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Book Reviews

Books of the Year, from Ross Bradshaw

My reading this last year has been pretty random, and my faves are not confined to these books, but these are the ones still sitting on my desk for no good or bad reason. So these will pass as my books of the year.
Firstly, my book of the year has to be Rory Stewart’s Politics on the Edge (Cape). I’d never paid him much attention until I saw him being interviewed at length by Ash Sarkar on Novara Media. Wait a minute, here’s a former Conservative Minister engaging fully with a Muslim Marxist… The book is very well written and quite scary about the nature of real parliamentary politics. Things like there were only nine key activists in his Conservative Party in Penrith and the Border, or like when he was appointed Minister for Prisons he knew nothing at all about prisons or like when, a known expert on the Indian subcontinent,  the Conservative Government gave him Africa for his brief… And when he was in charge of Africa the civil servants didn’t bother to invite him to the meeting to discuss a coup in Zimbabwe. This was government by chaos, and few come out of it well. Stewart did get stuck into improving prisons though, in his whirligig tour through department after department.
Comrades Come Rally: Manchester Communists in the 1930s and 1940s by Michael Crowley (Bookmarks) is about a world we have lost: a world of trade unionists, Jewish lefties, folk singers, bibliophiles, women workers, Spanish Civil War volunteers – the network of activists based in the old CPGB that made Manchester a radical centre at that time.
On the fiction front there’s The Painter’s Friend by Howard Cunnell (Picador), the story of an artist who ends up living on the water, in an island community of lost souls which is under threat from developers. Everyone has their own story, and there are moments of despair and of solidarity. It is fiction but I can’t help but feel there’s been many real life situations like this over the last few years.
Kairos by Kenny Erpenbeck (Granta) is perhaps my favourite novel of the year. Warning though, the core relationship in the book is one of coercive control of a young woman by an older man.  The married man is of course a bastard, but there’s also a sense of what might be lost as the GDR collapses. In Siblings by Brigitte Reimann (Penguin) the GDR is still functioning. The main character is a young woman artist employed to teach painting to factory workers. The sibling aspect is about the way that three siblings deal with the GDR. One has already defected…
 In one of the books – I forget which! – a visit to West Germany shows the shops full of goods, luxury everywhere, but homeless beggars too – something that would never happen on the other side of the wall.
Buchi Emecheta came to Nottingham, what?, forty years ago for a packed reading at the old WEA on Shakespeare Street. There were perhaps 150 people there. I’d not read anything of hers since then, but the reissue of her novels drew me in to The Joys of Motherhood. The book opens with a woman running away, and there’s a lot to run away from in this Nigerian novel. The bride price, a house slave being killed because she would not willingly jump into the grave of her recently deceased owner, minimal education for girls, funerals that take years to pay off, polygamy… traditional Nigerian life was as patriarchal as it could get, but did things improve with the a money economy, the move from village to Lagos, to law and order? The book gets more interesting then, with conscription of men to fight for Britain in the war against Germany (the men now knowing what side they might be on), the start of a discussion on independence, a developing Nigerian diaspora, intermarriage but also conflict between Yoruba and Igbo, the difficulties of pastoralists… And the joy of motherhood? “The joy of being a mother was the joy of giving all to your children, they said.” Maybe not.
This year Claire Keegan is no longer the author of the year – though her novella, short story really, So Late in the Day is worth reading, This year it’s Ann Patchett. Bel Canto (4th Estate) is probably her best known book, in which a group of South American terrorists/freedom fighters take over a Government residency expecting to catch the Vice President and negotiate for their cause. He’s not at the function so they find themselves in control of an opera singer, a Japanese businessman and a cast of others. The negotiations drag on and on, and on, with the terrorists and their charges finding ways of being together… one terrorist takes up opera. How will it end? Patchett keeps us guessing, but we engage with her characters as they engage with each other. Patchett’s These Precious Days (Bloomsbury) probably would not have been published if Patchett was not already a famous writer, but fortunately she is and it has been. The subjects range from Snoopy to Patchett’s views of the covers of her books internationally, including Bel Canto. The stand out essay though is the one that gives the book title. Patchett gets to know Tom Hanks’ PA, Sooki. They become friends, with Sooki moving in to see out the COVID pandemic – and possibly her life, as she had pancreatic cancer. It’s a marvellous invocation of female friendship.
We know that the author of Clouds over Paris (Pushkin) did die. Felix Hartlaub was a German soldier who did not survive the war.. This book comprises his notebooks about his time in Paris in the German occupation. He did nothing bad, just observed what was going on. The book is slight, the author’s casual observations are those of a travel writer abroad in a strange city. But he is a close observer and the book adds something to the category of what ordinary Germans did or thought during the war. He would, it is clear, have been a great writer, but this anti-Nazi German did not survive the war, missing presumed dead in Berlin in 1945.
Two more, and that will be enough. Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Penguin) has a large cast and we get to know them. In the Deep South John Singer, a deaf mute, becomes the confidant of many people, Black and white. Like McCullers Singer is – well, probably is – gay, many times an outsider. The others who float through the book include a hardworking but despairing Black doctor, teenagers, the owner of an all night cafe where the lost souls of that town turn up. Any one of the characters could form the basis of a good novel. McCullers offers them all to us. Maybe, typing these words, this was my book of the year.
Finally, let’s get a little more specialist with Rain of Ash: Roma, Jews and the Holocaust by Ari Joskowicz (Princeton). For many reasons – cultural, political, economic – the industrial scale murder of Roma and Sinti people in WW2 has been barely covered, either by the survivors or by outside commentators, compared to other aspects of the Holocaust. The late Donald Kenrick’s work is worth searching out if this subject interests you. The strength of Rain and Ash, however, is in its detailed description of how Roma and Sinti people worked with Jewish organisations to seek recognition of the genocide they experienced. Indeed they had to fight to have it understood that Roma and Sinti people were persecuted on racial grounds.
So, enough… it’s been a good year for reading. This piece could have been a lot longer, but I did not want to try your patience.
All in stock or available to order at Five Leaves
Ross Bradshaw


Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14 by Ralph Darlington

A review by Mike Hamlin

I first learnt about British Labour History as a student in the 1960s, through such books as Allen Hutt’s British Trade Unionism (1941), and A. L. Morton & George Tates’s The British Labour Movement (1957). These were grand, chronological narratives, starting early in the
nineteenth century and finishing around the time of the second world war. They would cover, in the course of a few brief chapters – The Growth and Decline of Chartism, The New Unionism 1880-1900, The Origins of the Labour Party 1900-1910, The Great Unrest 1910 -14, The Post-War Crisis 1919-24 and finally, The General Strike and After 1925-29.

They were written in a clear, confident style and broadly reflected the political outlook of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Empirical exemplification was sometimes rather thin but the overall narrative was straightforward and often uplifting, even through periods of setback and temporary defeat. Morton and Tate in particular, had a well-thumbed chapter on ‘Socialism and the Great Unrest’ and judging by my detailed annotations, I must have used it as the basis for more than one long forgotten essay or talk!

Re-reading for this review, much came flooding back and I was surprised how well it had prepared me for Ralph Darlington’s important new study. ‘Labour Unrest’ is here, more accurately, replaced by ‘Labour Revolt’ and the incisive focus on the years 1910-14 are given the space they deserve across 336 detailed pages. The book’s starting point is that the ‘Labour Revolt’ that swept Britain in the four years leading up to First World War was one of the most sustained, dramatic and violent explosions of industrial militancy and social conflict that this country has ever experienced.

‘The strike wave involved a number of large-scale disputes in strategically important sections of the economy. A protracted strike in the South Wales coalfield in 1910-11 was followed in the summer of 1911 by national seamen’s, dockers’ and railway workers’ strikes, as well as a Liverpool general transport strike. There were national miners’ and London transport workers’ strikes in 1912, a series of Midlands metal workers’ strikes and Dublin transport workers’ lockout in 1913, and a London building workers’ lockout in 1914.’

During this time, a significant proportion of the industrial workforce took part in 4,600 other strikes for higher wages, better working conditions and union recognition. Women workers were also involved, often for the first time and school students walked out of their schools in the September of 1911. The strikes were on a totally new scale and mobilised a wide and diverse range of often younger workers.

