Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, memoirs, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Diary of a Drag Queen

First up a bit of housekeeping: don’t forget last week’s BotW, Death of an Angel is out on Thursday! If you saw the WiB yesterday, you’ll know that there was a bit of a theme to last week’s tired, last night train reading, but actually it’s a non-fiction pick this week.  For once I’m almost relatively timely – because it’sa new book.  Well by new, it only came out on the 7th, Crystal Rasmussen’s Diary of a Drag Queen. Doesn’t it have a great cover?

Cover of Diary of a Drag Queen

Crystal is the drag name of Tom Rasmussen, a writer, Drag Queen and Céline Dion super-fan and their first book is a raw, honest, no holds barred, letting it all hang out look at one year in the author’s life. You follow them back to London after a difficult spell trying to make it in New York, trying to break the fashion industry, find a place in the drag scene and work out where they fit in the LGTBQIA+ community and their own personal manifesto. If you are squeamish, if you can’t deal with reading about other people’s poo, be warned: there is a lot of that here. But Crystal -has a lot they want to tell you and it is worth sitting up and listening.

I think this might be the most honest memoir I have read since Viv Albertine’s Boys, Clothes, Music. Crystal is setting their life and their truth out there on the page, without a filter (or at least not one that I could spot) and seemingly without hiding anything. At various points Crystal talks about having had to tone their life down for their partner or to be accepted or even just to be exist and it feels like this Diary, this book is their life as they want it to be seen, in all its imperfections, messiness, mistakes and triumphs. Here is Crystal explaining their approach in the introduction:

I spent a lot of my life in the violent, painful clutches of shame, which manifested itself in various modes of self-harm, self-destruction, and other untenable, unsurvivable behaviours.

I learned, however, that the antidote to this shame is not pride, or honour, or even celebration. That comes later. The antidote to shame is honesty. Stark, crass, funny, powerful honesty. Honesty that smashes through notions of taboos and inappropriatenesses. I am not shameful, because I’ve done nothing wrong. It’s the same with being gay, queer, femme, non-binary, a drag queen.

Crystal tells these stories with caustic wit, biting insight and what might be considered a reckless disregard for the secrets of the bedroom, if it wasn’t for the fact that they have assured us at the start that some names and details have been changed to protect identities. Phew. A lot of Crystal’s life is a long way from my experience and my background. And, again as I thought with Viv Albertine, I’m not sure that Crystal would like me. There were times when their critiques of various things made me squirm in my seat with the knowledge that I might have skirted the edges of doing some of the things they were railing against. But as they say, we have all made mistakes it’s how you deal with the mistakes and learn from them that makes a difference. And I’m always trying to do better. We should all always be trying to do better.  Here’s Crystal again:

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/questioning, Intersex, Asexual and + (not you, straight guy who loves glitter a bit but thinks bum sex is gross). Yes, it’s a long acronym, yes, it’s seven whole letters, but I learned the national anthem even though borders are constructs, so you can learn seven letters.

My copy of Diary of a Drag Queen came from NetGalley, but it is out now in hardback and you should be able to lay your hands on a copy fairly easily – I’d expect it to be in any good-sized actual bookshop. Crystal is also out and about on a book tour, so they may soon be coming to a store near you. I know I’m looking to see if I can make one of the dates – and if you can’t, the audiobook is read by the author and the sample on Amazon is a fairly representative section of the book. And of course it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Priestdaddy

Staying in non-fiction for this week’s BotW – but this time moving to a memoir.  You’ll have noticed Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy on the WiB list for some considerable time – I actually started listening to it on audiobook, but it demands attention and with my long list of podcasts to listen to, I struggled to find time to make progress on it.  I discovered early on that I couldn’t listen to it while I was running because it made me laugh too much and put me at risk of tripping myself up.  So I got on the library hold list and waited for a copy to come in.  And when it finally did (this is a popular book people) I had much more success reading rather than listening to it.

Cover of Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Priestdaddy is Patricia Lockwood’s memory of her childhood, growing up moving around the Mid-West with an eccentric, doom-prophesying mother and her even more eccentric Catholic priest father.  Yes, you heard right.  Lockwood’s father underwent a religious conversion and felt called to ministry after he was already married with children, and then found a loop hole that meant the Roman Catholic church would receive him as a priest.  The book starts as Lockwood and her husband move back in with her parents after a medical procedure messes up their finances, and as she and her husband get used to living with the eccentric duo, she reminisces on the key moments of her childhood.

