitle is not inaccurate, it is a celebration, but not quite what I had anticipated.

The author is central to this work, she is Ghanaian who has become an American citizen in recent years and works as a film critic and commentator on culture.  She also has struggled with fragile mental health, with suicide attempts and attributes this, at least in part, as her experience of being a Black woman in America.

You can appreciate from this the tone would not be as celebratory as I had anticipated.  An author’s note warns the reader to “be tender with yourself” if likely to be triggered by the issues in this book.

Zeba Blay studies the Black American female experience in terms of racist expectations and stereotypes borne from white supremacy including the body, sexual identity, skin tone, childhood and the quest to be “carefree” using women from popular culture as evidence.  Her arguments are powerful and impressive.  I do not feel it appropriate for me to comment on these truths other than to encourage a reading and an absorbing of what the author is saying.  I’m just going to write 10 quotes from the book which will be enough for you to know whether you are prepared to go on this journey with her.  I read the US edition before publication over here.  I see the UK edition has a Foreword by radio DJ Clara Amfo which may put some of this into context for the British reader.

I’ll give you the quotes as they appear chronologically within the book and also the section in which you will find them.  They will be out of context, perhaps, but I have not distorted them in any way.

“And writing about Black women is the thing that put me together again, that got me through and helped me become reacquainted with the concept of joy and freedom” (Introduction)

“To say that Black women are everything, are indeed essential to American Culture, to the global Zeitgeist is simply to observe things as they actually are” (Introduction)

“… to exist in a Black body is to exist in a persistent state of precarity, to be in constant anticipation of some form of violence” (Bodies)

“Black women’s bodies were once legally considered property.  They were bought and sold, traded and loaned” (She’s A Freak)

“How can a piece of property be raped?  Black women were therefore assumed as always being sexually available and this way of seeing them was sanctioned by the American government” (She’s A Freak)

“The fact that one in four Black girls will be abused before the age of 18, that one in five Black women are survivors of rape and yet for every fifteen Black women who are assaulted just one reports her rape comes as no surprise” (She’s A Freak)

“If Beyonce had a deeper complexion would her dominance within the Zeitgeist be as ubiquitous as it is” (Extra Black)

“My Blackness doesn’t make me depressed, but being Black in this world can be depressing.” (Strong Black Lead)

“the exuberance of Black joy springs forth from Black despair.  Collectively, we made a way out of no way.” (Strong Black Lead)

“Black women are killed in America at a higher rate than women of any other race.  Trans Black women are killed at an even higher rate.” (Strong Black Lead)

Carefree Black Girls is published in the UK by Square Peg on October 21st 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The 800th Post – Reviewsrevues’ Creme De La Creme

Here it is! My 800th post! To celebrate I thought I’d choose to revisit 8 posts -my creme de la creme. This is a celebration of the best books/music/TV/film which makes up reviewsrevues.com which I have discovered or rediscovered and most enjoyed during the last six+ years.

John Boyne – The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) (Reviewed in 2017)- A Five Star Review, 100 Essential Books & #10 in My Most Read Posts Of All Time

Grace Jones – Portfolio (1977) (Reviewed in 2016) – Number 1 in my Essential CD List

Scott & Bailey – Series 5 (2016) (Reviewed in 2016) – A Five Star What I’ve Been Watching Review & #2 in My Most Read Posts Of All Time

Marjorie Wallace – The Silent Twins (1986) (Reviewed in 2015 ) – A Five Star Review, 100 Essential Books

Michel Faber – The Crimson Petal & The White (2002) (Reviewed in 2015)- A Five Star Review, 100 Essential Books

God’s Own Country (2017) (Reviewed in 2019) – A Five Star What I’ve Been Watching Film Review

Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band – The Very Best Of (1996) (Reviewed in 2015) – Number 2 in my Essential CD List

Philip Ridley – Krindlekrax (1991) (Reviewed in 2015) – A Five Star Kid-Lit Review

Feel free to visit the reviews by clicking on the titles, hopefully it will spur you on to discover or rediscover some of my favourite things. Many thanks for supporting me in ever increasing numbers over the last 800 posts. Here’s to plenty more!

Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2021)

Colson Whitehead’s reputation as one of the greatest living American writers took off with his last two novels which both won the Pulitzer Prize making him only the 4th writer to win this most prestigious Fiction award twice (alongside William Faulkner, John Updike and Booth Tarkington) and the only Black American to do so to date.

The Underground Railroad”(2016) was the book that took him to the big league- I still cannot understand how it did not win the 2017 Man Booker Prize describing it thus “It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”.  I still feel aggrieved by the panel awarding the big prize to “Lincoln In The Bardo” with Whitehead failing to make the transition from longlist to shortlist.  I still haven’t watched the adaptation of this currently on Amazon Prime in the UK. 

Pulitzer Prize number 2 came with “The Nickel Boys” (2019) which focused on a boy’s reform school.  This was a more straightforward narrative which managed to both please and slightly disappoint me so I ranked it four stars.

This latest, his 8th novel is more understated than his two big-hitters but he is now at a point of his career where each publication is a big literary event.  Set in late 50’s/early 60’s Harlem it feels what I imagine Chester Himes to read like (I’ve never read him but I did recently buy “A Rage In Harlem” (1957) so it’s only a matter of time) with greater awareness of the history between now and then and the significance of civil rights unrest.  Here this unrest provides a backdrop more than a focus for the novel and in fact is seen at best as an inconvenience by the characters.

Main character Raymond Carney’s focus is furniture, a salesman with his own store. His desire is to become the first black shop-owner allowed to stock branded items previously only available in white-owned stores.  Carney is doing okay, he is employing staff and looking towards expansion but the start-up money derived from wrong-doings from his largely absent now deceased father and that association causes Carney problems.  Fencing stolen goods becomes part of his trade yet (and this will become the most quoted phrase from this novel) “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

The influence of family leads to Carney becoming involved in a heist at a hotel frequented by a black clientele which begins a slippery slope.  What begins as a crime caper becomes darker as Carney becomes obsessed by revenge whilst always trying to separate the personal from his business life.

Carney is a great character and he comes up against a number of other memorable creations here but I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.  I actually found it hard to retain what had been going on.  There’s a tendency to introduce something then backtrack as to how it happens, but this introduction caused me to feel like I’d missed out on something and started leafing back when there was no need as the author hadn’t got to that bit yet.  The plot seems too content to just simmer along, there were points when the pace accelerated and then the book really takes off. 

There’s nothing wrong with this novel and it’s totally right that an author should be allowed to move back from creating the extraordinary to do something which feels less momentous but it is not up there with his best.  I think my own expectations might have let me down here.  I’d been looking forward to the publication of this since the start of the year when I highlighted it as a must-read for 2021 and that is probably the reason why it feels for me just a touch disappointing.

Harlem Shuffle will be published on 14th Sept 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Long Call – Ann Cleeves (2019)

This is the first Ann Cleeves novel I’ve read, despite having watched every episode of “Vera” which features her characters and is adapted from her series of 9 novels and 1 novella featuring Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, beautifully played by Brenda Blethyn.  I also had neither watched any of her other acclaimed tv adaptation, “Shetland” nor read any of those 8 novels, 1 Quick Read and 1 associated non-fiction work, but I have always wanted to.  There’s also two earlier series of novels featuring George and Molly Palmer-Jones (8 titles) and Inspector Ramsay (6 titles) so it is pretty incredible that I hadn’t got round to this prolific British author’s work.

This novel is an obvious staring place- a brand new series, “Two Rivers”, and one which has been recommended to me a number of times.  I’ve also seen it on lists of titles with positive LGBTQ+ representation embodied here in main character Detective Matthew Venn.  Set in coastal North Devon, which Cleeves has conveyed very effectively through her writing, Venn is embarking on married life with husband Jonathan following years of estrangement from his Christian Fundamentalist family who rejected him and his lifestyle.  Ostracised from the community he grew up amongst he has returned to the area to live and work.  Jonathan runs a community arts centre and when a body which turns up on the beach close to their home proves to be a volunteer from The Woodyard, Venn knows he has to tread carefully to avoid conflict of interests.

