Since there haven’t been any festivals, holidays or other things to distract me, I’ve read quite a bit over the past three months. Here are some reviews in case you are looking for something interesting to buy from an independent book shop of your choice.
Freshwater – Akwaeke Emezi
I read Pet last year and was totally blown away, it really was like nothing else I’d ever read and I loved it. So although Freshwater is for grownups I thought I’d give it a look. The writing is, as I’d expected from Emezi, incredible.
Freshwater tells the story of Ada, a Nigerian girl who is inhabited by different spirits – or I suppose has multiple personality disorder. You hear the points of view of the different spirits that inhabit her body at different times and see her life and her trauma through their eyes. It’s strange and magical and harrowing in places. I don’t think I can overstate how outstanding the writing is, just completely compelling stuff. Recommended!
King and the Dragonflies – Kacen Callender
After 12 year old King’s brother dies, he is convinced he’s turned into a dragonfly so he walks to the bayou every day after school to visit him.
This is an incredibly sweet middle grade book about grief, and also a queer coming of age story. There are a lot of different dynamics at play here and the book looks at how a family is impacted by the death of a child whilst also dealing with other every day topics including racism and homophobia.
Dread Nation – Justina Ireland
This is the third YA I’ve read this year where I’ve struggled to get into it for the first quarter-to-a-third and then suddenly been absolutely hooked. So maybe the problem is in fact me and my failure to get on board with setup and word building, not any of the writers I’ve had this with? Ooh, self discovery.
Anyway whatever, Dread Nation is an alt history set after the American Civil War. But the premise is that the only reason the war really ended was that during it, zombies rise up and started eating everyone. And, as a way to combat that, young Black and Native American people who would formerly have been enslaved are instead enrolled in combat schools where they learn to fight the undead.
If you don’t immediately want to see where Justina Ireland goes with that premise I don’t know what to tell you. But if you are a right thinking person who is instantly interested, give it a look. It is a well put together book, it made me laugh and go ‘what no way’ and didn’t of course shy away from the history of the period or the associated racism, sexism, misogynoir and so on.
Black British History: New Perspectives – ed. Hakim Adi
This is a series of essays by 11 historians covering a range of topics relating to the history of Black people in Britain. Although having said that it’s pretty England centric, I think all the academics involved are based down south. If you’re reading this and know of a similar collection with a focus on Scottish history, please let me know! Also this is not meant as criticism – as the editor points out in the introduction, in spite of the fact there have been Black people in Britain for 10,000 years they have been petty much written out of history and so a lot work is needing done to tell these hidden histories. To varying degrees you’ll encounter similar problems when you go to find out about the histories of working class people, disabled people, LGBT people and women in Britain. For a long long long long long long time, all our historical sources were written by rich, powerful, straight white chaps. And they weren’t really interested in writing about anyone else.
So thank goodness for people like Hakim Adi who has brought together scholars currently working on redressing the balance. There are some really interesting essays in here. I found the first one, ‘Blackamoores’ have their own names in Early Modern England by Onyeka Nubia particularly fascinating. In it he looks at etymology and contends that Africans living in early modern England may have claimed the word Blackamoore to define their own identity and describe their sense of self, as opposed to it starting out as a word with particularly racist connotations.
‘Race’, Rank and the Politics of inter-war commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen in Britain by John Siblon feels particularly timely just now as it examines public acknowledgement/commemoration of Black veterans. This is a recent phenomenon and after the two world wars their service was actively and deliberately written out of the bigger picture. Clearly this has had a massive impact on the way history is taught in British schools today.
History Beyond Borders by Kennetta Perry also grabbed my interest, not least because of her description of that time Malcolm X visited Smethwick. Malcolm X! World famous activist! Visited the Midlands to highlight the very real issues of racism that exist in the UK! Decades ago! And yet we are still taught that racism is basically an American thing! Arg.
This is a history book written by academics with all the attendant footnotes etc, but there’s a lot of food for thought in there. Clearly there’s a lot of interesting work going on that will hopefully lead to more inclusive history getting a platform in the future.
Dreadnought – April Daniels
I downloaded Dreadnought to listen to because it’s a book about a superhero who happens to be transgender and I thought that sounded fun.
The ramifications of transitioning are focal to the plot, so this book is not particularly fun because people are terrible.
Basically the main character, Danny, witnesses a superhero (Dreadnought) get murdered and, as he dies, he passes his powers on to her. She fully transitions as part of that transformation, which makes her feel really happy but also guilty and confused, and then a LOT of crap gets thrown her way which is just awful. I honestly had a physical reaction of loathing to Greywitch, who needs to just get in the bin.
So yeah, this book is well written and feels pretty realistic in terms of the trauma aspect for the MC. Just be aware that if you’re hoping for Danny to just get to live her best life as a kickass new hero, there is a lot of inner turmoil and attempts to come to terms with years of abuse to get through first. There’s some good mystery and reveals and fight scenes though, and some interesting stuff around ethics and who controls the narrative of any given story.
The Infinite – Patience Agbabi
Leaplings are children born on 29 February and some – like Elle – have The Gift, a power that enables them to jump through time.
