This is a bit overdue, as is so often the way – but no apologies from me. Life is chaos right now. Here’s what I read towards the end of 2020! I hope it helps if you’re looking for stuff to add to your TBR.
When They Call You a Terrorist – Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
This is a memoir by one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s really readable, but sad, anger inducing and at some points harrowing too.
‘The first time I am arrested, I am 12 years old. One sentence and I am back there, all that little girl fear and humiliation forever settled in me at the cellular level,’ explains Patrisse Khan-Cullors.
She’d been attending a predominantly white school during term time, but had to go to summer school in her local area with other black kids. Whilst her white peers smoked weed in the bogs at school without fear of reprisal, when she copied this behaviour at a mostly black school she found herself handcuffed in front of her whole class and searched. She relates this incident not to suggest she wasn’t in the wrong, but to highlight the difference in the way black and white children were routinely treated when she was growing up. The first time she saw her brothers stopped and searched by police without cause, she was 9. She knew this was just the way it was from a young age.
I would really recommend reading this book to get a proper insight into why the Black Lives Matter movement exists and how crucial it is. Eye opening and outrageous stuff straight from someone who is living it every day.
Black Girl Unlimited – Echo Brown
‘Echo Brown is a wizard from the East Side, where apartments are small and parents suffer addictions to the white rocks. Yet there is magic . . . everywhere. New portals begin to open when Echo transfers to the rich school on the West Side, and an insightful teacher becomes a pivotal mentor. Each day, Echo travels between two worlds, leaving her brothers, her friends, and a piece of herself behind on the East Side.’
I listened to this on Audible. I cried in the kitchen whilst listening to the last few chapters and making an enormous coleslaw.
This book is a hard read in places but a powerful, clever and important one. It weaves themes of magic into a semi-autobiographical story of growing up in really hard circumstances, in a poor area where the only expectation of young black kids is dropping out of school for a life of violence, crime and/or continued poverty.
The book is basically ‘nevertheless, she persisted’ personified – so there is a message of hope running through it.
Love in Colour – Bolu Babalola
This is a collection of short love stories, reimagining some old myths and there are a few originals in there as well. I wanted to read something that would make me feel good, to be honest, and this really fit the bill.
There is Yaa, about a woman changing the romantic fate she never really chose for herself. Psyche as an office romance, Nefertiti as a gangster, Naleli overcoming body confidence issues, Zhinu as a child star learning to say no to an overbearing manager-mom. Pyramus and Thisbe are in here too.
The author describes herself as being in love with love and that really rings true. A really nice collection.
Fattily Ever After: A Black Girl’s Guide to Living Life Unapologetically – Stephanie Yeboah
I’ve been following Stephanie Yeboah on social media for a few years now and I really like her journalism, Twitter nonsense, and fashion photography on Instagram. Even though I am the least fashion person, her use of colour and style and fat activism are really a joy to see in the timeline.
This book is a really beautiful object just to hold and look at, the graphic design concept running through it is just really lovely. And the contents range from really practical, helpful stuff around learning to love yourself in spite of all the outside influences insidiously suggesting you’re not worth it from before you even it puberty, to some very personal and quite upsetting memoir around bullying, racism, misogynoir, sexism and so on.
Yeboah is not known for mincing her words and this is a really honest book where she calls things as she sees them. She also does a lot of work to raise awareness of work being done by other fat Black women, profiling and interviewing people to make sure that other voices are heard.
I Am Not Your Baby Mother – Candice Brathwaite
I found Candice Brathwaite on Instagram, I now can’t remember exactly how I got to her profile but it was certainly via Make Motherhood Diverse which is a project to make the images you see of mothers online and in the media more representative. The idea is to share the stories and experiences black and brown mums, disabled mums, fat mums, gay mums, working class mums… Well, you get the idea.
The reason this is important is that when you’re a new parent, there’s a *lot* of stress on you to get things right – but the vast majority of the examples you can find show picture perfect parents doing things you can only dream of. They generally tend to be white, well off, able bodied, straight – basically that cookie cutter template person that does well in the media, but they’ve had a kid.
Now, I like to think I’m not particularly bothered by what other people think in terms of how I look or how I parent. The goal really is to ensure my child is happy and safe and grows up to be a nice person (going well so far I think, since you’re asking). My main approach when I’m worried about something, particularly in the early days, has been to speak to a couple of friends with similarly small children, speak to my own mum, and to research stuff online using hopefully reputable sources like the NHS website.
