Sunday, 10 October 2021

My Year Of Reading 2021 - July to September

As I've mentioned in previous posts, this year I have challenged myself to read only books by authors of colour. It's been a really interesting experience so far, and I feel like I'm learning a lot about different cultures and perspectives. Here are the books I've read in the last three months and what I've thought of them.


'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi

I'd just started this at the end of June and I think I finished it in about a week, which for me is really fast. I found it totally gripping. It's an incredible feat of writing, encompassing three centuries of history on two different continents, tackling colonialism, the slave trade, segregation, Jim Crow, Ghanaian independence and so much more. It makes all of this personal by making each chapter about a different member of a huge Transatlantic family tree. With every character, you only find out the end of their story when you get to the next generation so it really hooks you in. I'll definitely reread this one.


'I Am Not Your Baby Mother' by Candice Brathwaite

I found this book in my local 'little free library' and found it a really interesting read. It taught me a lot about the challenges faced by the Black British community, particularly in London, and especially with regards to raising children. The writing style is very readable, akin to reading a series of connected blog posts but with lots of research thrown in as well so although it is a very personal book, it still reflects on wider issues faced by black communities. It's definitely worth a read and made me think about who I follow on social media and why.


'Sway' by Pragya Agarwal

This non-fiction book is all about unconscious bias and how it affects us even if we don't like to think it does. I'll be honest, I found this one a bit of a slog. The first 100 pages are extremely heavy-going with a lot of jargon relating to neuroscience and so I would get easily frustrated reading sentences that made no sense to me. But as I prepared it became easier to read and was really eye-opening. It deals with bias relating to race, gender, size, class and much more. It's definitely made me consider my own biases and challenge my thinking.


'The Architect's Apprentice' by Elif Shafak

I saw this book recommended on Instagram and it was on a Kindle deal, so I thought it would be a good one to read on the go. I mostly read it on holiday on my (old and battered) Kindle and I really enjoyed it. Having known nothing about the Ottoman empire before reading the book I loved learning about that period and culture. Parts of it were quite slow going, particularly the parts about construction as I find it hard to picture buildings and places, and I found the ending a bit weird, but overall I thought it was a brilliant piece of storytelling.


'Let Us Look Elsewhere' by Mona Dash

While on the aforementioned holiday I was lucky enough to hear that I'd won this book in a Twitter giveaway. I'm not usually a huge fan of short stories so, to be honest, I didn't have high hopes, but I actually loved this collection. Each story is a vignette into the complicated life of a different character, every one flawed but sympathetically created. I felt there was a strong sense of loneliness and loss binding the stories together, and each story felt like it could have been the start of a novel I would happily read, but perhaps just the glimpse I got was even better? Anyway, I'd really recommend this book and I'll be looking out for what the author does next.


'The Lightless Sky' by Gulwali Passarlay

I first heard about this book through a tweet earlier on in the year, and the awful events in Afghanistan over the summer prompted me to seek it out again. Luckily for me there was a copy in my local library. It's the incredible autobiography of an Afghan refugee who fled the country when he was just 12 and journeyed to the UK over the course of a year. It's gripping, harrowing and eye-opening. I've always felt a sympathy towards refugees but I never fully grasped the horrors many of them have been through before they reach what they hope is safety. I want to force this book into the hands of everyone who complains about our country taking in asylum seekers. It made me realise just how lucky I am to live in a safe country, as much as I often despair about what our society has become.


'Such A Fun Age' by Kiley Reid

Once again I started a book just at the end of the month so you'll have to wait another three months for my review of this. Sorry. For now I'll just say this is a slow burner that turns into a rocket halfway through. Has that got you wanting to read the next of these posts?!










Saturday, 4 September 2021

Why Did 'Stronger' Make Me Feel Weak?

 


I mentioned in my last post that I recently read 'Stronger' by Poorna Bell. It's a fantastic book about women's fitness and strength, and about how discovering power lifting helped her to survive the loss of her husband. It reads partly like a memoir, partly a study on the factors that prevent women from engaging in physical activity and partly an exhortation of the benefits of exercise for women. As someone who has always struggled to engage with sport and exercise, it should have left me feeling inspired to get out there and find the right activity for me.

Instead it left me feeling flat.

I've never been a natural when it comes to physical activity. My memories of school PE are being the last to get picked for netball and the first to drop out of the bleep test. (The fact I had asthma that went undiagnosed until age 16 didn't help.) I discovered musical theatre when I was 13 and loved to dance, but never got far with it.

I often made plans to become more active that never came to much. My university charged an extra fee to join any sports societies and I decided it wasn't worth the money for one or two classes. When I graduated I couldn't afford to join a gym or classes, then I struggled to find time alongside other, more appealing hobbies. And then I had children which left my body altered in various ways and my schedule full.

