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Lowborn by Kerry Hudson

4 out of 5 stars

If you were to hear Kerry Hudson speak now, you would hear her soft Scottish lilt. She would be telling you about her prize-winning books that have enabled her to travel all over the world. She is in a strong relationship and has plenty of opportunities and has access to many wonderful things.

It could have been so different.

Her score for the childhood trauma on the Adverse Childhood Experiences was eight out of ten. Her mother and step-father had a tumultuous relationship. She moved constantly as a child with her single mother between sordid flats and crumby B&Bs supported by social services. She attended fourteen different schools by the time she was sixteen. It was a tough upbringing, no money for the basics let alone luxuries and that poverty was grinding and dehumanising. She almost ended up with a drinking problem, like her mother had and dropped out of school. Was fortunate that a teacher saw her potential and as she put it saved her life.

She is proud to be working class. She was never proud of her poor background.

Hudson was one of the lucky ones, she managed to escape from the vicious cycle of poverty, but the spectre of the past continues to haunt her. This book is a brutally honest account of her upbringing and the cathartic effect on revisiting those demons from her past lives. But more than that this is a process of revisiting those place that she grew up, reconnecting with some of the people that she knew in from that past.

It is also a health check on the state of our country too. Pervasive poverty spares no one and austerity for the past decade has made the people who were in just about managing, now much worse off. She was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with her opportunities, but the majority will not have this. It should have been a depressing book, but Hudson writes with deft authority and in amongst the gloom shows that it is possible to be happy. I think this should be required reading for all tory ministers, but as they are almost all heartless, so I doubt that they will be moved by this at all.

Ake Festival 2019

Welcome to my blog, Halfman Halfbook. I am one of the blogs on the tour promoting the AKE FESTIVAL, is Africa’s leading book festival and it will take place from 24th – 27th October 2019 in Lagos, Nigeria.  It is the most important book event on the African continent.

 Now in its seventh year, Ake Festival brings together the biggest and brightest names in the world of books from across Africa and the African diaspora. Showcasing the best contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry and thinking from Africa, the festival also plays host to film screenings, theatre performances, poetry readings, art exhibitions and dance performances from Africa’s biggest names. Inspiring people to engage with the power of books to inform, enlighten and inspire, Ake festival provides a platform for debates that challenge African norms, attitudes and traditions.

This year’s festival includes some of Africa’s most exciting contemporary authors, including Zimbabwe’s most important writer Tsitsi Dangarembga, Man Booker Prize 2019 shortlisted author Bernadine Evaristo who also founded the African Poetry Prize, the Sunday Times bestselling author of My Sister the Serial Killer Oyinkan Braithwaite, award-winning Angolan author Jose Agualusa, and Reni Eddo-Lodge the internationally acclaimed author of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race.  

Other headline authors include Nnedi Okorafor Africa’s leading science fiction and fantasy author whose World Fantasy Award-winning novel Who Fears Death is currently being adapted for an HBO TV series. Ayobami Adebayo is the critically acclaimed author of Stay with Me, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and Guardian Best Book of the Year.  Feminist activist Mona Eltahawy is the Egyptian-American author of the brilliant The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls.

The lineup also includes two authors who used their writing to tackle the 2014 mass-kidnapping of schoolgirls by terrorist group Boko Haram, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani author of the award-winning YA novel Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, based on dozens of interviews with women and girls kidnapped by terrorist group and Helon Habila whose short and powerful The Chibok Girls was a Penguin special investigation publication. He will be discussing Travellers, his fantastic new novel

The festival theme this year is: Black Bodies | Grey Matter

Events will explore how our minds and bodies have impacted – and been impacted by the course of history. Colonialism, multiculturalism, internecine violence, organised religion, cultural attitudes and practices have all left their mark. While specific practices such as scarification and tattoos leave physical traces, colourism, stereotyping and gender non-conformity exert their influence on both psyche and soma. The interrogation of these issues will yield fascinating and illuminating insights. This theme, in the hands of Africa’s leading creatives and thinkers, will give rise to discussions and conversations that will enrich our understanding of the African condition.

Sadly I can’t go to this, but it does sound fantastic. I can share an extract from one of the authors, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi from her book, Manchester Happened

Blurb:

An ambitious and assured collection of short stories from the internationally acclaimed author of Kintu

If there’s one thing the characters in Jennifer Makumbi’s stories know, it’s how to field a question.

‘Let me buy you a cup of tea… what are you doing in England?’

‘Do these children of yours speak any Luganda?’

‘Did you know that man Idi Amin?’