Matthew and Jonathan are well-established as characters with the policeman’s background giving a depth which could last for many cases.  His team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May also both have lots of potential.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and I very much liked that.  I felt, away from the crime, a community of memorable characters had been created and I felt part of their lives, which is an unusual experience for me within the crime fiction genre where I tend to feel less connected with characters’ lives. 

This is a strong opening title for a new series and with the second “The Heron’s Song” due to arrive on September 2nd 2021 whilst the paperback edition of this is still selling well I’d heartily recommend seeking this out.

The Long Call was published in September 2019 by Macmillan. The Pan paperback edition is also available.

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig (Canongate 2020)

This is one of the biggest selling books of the last year or so and is performing extremely well as a paperback.  It is the 7th adult novel for an author whose reputation continues to grow with each publication and who has been tremendously successful as a children’s author and writer of non-fiction focusing on mental health.

The popularity of his latest is significantly due to it capturing the mood of a nation where the need to personally protect mental health has become essential. We are living in a world of uncertainty, fear and social isolation due to lockdowns and we have probably all had time to re-evaluate our existences.

A central theme here is regret and putting that into perspective within the framework of a parallel universe novel.  The conceit within this work is a place between life and death. For main character Nora, this takes the form of the Midnight Library where there is an opportunity to try on her lives which could have been lived.  It is a fast-paced, quick read which is surprising given its philosophical and quantum physics slant.

I have struggled a little as to how I feel about it as a book.  It is undoubtedly very enjoyable, has an emotional pull and deserves its success.  However, it fell a little short in what I was expecting as it skimmed the surface of so many issues and maybe there’s a slight glibness to its resolution.  I couldn’t help feeling that Nora, plunged into new lives, was helped out tremendously by other characters feeding her information on the life she was living which did jar a little too often.  I think technically it relies too much on exposition which I find surprising.

Ultimately, however, it is a novel with its heart very much in the right place.  My usual criteria for a four star rating is would I want to hold onto a copy to read again and here (hence my struggle) I’m not sure whether I would but I feel this rating is deserved because of its significance in 2021 and because I think the many captivated by it will continue to love this novel and I cannot doubt that it has therapeutic value.  It would be a perfect book for a bibliotherapist to recommend yet it is also, away from its worthiness, a really strong read so I heartily recommend  it despite my own odd personal niggles.

The Midnight Library was published by Canongate in 2020.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward (2017)

The paperback edition of this has sat on my shelves since it was published when I was so eager to get hold of a copy and I feel bad that it has taken me so long to get round to reading it.  Mississippi resident Jesmyn Ward made history with this book when she became the first Black American writer as well as the first woman to win a second National Book Award for fiction in her home country.  It seems incredible it took until 2017 for this to be achieved.  Her earlier win came with “Salvage The Bones” (2011) which I also haven’t read.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, the title and front cover made me think I would be in similar territory to Robert Jones Jnr’s masterful “The Prophets” (2021) but this is a Southern-set contemporary novel enriched with the rhythms and the sense of folklore, rhythms, spiritual beliefs and history of the community.  This makes it a powerful read. 

At first I was a little resistant.  I thought it might be a novel about bad parenting using thirteen year old Jojo and his neglectful mother, Leonie, to narrate sections and I wasn’t sure I fancied that, despite the quality of the writing.  A road trip (which I can also be ambivalent about in fiction) to collect Jojo’s white Dad from prison surprised me by really drawing me in even as it emphasised the poor parenting skills as the adults focus on getting high .  Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, are forged closer together during this time because of their strong feelings for one another and their mother’s indifference.  They leave at home Jojo’s grandparents, Pop, who is filling the gaps Leonie creates through his care and his stories of the past and Mam, rooted in mysticism and the supernatural but now in terminal decline as cancer ravages her body.  The other side of Jojo’s family is dominated by a racist who wants nothing to do with his son’s choice of partner.  The ghosts we carry around with us become palpable as the narrative progresses leading to an extraordinary last third which so impressed but which wouldn’t have functioned had not the character development in the opening two-thirds been so strong.