‘It was a revolt dominated by unskilled and semi-skilled workers, encompassing both members of established and recognised trade unions, and also workers hitherto unorganized and/or unrecognized who became engaged in a fight to build collective organization and for union recognition against the hostility of many employers. Action largely took place unofficially and independently of national trade union leaderships’

This youthful energy and the spontaneous dynamic of the militancy, from both men and women, once unleashed, took most of the more traditional Labour movement leaders by surprise. However, Jim Larkin, a leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, acutely and accurately observed that ‘labour has lost its old humility and its respectful finger touching its cap’ . Outcomes were impressive. Across the four years, overall trade union membership increased by 62%, from 2.5 million in 1910 to 4.1 million in 1914. The proportion of workers who were union members (union density) rose from 14.6% to 23%. And the number of women workers represented by trade unions increased by an encouraging 54%, breaking out into areas beyond its previous textile industry enclave.

Inevitably, there were underlying limitations and weaknesses, serious strike setbacks and defeats. On the industrial front – ‘national trade union officials were able to reassert their authority and control over embryonic rank-and-file networks’. And in terms of national politics – ‘The Liberal government was able to accommodate the simultaneous three ‘rebellions’ (labour strikes, threat of civil war in Ireland and the campaign for women’s suffrage) because they were essentially discrete struggles only bound together tangentially in a diffuse and uncoordinated fashion’. But most significantly of all – ‘the strike wave was to suddenly shudder to a halt, stopped in its tracks by the onset of the First World War in August 1914.

This is an important book, in many ways definitive. For me, its main strength lies in its specific focus on those four crucial years 1910-14. Its structure is also, to my mind, exemplary. It’s arranged in four parts. Part one (two chapters) provides the general backdrop and context to the revolt: industrially, socially, economically and politically. Part two, which forms the majority of the book (five chapters in all), details the scope and outcomes of the strike waves themselves, moving chronologically, across the years under consideration. Part three, is a thematic and analytical assessment of the most distinctive features of the strike wave with a focus on new forms of industrial organization and militancy, along with broader aspects of explicitly political radicalization. Finally, part four looks at the aftermath and legacy, industrially and politically, both during the war years and immediately after.

The concluding bibliography, too often missing from studies these days, is also worthy of a mention. And here, taking up a full chapter-length to itself, we have a resource which is both richly extensive and incredibly useful in its own right.

Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14 fundamentally aligns with Bob Holton’s earlier study British Syndicalism 1900 -1914 (also published by Pluto), in concluding that much of the ‘labour revolt’ of these years acquired ‘proto-syndicalist’ aspects – i.e. demonstrated ‘forms of social action which lie between vague revolt and clear-cut revolutionary action’. At the time, Holton (writing in 1976) made the challenge that ‘writers on the ‘labour unrest’ have not however, taken up and developed this theme. Analysis of social consciousness and behaviour during the strike wave remains extremely thin and often superficial, with the activities and motives of those who participated still rather obscure.’ With this new book, Darlington has categorically risen to Holton’s challenge and has answered each of his points fully and convincingly.

In short, Ralph Darlington and Pluto Press have produced a lively, impeccably researched and politically informed work – it deserves to be read and enjoyed by any serious labour historian.

This review first appeared in the newsletter of the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Labour History Society

Labour Revolt in Britain is available at Five Leaves Bookshop or by mail order at fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/labour-revolt-in-britain-1910-14/

Wish You Were Here by Nicola Monaghan (Verve, £9.99)

Nicola Monaghan is Nottingham-based and someone I know but do not be put off by any potential bias I may have, she stands very tall without my recommendation. Her debut novel The Killing Jar won the Betty Task award and is an amazing and disturbing read. She has since published novels, novellas, short stories and screen plays. Wish You Were Here is her second in the Dr Love Mystery Series. The first being the well-received Dead Flowers published in 2019.