But perhaps the most difficult question of all is the one they ask themselves: ‘You mean this is England?’

Extract:

Told with empathy, humour and compassion, these vibrant, kaleidoscopic stories re-imagine the journey of Ugandans who choose to make England their home. Weaving between Manchester and Kampala, this dazzling, polyphonic collection will captivate anyone who has ever wondered what it means to truly belong.

A clock across on a building claimed 8.30 in the morning but the sun was nowhere. The world’s ceiling was low and grey, the air was smoke-mist, the soil was black. After a silence of disbelief, Abu whispered, ‘Where is the sun?’ Ruwa laughed. ‘No wonder these people are just too eager to leave this place: the sun does not come out?’ ‘Sometimes it does. Mostly it rains.’ ‘All this wealth but no sun?’ ‘That’s why they love it at ours too much. Always taking off their clothes and roasting themselves.’ Abu wanted to stay on the ship until it was repaired but Ruwa, who had been to Manchester several times, held his hand and led him into Salford. Abu, twenty-one years old, gripped Ruwa’s hand like a toddler.

They set off for a seamen’s club, the Merchant Navy Club in Moss Side, where they would know where his friend, Kwei, a Fante from the Gold Coast, lived. Even though he told Abu, ‘Don’t fear; Manchester is alright even to African seamen. It even has African places – Lagos Close, Freetown Close – where Africans stay, I’ll show you’, they walked all the way from Salford to Manchester city centre to Moss Side because Abu would not get on a tram.‘I know how to behave around whites,’ he said. ‘I’ve been to South Africa.’ ‘The British are different, no segregation here.’ ‘Who lied you, Ruwa? Their mother is the same.’ For Abu, being surrounded by a sea of Europeans in their own land brought on such anxiety that for the first time he regretted running away from home. To think that it all began with a picture on a stupid war recruitment poster – OuR AllieS the COlOnieS. At the time, all he wanted was to join the King’s African Rifles and wear that uniform. To his childish eyes the native in the picture looked fearless and regal in a fez with tassels falling down the side of his face and a coat of bright red with a Chinese collar of royal blue edged with gold. That palm tree trinket on the fez with the letters T.K.A.R. – Abbey coveted it. He wanted to hold a gun and hear it bark, then travel beyond the seas and be a part of the warring worlds. He had heard his father talk about the European war with breathless awe. He had wanted it so desperately he could not wait four years until he was eighteen to enlist. In any case, the war might be over by then. Besides, at fourteen, he was taller than most people. And the British were notoriously blind. Often, they could not tell girls from boys. Also, they were desperate for recruits because recently some Kapere had started to ask men who turned up to enlist ‘Sex?’, which the translator turned into

‘Are you a man or a woman?’ The men just walked away: who had time for that? Unfortunately, a friend of his father saw him and pulled him out of the queue. When his father found out, he warmed his backside raw. That was when he swore to enlist in Kenya. After the war, he would come home elegant in his red uniform and fez and he would be made head of the royal army. Then his father would eat his words. With a few friends, Ssuuna had jumped on a train wagon and hidden among sacks of cotton. What he remembered most about that journey was not the incessant jarring and grinding or screeching of rail metal, but the itching of sisal sacks. No one had warned them that Nairobi was frosty in June, especially in the morning. The boys had never known such cold. They thought they would die. And then the British turned them away. Ssuuna was told to come back in two years – the British were blind by two years – and his friends were told to go home to their mamas! That was when his troubles began. Returning home was out of the question. Where would he say he had been? His father wanted him to stay in school, but studying was not for him. He wanted to be a soldier, shoot a gun, throw bombs and blow things up, and win a war. While they waited to grow up, Ssuuna and his friends travelled to Mombasa. Everyone said that there was more life in Mombasa, the gateway to the world.

Thank you Midas PR for the extract and I hope that the festival is a success.

Follow them on Twitter for more information:  @akefestival

Find the hashtag #akefestival to follow what is going on

 

Of Walking In Ice by Werner Herzog


3.5 out of 5 stars

On hearing that Lotte Eisner, the film-maker and critic, was dying, Werner Herzog made the sudden decision that he would walk from Munich to Paris where she was in the hospital. For some reason, he believed that his pain would help her live that she would still be alive as he walked over 500 miles. He set off as soon as he could carrying the minimal possessions and a map and a compass. This slender book is a record of his journey.

The walk would take him from the 23rd November to the 14th December and being winter, the weather was bitterly cold and icy. His route on the back roads would take him along the Rhine, seeking shelter by breaking into unoccupied homes and wading through the snow as his walk is hit by blizzards, rain and other season weather.