It is rare that I am drawn to a book both so lyrical and spiritual and on completion I experienced that shift in my perspective which you get from reading top-quality fiction.  It definitely had some difficult, challenging moments both for the characters and the reader and it cannot be consistently described as enjoyable but it certainly provided a powerful experience and it will stay with me for a long time.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, was published in the UK by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 7 – The Murder At The Vicarage (1930)

This is more like it!  This has the sparkle I was expecting from Agatha Christie which I haven’t always found in some of the other books I’ve read during this Challenge.  This month the book needed to feature a vicar and here we have one in a first-person narrative.  It is set in St. Mary Mead and was the first novel to feature Miss Marple, not in a central role but she certainly knows what’s going on and I’m not surprised that Christie saw her potential as a recurring character.

Clement, the vicar lives with his much younger wife Griselda and his sixteen year old nephew Dennis at The Vicarage.  The Protheroes lives up at the Old Hall.  In the opening lunch scene the vicar announces any would-be murderer of Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world a great service and before long the Colonel turns up dead in the vicar’s study.  It’s investigated by the prickly Inspector Slack who has no time for how things are done in small villages and the more genial Chief Constable Colonel Melchett.  Two people own up to the murder early on but their confessions do not fit into the timeline.  The villagers, especially the group of elderly ladies who don’t miss a trick are keen to unravel the truth behind the murder.

There’s a good range of suspects to consider from an adulterous couple, the future heiress, a handsome artist, a mysterious newcomer and a vengeful poacher and luckily Miss Marple is on hand to sort and analyse as in Christie’s words; “There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

This has been my favourite of the Christie titles I have read for the seven months of the Challenge.  Next month I need to seek out a story set at the seaside.

Murder At The Vicarage was first published in 1930.  I read a Harper Collins e-book edition.

Mrs March- Virginia Feito (4th Estate 2021)

This is a stylish, mannered debut by an American author who has been compared to Shirley Jackson and Ottessa Moshfegh.  I can appreciate these comparisons as it doesn’t take long to realise that underneath the veneer of respectability something dark might just be going on.

Feito drips feeds this to us and this could frustrate some readers.  I felt a little frustrated myself at times but I kept reading and it did draw me in.  Mrs March’s husband has a successful new novel out and his wife is told she resembles his main character.  She hasn’t read the book but knows that Johanna is a hard-to-like prostitute.  This causes shifts in Mrs March’s mental balance and as things go off-kilter she begins to suspect her husband is a killer.  Plot-wise that’s about it, but there’s much more than plot going on here.

Mrs March is self-centred and only sees the world from her point of view.  It’s a third person narrative but the formality holds the reader at bay.  Mrs March is not referred to by her first name.

There’s also the setting – the smart New York apartment, but when is it set?  There’s a 1960’s Jackie Kennedy- as- style- icon vibe, with real furs being worn, the Lawrence Welk show on TV but there’s nothing to cling onto here and there are Rubik’s cubes which only became a thing in the 80’s.  I found myself highlighting every reference to try and pin this down realising that Feito is playing with us, unsettling us throughout which is very effective.  It doesn’t matter when it was set but it feels like it does. 

I felt undertones of the work of Ira Levin, not just “Rosemary’s Baby” but also “Sliver” and “The Stepford Wives” and as I was obsessed with his work when a teenager I experienced quite a nostalgic chill even though Feito’s work is a 2021 publication.

The disorientation the author nicely sets up is enriched by hallucinations, something is definitely not right here.  I was expecting a “Ka-boom!” moment to hit me between the eyes which Ottessa Moshfegh’t “Eileen” did to me, but Feito is content to keep us simmering and questioning what we are reading but not sure of what questions to ask of ourselves.  This makes for a slick, surprisingly emotionally complex debut.

Mrs March is published in the UK by Fourth Estate on 4th August 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.