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!!

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2021- The Top 5

Happy New Year! I’m celebrating the start of 2022 by having a look back at my favourite reads of 2021. Those I rated between 10 and 6 can be found here. On with the Top 5!

5. The Echo Chamber – John Boyne (Doubleday 2021) (Read and reviewed in July)

No stranger to my end of year Top 10, John Boyne wrote my 2017 book of the year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017) was runner-up in 2018 with “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” (2006) and also made it to 4th that same year with his 2018 “A Ladder To The Sky“. These were all very different books and this biting comic satire was also very much a departure and inspired by social media response of his YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica“. This is an author who loves to take risks and I like that. Reviews, have unsurprisingly, because it is such a departure, been a little mixed and I can understand why some people have thought this fell short of what they were expecting from Boyne. I however, stand by my description of it as “a great comic novel of our time which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in“.

4. Many Different Types Of Love – Michael Rosen (Penguin 2021) (Read and reviewed in March)

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. His writings on his illness and recovery are interspersed with extracts from a diary those caring for him maintained to show him how much they cared. I said of this “These people were exhausted, often redeployed from their usual job and no doubt stressed beyond belief but they made the time to communicate with this comatose man in this way and these diary entries form an extremely moving section of the book.” There’s much humour in the darkness and when I read this on the anniversary of the first lockdown I felt strongly that; “When we are moaning about lockdown restrictions and posing conspiracy theories it’s important to feel the voice of those affected and Michael Rosen’s experience speaks for the thousands who have been similarly affected and for those thousands we have lost.” This was a title I had highlighted from the start of the year and I did think it would end up as one of the year’s biggest sellers, with numbers comparable to Adam Kay. This hasn’t happened which suggests that maybe we are not all totally ready for this yet but it will be a lasting testament both to the man and the times in which we have been living.

3. The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Dialogue 2020) (Read and reviewed in June)

Here’s one I kept flagging up before I got round to reading it. I featured it in my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post and in my “Looking Around” post so I was building up the expectations. It delivered. Two twin girls escape their small time life for a new home in New Orleans. One eventually returns to her home town whilst the other is “passing” as a white woman in a decades-spanning saga. I felt that “There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.” Over the past year I’ve selected it for reading groups and have recommended it probably more than any other book. I always ask what people think of it and it’s always a thumbs up- however, there are often reservations voiced about the ending, and I do agree with them.

2. The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021) (Read and reviewed in January)

An astonishing debut. When I read it I was convinced that this would be my book of the year and posted it within my “100 Essential Books” strand. It’s a book which has got the odd nod from awards committees but hasn’t swept the board winning awards as I had expected it to. I was convinced a Booker nomination would be assured but it was not even longlisted. The paperback is expected in the UK in late January and hopefully this will generate the serious sales this book deserves. I said this slave plantation-set novel “could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.” Don’t just believe me, check out the Amazon reviews where it has 61% five star and 22% 4 star which is excellent going for a book which is demanding, poetic and at times overwhelming. Extraordinary.

1. Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020) (Read and reviewed in April)

2020 was the year that the Booker Prize judges got it exactly right. I’d become a little wary after the year they awarded it to “Lincoln In The Bardo” (I must stop harping on about that!). I featured this in my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” but this year this book’s reputation has continued to grow as more and more people have fallen in love with it. It’s another I’ve selected for reading groups throughout the year and admittedly, some people are never going to give it a go, put off by its working class Glasgow 1980’s setting but those who do generally praise it to the skies. And deservedly so, as this study of a relationship between Shuggie and his mother has provided us with two of the most memorable characters in modern fiction. I said “It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.”  I cannot wait for this Scottish author’s second novel “Young Mungo” which is due in April. This is the first time in nine years I have awarded my Book Of The Year to a UK writer. Douglas Stuart deserves his place in my own special Hall Of Fame. Here are my other top titles going back to 2008.

2021- Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (2020) (UK)

2020 – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018) (USA)

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Special mentions for the three five star reads which did not make it into the Top 10. “Next Of Kin” by Kia Abdullah (2021) just missing out on two consecutive Top 10 recommendations by the narrowest of margins, Bryan Washington’s “Memorial” (2021) and “Love After Love” by Ingrid Persaud (2020).

Here’s to some great reading in 2022.