The walk that he is making is a part pilgrimage and part meditation on his life at the moment. He battles weather, exhaustion and blisters with the hope of finding his mentor alive when he reaches Paris. He observes all around him as he walks, ice that is clear as glass on a stream, a raven in the rain with its head bowed, but there is an extra element in here, he sees something beyond reality at times.

I have not seen any of his films, but understand that they possess a similar strangeness that this psychogeographical journey has. You can see he is facing his physical and mental demons as he trudges towards his destination, but there is something about the way that he writes and see the world around him that makes this special. This is a book that I found through the fantastic Backlisted Podcast that explores that rich vein of books in publishers back catalogues that don’t see the light of day that often.

Who Owns England by Guy Shrubsole

4 out of 5 stars

The question, who owns England? is such a simple question. And yet the answer to this is one of our country’s oldest and best-kept secrets. And the keepers of those secrets? Our ancient aristocracy and elite, who between them own vast swathes of our land. So much so, that only 1% (yes one per cent) of the population of the country owns 50% of the land. The Land Registry only knows for definite around 83% of the actual owners of the land of England.

To understand how we are in this situation you have to head back in our history nearly 1000 years, to the time when William the Bastard became William the Conqueror. His victory over Harold allowed him to have the largest land grab and to reward favourite people in his court with lands and property. He commissioned the Doomsday report, to ensure that he hadn’t missed any land that could be of some benefit to the crown.

Some of the descendants of those people granted land by William still own it.

The Crown owns large tracts, as you’d expect and pays tax on the income from those lands. However, it uses its two Duchy’s (Cornwall and Lancaster) to ensure that it isn’t paying tax on other vast swathes of land it has spread all around the country. A lot of land is owned by organisations like the National Trust, the Forestry Commission, the Church owns a lot too, but not as much as they used to, plus other big businesses now own substantial amounts. However, most of the elite and aristocracy don’t want people knowing how much land they have nor do they want you to know how much they are able to claim in benefits from it. They have built walls, moved villages and used the enclosure acts to steal the common land for their own use. All to stop us discovering exactly how much they own.

They now use modern tools to hide their assets away from us and the taxman, so he discovers that lots of land is now owned by shell companies based in tax havens. But the same tools that enable them to do this, can be used to answer the question posed; who owns England? Guy Shrubsole has spent lots of time exploring some of the vast estates and tramping over moors and entering empty Mayfair mansions as well as using the modern tools of digital mapping to answer this question.

This book is his expose of the truths of land ownership and what we can do to wrestle back control of this very limited asset. He has a lot of sensible suggestions on how we can ensure that this tiny elite are no longer the sole beneficiaries of the wealth and power that is derived from land. This struggle will be a long and tedious one as these people will not want to give up land that they have held for time immemorial. He is impassioned about this subject and writes in a very clear way with very well thought out solutions to solve the problem. As you read it you can sense his fury that in the modern age this is still an issue.

It is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in our countryside and landscapes and a call to virtual arms to apply the pressure needed to change the system for the better.

So it Goes by Nicholas Bouvier

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Bouvier has been travelling for a long time, he left Geneva in 1953 to go to Yugoslavia. He had no intention of returning and the story of that journey became a book eight years later. He kept travelling, heading out via India and Sri Lanka to Japan, which in time became another book. This latest book is a collection of shorter pieces and essays of his time spent in other parts of the world. Beginning in the Aran Isles, he then heads to Scotland and Islay. We then join him heading to Xian in China and Korea, and finally to his childhood home in Switzerland.

He is in Aran in the depths of winter walking the headlands and being battered by the winds from the Atlantic, sitting in the pubs being warmed and gently smoked by the peat fires and meeting the locals. He notes the desolation of the landscape, feeling that it is missing a certain something that other places have, but it isn’t something that he can quantify or identify.

Arriving in Scotland with sciatica he has no plan of what to do or see is not to be recommended, but it does give him the opportunity to discover things in Edinburgh by chance. Heading out of the capital, he heads east along the coast exploring the ports and to people watch in the pubs. Then onto Melrose via the Lammermuir Hills and finding how the Scots travelled the world taking their engineering skills with them. One rough sea journey later and Bouvier arrives in Port Ellen to discover the delights and drams of the island of Islay.

Leaving the windswept west coast of the British Isles the next essay takes us to the foggy heartland of China, Xian. Her were meet Monsieur X who will be his guide. This man had collected a small library of French books, but the Red Guard had destroyed all bar one of them, the last books, a Larousse was now buried in his garden. They have a good relationship in the brief time that he is in the province, Monsieur X revealing elements of the culture that he really should have been concealing.