Lockwood’s father, Greg, is the biggest, flashiest character in this – he wears as few clothes as possible whenever he’s not on duty, he plays terrifyingly loud electric guitar and shouts along with action movies – but her mother manages steals the show for me a lot of the time.  She’s constantly expecting the worst to happen and seeing the worst, but managing everything, dealing with the madman that she married and loopy in her own way.  By the end of the book you feel like you understand her more than you do Greg.

This is funny and terrifying in equal measure.  It’s also beautifully written.  Lockwood is a poet and her words fairly sing on the page.  There are some weighty issues here – Lockwood is a lapsed catholic and looks back on her childhood – including an anti-abortion protest she was taken to – with a particular view on the world of 80s and 90s religious super-conservatism that she grew up in.  I really liked but I’d think hard about who I recommended it too – my sister, who loves reading about American Christianity in its many shades, yes; my mother, Church of England and formerly of the village’s church council and who went to a convent school probably not.

This was nominated for a whole bunch of prizes and found its way on to a lot of book of the year lists when it came out in 2017 and I’m not surprised.  As always I’m behind the curve with this – but I’m glad I caught up with it in the end.  And all this means that you should be able to get hold of a copy fairly easily.   As I said, I borrowed my copy from the library, but it’s out in paperback, Amazon has hardbacks at a reasonable price via third parties and you can get it in Kindle and Kobo.  And the audiobook I mentioned – is read by the author and is apparently exclusive to Audible.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

There were a few options for BotW this week, but I have some other posts planned involving some of them so I thought I’d mix it up and go with a non-fiction pick this week – after all it’s been a while.

Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of how cells from a poor Southern tobacco farmer became one of the most important and influential tools in modern medicine.  HeLa cells are immortal – easy to crow and still multiplying today more than 60 years after Henrietta’s death.  In The Immortal Life of Henriett Lacks, Rebecca Skloot has meticulously researched the life of the woman previously known to scientists as HeLa in order to tell her story and the story of her cells and to put her back at the centre of it, refocussing a what has been seen as a story of medical advancement and triumph on the woman who was hidden from the public by the scientists.

Henrietta’s cells were taken as she was being treated for the cervical cancer that killed her, and after they were cultured by lab at John Hopkins hospital it was discovered that they reproduced at a remarkable rate and could be kept alive longer than any other cell they had previously studied.  Scientists have been using them ever since.  Patients were not asked for permission or consent for this sort of procedure at the time, and the Lacks family didn’t know what had happened until years after the fact and, as the book was being researched, still didn’t really understand fully what actually happened to their mother’s cells or the implications.  As well as the story of the HeLa cell, and the ethical questions raised by it, Skloot also tells the story of the Lacks family, how she met them and eventually managed to get their side of the story and helped them understand what had happened to Henrietta and her contribution to science.

I’m not really a science person, but Skloot’s explanations of the medicine and biology in this were at a level that I could follow and understand, however the personal side of the story was what really kept me reading the book.  The way that the hospital acquired Henrietta’s cells is definitely unethical by today’s standards, but was common practice at the time – although issues of race and class seem also to have been at play here.  But effect on Henrietta’s children of the discovery of what had happened to her cells was massive and it’s explored sensitively and empathetically.

This book is fascinating, but also depressing.  It’s easy to see the HeLa cells as an example of the injustices that African Americans have faced at the hands of medicine and science – there are a lot of others in here too.  I don’t read a lot of popular science, but  had heard a lot about this and it lived up to the reviews.  It’s been turned into a TV film now and I hope that Henrietta’s descendants have done better from the book and the film than they have from her cells.

My copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came from the library, but it’s available in Kindle and Kobo as well as in paperback and as an audiobook, so I’m hoping that you should be able to get hold of it fairly easily if you’re interested. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the film.

Happy Reading.

Book previews

Books I’m looking forward to in 2019

Happy New Year everyone.  I hope you had a good night last night and are able to relax and unwind today.  I’m working this New Years Day, so think of me if you’re cozy at home and if you’re also working, you have all my sympathy!  The final stats post of 2018 is coming tomorrow, but instead of a Book of the Week post today, I’ve got a look ahead at some of the upcoming books that I can’t wait to read in 2019.