Books I Should Have Read In 2021

It’s time for the annual namecheck for 10 books which I didn’t get round to reading in 2021 but I think I should.  Perhaps they are books I’ve intended to read since publication or titles that passed me by and which I’ve only found out about recently in end of year lists.  If a title makes this list it stands a fair chance of being read in the following year.  Since publishing What I Should Have Read in 2020 I’ve got round to reading 60% and do have the other 4 on my bookshelves ready to be discovered, hopefully, in 2022.  I must admit this list isn’t filling me with quite the same sense of excitement as last year’s did which may be seen as a negative but could also be because I’ve got round to reading more books that I really wanted to read during the year so I’m not having the same sense of having missed out.  Here are the ten titles in alphabetical order of author’s surname.

Will She Do?- Eileen Atkins (Virago)

This has proved to be the celebrity autobiography of the year.  While many celebrities churn out writing having barely lived much life, esteemed actor and Dame of the Realm Eileen Atkins has waited 87 years to produce “Act One Of A Life On The Stage” and what stories she will have to tell!  It has been described as being  “Characterised by an eye for the absurd, a terrific knack for storytelling and an insistence on honesty, Will She Do? is a wonderful raconteur’s tale about family, about class, about youthful ambition and big dreams and what really goes on behind the scenes”. This is what an autobiography should be.  I can’t wait to read it. 

Manningtree Witches – A K Blakemore (Granta)


A novel from a poet, this has appeared on a lot of best of the year lists and the subject of seventeenth century witch trials certainly appeals to me.  This book won the Desmond Elliott Prize for the best debut novel and I’m quite fascinated that it is being highlighted as a real sensory experience.  The trial follows closely the original transcripts which feels for me reminiscent of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s really impressive “His Bloody Project” which was gritty and combined history and fiction in this way infusing his account with poetic vibrant language. I may be barking up the wrong tree and A K Blakemore’s novel might not resemble this at all. A quick look at Amazon reviews suggests some readers have not really got it which might make it a bit of a Marmite novel.  I will have to read it to find out.  

The Heron’s Cry – Ann Cleeves (Macmillan)

I read and really enjoyed “The Long Call” this year, which was my introduction to Ann Cleeves’ writing and the first of her new Two Rivers series to go alongside her “Vera” and “Shetland” works.  The TV adaptation also had its plus points but did seem to deviate a little unnecessarily away from the feel of the book.  I’m kicking myself because after months of this being in high demand in the libraries where I work there was a copy sitting on the shelf,  I dithered because I have quite a bit lined up to read at the moment and he who hesitates truly does miss the boat (I’m strangling proverbs here to delay the inevitable) as when I went back for it the book was no longer there.  I think it might very well have been the perfect read for the gap between Christmas and the New Year but I won’t know!  I will seek it out in 2022.

Last Call – Elon Green (Celadon)

A True Crime title which I am really interested in reading.  It passed me by totally when it was published in March this year.  I saw a recommendation on an American site and thought it was only available over there but a quick look at Amazon shows it’s available in the UK from Celadon Books.  Subtitled A True Story Of Love, Lust And Murder In Queer New York this is another book with a great critical buzz including from Good Housekeeping Magazine who gave it a Best True Crime Of All Time nod.  It’s an examination of an elusive  serial killer in the 1990’s who targeted gay men.   It is a reclaiming of the victims, hopefully in much the same way as Halle Rubenhold reclaimed the victims of Jack The Ripper in “The Five“.  Looking at this book again I don’t know whether to just go ahead and buy it now or wait until the paperback is published at the end of May 2022.  It may feel like a long wait!

The Appeal – Janice Hallett (Viper)

Quite a bit of “the appeal” of this book is in the cover which called to me on a table of recently published titles in Waterstones earlier this year and that must have been the case for a lot of people as this debut clambered up the best-seller lists and ended 2021 as the Sunday Times Crime Book Of The Year.  We all need a bit of cosy crime and this is what I feel this book offers. It has the look and feel of a bit of classic sleuthing but with uses modern technology to unfold the narrative (through e-mails, text messages, even post-it notes) which offers a fresh twist.  It’s been called Agatha Christie for the 21st Century and I’ve certainly read a good share of the original this year with the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge and am looking forward to discovering this classic/modern combination. 