The penultimate essay is on Korea. There were once seen as the poor relation compared to China and Japan and suffered at the hands of both countries, however, they were the source of writing, fire and Buddhism for Japan, amongst other things. He headed there in the early 1970s, and it was a place that wasn’t on most peoples itineraries of places to visit. However, it never really got over the war that almost triggers another world war and he finds a country that is crumbling and tired. But in amongst the dust and decay, he discovers a culture that is as rich and magnificent as its neighbours. Finally, he is back home in Switzerland, reliving memories from when he was eight years old.

This is the first of Bouvier’s books that I have read and I thought that it was really good. He has a gentle way of writing almost poetic at times, his keen eye selecting details, like the sparkle of ice on the sea of the coast of Arun, that turn the prose from a sketch of the moment to something with greater depth. He also lets the experiences of his travels come to him rather than seek them out. I do have a copy of The Way of the World that I must read very soon and must get hold of a copy of the Japanese Chronicles too.

The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman

4 out of 5 stars

If you were asked to name your own bodies largest organ you would almost certainly think of one of the ones inside like the liver or the heart, but it is actually the part of you that holds it all together, your skin. It is also an organ that most people think nothing of, day in and day out, but if you know what you are looking for you can see right into a person’s soul through their skin. Most doctors have an interest in all the bits inside, but Lyman is different, his fascination is the outside of us.

Unlike most other mammals we don’t have a significant amount of hair to protect us and keep us warm, rather what we have is a flexible and dynamic substance that can regulate temperature, is waterproof, resilient and is our frontline defence for all manner of nasty things. Flakes of skin are being shed continually, and it constantly regrows. It can be resistant to the sun, but too much exposure can lead to burning and even skin cancers. One of the amazing facts in here is just how sensitive the skin is. Every single square inch can relay back to the brain the fact that it has been touched.

There are some parts in here that are not for the squeamish, he begins with the story of a child who had a disease called harlequin ichthyosis, a horrid condition where the skin is dry cracked and scaly. He goes on to write about how we age and the inevitable wrinkles if moisturisers are any good and methods of keeping your skin in good condition. His skin safari provides details of all the countless bugs and microbes that we all carry, there are some really weird things that live in your belly button, as well of details of some really nasty things that occasionally appear.
I thought that this was a really good science book, he knows his subject thoroughly and has the skills to make the story of our skin very readable without becoming like a scientific paper. Well worth reading.

Us by Zaffar Kunial

4 out of 5 stars

Blending different cultures doesn’t always work it all begins to feel a little bland. Sometimes you need that juxtaposition between different origins, things don’t sit nicely together, that conflict between outlooks is often the most fruitful for ideas. So it is with this collection from Zaffar Kunial. He can draw on influences from Kashmir, where his father was born, and the Midlands where his mother is from as well as a subtle nuance that his wider family from Orkney have given him.

In this tilted
Storm-knocked world

This drop of earth
That holds the lift

It means that the poems traverse place effortlessly. One moment we join him on the sub-continent standing outside his father’s house, another moment next to a grave. The pace and length of the poems change for each one, adding interest and acting as a prism to his varied family backgrounds. I liked this a lot and I can really say why other than the multicultural elements work together well with his prose. I was fortunate to win this along with the others shortlisted for the Costa Poetry prize and I must say that the book itself is a thing of beauty, such simple layout for all the Faber poetry books with a cover that is so tactile.

Three Favourite poems
Rainglobe
Ys
Still

Effin’ Birds by Arron Reynolds

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Effin’ Birds by Arron Reynolds and published by Unbound

About the Book

Effin’ Birds is the most eagerly anticipated new volume in the grand and noble profession of nature writing and bird identification. Sitting proudly alongside Sibley, Kaufman, and Peterson, this book contains more than 150 pages crammed full of classic, monochrome plumage art paired with the delightful but dirty aphorisms (think “I’m going to need more booze to deal with this week”) that made the Effin’ Birds Twitter feed a household name. Also included in its full, Technicolor glory is John James Audubon’s most beautiful work matched with modern life advice. Including never-before-seen birds, insults, and field notes, this guide is a must-have for any effin’ fan or birder.

About the Author

Aaron Reynolds is the writer of @EfinBirds and @swear_trek, and the curator of @BatLabels. He is also a software instructor, which is where most of his elfin’ inspiration comes from.

My Review

Nature writing seems to be the in thing to be reading at the moment. Wander into your local bookshop and you will find lots of recently published books by people who have recently discovered the healing benefits of nature, or who are extolling the virtues of putting the screen down and looking at something else.

