THIS WEEK’S NEW BOOKS REVIEWED | FEATURE
Ayanna Thompson (Bloomsbury)
The bluntness of this book’s title is not the author’s choice, as such: Blackface is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, named after their subject matter and “about the hidden lives of ordinary things”. How should one field the claim, implicit here, that blackface is “ordinary”? Well, that rather depends on who’s making the claim. Ayanna Thompson, an African-American professor whose work includes extensive interrogation of racial issues in Shakespeare’s plays – Othello is obviously germane – is well placed to offer a measured take.
“Measured” decidedly not meaning unbothered, or equivocating. Thompson is very clear, when cycling through myriad contemporary examples of white people darkening their skin to imitate or otherwise reference black culture, that there isn’t a context (satire, respect, private hijinks) that gives perpetrators a pass. Many of these examples come from famous public figures, but the introductory anecdote illustrates how this is personal, too: her son’s third-grade class were tasked with presenting their research on a historical icon, leading to a rash of Caucasian, blacked-up Martin Luther Kings and suchlike.
From here, then, a ramble through the practise’s unseemly history, in which Britain plays considerable part: Shakespearean times, as noted, and later on, various would-be comedians – largely forgotten – from the early 19th century. The inverse microphenomenon of “whiteface”, blackface’s can-never-be equivalent, is mulled, likewise the cinematic oeuvre of Tyler Perry, who some have suggested is proof that you don’t need whites in boot polish to turn out something distinctly like a blackface revue of yore. Pitched as a pocket guide (just over A6 size) to the subject, Blackface makes no claims to be exhaustive but will probably teach you a few things.
Price: £9.99. Info: here
words NOEL GARDNER
Kirsty Capes (Orion)
With over 100,000 children currently living in care across the UK, it is perhaps surprising that the stories of those who grow up with foster parents or in residential settings are so seldom heard via the major publishing houses, despite the wealth of tales they have to tell. It is to be celebrated, then, that Orion have taken a punt on Kirsty Capes: a young author who writes with the authentic voice of someone who grew up in care, but whose gifts as a writer mean that she could probably bash out as compelling a novel on any given subject.
In her outstanding debut novel, Careless, Capes tells the story of Bess, a 15-year-old growing up in 90s (foster) home counties suburbia. References to Des’ree, Uma Thurman and Baz Luhrmann litter Bess’ world, as she narrates the story of one tumultuous summer amidst a tumultuous lifetime. Capes has a brutally simple way of putting across the complexities of relationships within the care system, experienced by Bess. A notable passage covers the “disclaimer” on her foster mum’s love for her, describing how it feels to see her hand over receipts for fuel and food – she is “expensed”.
Such glimmers into life as a looked-after child are picked out but not dwelled upon. They are individually impactful, collectively headspinning, but Bess focuses on her future career as an award-winning film director; her (beautifully, hilariously depicted) friendship with best mate Eshal; and finding out that she’s pregnant.
Bess’ inner monologue takes the reader through the full spectrum of emotions in the way that only a teenager could experience them – leaping from heartbreak to hilarity and ensuring a bond between Bess and the reader. As affecting and engrossing a coming-of-age novel as one could hope for, Careless marks the start of a highly promising career for Kirsty Capes.
Price: £12.99. Info: here
words HUGH RUSSELL
MY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL FRIEND
Tracey Thorn (Canongate)
This affectionate look at Lindy Morrison, former drummer for Australian indie icons The Go-Betweens, is the latest book by quietly iconic UK musician Tracey Thorn – and very revealing in its description of both the sexism and the way in which Aussie bands are looked down on by the British.
Their first meeting between Morrison and Thorn came when the latter’s band of that time, Marine Girls, were supporting Orange Juice along with The Go-Betweens. Lindy, confident and seven years older than the author, waltzed in to the dressing room looking for lipstick. From that moment, we learn, a seed was planted and a lifelong friendship formed.
The strength and never-say-die attitude of Morrison is something Thorn holds in perpetual admiration, despite or because of the great difference between the two women’s personalities. Tracey, who would later find more musical success in Everything But The Girl with Ben Watt, is a more nervous, quiet figure who looks up to the tenacious Lindy.
My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend amounts to a very interesting read and a nice change from Tracey Thorn’s outstanding literary arsenal.
Price: £16.99. Info: here
words JUSTIN EVANS
SCRABBLE IN THE AFTERNOON
Biddy Wells (Parthian)
A slight volume on a weighty subject, Biddy Wells’ second book recounts her experience of something that comes to many of us: having to become a carer for an ageing, ailing parent. Her mother’s loss of independence following serious illness deprives Wells of her own freedom, frustrating plans and straining relationships, and leaves her feeling like “a ghost in my old life” and wondering desperately “How long will this go on?”
Wells lays bare her attempts to come to terms with a situation that forces reflection on their past as well as their new present, and to negotiate tangled feelings that she can’t always quite bring herself to name explicitly: unwavering love and daughterly duty, certainly, but also resentment at the sacrifices demanded of her, jealousy (as well as suspicion) of the man her mother befriends after moving into sheltered housing, and even the sense of having fallen victim to a vampire: “Mum’s journey had taken her from death’s door to independence. My journey seemed to have gone in exactly the opposite direction. … If I’d had to stay living another year with Mum I would have withered. Something might have died.”
Assembled from “notes jotted down in snatched moments” for “therapeutic” purposes (“Writing kept me sane”, she confesses), Scrabble In The Afternoon reads like you’re eavesdropping on someone trying to process difficult thoughts and intensely personal emotions out loud – not always a comfortable experience. But Wells’ responses to the sudden and unexpected challenge – complex and conflicting – are above all honest and human, and the pair’s ultimate achievement of an improved relationship founded on mutual affection, respect and understanding is a quiet triumph.
Price: £8.99. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD
SKOMER ISLAND: ITS HISTORY AND NATURAL HISTORY
Mike Alexander (Y Lolfa)
Islands for so many of us are a rare place of solace, quiet reflection, a setting where we can become completely immersed in the raw, ethereal connection with the natural world. The powerful, evocative sense of place, you can only get from being separated from the mainland – switching off, and yet really plugging into the environment 24/7.
The first thing that strikes you about Skomer Island is that it appears to be a true labour of love for author Mike Alexander, who was employed as Skomer’s warden for nine years. Passion, dedication and commitment has been put in to writing something in-depth and informative about what really is “a small piece of rock off the Pembrokeshire coast”.
The photography alone is reason enough to pick up and paw through the book and would make it a prodigious adornment to any coffee table. Alexander not only describes in abundant detail the fauna of the island [pictured, top], for which it is world renowned, but also gives a thorough rundown of its history, geology and vegetation. This book is a must for anyone like me, who has fallen hopelessly for all the charms of the truly enchanting Skomer Island.
Price: £29.99. Info: here
words GARETH EDGE