The Corfe Castle Murders- Rachel McLean (Ackroyd Publishing)


This feels a little of an odd choice for me, the start of a series of which the first four books seemed to have appeared already this year, which could be a case of the author churning them out but is more likely because of the difficulties involved in getting work published.  The author believes she is straddling the genres of the thriller and literary fiction giving us a crime series which will make us think.  DCI Lesley Clarke is transferred to rural Dorset, so a great geographical location.  Corfe Castle is such an evocative place to set a novel and is underused in fiction so this will provide a great starting point for the series.  The fact that, hopefully, the whole reviewsrevues shebang is upping sticks and relocating to Dorset in 2022 gives this an added appeal for me.

Mayflies – Andrew O’ Hagan (Faber & Faber)

I’ve read Andrew O’Hagan before and really enjoyed him (his 2004 echoing of the child star Lena Zavaroni in “Personality”) and since then his reputation has grown.  Although classed as fiction there must be enough of O’Hagan here for it to be classified as “autobiographical prose” which led it being awarded this year’s Christopher Isherwood Prize for books of this category.  Set in Scotland of the mid 80’s and present day this focuses on a group of teenage lads who form a strong bond. Its depiction of male friendship, rarer in fiction than you might think, has been applauded and is described as both “joyful” and “heart-breaking” which is not an easy combination to pull off and I am fascinated to see how well Andrew O’Hagan does this.

Final Revival Of Opal & Nev- Dawnie Walton (Quercus)

A book which made it onto Barack Obama’s Books of the Year list and has received fulsome praise from Kiley Reid, Ta-Nehesi Coates and Sara Collins, all whose books I have enjoyed.  I find the idea of music based fiction appealing even if, in reality, it does not always come up with the goods. Here we have a reunion between black punk artist Opal and British singer/songwriter Nev who team up in New York City in the 70’s and consider a 2016 comeback.  Presented as a fictional oral history by a journalist this was described by the NY Times as “A packed time capsule that doubles as a stick of dynamite.” 

 Burning Man – Frances Wilson (Bloomsbury Publishing)


D H Lawrence is an author who seemed to be going increasingly out of fashion and feeling irrelevant to our modern world.  Frances Wilson’s biography seems to be going some way to stop the rot and reclaim Lawrence for the modern reader.  Subtitled “The Ascent Of D H Lawrence” it has appeared on a significant number of Best of the year lists.  Richard Holmes described it as “a brilliantly unconventional biography, passionately researched and written with a wild, playful energy ” which makes it sound like a must.  As a teenager studying for A Levels and in the first year of my degree course I was a little bit obsessed with D H Lawrence whilst finding myself being challenged, frustrated and bored at times by his work. This felt like a new relationship with fiction at the time, that I did not always have to see eye to eye with the author. As an adult I have revisited him only periodically and I have been thinking of reading more of him to see what I think about his often strange arguments and beliefs with the hindsight of life experiences.  I think Wilson’s biography could be an excellent way to get back into his work.

Still Life – Sarah Winman (Fourth Estate)

I already have two unread Sara Winman’s on my shelves, “When God Was A Rabbit” and “Tin Man”, both of which have been recommended to me a number of times but seeing this book as the choice on BBC2’s “Between The Covers” makes me think I should get reading this author pretty sharpish.  The Australian booksellers Dymocks has named it as their book of the year.  A sweeping saga located in Florence and London, Helen Cullen from The Irish Times describes the author as “the great narrator of hope“, we could all benefit from a bit of that after this year!


The Real Diana Dors – Anna Cale (2021)

Diana Dors (1931-84) was a British National Treasure.  It’s close to forty years from her death and still new material is being published about her, this time by film and TV writer Anna Cale.  The author seeks to re-evaluate the career of Diana Dors through her performances rather than the gossip and scandal which surrounded her throughout her professional career.

It could be said that Diana was the first British “celebrity” with the trappings with which we associate that word today.  She was certainly aware of the power of the press and played up to their interest but before we discount her as a 1950’s Gemma Collins we have to consider the range and scope of her work and the affection the British public had for her.  The notion of celebrity both made her and overshadowed her (there were so many stories made up about the extent of her wealth that tax departments hounded her).  Her Hollywood career was pretty much scuppered by what could have been a publicity stunt gone wrong and at the time she was known as much for being “the girl in the mink bikini” (it was actually rabbit); “Britain’s Marilyn Monroe” (a comparison she hated) and for Sunday newspaper “exclusives” on her love life as for her many TV and film appearances.   