When you have ventured outside, it helps to have a guide to the things that you might see. These have always been popular, especially when it comes to identifying the LBJ’s (little brown jobs) that make up a large number of small brown passerine birds, many of which are notoriously difficult to distinguish, even for experts.

This though is a guide with a difference. It is filled with beautiful sketches that are so much like the art of Thomas Berwick, but rather than having details of regular birds, Reynolds has gathered details of birds like the Hipster Pelican, the Enervated Eagle and Buff Petrel, not forgetting the Snub Gull and the Fatalistic Falcon.

Astute Owls

As much as you don’t want an astute owl to be correct, the astute owl is correct

Habitat: Lurking nearby whenever you make a mistake

Identifying Characteristics: An unnerving sense of timing

As you might have guessed from the above, this is a humorous bird identification book. It gives a peek into the characteristics of these new birds and a fairly (ok, very) broadminded insight into what they might be thinking. I really liked the imaginative bird names and the thought he’d put into their habits and characters. The images are excellent too, in particular, the colour ones, they portray the bird and also show the aloof, contemptuous or angry look that the artist and author were aiming for.  There is a lot of swearing in here, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour:

Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here

My thanks to Anne Cater from Random Things Through my Letterbox for arranging a copy of the book to read.

The Garden Jungle by Dave Goulson

3.5 out of 5 stars

If you are fortunate to have a garden but don’t really pay it much attention, then you might not be aware of the insects and other wildlife that inhabit it at the moment. It is a jungle out there, but one that you need to get down on your hands and knees to see properly. Everything from the microbes, worms and ants in the soil, to the insects that pollinate and right up to the small mammals and birds that prey on all of these creatures lower down the food chain.

If you can tear your attention away from the screen and take a few moments to go out into the garden, then we need to understand what makes them tick and some of their lifecycle to help these creatures. For a lot of them, their lives are short, sharp and very often brutal. Oh and weird, very weird. Goulson ventures beneath the soil, into the compost heap and rootles around at the bottom of the pond to find out more about their lives and just how intertwined all layers of life are on this planet.

Insects are the bottom in a very long food chain, if they collapse in numbers then everything further up will suffer and the current evidence is suggesting that that collapse has already started. A garden that is sensitively planted can bring a huge number of insects in and will help all types of wildlife. Some insect-friendly’ plants that are available from garden centres but a crowd-funded PHD project found a cocktail of insecticides, in particular, neonicotinoids, fungicides and other pesticides on them. When Goulson raised this publicly, some organisation have made steps to do something about this, but other organisations who really should know better have maintained a worrying silence about this.

Didn’t feel that this was as good as his previous books, but it is still as well written with the occasional humorous moment. You also get a sense of his anger over the way that some things are continuing with the overwhelming evidence that drenching our land in chemicals, is doing far more harm than companies would have you believe. His greatest ire is for the insect friendly plants that are being marketed, his advice, don’t look for the label, look at the plants that have lots of insects gathering round them and buy those instead and don’t use chemicals on them when you do get them home. He has a strong message that we would be wise to heed. It is worth reading alongside The Bumble Bee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury and her account of changing a garden from a wildlife blackhole to a place full of life.

The Three Dimensions of Freedom by Billy Bragg

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

There are a lot of things wrong with our political process at the moment, pedlars of lies and half-truths seem to have the upper hand, algorithms threaten our democracy as they target people of a particular political persuasion. Social media doesn’t always help either, it has become an echo chamber as people hear only what they want to hear and reinforce their prejudices. Money is pouring into these organisations and they are growing in influence. It feels like we are living a political version of groundhog day and 1984 as the tyranny grows.

In this short concise book on the three elements that make up a modern democracy, liberty, equality and accountability. After the wars in the 20th century, society grew well under the Keynesian economic policies but the Thatcher / Regan assault of the state has led us to where we are today. He explores the way that the neoliberal movement and overly powerful corporations have hollowed out our democracy and governments and how the systems is geared to deliver power and wealth for an exclusive and select band of people and misery for the rest.

What can we do though? He argues that accountability is the key. Past concentrations of power do (eventually) lead to change, as the population realises what is happening and that they have to effect change. People and organisations need to be held to account, and to do this we need a strong rule of law where no one is above it.

Bragg really nails exactly what is wrong with our country at the moment, and while he provides some of the answers to what to do, he doesn’t have all of the answers. Whilst that is a shame, but then I don’t think anyone has those answers at the moment. We do need a strong constitution though and we are lacking that at the moment. Worth reading, if a little short.

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