Wish You Were Here is a crime mystery set in Nottingham, with a strong female lead, Dr Sian Love, a DNA expert, and ex-copper. The story centres on a child who went missing over fifteen years ago and a young woman who thinks she may be the adult girl. The plot adeptly takes you through a labyrinth of clues filled with contemporary and local references, and the interweave of factual and fictional, adds authenticity, pulling you into the centre of the story. Dr Love has complexity and intelligence and as she develops, the mystery unravels. This is a multi-layered story including celebrity scandals, a German Shepherd dog called Elvis*, undercover policing, the hippie and rave scene, Nottingham, London and Bexhill on Sea, with some class politics thrown in. There is tension and shock, and you will be pleased to hear that I swore loudly, on at least a couple of occasions. This is the second book in a series and the story, and characters easily stand alone. I am not a great reader of mysteries /crime fiction, yet this book reminded me why I used to pick up the odd Ruth Rendall. The story is fully engaging and has a pace and tension which is escapism at its best. The end leaves you with both resolution and curiosity for more.

Which takes me to the Nottingham link. My only criticism of this book is the proposition that Dr Love could go undercover in Nottingham when we all know that we all know each other. Someone would definitely have come up her and said ‘ay up, what are you doing here?’ When Nicola Monaghan was writing this book, she was living down the road from me which is why Dr Sian Love gets the same bus into town as I do. The first novel in this series was based in the Loggerheads, a pub that used to stand off Cliff Road in the centre of town. Wish You Were Here references Broadway, The Old Angel, The Sumac centre amongst many other familiarities, all of which add to an additional level of pleasure for Nottingham readers and are well enough described to become real for those from out of town. Just as Nottingham and the Peacock pub hosted Resnick on our TV screens in the 1990’s, I have hope for Dr Sian Love be visioned off the page. If you are Nottingham-based – it is time you got to know this excellent local writer and if you are out of town and like a good mystery with a great female lead, then this also for you.

Cathy Symes

*A silent tribute to Nicola’s own dog called Elvis

Wish You Were Here is available instore and here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/wish-you-were-here/


A Length of Road: finding myself in the footsteps of John Clare, by Robert Hamberger

How do you choose to read a book? a recommendation or a good fly leaf ? I often wonder at gems which disappear through the cracks. This book which came to me via a promotion event at the Five Leave Bookshop which I was drawn to because of my interest in the poet John Clare.

John Clare known as the ‘peasant poet’ had little education, was poor, and worked as a farm labourer. At times relying on parish relief. The brilliance of his poetry, filled with intelligence, and lyrical beauty, was a giant leap from the expectations of his class. He brought language, grammar and detailed observations of the natural world which could only be born from his experience of working rural life. For these reasons, in addition to the struggles he had with his mental health, he was someone who my parents loved and championed. Hence my interest.

A Length of Road is written by the poet Robert Hamberger, it is his account of walking in 1995, from Epping Forest to Northamptonshire. Retracing the route take by John Clare in 1841, when he escaped from a psychiatric hospital in Essex and walked over 80 miles home. Later that year he was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrews Hospital) eventually dying there in 1864.

Robert Hemberger, chose to make this journey in reverence to John Clare, and to face his own personal demons. At the time his relationship with his wife was ending and he was on the cusp of permanently moving out from her and their three children. The book is well written and stands alone as a reflective memoir. Robert leads us through a working-class childhood, his loss of father figures, meeting his wife and having children, the cherishing and loss of male friendships. The strength of this book lies in his honesty and his own sense of culpability. There is an avoidance of placing blame on others which enables us to share with Robert his struggles with mental health and considerations of gender and sexuality. Without gaining conclusion Robert emerges from the roadside with knowledge as to his own resilience.

This writing skilfully takes you between the landscape of John Clare, his life and works to Robert’s story and poetry. Contrasting a landscape, which passes the same road markers and plants as Claire did in 1841 and is now also populated by lorries, the A1 and fast-food restaurants. Change and our journey through it, appearing to be the theme of this book.

This is a thoughtful account of personal growth, and a great introduction to the poetry of both John Clare and Robert Hemberger. I have read many well promoted books and memoirs which I have enjoyed much less. All hail to John Clare.

All nature has a feeling by John Clare

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.