But do you know what, it is nice to know you’re not the only one. In the early days (the first six months to a year, which is when you’re stuck by yourself under a brand new human doing a lot of scrolling) I met a lot of mums who were trying to always be perfectly groomed and have the house sorted and also learn everything about child development and nutrition whilst averaging about 4 hours sleep a night. A couple of them were very ground down by it all and fed up of glossy magazines, Facebook groups and social media influencers making them feel like they were doing it wrong. Make Motherhood Diverse is brilliant because it reflects all types of parenting – including mine – and had I known about it back then I would have been telling them to sack off the other stuff and give it a look.
ANYWAY, that’s the background to why I was excited to read the debut book by one of the co-founders of that project. I Am Not Your Baby Mother speaks specifically to Brathwaite’s experience as a Black British mum living in the South of England, but there’s a lot to relate to here as a white Scottish mum in Edinburgh. Because she’s such a good writer, telling a story, I’d really recommend it to anyone. She addresses and destroys a number of stereotypes in the book and I learned a lot too.
The Mercies – Kiran Millwood Hargrave
After the men in the Norwegian fishing village of Vardo are killed in a freak storm on Christmas Eve 1617, it becomes a place of women. For eighteen months they learn to live as they want to, and then a sinister ratbag called Absalom Cornet arrives from Orkney to bring them to heel.
I really enjoyed this book, which is the first Kiran Millwood Hargrave has written for adults (her children’s books are gorgeous as well). It’s atmospheric, romantic, inspiring and harrowing. And it’s inspired by real life witch trials.
Cinderella is Dead – Kalynn Bayron
“It’s 200 years since Cinderella found her prince… but the fairytale is over. Sophia knows the story though, off by heart. Because every girl has to recite it daily, from when she’s tiny until the night she’s sent to the royal ball for choosing. And every girl knows that she has only one chance. For the lives of those not chosen by a man at the ball are forfeit. But Sophia doesn’t want to be chosen. She doesn’t want to go to the ball at all. Not when she’s afraid the girl she loves might be chosen too…”
So, as you can tell from the blurb, this is a feminist retelling of the Cinderella story, complete with a Black lesbian protagonist.
Shut up and take my money indeed.
The politics in this story are about as subtle as a brick, but nevertheless I found it to be a page turner and I LOVE the idea of tween girls reading it and having their own epiphanies that lead them on to fully embrace intersectional feminism. There are twists and turns, fully realised female characters with flaws and opposing views kicking butt (and not, in some cases), and it’s a lot of fun. Definitely something I needed in my life at this time.
Disability Visibility: First Person Stories From the Twenty-First Century – edited by Alice Wong
This is a series of essays by people with disabilities talking about a huge array of experiences and I urge you to read it.
One of the stand out pieces for me was Unspeakable Conversations, Harriet McBryde Johnson’s account of travelling to Princeton to debate with philosopher Peter Singer about whether she should even exist, and the anger she faced from the disabled community for even attending an event with someone known as a humanist but who seemingly has Martin Mucklowe levels of empathy when it comes to disabled people.
The Isolation of Being Deaf in Prison is a pretty harrowing account by Jeremy Woody about how the American prison system does not cater to disabled inmates and actively excludes them – I don’t know whether it’s similar in the UK or not (but as a side note, it would be fascinating if Alice Wong was able to do a UK/European version of this book in the same way Nikesh Shukla took The Good Immigrant to America).
In We Can’t Go Back Ricardo T.Thornton Sr. talks about how segregation of disabled people by shutting them away in institutions like the one he grew up in does nobody any favours – because if you put someone in a place where nobody expects anything of them, they’ll never have the assistance or opportunity to explore their potential. This is a common theme throughout the book – the idea that society views disabled people as inspiration porn, or something to be pitied, or in the case of Peter Singer to be aborted because there’s no question of a good and full life for someone with disabilities. But all the contributors to the book have had or are leading rich and full lives because they have the support they need to do so. Example after example shows that it’s not people who are disabled, but society disabling anyone who breaks the mould. Honestly there is so much to think about in this book that will make you question what you’ve been fed about disability by the media, school, the health service. I feel like I want to list every essay in it.
Guide Dogs Don’t Lead Blind People. We Wander As One. by Haben Girma, Nurturing Black Disabled Joy by Keah Brown (founder of the #DisabledAndCute hashtag), There’s a Mathematical Equation That Proves I’m Ugly by Ariel Henley, Imposter Syndrome and Parenting with a Disability by Jessica Slice, Selma Blair Became a Disabled Icon Overnight by Zipporah Arielle, Why My Novel Is Dedicated to My Disabled Friend Maddy by A.H. Reaume, Falling/Burning by Shoshana Kessock, Lost Cause by Reyma McCoy McDeid, On NYC’s Paratransit by Britney Wilson, Love Means Never Having to Say… Anything by Jamison Hill, and The Beauty of Spaces Created for and by Disabled People by s.e. smith… READ IT, is what I am saying.
Oh My Gods – Alexandra Sheppard
After losing her mum, Helen Thomas has just moved in with her dad and older half siblings. This would be difficult for anyone, but her dad happens to be Zeus, king of the gods, and her older half siblings are gods as well. Also, they aren’t supposed to use their powers, and she can’t tell anyone who they really are. So how is she meant to settle in and have a normal teenage social life?
This is a really fun read by Alexandra Sheppard, it made me laugh and the characters were really well drawn. I did have one quibble which was with the ending, where I would have liked to see Helen do things a little differently – but I won’t go into detail cause I don’t want to spoiler you.
Record of a Space Born Few – Becky Chambers
Firstly, a moment for the cover design of this. The dust jacket has a fold in it because my offspring loves it too and had a period of going to pull it off the shelf and then sitting to ‘read’ it on the floor. I am a bit unsure who to credit, because although the inside of the book has beautiful illustrations by Kiku Hughes, all it says about the front is that the image is from Shutterstock.
If you’ve read her first two books you’ll know Becky Chambers is a wonder. Record of a Spaceborn Few looks at the lives of five folk living in the Exodan fleet which is referenced in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. Whilst I think you could probably read these in any order, you’ll get a lot more out of the third book if you read them first. It does a lot of world building that really enriches them.
It’s perhaps not my favourite of the set, but I love how Chambers writes and how this vision of the future is not over the top and epic, but it is inclusive and diverse and full of characters you want to spend time with.
The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
I borrowed The Song of Achilles from my brother because I really loved Circe, and jumping back into some Greek mythology seemed like a good shout after finishing the year (like so many people) absolutely knackered and having taken a bit of time off work due to burn out. I reasoned that reading something like this, where I roughly knew the stakes already, couldn’t be too stressful.
The Song of Achilles is about the relationship between the almost-but-not-quite-immortal (damn that heel) hero Achilles and Patroclus, childhood friend and later much more than that. It starts with the birth of Patroclus and spans the years until the fall of Troy, so is fairly epic in scale – but it’s ultimately a love story. It’s beautifully written and very easy to read, although of Miller’s books I’d say Circe has the edge for me.
Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala
I listened to this on Audible, mostly whilst stomping the streets by us in the dark, thinking I need a physical copy in which I could underline, bookmark and share bits of it. This approach makes for a really accessible book, which is still thoroughly researched and backed up by evidence.
Akala tells the story of his childhood as a mixed race poor kid growing up in London, but weaves in statistics, news stories and anecdotes about friends and foes to highlight the divisions in British society, how class and race intersect, and how the legacy of Empire is still felt today.
If you want a more in depth review, then David Olusoga’s piece in The Guardian is a good start. I would highly recommend you give this book a read though. I feel like I learned a lot and it’s one I will definitely return to.
*DNF* – Sandman audio adaptation – Neil Gaiman
Good grief I struggled with this. I started listening when it came out last July and still have 2.5 hours left to go 6 months later. There’s only so much of this I can blame on the fact I am listening with my other half and we don’t actually get masses of time together without a toddler or 101 other things to do.
When I first read the Sandman novels maybe a decade ago I thought they were outstanding in terms of the story as well as the art, and the audio version has an excellent cast. But… I guess I have changed a lot in terms of how much I can tolerate lack of interior life for almost any female character / sexual violence against women and children as a plot device in my reading? That or, as some reviewers have said, it just doesn’t work for me as an audiobook.
This instalment covers the first three graphic novels (Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll’s House and Dream Country). I’m not yet sure if I’ll use my credits for the next one. I suppose I’ll try and get to the end first.