Finding an activity that works for me is hard. My asthma is mild and only triggered by running, but that rules out the most straightforward and accessible exercise. The PGP I suffered with in both pregnancies has left me with a hypermobile SI joint, and at some point I've developed a mild scoliosis which means that my back almost always hurts and my hips are slightly uneven. I also had stomach muscle separation post-pregnancy which I'm not entirely sure is fully healed. Pilates helps with the back, hip and rib pain I suffer from but too much at once can make things worse, as I discovered when I tried hour-long classes. I also find it pretty boring if I'm honest.

So, back to 'Stronger'. While the book brilliantly addresses many barriers to women's fitness, I felt it didn't really address two big ones: time and money. It does mention money, but then talks about the importance of a good personal trainer, which even at the most 'affordable' level is still out of many people's budgets.

But for me, time is the major barrier. I was really disappointed when this was barely acknowledged in the chapter aimed at mothers. There was simply a quote from a mother who talked about making time and prioritising her health. And I get the point she's trying to make - mothers should not constantly put themselves last - but is it that simple? I've never found it to be. Squeezing pilates classes around the bedtime routine was stressful, and making time to work out at home means leaving something else undone that needs doing. My children are amazing but require more support than their peers and disrupting their routine by disappearing off to exercise is hard for all of us. Plus, I'm never not tired. I'm still woken early in the morning so by the time they're both in bed I can't face exercising.

And that's the thing. The book talks about how wonderful an effect exercise has on your mood and your brain, but I've never enjoyed it and can't see myself ever doing so. Dancing aside, I've never found an activity that didn't feel like a chore. And with my wonky skeleton and weakened core, I'm not sure dance is an option for me any more.

Reading 'Stronger' made me feel lots of things - guilt at making 'excuses' not to exercise, frustration at my experience as a mother not being fully acknowledged, even a sense of loneliness that so many people find fulfillment in physical activity when I don't. I can't hold these things against the book, I know it is me projecting, but it left me despondent, feeling that strength was even further out of my grasp than I realised.

Can anyone else relate to this? Have you found anything that works for you? Or can you offer solidarity in being so tired that the thought of exercise stresses you out?!

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

My Year Of Reading 2021 - April to June

So in my last post (which was a whole three months ago - I'm a terrible blogger) I talked about how ice challenged myself to read only books by authors from non-white backgrounds this year, in an effort to widen my understanding and perspective. Here's an update on the books I've been reading since then. It's been a tricky few months so my motivation for reading has been low, but I've kept trying.




'The Confessions of Frannie Langton' by Sara Collins

I mentioned last time that I was almost finished with this book but not quite. I also mentioned it was a slow burner, which is part of the reason I hadn't finished it sooner. Parts of the novel were really interesting and gripping, other times I would put it down and not really feel motivated to pick it up again for a few days. It was very cleverly written though, and gave me some insight into the treatment of slaves in the Caribbean and of black people in Britain in the nineteenth century. It was maybe just too dark for my tastes, as it tells the story of a black servant (formerly a slave and the lines are very blurred) who is on trial for the murder of the couple she worked for in London.


'This Lovely City' by Louise Hare

I really loved this one. Set in London in the postwar era, it is primarily a love story between Jamaican immigrant Lawrie and mixed-race Londoner Evie. It is darker than I'd expected though, as much of the plot revolves around an apparent child murder (slight spoiler there but it happens early on so I'm surprised there is no mention of it in the blurb, especially given the sensitive subject matter). It is very gently handled though, and isn't dwelt on to a distressing degree. There are lots of twists in the story and I really engaged with the two main characters, it's definitely a book I would reread.


'We, The Survivors' by Tash Aw

I spotted this in our local little free library and thought it sounded interesting so picked it up. Unfortunately after two books that could be quite bleak at times, a story about a murderer from a Malaysian fishing village is possibly not what I needed. That said, it did give me an insight into a society and culture I knew very little about, and addressed issues around the treatment and exploitation of immigrant workers very well. The murder isn't dwelt on hugely, but the thing I struggled most with was how slowly and ponderously the story was told. There were also some points in the plot which were left unresolved which confused me a little. This book will definitely be someone's cup of tea, just not mine.


'Stronger' by Poorna Bell

This was won in a giveaway and I confess I thought it would be about mental strength. It's not. It's about physical strength, fitness, body image and everything related to that area. Mental health does come into it but only in relation to how exercise benefits it. It was definitely an interesting read, especially in its exploration of how race and colour affects attitudes to women in fitness, but I may write a longer blog post about it at some point as it gave me Many Thoughts which I don't have time to go into here. A good read for anyone interested in physical fitness in women and girls.


