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!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: The Birth of South Korean Cool

It was very easy to pick this week’s BotW – I raced through Euny Hong’s the Birth of South Korean Cool and found it absolutely fascinating.  It had been on my to-read list for a while after I heard it recommended on one of the podcasts that I listen to – so long in fact that I can’t remember which podcast.  But where ever the recommendation came from – it was a really good one.

Paperback copy of the Birth of Korean Cool

The book’s subtitle is “How one nation is conquering the world through pop culture” and that is exactly what the book sets out to prove – and it makes a compelling arguement.  Euny Hong moved to South Korea in 1985 when her father got a job at a South Korean university.  He and her mother had left 20 years previously to go to graduate school and, like many of their contemporaries had never gone back.  The South Korean government was trying to get them back as they worked on their plan to transform the country from a third world military dictatorship into a first world democracy.  Euny grew up as South Korea remade itself – on a scale that I really hadn’t quite comprehended.

Across chapters on schooling, han, kimchi, K-Pop, K-Drama and more, Hong looks at all the work and planning that went in behind the scenes and the (relatively) long game masterplan from the South Korean government to transform itself from the inside out.  First published in 2014, some of the details in this about the relationship with North Korea have obviously dated a little, but that is not the main focus of the book and doesn’t affect the central thesis so it didn’t cause me any problems.  I was staggered at the lengths and the risks and the investment that the government went to – I can’t imagine the British government doing anything similar – let alone the American one.  But it paid off – it is paying off – and now armed with all the information and background from this book I’ll be watching more closely to see how the Korean revolution continues to unfold.  I’m not a big pop music listener, but the Korean revolution has even got to me – I’ve been buying some Korean beauty products for a couple of years!

I got my copy secondhand because it seems to be out of print in the UK, so if you want a physical copy that may be your only option – unless you have an amazon.com account where they still seem to have stock.  It is available on Kindle and Kobo though – but it’s £9.99 at time of writing, so you might want to add it to your watch list and see if there’s any variation going on.  I’m off to try and find some K-pop playlists so I can match up the names in the book with some songs.

Happy reading!

Some of the Heyer collection
Authors I love, non-fiction, romance, Series I love, The pile

Greatest Hits: My 500th post!

I realised earlier that my next post would be my 500th and it seemed a shame for it to go by without being marked and just be a normal Week in Books. So instead a little bonus post looking at what we’ve discovered in 500 posts…

I think, if we’re being honest we could sum most of my reading up as falling into one of three categories: romance, crime and history. To be honest, sometimes it hits all three…

Romance

Artistically arranged Heyer novels
A selection of my favourites

 

Back in the very early days I wrote about my abiding love of Georgette Heyer so it would be remiss of me not to mention her here (especially as some do hit that trifecta – Masqueraders, Talisman Ring, Unknown Ajax for example) but it’s not just about Regency romances. I already loved Trisha Ashley, but while I’ve been writing the blog I’ve become a massive fan of  Sarah Morgan and Jill Shalvis who both wrote contemporary romances, which a couple of years ago I would have told you that I don’t really read unless they’re romantic comedies. Romantic comedies have become harder to find over the years, but they’re still there if you look hard enough – like Kirsty Greenwood, my old editor at Novelicious who is funny and a little bit rude.*

Crime

Four books
The four books that feature Peter and Harriet

The only way to start this section is with Lord Peter Wimsey. I still love these stories as much as I did when I wrote that post. I still listen to the audiobooks and radio plays with Ian Carmichael monthly. They’re a sure fire way to make me relax at the end of a long day and my favourite of all the Golden Age crime. One of the greatest things about the ebook revolution is the reappearance of some more forgotten classics like Edmund Crispin and a lot of the British Library Crime classics. Another great thing about ebooks are the smaller presses – if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you’ll know about my love for Fahrenheit Press because I’ve gone on about it so much over the last 18+ months. And then there’s the cozy crime. My favourites are the ones with a sense of humour – like Meg Langslow and the Royal Spyness series.

