Review: Allies edited by Shakirah Bourne and Dana Alison Levy

Published by Dorling Kindersley 29 July 2021

This insightful collection of sixteen essays is an excellent resource for anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of the lives of individuals who might feel marginalised by their ethnicity, their religious beliefs, a disability or their sexual identity. It is pitched at a Young Adult readership but I think that the content is valuable for adults of any age. The goal of the book is to educate and enable the reader to use whatever privilege they might possess to become an ally to those who face challenges and perhaps discrimination, micro aggressions or outright bullying in their daily lives. 

I am embarrassed to admit that I had not really encountered the terms ally or micro aggression until I attended a disability workshop run by the well-known campaigner Samantha Renke earlier this year. It was listening to her daily, lived experience of the challenges that she faces negotiating a world that is not designed to enable her, that opened my eyes to the need for support or ally-ship from those of us who can encourage change. This book fulfills the same task, with contributions from authors who generously present their own experiences of either being made to feel marginalised or their attempts to fulfill the role of ally. It explains that micro-aggressions are the constant undermining comments that seem to diminish or dismiss an individual’s worth and that we cannot ignore these if we want to be an ally.

One of the aspects that I most appreciated is the tone of gentle encouragement, and forgiveness throughout. It can be very difficult to keep up with the evolving language around ethnicity or sexuality if you are not immersed in the study of it and several of the essays acknowledge that it is easy to inadvertently use the wrong words. The advice is to listen carefully to anyone who corrects you, apologise for any unintended offence caused by your words and continue to progress on your quest to be an ally. I found this to be very reassuring as I try and sometimes fail to get the language correct. In the opening essay, Dana’s Absolutely Perfect Fail-Safe No Mistakes Guaranteed Way to be an Ally, Dana Alison Levy states:

“Being a good ally without making mistakes is like eating popcorn without dropping any on the floor: it’s possible, but let’s be honest, it rarely happens.”

p.10

My takeaways from this book were that a mindset of openness, civility, empathy and kindness are required from us all to help every member of our society feel valued and that we can all learn from and support each other. I feel indebted to the sixteen authors who were prepared to open up about their experiences to help us all develop empathy and I really like the essay (and illustrated story) format that allows you to dip in and out and refresh your mind whenever necessary. At the end of the book there is a comprehensive list of further resources to explore, suggested by each of the contributors. I think that this will be a valuable resource for anyone who wishes to play their part in making society and their workplace kinder and more inclusive and I would recommend it to all workplace, academic and public libraries.

I am grateful to the publisher Dorling Kindersley and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic version of this book for review purposes.

#20BooksofSummer21: #5 Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

10 books of summer
Image created by Cathy at 746books.com and used with permission.

So, here it is; one summer, three months and a challenge created by Cathy (@cathy746books) at 746books.com to make a dent in the toppling TBR stack. I have opted for the 10 books challenge due to time constraints! Thank you Cathy for hosting!

Published by 4th Estate

My fifth book in this summer’s challenge is actually a re-read as it was chosen by one of my book groups as our July title. Purple Hibiscus was the debut novel of acclaimed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and is a deeply moving, coming-of-age story, recounted through the voice of fifteen-year-old Kambili.

Kambili and her older brother Jaja, live in a luxurious house in the Nigerian town of Enugu. Their father Eugene is powerful and wealthy, the owner of factories and a newspaper and on first appearances their lifestyle: private school, chauffeur, large house filled with modern conveniences, abundant food and servants would appear to be enviable. However, the tone of tension in Kambili’s voice, her constant watchfulness and desire to say the right thing to make her father proud, betray the falsehood of this assumption.

Eugene controls every aspect of his family’s existence, the children’s lives are scheduled by the minute, they are expected to come top of the class without excuses, and when they anger him through a wrong look or word he punishes them with horrific domestic abuse. His wife is also subjected to the most extreme violence whenever she does not meet his standards of perfection. Eugene himself is controlled by his adherence to the Catholic faith in which he was educated as a schoolboy from the missionary school he attended. He credits his western education and faith in God with his success and now entirely rejects the beliefs of his ancestors, to the extent that he will not visit his own father or allow his children to visit him due to his perception of his “heathen” ways. When the family return to their compound in the ancestral village for Christmas, a time when Eugene provides food and money for the entire village, he callously sends his driver to deliver a small sum of money to his frail father and the children are allowed only a few minutes in the company of their grandfather.

Into this fearful and silent home comes a catalyst for change in the form of Eugene’s widowed sister, Aunty Ifeoma and her three loud and opinionated children; Amaka, Obiora and Chima. Auntie Ifeoma is a strong and educated woman, a lecturer at the University in Nsukka, who encourages her children to think for themselves, debate current affairs and who would rather live in relative poverty than bow to her brother’s demands. The contrast in her joyful practise of Catholicism mixed with Igbo hymns and traditions is in stark contrast to her brother’s dogmatism and rule through fear. You realise just how alien this is to Kambili when she is shocked by the sound of her cousins’ laughter, so absent from her own experience:

“She laughed so easily, so often. They all did, even little Chima.”