'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi

Another one that's not quite finished, this time because the last two books took me longer than I'd hoped. I'm looking forward to doing a proper write up of this one though because it's a good one!


This time around I've started to widen my reading to include a more diverse range of authors and genres, but once again I'd love to hear any recommendations you have!

Monday, 12 April 2021

My Year of Reading 2021 - January to March

Well, as I said in my last post, I'm struggling to think of things to write about for various reasons. But one thing I can write about is books - although I seem to end up writing mostly about children's books. So this year I thought I'd talk about my own reading, particularly as I'm doing something a bit different.

Last year I think a lot of people like me (white, left-leaning, probably a bit sheltered) started to really consider our own biases in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. Yes, it's embarrassing that it took this long to start having conversations about what anti-racism looks like, and how we all need to be aware of the effects of racism. And I'm still figuring out what changes I need to make in light of these conversations.

As you might have guessed, the main way I learn is through reading. I like to think my reading matter is already fairly diverse - I definitely don't focus solely on white authors - but I thought this would be a good opportunity to focus on more diverse voices, so I decided that in 2021 I would exclusively read books by authors of colour (sorry if that's the wrong term to use, please tell me if there's a better term). As I've mentioned before I'm a slow reader, so my goal is 20 books across the year. Here's what I've read in the first quarter ...



'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith 

I really wanted to like this novel. I'd heard lots about it, and knew it was highly acclaimed. But to be honest I really struggled. I just couldn't engage with many of the characters, and the broad scope of the novel made it hard to follow all the threads. Some storylines just felt superfluous, and I felt like the character I was most interested in - Clara - ended up sidelined. I could tell it was very skillfully written, but I didn't feel compelled to keep reading. I stuck with it to the end, which was just really strange, but was quite relieved to get it finished to be honest.

'Queenie' by Candice Carty-Williams

I got on better with this book - it's very, very readable, partly because of its use of instant messaging to break up the text and partly because the main plot is compelling, and the characters are likeable and I rooted for them. But my goodness this book needs a content warning of some kind. It's very explicit, with some scenes uncomfortably close to abuse.  It did make me more aware of how black women's bodies are fetishised, though. There was a bit of a nod to BLM but it felt a bit disjointed from the rest of the novel, although maybe I missed the point. Overall I did enjoy it, even if some parts had to be hastily skimmed over.

'Small Island' by Andrea Levy

I loved this novel. It took a while to get going, and some parts dragged more than others, but it's a wonderful story with fascinating and engaging characters. I learnt a lot about the experience of the first Windrush generation and the role of West Indian servicemen in World War II, as well as life in mid-century Jamaica. The twist at the end felt like it came completely out of the blue, although maybe I just missed the signs, and was summed up a bit hastily, but I could understand why the story went that way. This is a novel I can see myself rereading in future, which is rare for me.

'Rose, Interrupted' by Patrice Lawrence

This one is a bit different to the rest as it's a YA novel but I often enjoy the change of pace that MG/YA novels provide. This one is less about race than the other novels, but it has a lot to say about the challenge of finding an identity after escaping an oppressive environment, as it focuses on the lives of a brother and sister who have left a strict religious sect. I found it a really compelling read, and it taught me what fairy kei means! It's also a really good exploration of consent, boundaries, relationships and online abuse.

'The Confessions of Frannie Langton' by Sara Collins

I won't write much about this yet as I didn't finish it in March, but what I will say is that it's very much a slow burner ...


I'm aware that my reading list so far is dominated by black British authors. I am planning to read books by authors of other backgrounds, it just happens that these are the books I already had! If you have any recommendations I'd love to hear them.

















Friday, 19 February 2021

Where From Here?

 A lot has changed in the last six months.

That may come as a surprise to some, as we live in the eternal Groundhog Day of the pandemic, with the same routines of socially distanced walks, checking daily stats and panicking mildly when that little shield pops up in the notifications bar. But for me, there has been a lot change.

I am now fully and officially a School Mum. Boy Child, a Preschooler no more, has started school - then stopped it again - then started it a little bit (more on that in a moment). And suddenly I'll never take a child to a play group again, which for me is a big deal. My social life had revolved around play groups for eight years, now even the one I volunteer at hasn't been able to meet for almost a year. When it does finally meet again I won't have a little helper/saboteur with me which is hard to get my head around. And Boy Child himself has transformed into someone who can read and write, which makes my heart swell with pride but does unfortunately mean he's definitely not a baby any more. Sigh.

Is have also hung up my SAHM hat as I have started working at a school part time. Hence Boy Child going back into school, as I am a critical worker the children can go to school when I'm working. Going back to employment after such a long time felt scary at first and all the changes that the latest lockdown has brought means that I still haven't found my new rhythm. It's been a big change and I still haven't worked out how to fit everything in.