History

Gone with the Windsors by Laurie Graham
Gone with the Windsors by Laurie Graham

This is actually quite a broad category – I’m using it to cover straight up nonfiction history books, like The Greedy Queen, and fiction set in the past like Deanna Raybourn and Lauren Willig’s books. A lot of my reading is set in the past in one way or another, which perhaps isn’t surprising given that I’m a history graduate. I’ve learned more about Ancient Egypt and the Victorian rush to excavate it through Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series. I tend to stick to books set after 1600, but I do venture back further if something catches my eye. I have a love for the interwar period – non fiction books like Flappers and Queen Bees and novels – like one of my all-time favourites Gone With The Windsors, or mystery series (overlap!) like Daisy Dalrymple and Phryne Fisher, both of which are overdue for new novels too.

 

And all this hadn’t even touched on my love of boarding school stories – new and old – or ballet books, and classic children’s books in general.  Or the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett. Or Gail Carriger’s supernatural world. Or Charlaine Harris’s. Or the Janet Evanovich obsession. And just writing this has made me realise how many great books I’ve read and written about for this blog.

One  of the aims of Verity Reads Books was to try to reduce my to-read pile  I don’t think we can really count that as a success as the pile took up three boxes when it went into storage. But I do think I think more before buying books and NetGalley means I get advance copies of things now, which don’t take up actual space, but obviously mean I have less time to read Books from the pile. But really, there’s no such thing as too many books! Plus I really like writing about what I’ve been reading and chatting to people about what I’ve been reading on various social media platforms, so that’s been a total bonus.

Thanks for reading my ramblings, and here’s to whatever I discover in the next 500 posts!

Happy Reading.

* Kirsty’s Big Sexy Love is 99p on Kindle at the moment and you should totally buy it!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Born a Crime

This week’s BotW is Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, which I’ve wanted to read since I heard about it and picked up in a Kindle Daily deal a while back.  I started off by reading it in chunks (hence why it took me a few weeks to read) and then ended up reading the second half pretty much in one sitting.


For those of you who don’t know, Trevor Noah is a South African comedian who succeeded Jon Stewart as the host of the Daily Show in late 2015.  This book isn’t an about his rise to fame though, it’s a collection of essays about his childhood and adolescence in South Africa, where as the child of a white father and a black mother he was literally illegal.  Hence the title.

This is both a engaging look at the childhood of a very naughty and mischievous child and a fascinating but horrifying look at how Apartheid worked and its very real effects on people’s lives.  I’m in my early 30s and, because I was brought up in a house where if the radio was on it was playing Radio 4, I can remember the end of the Apartheid system, but until I read this I hadn’t really appreciated the full reality of what had been going on in South Africa less than 30 years ago.  And as Trevor Noah is pretty much my age – give or take a month or two – I could draw exact paralells between his childhood and mine – we were passing the same milestones at the same time.

This is darkly funny in places and profoundly shocking in others.  There are hilarious stories here about going from church on a Sunday, about dating and about the language barrier.  But Noah’s childhood was far from easy – he spent large periods being hidden inside houses to avoid detection – and if he did go out extreme measures were needed to protect him.  Even after the end of Apartheid, Trevor never really fits in anywhere – even in his own family.  But one of the things that shines through in this book is his mother’s love for him and her determination that he should dream bigger than the rules that society has set out for him.  It’s packed with background information about how South Africa worked – but wears it very lightly because it’s woven in to the narrative of the book so well.

I read this on my kindle, but could hear Noah’s own voice in every paragraph.  In fact if you’re more patient than I am, you can have him read it to you because he narrates the audiobook himself.  I gained even more respect for Noah having read this – and am even more annoyed that he had to cancel his tour date in my home town because he got the Daily Show gig.  I still have the unused ticket sitting in the bottom of my ticket box.  I suspect the opportunity to see him in a venue that small won’t come around again – but the book it good enough that I’ll try and get over it!

You should be able to get Born a Crime from all good bookshops – or you could order if from the Big Green Bookshop.  As I write this, the Kindle and Kobo editions are more expensive than the paperback one, but it has gone in deals before, so you could add it to your wishlist and wait.  And as I already mentioned, it’s also available as an audiobook from Audible and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

literary fiction, non-fiction, Recommendsday, romance

Recommendsday: Quick reviews

As the deadline for Fahrenheit’s #Noirville competition draws ever closer – you’ve only got three days to go people, three days – I’ve been trying to clear the decks a bit so that I’m ready to read the entries.  So I thought I’d mention a few books this Recommendsday that I’ve read recently but haven’t chatted about.  It’s a bit eclectic, but that’s just how I roll and I know you won’t mind!

