September reading round up

Happy October! If you can have such a thing. My favourite month has passed and it’s all the way to the cold months now. But here is a round up of the books and things I loved in September.

Broken Greek – Pete Paphides

Music journalist Pete Paphides wrote a stonking great book detailing his childhood growing up as the son of Greek immigrants who ran a chippy in Birmingham. It covers how he felt, realising he was more at home in England than his parents, and is acutely observed. I’m always so very impressed when people remember massive stretches of their childhood, including the names of people they were at school with which is a massive blind spot for me. Broken Greek, most of all, and not surprisingly is about how Pete fell in love with music and it lovingly details how he spent hours listening, racing round Birmingham to find bargain bins and experimenting with different genres. What is great about this is that he is not, like so many musical journalists, a snob. There is no hint of embarrassment about some of the bands he listened to and still enjoys (I was once informed by someone of about the same age as Pete that “you shouldn’t like Abba, no-one thought they were cool in the Seventies and all us cool kids listened to T Rex.” I have never been cool so I didn’t care and I also don’t like T Rex either. This attitude is often exuded by music journos and is rather tedious. But not here. The other thing that struck me is how much is missing from my daughter’s life now that she doesn’t have to buy physical music or even tape it off the charts the way I used to. It was such a ritual with so much meaning – your first single, your first album, going down Our Price and Woolworths to look at the new releases, asking for hugely anticipated albums for birthday presents. All of it gone. Who remembers their first download? No one. And yet, to get with the times, there is an accompanying Spotify playlist of every track mentioned in the book which is rather fun. I really enjoyed this.

Nightingale Point – Luan Goldie

This was a recommendation by someone in my reading group and I thought it was fantastic and must get her next book. It is inspired by an event in The Netherlands in 1992 where a cargo pane struck a residential building, and it also has huge echoes of the fire at Grenfell Tower. Essentially, a plane hits a tower block in London and the story revolves around those who survived and those who didn’t. The residents are, like many of the Grenfell families, poor working class black people and after a while, are left alone to try and manage. It’s a sensitive and compassionate look at a system that’s not working, with some beautifully written characters.

The Night of The Flood – Zoe Somerville

I was intrigued to read this as the description was fab – all about 1950s intrigue and Cold War shenanigans in Norfolk, and a massive flood, hence the name. The reality didn’t quite live up to the hype but it was an easily enjoyable read.

Oranges and Lemons: A Bryant and May Mystery – Christopher Fowler

Look, only an idiot starts reading a crime series at book 18. And I am that idiot. This was recommended to me, I forget why, and in the main it wasn’t really necessary to read the previous 17 volumes. There were a few references to previous stories but it stands alone. On the whole, I found this rather old fashioned. It seems to be out of fashion to have a fiendishly plotted crime book with puzzles and convoluted explanations these days, as there was in crime novels of yore – Christie, Conan Doyle etc – and on the whole, it’s not something I’ve missed. But the Bryant and May series, on the evidence of this book at least, appear to celebrate old fashioned things. This is essentially crime for Telegraph readers – Arthur Bryant is a shambolic old man with pockets of odd foodstuffs and a brain full of obscure knowledge who shuffles about the book moaning about anything vaguely modern. I don’t know if Fowler’s intention is to poke fun at the modern world or at people who can’t adjust. Perhaps some people might find it amusing but it grows tired quite quickly – old blokes unable to use a smartphone and sniffing mistrust at young people etc – it’s tedious. The book is well written but I doubt I’ll go back and fill in the gaps.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

This was the reading group choice for September and I thought it could have been very good but on the whole was just alright. I wanted to like it. She’s an excellent writer and I will go and read her first novel which looks thinner and is perhaps more tightly structured. This is the story of twins, Desiree and Stella, who grow up in a small backwater American town in the Deep South, a town that prides itself on its black citizens not being very dark, presumably to try and avoid trouble and yet, the twins’ father is lynched anyway. When they grow up, the girls leave and Stella runs off to pass as white, marrying a rich man and living in California, while Desiree marries a very dark man and, when she leaves him for beating her, she brings her very dark skinned daughter back to the town with her. The book then tries to explore the different paths each twin took but I felt there was way too much packed into this and not enough time left to properly delve into the ideas. I loved Desiree’s daughter’s character and her relationship with her boyfriend and I wanted to know more about all the characters but I didn’t feel we quite got there. A shame, as the book was massively hyped, and she’s clearly a good writer.

All The Lives We Ever Lived – Katherine Smyth

This was an odd book. Smyth had a close relationship with her father, an alcoholic, and his death is what shapes the book. She is also a Virginia Woolf scholar and so writes about her own grief through the lens of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. To The Lighthouse is Woolf’s homage to her mother Julia, who died when Virginia was young, and to the childhood holidays she spent in Cornwall. Smyth tries very hard to make it relevant to her own grief, by pulling out sections and giving insight into each, before then talking about her own experience but it doesn’t quite work for me. The two instances, while interesting, are not the same, which I guess tells you all you need to know about the nature of bereavement. I liked reading it, again another good writer.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

There is always a danger when reviewing a book about slavery that it turns into one of those ‘white person finally realises that slavery was awful’ tropes. However, what a book this is. I bought it on publication when it received a load of acclaim, and then predictably, it has taken me four years to get round to reading it. It is an astonishing debut, so assured, and covers a huge stretch of time in trying to show the ongoing impact of the slave trade. Each chapter is given to a character going through a generation each time, so that the narrative begins with the British slave trade in Ghana and ends in the present day. The characters form two family arcs, descendants of two sisters – one snatched into slavery and the other married off to a British trader – and how their families lives are indelibly stained by the far-reaching consequences of slavery. Brilliant.

Moments of Pleasure

Not one but two TV programmes this month! I don’t watch a lot of TV but both Alma’s Not Normal on BBC2 and Only Murders in the Building on Disney+ have been really enjoyable binge watches this month. Alma’s Not Normal is a masterpiece of character writing and has some glorious moments of dark humour. Only Murders hasn’t finished yet, so I’m waiting for the next installment to drop next Tuesday but has Steve Martin, Martin Short and Salena Gomez as amateur sleuths trying to solve a murder and launch a podcast when someone in their apartment block in New York is killed. It’s got a good line in sardonic humour and some cracking guest stars – including Sting, Tina Fey and the splendid Nathan Lane.

I went to the theatre this month! I originally booked the tickets in January 2020 and the dates had been rearranged so many times that when the theatre emailed with the tickets enclosed, it was a genuine surprise. Anyway, I watched Six! The Musical – girl power about Henry VIII’s wives and I loved it. All of it, even the extortionate price of a tonic water.

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