An all-rounder, Diana would embark on variety tours, released records and was a regular talk show guest (and host) and game show regular when the film roles dried up.  A whole generation rediscovered her by her upstaging of Adam Ant in his “Prince Charming” video but whether the public loved her from the film “Yield Into Night” (1956) which established serious acting credentials; her 70’s hit sit-com “Queenie’s Castle”; the TV adaptation of “Just William” or in one of my favourite roles of hers as Mrs Wickens in “The Amazing Mr Blunden”(1972) she always made an impression.

mrblunden4
Wickens!!! Diana with David Lodge

Cale is very factual and does not hang around for too much analysis (she does get fired up by Diana and husband Alan Lake’s need to do low-budget sex comedy films in the late 1970’s as that was all the British film industry could really offer at that time).  I would have liked a little more of the author’s voice and opinions in this re-evaluation as to be honest, there wasn’t much in this book that I hadn’t read before.  I think I favour a trashier publication from 1987 “Diana Dors: Only A Whisper Away” by Joan Flory and Damien Walne where the whole dichotomy of celebrity/actor is conveyed better.  That is a book I have read a couple of times and really enjoyed.  I was expecting more from Cale’s book with its greater hindsight expecting it to be the definitive word on the life and career of Diana Dors.

It wasn’t.  I’ve also read at least a couple of her autobiographical works and remember them being quite candid showing that Dors was not reluctant in keeping the scandalous side of her alive, knowing that this was what the public wanted and that it would sell books.  Amazon suggests three titles I haven’t read David Bret’s “A Hurricane In Mink” (2010): Niemah Ash’s “Connecting Dors” written in conjunction with Diana and Alan Lake’s late son, Jason (2012) and “The Shocking Truth” by Harry Harrison (2020) which shows that the interest in reading about her is without doubt still there.  I think Cale’s book may be the most restrained of these but that might not be what those wishing to find out more about this marvellous woman would want.

The Real Diana Dors was published in hardback by Pen and Sword in July 2021.

The Magic Box- Rob Young (Faber 2021)

I can’t resist a chunky well-researched book about British television and Rob Young’s latest certainly ticked these boxes for me.  Subtitled “Viewing Britain Through The Rectangular Window” this is a thorough work within its scope even if it is not quite the book I had thought it was.

Young examines Britishness through what we have watched for entertainment over the decades but this is not the social history I was expecting – this is more a guide to folk history.  The focus is evenly on film and television and the author is happy to divulge plot spoilers occasionally to prove a point (I admit this grated on me even if the likelihood of me watching many of his examples is minimal).

To be honest, I realised quite early on, after the first few chapters, that most of the productions Young focuses on I hadn’t ever seen, and that was because, in a lot of cases they wouldn’t have appealed at the time they appeared.  I would have written a lot of it off as too weird or too rural or elemental, although with the passing of time many do hold a greater appeal to the me of now.

He is very good on British folk horror and cites three films as being vital in the development of this genre, “Witchfinder General” (1968), “Blood On Satan’s Claw” (1971) and,unsurprisingly, “The Wicker Man” (1973) all hugely influential in Young’s study.  I found the author’s observation about threats in horror film fascinating.  In British productions it often came from the ground whereas in the USA it was more likely to come from the air.

The land and our response to it is present from “Quatermass” to the recent revival of “Worzel Gummidge”.  As children we were often presented with the weird and Young cites cult and ground-breaking (often in more ways than one) programmes which offered dystopias, ghosts, alternate histories and parallel times set within our land which is not always , through the eyes of TV and film-makers, a green and pleasant one.

The author has sat through a lot of material to produce this work from slow-paced rural documentaries and information films to Plays For Today, which in itself has provided rich pickings.  This was a long running strand on television which I remember being so diverse that you always had to give it ten minutes or so to know whether you were watching a future classic or needed to change channel.  Its scope was broad in that it offered something for everybody although rarely within the same play. 

The book is tightly-structured and always readable and as I was reading it I was aware of the people I could recommend certain sections to.  I personally did not end up with a massive list of things I wanted to watch as I had anticipated when starting it but these are insights into our past the like of which we will never see again.  Young is right with his statement that in the times of streaming services, Netflix and viewer algorithms there is no way that most of the works featured in this book would ever be commissioned.  It felt good to be informed and reminded of them.