The Greedy Queen by Annie Gray

Ever wondered what Queen Victoria ate?  Annie Gray has the answers.  As well as looking at what Victoria ate across the course of her reign, it looks at how the kitchens worked, who worked there and who else they were feeding as well as the Queen.  It jumps backwards and forwards  in the timeline a little bit, but I came away feeling like I’d learned a lot about upper class dining in the nineteenth century.  ITV’s TV series Victoria is back on screen at the moment – and although the Victoria in that is very much the young queen, this would still make a nice companion read for people who want to know a bit more about the Queen’s life and her household.

Wise Children by Angela Carter

Meet Nora and Dora Chance – former musical all stars, illegitimate twin daughters of a pillar of the theatrical establishment – on their 75th birthday, which by coincidence is also their father’s 100th birthday.  Join them as Dora tells you the story of their lives before they head to the (televised) party.  This is a whirling, magical realist journey through the world of the theatre – legitimate and otherwise – full of Shakespeare references and sets of twins galore.  I found it enjoyably bonkers although it took a little while before I got my head around it all – there is a big old cast of characters here – and I’m still thinking about it a couple of weeks later.

True Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop by Annie Darling

You may remember me raving about the Little Bookshope of Lonely Hearts last year – and now it has a sequel.  The good news is that this is not the sort of sequel that breaks up the couple that you’ve invested so much in in the first book and then getting them back together.  This sees one of the other girls who works in the bookshop get her happily ever after.  I always find it slightly weird to read books where the main character has my name, but I liked Verity Love so much that I got over that quite quickly.  This Verity is an Austen mad introvert, who invents a boyfriend to keep her friends off her back and then ends up with a real life fake boyfriend.  I had a few issues with Johnny’s back story – and insufficient grovelling at the end – but was mostly swept away by this – I do love a relationship of convenience story.

Right, that’s your lot for now, but I hope there’s something in here that’s tickled your fancy and might help you fill a reading gap while I’m off reading all those Noirville entries.

Happy Reading!

non-fiction, Recommendsday, reviews

Recommendsday: Reel History

Need a book that comes in bitesized chunks?  Try Reel History: The World According to the Movie by Alex von Tunzelmann, which is based on her long-running Reel History column in the Guardian.  The basic idea is to compare the movie versions of history with the actual historical fact and the results are frequently hilarious.  Movies are graded on entertainment and on history, because it’s perfectly possible for a film to be both entertaining and historically accurate, although it’s rare.  That’s not to say that she expects films to be slaves to historical accuracy because she’s well aware that what is good history doesn’t always make good watching, but it’s a lovely way of finding out where the truth is behind the films and makes a great jumping off point if you want to disappear down an internet (or library) rabbit hole or two when you find out the truth.

Cover of Reel History by Alex von Tunzelmann
I do love a nice bright cover – and this one is so much fun

Von Tunzelmann has a wicked sense of humour on her, without resorting to cheap shots very often. In fact there’s so much good stuff to giggle about in this that what started out as me reading bits out loud to Him Indoors turned into me reading the whole book out loud to him!  This meant that the book took a lot longer to read than if I’d just been reading it myself, but made for a lovely shared experience as we chuckled together as the movies moved in time from prehistory until the nearly present.  He’d seen a lot more of the movies mentioned than I have, but I still enjoyed the book even the films that I haven’t watched.

I don’t think we can expect many/any more columns – as von Tunzelmann has turned her hand to script writing (she wrote the recent film Churchill) and, as she told Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast, she doesn’t think it’s quite cricket to be on writing films and criticising them.  I’m sad that there won’t be a sequel to this, because I enjoyed it a lot, but I’m off to enjoy the back catalogue on the Guardian website.  I’m also off to take a look at her book Indian Summer, which is about the liberation of India in 1947, which is a subject I know woefully little about and would like to remedy with the 70th anniversary coming upon us next month.

Reel History is available in paperback from all the usual sources and was a bargain £3.49 on Kindle  at time of writing and is also available on Kobo.

Happy Reading!