Cathy Symes

150 Bookstores You Need To Visit Before You Die, by Elizabeth Stamp (Lannoo, £30)

I can’t be the only bookseller with a shelf of books on bookshops… children’s (The Missing Bookshop); memoir (David Elliot’s A Trade of Charms); Shaun Bythell; Death of a Bookseller. I could go on.
But maybe it’s time to take that world tour. Some of the bookshops are predictable: Shakespeare & Co., City Lights, Daunt’s Marylebone Street but most I’ve never heard of. If the other shop staff don’t mind, I’m nipping out to Cheche Books in Nairobi on my next day off. It’s a small, beautiful Pan-African feminist place. If the rota offers me a weekend, I’m off to the Yanjiyou Capsule Bookstore in China. It has twenty capsule sleeping spaces as well as a huge sunken reading room with a glass wall looking out to woods. I’ll skip the Tengda Zhongshuge place though, as its confusing decor looks like it was designed by someone who wants to distract the reader. If it’s a long weekend I’ll revisit the American Colony Hotel bookshop in East Jerusalem for the best selection of books on the Israel/Palestine conflict, and you can get an inexpensive coffee in the Hotel, watching those who come with a security detail…
Lots of the shops are in beautiful old buildings, lots are designed by architects and some are both, such as Van Der Velde in De Broeren, 500 years old yet contemporary and enormous. I could go on.
Great pics. Text a little cloying at times. Cover utilitarian and a bit annoying… the Enjoy! bit.
Available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/150-bookstores-you-need-to-visit-before-you-die/
Ross Bradshaw

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (Penguin, £8.99)

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (Penguin, £8.99) was Five Leaves’ best selling fiction novel last year. Have you read it?
I was mixed about it. If I were to say that one of the main characters in the book was a fig tree that might put you off. It would have put me off, but I went with the flow.
The fig tree in question lived in Cyprus, originally, but was transplanted to a north London suburb by Kostas, a Greek in exile from home.
There he had a youthful relationship with Defne, a Turkish woman, both crossing the boundaries of their ethnic groups, secretly meeting in a tavern run by another couple, who had their own secret. They were gay men. The fig tree was a feature of the taverna, and it had its own views and internal life and its own perspective on the relationship between trees and humans.
Of course it all goes wrong. The conflict between the Greek and Turkish community ends the relationship. And the gay men are… well, spoiler alert, what so often happens in fiction?
Years on, Kosta returns to Cyprus for a conference – trees are, not surprisingly, his special acadamic interest. There he meets Defne again, working to find the graves of the disappeared in the conflict. There is more in their past that they need to revisit than he knew.
This is starting to read like a blurb, but it would be too easy to give more spoilers.
Island of Missing Trees is written as popular fiction, and is in serious need of an editor to get rid of some of the cliched writing. But Shafak tells a good story, and the fate of other characters drew me back to look up the half forgotten but vicious conflict that has kept the island divided.
A companion book if you want to read further is Nicosia Beyond Borders: voices from a divided city (Saqi, £12.99), with pieces by writers on both sides of the last city in Europe that remains divided.

Ross Bradshaw

Queer Print in Europe, edited by Glyn Davis and Laura Guy (Bloomsbury Visual Arts, £24.99)