I’m a sucker for a novel based on real events and real people when they’re done well (see my love of Gone with the Windsors) and I’ve heard a lot of good things about A Well-Behaved Woman by Theresa Anne Fowler.  It follows Alva Smith – better known as Alva Vanderbilt as she navigates her way through Gilded Age society.  The Kindle edition is out now in the UK with the paperback coming at the end of January and I have an advance copy sitting on my kindle waiting for a quiet afternoon in front of the fire…

Another one sitting on the Kindle waiting for me is the Sidney Chambers prequel The Road to Grantchester which comes out in March.  I was sad when the series proper ended (the books, not the TV series – I gave up on that during the 3rd season), so the idea of a look at how Sidney came to be in Grantchester really appeals to me.

Also in March is Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.  About the events leading up to the unexplained break-up of a hugely successful band in 1979, it’s already been optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company.  I have a mixed record with stories about bands – but enough of them have ended up being Books of the Week that I’m optimistic about this one.

Even further into 2019 is The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal, which is being billed as being a historical novel about art, obsession and possession – when an aspiring artist become the model for a pre-Raphaelite artist.  It’s out at the start of May and is getting a lot of buzz – so I’m looking forward to reading it, but I’m a little worried it might be too dark and scary for me!

I loved Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient in 2018, so I’m very excited for the follow-up The Bride Test which is also due in May and looks like a twist on the marriage of convenience/mail order bride trope with another neurodiverse leading player.  I can’t wait!

And halfway through the year, in June, is Montauk by Nicola Harrison, which tells the story of a summer by the Long Island seaside in 1938.  We all know that I love a rich people problems historical novel, and this looks like it could be spot on for me.  According to the blurb, Beatrice is hoping that the summer at the beach will help her revitalise her marriage.  But instead she’s stuck in a huge hotel with people she’s never fit in with while her husband is back in the city.  Instead she’s drawn to the year-round community and a man who is very unlike her husband.

And finally, this is not quite a next year book – as it cames out here on December 27th – and I don’t really do business improvement/self-help books but after hearing about it in an email Karen Wickre’s Taking the Work Out of Networking Connections: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count sounds like something I could really use.  I am not a naturally outgoing person – I’m very bad at networking and making connections and use social media as a crutch to get over the fact that I just can’t bring myself to call people I haven’t spoken to in ages just for a chat and a catch up.  Perhaps 2019 is the year to change that?

Let me know what you’re looking forward to reading in 2019 in the comments!

Authors I love, Best of..., book round-ups

Best books of 2018

It’s nearly the end of the year and I promised you some extra posts looking back at the year didn’t I?  Well, here’s my look at five of my favourite books of the year.  Looking back on my Goodreads stats to write this, I realise that I’ve been very stingy with the 5 stars this year – which has made this very tricky to write because there are a lot of 4 star ratings and I’ve had to workout which ones were my real favourites.  And because of the way this blog works, you’ve heard about most of these before – either as Books of the Week or in other roundup posts – because when I like stuff this much, I tell you about it!

A Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

Copy of Another Day in the Death of America

This was part of my pre-Washington reading and although I read a lot of good books in that particular reading jag, this one has really stuck with me.  A snapshot of all the children and teens killed by guns on just one day in America, it is meticulously researched and will break your heart.  If you are in any doubt about the scale of gun deaths in the US, this will put it all into perspective -this is just a normal day – no mass shootings, just ten dead young people ranging in age from 9 to 19.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Paperback copy of Five Children on the Western Front

Lets get all the sad books out of the way to start with.  This is a middle grade continuation/follow on to E Nesbit’s The Five Children and It book.  I think I read the 5 children (maybe even more than one of them) after the 1990s BBC TV series was shown and it had never occurred to me that these were the children who would be the young men and women of the Great War – and of course when Nesbit was writing the books, she had no idea what was in their future either.  This is really, really good, but also quietly devastating. There are a lot of Second World War middle grade books, but not so many (or at least not that I’ve come across) Great War ones – this is a very good addition to the genre.  It came out a couple of years ago, but reading it this year with the centenary of the Armistice, felt very timely.  It wasn’t my BotW at the time -I was in a historical crime groove back in at the start of the year, but I’ve recommended it a few times since and it’s quietly crept up my list of best reads of the year.

The Victory Disc by Andrew Cartmel

Copy of Victory Disc

The third in the Vinyl Dectective series is right up there as one of my favourite detective stories of the year.  This time our unnamed hero is on the hunt for records by a wartime swing band.  The Flarepath Orchestra were contemporaries of Glenn Miller, but their recordings are incredibly rare.  After one pops up unexpectedly, the Detective and his gang are asked to track down the rest.  But there are still secrets and lies at the heart of the band and soon a great deal of danger is threatening the gang.  This wasn’t a Book of the Week at the time – because it’s the third in the series and you’ll get the most from them by reading them in order.  The first in the series, Written in Dead Wax was a BotW last summer though – and I thoroughly recommend starting with that.  My Dad has read these and practically snaps my hand off to get the next one from me!  Good reads doesn’t have any details for a fourth yet, but I’m hoping that we’ll get more adventures in vinyl in 2019.