The Magic Box was published in both the UK and US by Faber and Faber in 2021.

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.

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.

Black Drop – Leonora Nattrass (Viper 2021)

It’s London in 1794 and those with power are nervous. A fragile treaty with America is being attempted, relations with France have become further rattled by events following the French Revolution, and their own subjects fill the pungent air with talk of sedition and treason. This provides the starting point for Leonora Nattrass’ historical  debut novel.

Nattrass has combined fictional characters with those really around at the time and provides us with a useful cast list at the beginning (I consulted this a number of times).  Largely the confession of Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, who is hiding his French ancestry and offering information to a shadowy female spy (an underdeveloped character I felt here and perhaps the only one the author does not bring fully to life).  Jago becomes implicated in leaking information which would hurt the British army in France but he is innocent and the house of cards he had built up around himself begins to fall.

This is Jago’s narrative throughout and he meets some lively characters, most notably Philpott, a loyalist journalist who the author states she based upon William Cobbett, who brings a lot of life to the scenes he is in, including one set in a menagerie.  There’s much political intrigue in this well-researched novel but I found it most gripping away from the main plot to uncover spies when it deals with the human cost and the changing loyalties of the volatile mobs.  A trial for treason follows closely along historical facts and involves the Prime Minister William Pitt and provides a high point of the novel.  The title refers to a laudanam type medicine Jago becomes addicted to but this is somewhat underplayed.  This is a strong debut from a promising author.  There were, admittedly, times when my attention wandered but I was pulled back in and found myself caring about the outcome for these characters.

Black Drop is published by Viper on October 14th 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Desire: A Memoir- Jonathan Dollimore (Rowman & Littlefield 2021)

This is a revised and expanded edition of a memoir which first appeared in 2017.  Then it was around 192 pages long, now it comes in at 232 so there’s a significant amount of new material.

On first publication it was critically very well received.  Jonathan Dollimore has a background in academia and is a leading light in gender studies and queer theory.  He has also packed a lot of social life into his time on earth, has suffered periods of depression and is a gay man who later on in life had a fifteen year relationship with a woman and is a father of two daughters.

His memoir is a combination of the academic and autobiographical elements interspersed with his journal writings at the time.  I’m not sure which of these areas has been the most expanded.  It’s all loosely hinged around a study of desire in all its forms including risk, a desire to live dangerously, lust and romantic desire, to occasional desires for death.  The writing is forthright and pulls no punches but it is this linking the memoir to this theme which doesn’t always work for me.  I would have liked this to have been tighter or abandoned.

I was more attracted to the autobiographical elements here- the motorbike loving teen whose life changed direction following a serious accident who becomes a significant figure in higher education (there’s little of this part of his life here) and becomes immersed in gay subculture in London, Brighton, New York and Australia at a time before, during and after HIV changed everything.  Modern autobiographical writing seems to have developed a distinct style over the last few years and its one where we can be offered intimate details yet held back at some distance at other points.  I’ve mentioned this quite a bit recently with Jeremy Atherton Lin’s “Gay Bar: Why We Went Out ” and Armistead Maupin’s “Logical Family” immediately springing to mind.  I’m not convinced it should be possible to read a memoir and end up not feeling that you know very much about the person writing it.  I prefer the writer to really let us into their lives which is why I was so bowled over by Dustin Lance Black and Grace Dent who both made my 2020 Books Of The Year list. Having said all this, Dollimore’s writing is seductive and kept me interested even when I was not totally following the points being made.

My criteria is a 4 star rating is appropriate if I feel the book is worthy of revisiting and I think this is a book which will both remain with me and repay re-reading at some point so this fulfils this criteria.  Dollimore has a good publishing team which will ensure this book gets seen.  I was invited to read this probably because of the other similarly slanted autobiographical works I’ve read and had difficulty accessing a digital copy.  They continued to maintain a conversation with me and sent me a physical copy.  I like it when publishers go out of their way to recognise us bloggers and I was rewarded with a read which often resonated strongly with me.

Desire: A Memoir was published in May 2021 by Rowman and Littlefield.  Many thanks to the publishers especially Tim in the Marketing Department for going over and beyond in ensuring I had a review copy.