That the publisher of this book is Bloomsbury Visual Arts tells us something of what we might expect – lots of magazine covers, page illustrations and a design-led publication. Overall a rather attractive, large format paperback.
The title indicates the scope of the book and is particularly valuable because of the coverage of countries we might not think of when we talk of LGBT+publications, Poland and Slovakia for example. The book does not attempt to cover everything and everywhere, comprising essays on publishing in particular countries, or strands of publishing within particular countries. Thus, for the UK, there is a long interview with Gail Lewis about material written by Black lesbians, a chapter on relevant reading for Trans lesbians in the 1970s, but no mention of Gay Times or the Pink Paper which were market leaders in lesbian and gay (well, mostly gay) magazine publishing in their day. Nor is there mention of GMP, perhaps the best selling gay press ever stocked by radical bookshops in this country.
But that’s fine, the book does not pretend to cover what it does not.
Most of the coverage is of small circulation magazines, some beautifully designed, like the Slovak Aspekt of the mid-90s, whereas Lesbians Come Together from 1972 looks mimeographed, a print technology some of those who used it might prefer to forget.
Several of the magazines came out of discontent with the feminist movement or feminist magazines – such as Histoires d’Elles which had one woman write in “I just want to bring up one topic: why such silence on homosexuality… Every month I hope to read about women whose joys and sorrows in life somewhat resemble my own, but nothing- complete silence.” Others developed out of the political left, or, similarly, out of discontent at being ignored by the left.
The content of the magazines described was as varied as the print technology. Academic articles here, contact lists there and, in the case of La Pluma in post-Franco Spain a call for autonomy for homosexuals, but also “collaboration with other groups of socially marginalised people” and opposition to capitalism and the “commercial ghetto”. On the other hand Revolt Press in Sweden published Tom of Finland male erotica and fifteen niche interest magazines, some of which would not have appeared on the shelves of any bookseller reading this, for good reason.
And bookshops generally? Sadly missing, save for one chapter. There are traces, such as News from Nowhere publishing, in 1980, Divided Sisterhood, a rebuttal to Janice Raymond’s The Transexual Empire. And an editor of the Dutch Mietje describes taking his journal to the communist bookshop in Amsterdam and being turned away by the owner, himself gay, because “… we don’t sell journals that discuss ‘bedroom’ issues, only political issues.”
But the last chapter, for those interested in radical bookselling history, is worth waiting for, a twenty page interview with Sigrid Nielson, Bob Orr and James Ley on Revisiting Lavender Menace. Lavender Menace – has there ever been a better bookshop name? – was the lesbian and gay bookshop in Edinburgh. The shop started off as a bookstall within the Gay Centre but got chucked out for being political. One of the criticisms was because the stall sold the card “The birth of a man who thinks he’s God isn’t such a rare event”,  a quote from Benefits by Zoë Fairbairns (slightly misquoted in the book under review). I can claim a footnote in bookselling history here, being responsible for publishing the card at Mushroom Bookshop! But it was for the best as Lavender Menace opened in Forth Street, then a low rent area, making it the second radical bookshop in the street as the anti-nuclear Smiling Sun also lived there. And then later there was West & Wilde in Dundas Street.
The interview moves from the early days of the bookstall – Open Gaze to give its name – through to the afterlife of Lavender Menace in Ley’s play Love Song to Lavender Menace, in archiving LGBT life in Scotland, and the current iteration of pop-up stalls run by Sigrid and Bob, both now in their seventies.
Queer Print in Europe will interest anyone passionate about radical print history, but the excellent final chapter is catnip for those interested in radical bookshop history.
Ross Bradshaw