Anyone for Seconds by Laurie Graham

Regular readers know how much I love Laurie Graham (and if you don’t, here are the posts to prove it) but I remember saying to a friend before this came out that if she was going to write a sequel to one of her novels, this wasn’t the one that I would have picked.  How wrong I was, because this is my favourite of her contemporary novels in ages.  It snuck out a bit under the radar in August and I nearly missed it. We rejoin Lizzie Partridge, the heroine of Perfect Meringues, some twenty years after we last met her.  Lizzie was a TV-chef on the regional news, but after The Incident she has mostly worked in print.  But when her last paying gig is pulled, Lizzie decides to run away in the hope that it’ll get her some attention.  But no-one notices.  It does however, set in train a series of changes in Lizzie’s life.  It was a BotW and it’s still one of my favourites this year.

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

It was a long wait for a new book by Jasper Fforde – my big Fforde discovery and binge actually happpened before I started this blog, but Early Riser was worth it and it was a BotW.  Set in a world where humans hibernate for four months every winter, this follows the adventures of one man in his first year as a Winter Consul – one of the people who watch over the sleeping masses.  This is completely standalone from his other books, but if you’ve read other Fforde novels you’ll spot that this world has some elements in common with Thursday Nexts.  It’s fantasy and sci-fi but at the end of that spectrum that I like.

The Birth of South Korean Cool by Euny Hong

Copy of the Birth of Korean Cool

And another non-fiction book to round out this list.  Euny Hong’s family moved back to South Korea in the 1980s when she was at school so she is ideally placed to take a look at how South Korea turned itself into a big name on the world stage through the course of twenty years. This is a really, really interesting and readable guide to the Korean pop-culture phenomenon and the policy behind it. Although some of the section dealing with North Korea is now slightly dated that doesn’t detract from the overall impact of the book. I would happily have read another 100 pages.   It had been on my to-read list for ages – but I finally got around to getting hold of a copy after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics at the start of the year (although it took me another few months to get around to reading it!). I’ve recommended it a number of times – and used knowledge I learned from it to look smart when talking about K-pop with younger colleagues.  A winner all around!

Let me know what your favourite books of the year have been in the comments – and coming up over the next few days we’ve also got my reading obsessions of the year – and how 2017’s obsessions have lasted as well as the books that I’m looking forward to in 2019.So here you are, six of my favourite reads of 2018.  There were a few five star reads this year that aren’t on the list – but they are very much from favourite authors – new installments in the Wells and Wong series and from Gail Carriger and the Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang that I’ve already talked about so much already over the years that I’d be boring you to tell you about them again.

Happy Reading!

American imports, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Bad Feminist

Another week gone and we’re nearly at Christmas and the end of the year. I’m way behind on Christmas this year: on present shopping, on decorating, on festive reading. I feel like I’ve dropped a few baubles this year. Hey ho. One thing I can do is a pick my favourite book of last week – Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist – although I can’t promise that this will be the longest post ever!

Cover of Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist is a series of essays that sets out Ms Gay’s views on gender and race and why it’s ok to have messy, complicated views on issues. It is broad ranging in topics – which include the way that women’s bodies are viewed through to 50 Shades of Grey via competitive Scrabble tournaments. First published in 2014, a few things have changed since Bad Feminist came out – it is pre #MeTop, from before Donald Trump was elected president and before Bill Cosby was jailed. But that’s ok because there’s a lot here for you to think about and even the bits that feel a bit dated* give you pause for thought. It can make you hoot with laughter and it will make you cry.

I had heard a lot about this book, and indeed it’s been on my list of books to read for a long time, but due to the size of the pile and my attempts not to spend too much money on books, it’s taken a while to get to this. I read Ms Gay’s short story collection first in fact, because a review copy came my way. I follow her on twitter and I knew going in that I don’t always agree with her, but that she always has something worth listening to and considering whether you need to adjust your opinions. And as expected, I didn’t agree with everything, but it gave me a lot of things to consider and insight on life experiences that are different from my own and that is always worth having.

My copy of Bad Feminist came from the library but it’s also available fairly easily from the shops and as an ebook in Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

* I know, how can something only four years old feel out of date? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the American political news cycle. I have recently had first hand experience of it and can testify that it’s really something and can chew a story up and spit it out in a remarkably rapid period.

Verity Goes to Washington

Verity Goes to Washington: the Pre-trip reading list!

Well in some exciting news, this author is going international for a couple of months.  I’m off to Washington DC for my proper job – and so I’ve been reading a lot of books about American culture and politics (as observant readers of the Week in Books may have noticed).  While I’m making my way across the Atlantic, here are my mini reviews…

Copies of some of the books on this list.

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

A heartbreaking, gutwrenching look at the toll that gun violence takes on every day Americans by telling the stories of all the young people shot dead on one single normal day in America.  The different stories here illustrate the stories behind the statistics and the toll each death takes on the people around the victim.  From a young boy shot dead as he answered his front door to a teen who’d got into gangs, this book puts a human face on the statistics and shows you the way that each shooting affects the people and communities the victim belonged to.

Who thought this was a good idea by Alyssa Mastromonaco

Less a politics book, more a look behind the scenes at the White House where Mastromonaco extrapolates some lessons that other young women can take from her experiences of being a young woman in a senior position in one of the most pressurised and powerful places in the world.

Yes We Still Can by Dan Pfeiffer

Dan Pfeiffer worked in the Obama White House and this is part memoir, part analysis of why the Democrats lost the 2016 presidential election and part plan for what he thinks the party needs to do next.  If you’ve listened to Pod Save America, you’ll have heard a lot of his ideas before, but the more structured format along with the indepth analysis and Obama White House stories do make it stand apart from his podcasting.

We Were Eight Years In Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’d already read some of the essays in here – and have read Coates’ previous book too so there was a bit of cross over, but I found his introductions to each essay, where he reflects on the context of the piece at the time and what he knows now really, really interesting.

If Only They Didn’t Speak English by Jon Sopel

Having followed the campaign closely  – and heard Sopel speak in person – I’m not sure I learned a huge amount of new material here, but it is incredibly readable because Sopel writes like he talks.  If you didn’t follow the 2016 campaign and want a primer, this would work brilliantly.

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

The first of the Trump tell all books.  This is a slightly cheaty inclusion because I actually read this right after it came out and was open mouthed at the claims Wolff made – and the access that he managed to get.  The speed of the news cycle of the Trump White House means that this already feels like a long time ago – and it’s recently been supplanted by Bob Woodward and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s books – but as a book that caused a splash this is noteworthy even if we’ll only be able to work out in about a decade how accurate it actually is.

Together We Rise by the Women’s March Organisers

This arrived in a box of books that I won as a prize at a completely fortuitous time.  This is a glossy coffee table book that looks behind the scenes of the Women’s March that took place the day after Donald Trump’s inauguaration.  It’s more anecdotal and less academic than a lot of the other books on this list, but it gives a good sense of the emotions behind the massive march and an insight into the people who organised it.

Fantasyland by Kurt Anderson

The subtitle of this one is “How America Went Haywire: a 500 year history” and Anderson is basically setting out his theory that the current fake-news post truth era can be traced back to the very first settlers who crossed the Atlantic.  I can see some of his points but I thought this was a very european-centric view of American history and culture and didn’t always think the argument was always tremendously well backed up.

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

A look at life as a working class American in Applalachia using the author’s own life story.  This won a whole bunch of prizes when it came out and I can understand why.  A lot of time has been spent on trying to work out what’s going on/wrong with poor white Americans – and this is one possible explanation for why Donald Trump’s brand of grievance politics has appealed to them so much.

Negroland by Margo Jefferson

A beautifully written examination of what it was like to grow up in Chicago’s black elite in the 1950s. To have some privilege but still to be other. To be an outsider in the white community and some of the black community. Thought provoking and fascinating.

My masterplan is to buy Bob Woodward’s Fear to read on the plane – I’m hoping the airport bookshop will have it in one of those airport paperback specials.

The great unknown here is of course what will happen to my reading life while I’m in Washington.  I fully intend to do as much sightseeing as I possibly can and will almost certainly have a much shorter commute than I do at home.  This may all mean that I’m reading less books – but I’m sure that you’ll all forgive me.

If you want to follow my adventures in the US the best place is probably going to be my Instagram account where I’ll be posting pictures of some of the places that I visit.  If you have suggestions for things I should do while I’m in Washington DC – please leave them in the comments!

Happy Reading!