As the children come to realise that there is another way to live and a military coup threatens Eugene’s power base, events are set in place which are shocking and revolutionary for all protagonists.

I can only describe Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing as pellucid. Without the need for long paragraphs of descriptive prose she takes you to the heart of the luxurious, walled compound in which Kambili’s family are imprisoned, the ancestral village where they discover their roots and the cramped apartment on the university compound where they discover the ability to live free of restraints like the purple hibiscus in Auntie Ifeoma’s garden. The character’s are all fully realised and even Eugene is not portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. There are passages which are absolutely harrowing but overall I found the book to be utterly compelling both times that I have read it, and I have subsequently read all of this author’s later novels.

#20BooksofSummer: The Book About Getting Older (for people who don’t want to talk about it) by Dr Lucy Pollock

The third of my reviews for this year’s #20BooksOfSummer challenge, hosted by Cathy at 746books.com is my only non-fiction choice this year and with my health librarian hat on, I would say that it is a book that everyone would benefit from reading.

Published by Michael Joseph Books, 2021

Dr Lucy Pollock is not just an experienced and compassionate geriatrician with a positive message to promote, she is also an engaging and entertaining writer. I was immediately struck by the accessible way in which she has presented a wealth of health information, which would be invaluable to a large percentage of the population, by framing this book through a series of stories with which readers can immediately empathise. The years of clinical experience are worn lightly and insights are presented with clear explanations which can be understood by anyone.

The Book About Getting Older celebrates longevity, explains how the final years of life can be lived positively and helps us all begin to have the necessary conversations about what is important to us as we get older. You will find clear-sighted and sensible discussion of poly-pharmacy, what is normal in old age and what is not normal, the concept of mental capacity, end-of-life care and a de-stigmatisation of dementia. Oh how I wish this book had been available 20 years ago when dementia cast its shadow in my own family. You see this book takes you by the hand as gently and kindly as the best clinician and leads you through so many aspects of the situations that confront us as we age, or watch those that we care for, age. In the company of Dr Lucy, the indignities and frailties of ageing do not seem such a frightening or lonely prospect. Quite the opposite, for the generous tone of this book is to celebrate the very old and to focus on those things that we can all do to live well for as long as possible.

It may also surprise you to know that there is a great deal of humour threaded through the book, with some passages that genuinely made me laugh out loud! The value of teamwork in the care of elderly patients is emphasised and practical ideas for improving social care are made, I hope that this book finds its way to the desks of some of our politicians! Dr Lucy’s respect for her patients as individuals and the life-lessons that she has learnt from them shine through the narrative. If people in power could see individuals through Dr Lucy’s lens rather than labelling older people with negative economic terminology such as “the demographic timebomb” one feels that something concrete would be done about social care.

I feel very passionately about this book, I think it will have a hugely positive impact on anyone who reads it and particularly for those who are in the lonely position of caring for a loved one. I have read the hardback version and also listened to the audiobook which is narrated by Lucy Pollock herself. In an ideal world everyone would have a geriatrician like Dr Lucy Pollock available when the complications of old age set in, the next best alternative is to get your hands on a copy of this book – in physical or audiobook format, and benefit from her wisdom, expertise and compassion.

10 books of summer
Image created by Cathy at 746books.com and used with permission.

So, here it is; one summer, three months, 10 books and I’m three books in! Thank you Cathy for hosting!

#20BooksOfSummer Review: Old Tabby Brontë The Servant’s Tale by Hilary Robinson

e-book, Published by Strauss House Publications

The second of my #20(10)BooksOfSummer challenge is somewhat different from my usual reading material and was bought on the strength of my admiration for Hilary Robinson’s writing.

This gem of a monologue expresses the righteous indignation felt by a loyal servant, in defence of a master whom she feels has been unjustly portrayed by a biographer. The servant in question is Tabitha Aykroyd who devoted many years to the service of the Brontë family, after the Reverend Patrick Brontë lost his wife and was left to care for six young children.

Hilary Robinson has used her exquisite writing talent, and I presume her experience as a radio producer, to conjure a wonderfully nuanced portrait of family life at Howarth Parsonage through the authentic voice of Tabby. The perfectly executed monologue is written in six parts, entirely in Yorkshire dialect. Thanks to the inclusion of an explanation of the use of the > symbol to indicate a glottal stop and a glossary of Yorkshire dialect, I could hear Tabby’s voice in my head throughout, despite my southern origins! I really felt as if I was sitting at the kitchen table sharing a pot of Yorkshire tea with an old servant and hanging on her every word as she refuted the inaccuracies in Mrs Gaskell’s biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë.

The tale is written as a repudiation of the negative impression that Mrs Gaskell gave, of the Reverend Brontë’s care for his offspring, in her publication. As a household employee of the family for many years, Tabby is incensed that her master’s reputation has been besmirched and her irritation is palpable as she sets the record straight. As her narrative unfolds, many biographical details of the Brontë’s lives and personalities, and the way that these informed their works of fiction, are revealed quite naturally; the author’s meticulous research manifests completely organically throughout. A tale of devoted family love and support, beset by constant tragedies, emerges in this short but moving monologue.

I adored this monologue and I would imagine that it will have huge appeal to those who love Charlotte, Emily and Anne’s writing. It is also likely to be a great companion piece to students who have to read one of the Brontë sisters’ novels for GCSE or A level. Furthermore, as one of the rare readers who is actually not a big fan of the Brontë’s novels, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this monologue and learning some of the background to a uniquely talented family. It is only available as an e-book at present, although I believe that an audiobook might be planned, which is excellent news for dyslexic readers. I actually listened to the excellent Audible reading of Jane Eyre by Juliet Stevenson in preparation for reading Old Tabby Brontë, the first time that I have managed to get to the end of that story, after three failed attempts to read it! I was certainly intrigued to learn about some of the experiences that influenced that classic novel.

This is my second post for this year’s #20BooksOfSummer challenge which is kindly hosted by Cathy Brown on her amazing 746Books.com blog. Do check out the other bloggers who are taking part in the challenge, it’s a great way to broaden your reading range.

image created by Cathy Brown 746books.com

#20 Books of Summer 2021 hosted by Cathy at 246 Books

10 books of summer
Image created by Cathy at 746books.com and used with permission.

I’m hastily posting before the end of the month, that I am looking forward to again taking part in the #20BooksofSummer Challenge hosted by Cathy who writes the marvellous 746books.com blog.

Since moving jobs at the start of this year, I will no longer have a long summer holiday in which to read therefore I am going to set myself the modest target of 10 books this summer! I have to admit that after a long day spent mostly staring at a screen, there are some evenings when I just can’t face reading for an extended period, so I definitely cannot consume books as quickly as I used too. Looking back at my post from this time last year I notice that The Mirror and the Light is making a second appearance, which is a prime example of my lack of reading time over the past 12 months! I am hoping to re-discover my reading mojo and just as importantly I shall look forward to reading the reviews that other bloggers, taking part in this challenge, will post.

My list contains a mixture of MG and adult books, physical and e-books. One, Purple Hibiscus, is a re-read as it is this month’s choice for one of my book groups, and the solitary non-fiction title, The Book About Getting Older reflects my new job in an NHS library. Several of the MG books have been sent to me for review by publishers and one was a very kind gift from a blogger friend, Rachael, bellisdoesbooks.wordpress.com which I feel terribly guilty for still having in my TBR stack.

7 physical books from my TBR
3 e-books, 2 of which are book group choices

So, here it is; one summer, three months, 10 books! Thank you Cathy for hosting!

AudioBook Review: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Finding myself unable to read for a couple of days following minor eye surgery, I decided to fill the void by listening to this debut novel by Richard Osman…and it was the perfect prescription for an enjoyable recovery!

I have been a fan of “cosy murder mysteries” since discovering a cupboard full of Agatha Christie novels on a family holiday when I was 12/13. I love the puzzle-solving element as you try to sift the clues from the red herrings and the satisfying resolution when order is restored and the perpetrators are brought to justice. Richard Osman has elegantly constructed his murder mystery to satisfy all the standard conventions and has done so with panache and an ear for the speech patterns of elderly women which compares to the genius of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads!

His setting of an upmarket retirement village is inspired and his cast of characters with their fascinating range of backgrounds is wonderfully crafted. From Elizabeth, the poised and precise leader of the Thursday Murder Club, the possessor of a list of contacts so extensive that we have to assume she worked for the secret services, to firebrand “Red Ron” in his shorts and West Ham shirt, the protagonists are written with skill and a genuine feeling of warm-heartedness. This feel-good factor greatly added to my enjoyment of the story, it felt as if the author was really searching for the good in all his characters and whilst featuring heinous crimes, the motives were apparent and believable. I really don’t want to reveal too much about the plot for fear of ruining anyone’s enjoyment, but The Thursday Murder Club’s transition from researching cold cases to investigating a murder within their own community is thoroughly enjoyable.

I have to also commend the narration by Lesley Manville in this Audible audio book, her impressive range of voices and accents greatly added to my delight in this story. I have so often had to stop listening to audiobooks due to the choice of narrator, but in this case the narration brilliantly enhances the story.

In summary, a very impressive debut from Richard Osman and I am certainly looking forward to the follow-up which I believe is due later this year.