Reviews in brief

Valkyrie by Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir (Bloomsbury)
The women of the Viking world held powerful positions in real life as well as in Viking myth, not least Valkyries who could choose who lived and who died. The author is a medievalist who has read all the Icelandic sagas so that you don’t have to. Our own idea of the Viking world is brought closer to how it really was, but despite the power of some women, for many it was, well, not so great.
The Wife of Bath by Marion Turner (Princeton)
While all that was going on in Iceland, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales we have the bawdy figure of Alison, “the wife of Bath” who survived domestic abuse to be an iconic figure in literature. Turner also describes the real lives of other less fictional medieval women but also discusses the way Alison has appeared in literature this century, a constant point of reference.
Uncommon Ground by Dominick Tyler (Guardian/Faber)
If you like to get muddy, or if you just happen to have a coffee table handy, this is a lovely book. Tyler collects old names for parts of the countryside, words that have been half-forgotten or which only exist now as place names. He gives examples of them, combining the text with wonderful pictures. It’s a bit Robert Macfarlaneish but prettier.
Black and Blue: one woman’s story of policing and prejudice by Pam Sandhu (Atlantic)
Sandhu worked her way up the ranks from constable to chief superintendent in the Met – London’s police force, the only woman of colour to do so. If you have read the papers over the last few years you will not be surprised to know her career was not an easy choice, as an Asian woman.
We’ve Got This: essays by disabled parents edited by Eliza Hull ((Scribe)
Nobody said parenting is easy either, but it’s not made easier if you have a disability. I’m biased about this book as I know one of the contributors. Five Leaves has published some of her work, as a poet, so I immediately turned to page 102 to see what Joanne Limburg had to say about being an autistic parent. The book has thirty contributions by parents who have visible and invisible disabilities as well as those who are chronically ill. Recommended as a book that would make for interesting discussion in any kind of parents’ circle.
The Story of Art without Men by Katy Hessel (Hutchinson)
Where to start on this one? Hessel immediately asks the reader how many women artists they know, and proceeds to tell us about some we might know and many we don’t know, ranging over centuries and over the world. The illustrations are superb. Given this is the Notts/Derby edition, Laura Knight is mentioned (though none of her paintings are included) but many of my favourites from elsewhere are – the surrealist women; Gluck; Charlotte Salomon; Barbara Hepworth; Kathe Kollwitz… but so many that are new to me. It’s £30 but if you have the remotest interest in art you will feel it is money well spent.
Unofficial Britain: journeys through unexpected places by Gareth Rees (Elliot & Thompson)
This is the oldest book mentioned here, first published in 2020, but every time we slip a copy onto our new table at the bookshop it sells. It’s full of urban legends, motorway service stations, industrial estates, fringe areas, car parks, places “where the border between the past and the present is unusually fluid”. The sort of places that tourist guides don’t even know exist, and why should they? Full of stories about places you wouldn’t want to be seen dead in, other than some burial places are included too.
Xanthe & the Ruby Crown by Jasbinder Bilan (Chicken House)
I’ll finish with the last book I read, a book for, what?, twelve year olds. Bilan was brought up in Nottingham and returns to her childhood roots with this timeslip story set partly here – at Wollaton Hall – and partly in Uganda, the former home of Xanthe’s Asian grandmother who is starting to suffer from dementia. Xanthe wants to make her grandmother happy again and she explores her family history to reveal long buried secrets. Literally buried secrets, in the tower block her gran lives in. 
Ross Bradshaw

In Love: a memoir of love and loss by Amy Bloom (Granta, £9.99)

Every day I pass adverts saying “I live with dementia” outside the Victoria Centre. These are from the Dementia Association and feature youngish or middle-aged people who live with dementia because a family member has dementia. The posters came to mind when I chanced upon this book in BUK, the new bookshop in Arnold.
It’s obvious what this memoir is about. The American writer Amy Bloom’s husband, Brian, develops Alzheimer’s and after his condition worsens, but while he is still capable of making a decision, he will go to Switzerland, to Dignitas, to end his life at a time of his own choosing. In America there are states where it is possible to take this action, but, generally, you have to be in the last six months of your life and a state resident. There are other rules, but there is no way he could predict how long he would live and for how long he could make a conscious decision. On his behalf Bloom tries to find alternatives, but they are either dangerous or unreliable or she is stymied in her search. Pharmacies, for example, would not honour the prescriptions she managed to obtain.
So Switzerland it would be… but that too is fraught. Dignitas’s rules are that you can go to them if you are in “unendurable and uncontrollable pain” or have a terminal illness – in their case there is no timescale for your demise to take into account – or very old age. And if you can get to Switzerland and pay $10,000 dollars. But you need medical reports, birth certificates, references, psychological reports, interviews. And if you are depressed you are ruled out, as being chronically depressed does not fit their criteria. Brian’s medical reports included that he had suffered from depression so he had to get new reports focussing on his dementia… but Dignitas was slow and the time when he was capable of making his own decision was running out.
As we wait for this to be resolved, Bloom goes back to the years of increasing concern that there might be a problem. By the way, sports fans, her husband had been an ace American football player – we now know this and other sports involving head injuries and “heading” increases the likelihood of dementia. We read about the early years of coping with the problem and the steady restrictions on Brian’s life as his memory failed. Forgetting where to turn, getting lost, drifting away from the world, having to leave his beloved book group, anxiety, tears. And more tears.
We learn about the man. His Catholic background (Bloom is Jewish); the buildings he designed; his Saturday mornings escorting women to Planned Parenthood in the face of “screaming protestors”. And we learn about the author. She is not always nice, she is often angry, is often stressed out – sometimes when Brian sails blythely on, unaware of the chaos he is creating. Sometimes we learn more about the author than we might want to. But at all times we know the title reflects their lives together – every day of their lives, as she wrote, as they pledged on their late marriage. They were together, what?, something like thirteen years.
And then we get to Zurich. The detail of what happens is there, at Dignitas, and it is all over in four pages. It feels sudden. Bloom flew back immediately, a friend having come out to help her get home. And we start to move forward, with a memorial meeting in the library across from her house.
Some people might find this a difficult book to read, for obvious reasons. And, yes, I did find something in my eye a couple of times.
If you are near Arnold why not pick In Love up from BUK, as I did, or you can find a copy at Five Leaves a day after this review appears.
Ross Bradshaw