This is a pretty great SF concept to begin with, but add some mystery (a warning from the future – but who sent it?!) and some crime (people going missing) and you’ve got the premise for a really great MG read.
Elle also happens to be autistic which means she brings a different perspective to events than a neurotypical protagonist might have, and I found this interesting and engaging.
Patience Agbabi’s writing style has some really descriptive turns of phrase – I stopped to write down one of them, ‘She closes her eyes so tight they look like bellybuttons’.
Overall a really engaging debut, so imagine my horror when a mere chapter into this book I learned by way of some book festival social media that The Infinite is the first in A TRILOGY and the other two aren’t out yet.
The Deep – Rivers Solomon
Yetu is a mer-person who holds all the painful memories of her people and their history so the rest of them can live relatively untroubled lives. They are the descendants of pregnant African slaves who were thrown overboard whilst crossing the ocean and their past is violent and traumatic.
There comes a point though where all this gets a bit much and Yetu runs away – or more accurately swims away – to escape the responsibility of looking after everyone’s history. In the process she travels far and goes on a journey of self discovery about her and her people.
The Deep is inspired by a song which was inspired by a real piece of history. It’s a really fascinating story and packs a lot into quite a small space as it’s a novella. To be honest part of me would like to see it expanded further, but perhaps that’s a bit greedy on my part.
A Kind of Spark – Elle McNicol
11 year old Addie lives in Juniper Green (just beside Edinburgh). When she finds out that hundreds of years ago the town held witch trials to prosecute women for being different, she is horrified and decides to try and get them acknowledged or commemorated in some way. The campaign is particularly personal for Addie because she’s autistic, and has experience of people viewing her with suspicion or fear as a result.
I really enjoyed this book, it’s beautifully written and I liked the fact that Addie and her older sister are perfectly happy being autistic and are extremely upfront with people about the fact their narrow views on life are the only real issue. There are a lot of misconceptions bandied about in fiction (as in life I guess) about people who aren’t neurotypical, but A Kind of Spark will hopefully change some of that.
Riot Baby – Tochi Onyebuchi
Ella can see the future. She has incredible mental powers including clairvoyance and telekinesis, but she doesn’t know how to control them and sometimes they overwhelm her.
If you consider the fact that she can see the future of other young black people, and experience the racism and violence they experience every day, it’s hardly a shock that her power would make her feel helpless and angry.
Ella’s little brother Kev is born during the 1992 LA riots (which followed the death of Rodney King). He wants to look after her but, being a poor young black man, it is almost inevitable he’s going to end up in jail at some point – and who will look out for her then?
Riot Baby packs in a lot given it’s a short novella. At the heart there’s a portrait of a family and how they interact with one another. There’s also social commentary, showing how institutions fail people. And there’s a dystopian, SF angle here too which is chilling and fascinating. So overall, would recommend.
The Girl Who Speaks Bear – Sophie Anderson
Sophie Anderson (author of The House With Chicken Legs) does a great line in MG fairytales with a bit of a Slavic feel and I am here for it.
This one features a magical forest, talking animals, and a terrifying dragon. Also a female protagonist on the edge of puberty who isn’t sure about where she fits in the world and keeps making dubious decisions in the name of self discovery – relatable.
Ain’t I A Woman – bell hooks
This book is dense but accessible, it challenged me and made me think a lot. Basically, read it. The fact it was published before I was born (1981) and still feels very relevant and topical is a bit depressing.
Towards the very end of the book, bell hooks describes her feminism as nothing less than ‘a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels – sex, race and class, to name a few – and a commitment to reorganising US society so that the self development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.’
Ain’t I A Woman builds a compelling argument for her definition and makes my starting point of ‘feminism just means women and men should be equal’ feel pretty childish and ill thought out.
The book consists of five essays looking at different aspects of black female experience in America from slavery to the modern day (or the start of the 1980s, I guess – but a lot of it feels pretty up to date unfortunately).
The social history aspect of this are really fascinating, and the last couple of essays really pinpoint the flaws of white feminism and examine how black women have been systematically excluded by it – through the language used, causes focused on and inherent classism, racism and sexism socialised into everyone from birth by a system designed to work for rich white men only.
She writes that any feminism trying to establish itself within the confines of a capitalist system is of course going to be flawed, and that the rhetoric – emphasising resistance, rebellion and radicalism creates an illusion that masks the fact feminism isn’t actually a threat to capitalist patriarchy. As an example, ‘teaching women how to defend themselves against male rapists is not the same as working to change society so that men will not rape.’
She also contends that ‘to perpetuate a notion that all men are creatures of privilege with access to a personal fulfilment and a personal liberation denied women […] is to lend further credibility to the sexist mystique of male power that proclaims all that is male is inherently superior to that which is female. A feminism so rooted in envy, fear, and idealisation of male power cannot expose the dehumanising effect of sexism on men and women.’
A better way forward then, is to work together to try and unpick symbols of male power like imperialism, racism, classism and sexism. Down with capitalism, basically. Colour me convinced.