Which brings me to this blog. I've been very quiet on here. Part of this is time - how anyone has been able to keep writing while juggling involuntary home schooling and/or work is beyond me. It's not just a time issue though, my head is so full I can't think of anything coherent to write. Hence this rambling blog post.

And then there's the issue of what to write about. As my children get older I'm very conscious of the risk of oversharing, and now I work in education I need to think about my own digital footprint. I'm still figuring this out as I do enjoy blogging but need to think carefully about how to do it in a safe and respectful way. Many of my posts over the last year or so have been book-related as that feels safe, but it's not the only thing this blog is meant to be about. I did consider rebranding, or even shutting down the blog entirely, but in a moment of technological incompetence I ended up renewing my domain name for two years, so I kind of feel like I need to make it worthwhile!!

So if I'm quiet for a while, it's because I'm still trying to work out where I take this blog. And I'm still trying to figure out where to take myself. And we're living in a bizarre disaster movie that is far more mundane than I expected but still not great for creativity. Any or all of those things.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Review: 'The Knight Who Might' by Lou Treleaven and Kyle Beckett

DISCLAIMER: I was gifted this book for the purposes of this review but all words and opinions are my own.

How does your little one do at trying new things? Are they keen to give it a go even if they struggle at first, or do they give up easily? Perseverance is something that a lot of children are born with but it can fade over time without the right encouragement. For other children, they are naturally more cautious and need support to learn to take risks and keep on trying.


'The Knight Who Might' is a really good book for talking about perseverance, but also about perseverance. The main character really wants to be a knight, but struggles with every skill he needs, from riding a horse to even wearing armour. Nevertheless he keeps trying, firm in the belief that one day he might be a knight.


His self-belief is impressive, particularly as he is surrounded by voices of doubt. His magic talking horse, sword and helmet are all ready to tell him that he might not be a knight. And when he enters a competition for knights, instead of supporting him they all hide, believing that without them he won't go through with it.


But the Knight Who Might is undeterred and sets off for the competition alone. When he sees his first rival, The Lord With The Scary Looking Sword, doubt creeps in for the first time. But just then his magic team come to his aid and encourage him to try.


I love the message of this book. It can be used to talk about perseverance and how we mustn't be discouraged if we struggle with something at first, but also how we can be good friends and support people even when they're finding things difficult. It's so important to teach children how to build others up rather than point out their flaws and difficulties. I also really like the fact that the ending isn't as triumphant as you might expect, but still remains positive. So many underdog stories end with an implausible triumph, but I think it's a stronger message to show that things don't always go how you want but good can still come out of difficult situations.

The message is delivered in a light and humorous way, with some great wordplay thrown in (I do love a good pun!) and witty illustrations to make little readers smile. It doesn't feel like a story with a message, so is good for sneaking in a positive message with children who might be more resistant to more obviously didactic books. 

'The Knight Who Might' is published at the end of October 2020.

Linking up with #ReadWithMe hosted by Mama Mummy Mum.

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Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Review: 'Pirates vs Monsters' by David Crosby and Lee Cosgrove (gifted)

DISCLAIMER: This book was gifted to me for the purposes of this review, but all words and opinions are my own.

Do you have a child who likes to tell tall tales? I think most children go through this stage, whether it's a case of their imagination running away with them or wanting to sound braver, cooler or better off than they actually are. 

'Pirates vs Monsters' tackles this issue in a funny and child-friendly way. It begins with three pirates trading stories about terrible monsters they have defeated, each trying to outdo the others.


But while they boast of their beastly battles, a mysterious fog is drifting in, and with it a ship with a very scary crew ...


You can probably guess what happens next, but it reveals that the pirates were not as successful at vanquishing their monster foes as they claimed to be!

This is a great book for talking about how other people's boasts may not be all they seem, a useful conversation to have with younger schoolchildren! We've all had to tell our kid that little Jimmy probably doesn't get to stay up until 11pm playing on his iPhone, right?! But aside from the moral lesson, it's simply a very fun book for kids who enjoy scary stories. The illustrations are well-pitched - colourful, expressive and with just the right scare factor for young children. 

I would say that it might not be the ideal book for more sensitive children or those with a fear of monsters, as (spoiler) the monsters win in the end and the descriptions can be a bit scary, but there are plenty of kids who love a bit of a fright and would really enjoy this book. It would be a fantastic book for Halloween, with the spooky fog creating an eerie atmosphere!

'Pirates vs Monsters' is published by Maverick Books and available now.

Linking up with Read With Me hosted by Mama Mummy Mum.


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