French Braid by Anne Tyler (Chatto, £16.99) and Bourneville by Jonathan Coe (Viking, £20)

Both of these books are intergenerational novels – family sagas if you like, by long-established writers, Tyler from America and Coe from the UK. Coe’s novels are often described as state of the nation novels, and he and we follow the lives of his chosen family down the generations, their lives punctuated by incidents in modern British history – VE Day in 1945, the Coronation of 1953, England’s 1966 World Cup win, Charles’ investiture, his wedding, the funeral of Diana and, finally the anniversary of VE Day, 75 years on.
Tyler starts in 1959 and American history is entirely absent. Her family is unaffected by, don’t talk about, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the war in Iraq… Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Bush one and Bush two, Clinton, Obama, Trump – who they? Mind you, they talk about next to nothing anyway when they meet up, save for whether the traffic on Baltimore’s Beltway is bad or really bad. Nor do they go out much or have a cultural life save for one son who teaches drama and acts. But he’s the outcast who never quite recovered from a childhood trauma when he thought his father did not love him, so he is allowed.
The one real life intrusion in Tyler’s book is Covid, where the – now retired – drama teacher takes in his grandson for a while, the child’s mother working flat out in the health service, and there are tender scenes as the child meets local children but keeps his distance, and is given the task of making masks to involve him in Covid protection. Coe’s book also ends with Covid and the book turns on this from an understated domestic history to a final section of absolute passion when the key character Mary Lamb’s experience of death during the Covid era mirrors that of Coe’s own mother. I shy away from reading Covid fiction, it’s still too raw, but these are the best sections of both books.
Unfortunately Jonathan Coe signals the changes in the state of our nation too well. Early on, in Bournville itself, people drive past a house with its curtains closed. The man who lives there had been caught cottaging, having sex with another man in a public toilet. You can guess that later this will be mirrored by a modern gay affair. This last is the only sex scene in Coe’s book, and it is well done. The family in question is all white… but you can feel the moment coming when one of the younger members of the family has a new girlfriend. People have not met her yet and he passes a photograph around. One person says she looks lovely and, really, you don’t have to wait until – was it Doris? – blurts out about her being Black, naturally in an uncomfortable way. Brexit is there of course… but the scene where a chocolate factory representative (Bournville, remember!) meets a smarmy Labour MP to talk about European trade issues to do with chocolate is overwritten.  I would not say that Labour is completely smarm-free, but this Labour MP… though Coe might have met him in real life. Must ask.
Domestically Anne Tyler’s family changes too. America in the 1950s gradually recedes; the family hardware store is taken over by a woman; the family becomes a little more diverse; the most boring character – an estate agent, naturally – goes to bore the socks off other realtors in their special place in hell; and along comes the gay man. He has kept his secret from the family, but when he is found out by accident he realises that the whole family knew anyway and were not bothered.
And Mercy Garrett, married to Robin, who we meet at the start of the book, gradually moves out. She takes up painting, rents a studio and ever-so-gradually-ever-so-slowly stops coming home. Again, everyone knows, but nobody really talks about it. Her hapless husband organises a fiftieth wedding anniversary party for the family. It’s grim, but not so grim as their other gatherings and Mercy and Robin spend the night together. It’s another tender moment, but in the morning she returns to the studio before breakfast.
Neither of these are the best of the author’s work. But I dug through my shelves to find Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, the only survivor of a period in the early 1980s, when I was regularly reading her work. It’s a family saga set in Baltimore and I remember nothing of it. And I’ll read that again shortly.
Ross Bradshaw
Both books are currently only in hardback, French Braid is published in paperback on 16 March while Bournville comes out in paper in September. Email us on bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk