April 2020 Reading Roundup

In a short time, I’ve gone from travelling full-time to being under strict lockdown in a Belgrade apartment. Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent the month travelling through the world of books, from the Russian wilderness to a still-divided Germany and from the Balkans to the UK’s “hostile environment”—with a couple of side trips to Jamaica thrown in.

In a short time, I’ve gone from travelling full-time to being under strict lockdown in a Belgrade apartment. Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent the month travelling through the world of books, from the Russian wilderness to a still-divided Germany and from the Balkans to the UK’s “hostile environment”—with a couple of side trips to Jamaica thrown in.

In a short time, I’ve gone from travelling full-time to being under strict lockdown in a Belgrade apartment. Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent the month travelling through the world of books, from the Russian wilderness to a still-divided Germany and from the Balkans to the UK’s “hostile environment”—with a couple of side trips to Jamaica thrown in.

Here are the books I can recommend (or not) from my April reading. Hope you discover something new to read among this assortment.

Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Become the Scapegoats by Maya Goodfellow

Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Become the Scapegoats by Maya Goodfellow

If you want to understand contemporary Britain, read this book. If we weren’t under lockdown, I’d take my copy and press it into your hands and urge you to read it. Although the title refers to Theresa May’s policy of making life deliberately hard for people who move to the UK, Maya Goodfellow traces the history of British immigration policy much further back to discover the roots of the inhumanity. Highly recommended

You Would Have Missed Me by Birgit Vanderbeke

You Would Have Missed Me by Birgit Vanderbeke

I reviewed Vanderbeke’s excellent novella The Mussel Feast back in 2013, so I was excited to read her newly translated story of a lonely little girl being taken from East to West Germany by two of the most emotionally abusive parents I’ve met on my reading travels for quite a while. It’s sad, poignant, and gives a vivid picture of an earlier phase of refugee life.

The Balkans by Mark Mazower

The Balkans by Mark Mazower

I picked this book up at a bookshop here in Belgrade in those long-gone days when I used to stroll around the city, maskless, browsing in bookshops. It was a wonderful read, a really comprehensive history of a very complex region over the long, volatile centuries from the end of Byzantium to the present day. Mazower somehow keeps it all clear, giving enough detail but not too much, and wraps it all up in just 176 pages. History at its best.

Lilith: A Romance by George MacDonald

Lilith: A Romance by George MacDonald

After six weeks of lockdown, I’m starting to look a bit like George MacDonald, but I could never write anything like Lilith, a truly strange and unsettling 19th-century fantasy novel about a man who follows a raven through a mirror into a different world where he meets Adam, Eve, Lilith and a range of other characters both human and non-human, all while grappling with the big questions of life, death and salvation. I didn’t love it, to be honest, but I certainly admired it.

Friday Nights by Jennifer Grahame

Friday Nights is an entertaining novel of betrayal and redemption in the hills of Jamaica, written by longtime blog reader and commenter Jennifer Grahame. Like her previous novel Jacks Hill Road, this one offers up a cast of complicated and often sex-obsessed characters who get mixed up in an escalating series of interconnected escapades. If you find yourself needing an escape right now, you’ll find this about as far from the COVID-19 dashboard as you can get.

Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden by Branko Marcetic

Since Joe Biden is now the Democrats’ chosen candidate to beat Trump, I thought I should learn more about him. As the title suggests, this is not an even-handed memoir: the point is to make a case against Biden (while slipping in positive mentions of Bernie for the sake of comparison). But don’t write this book off as a hatchet job: there’s some important stuff in here, showcasing the key role Biden has played in the rightward move of the Democratic Party since the 1980s and his troubling history of making liberal-sounding speeches while legislating on behalf of corporate donors.

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

This was a powerful portrait of a woman who very quickly becomes trapped in an abusive marriage. The violence itself takes a back seat in this novel, which is more concerned with the dynamics of psychological control at work in the relationship. It’s a beautifully written and utterly compelling book. For more details, see the review of this book over at peakreads, which inspired me to read it in the first place.

Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands by Stuart Hall

Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands by Stuart Hall

This is a memoir, of sorts, but it’s more a story of intellectual formation. Stuart Hall tells the story of his early years in Jamaica, moving to Britain in 1951, and finding his place in that cold, unwelcoming land. But while there are plenty of personal details in the book, Hall is also intensely engaged with the political and intellectual currents of the time. I found it fascinating how he came to find his new identity as a cultural theorist partly due to his habit of learning to “read” the unfamiliar and often hostile English society for clues about how to survive it.

Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi

Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi

And finally we come to that Russian wilderness I mentioned at the beginning. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey. Please stow your tray tables in an upright position… Sorry, I got distracted. This is actually a Finnish novel about encounters with difference—in this case, 19th-century explorers discovering a group of strange human/animal hybrid creatures sheltering in a remote Russian cave. But it has a lot of resonance with more contemporary instances of how the majority behaves towards those who look or behave or are in some way different.

The Verdict

This was a wonderful month of reading for me, and I’d recommend all of the books I read for different reasons. Stuart Hall’s memoir really stood out, but I think my favourite this month was Hostile Environment.

How was your reading this month? Do you find yourself reading more or reading less in a COVID-19 world? Let me know if you have any recommendations. Visit this roundup of roundups if you want to find monthly recaps by more book bloggers. And, above all, please stay safe and well.

Liked this post? Try my free monthly newsletter!

I don’t spam or share your email address with anyone!
Read more in my privacy policy

There are 22 comments

  1. Thanks Andrew for this round up and for the mention of my blog post at Peak Reads. I’m so pleased to hear about the novella by Birgit Vanderbeke, which I hadn’t heard of, because I also enjoyed The Mussel Feast- and Stuart Hall’s memoir also looks fascinating. I’ll definitely follow up those two. Hope your lockdown eases up a little soon.

    1. You’re welcome, Mandy—I’m grateful to you for introducing me to When I Hit You, which I noted down after reading your review and finally got around to reading last month. Yes, You Would Have Missed Me is excellent, although I think The Mussel Feast is still my favourite of hers. The lockdown is slowly unwinding here as the numbers keep improving. The worry, of course, is whether they’ll start to go up again when people are out and about more, but at least it’s encouraging to see some progress. Hope things improve over there too!

    1. Hi Nicole, Yes, it’s been a bit strange to have such a big change, but overall I’m grateful to have smaller problems than so many other people. Books have definitely been a good refuge for me in the last couple of months. Yesterday’s Man is very good, although I have to warn you it’s quite depressing—Biden comes across as quite unprincipled. But since he may be the next president, it’s important to know more about him, and the book gives a lot of detail about his record dating back to the 1970s.

    1. It’s an excellent book, Cheryl, so I hope you read it and like it as much as I did. It is a difficult read because of the claustrophobic horror of the marriage, but that’s mitigated somewhat by the fact that the author doesn’t focus on the actual violence too much, so it’s not gratuitous in that way. I found it quite gripping. Thanks for visiting!

    1. Hi Cara, Yes, I can highly recommend that one! It’s a fascinating look at the ways in which politicians and the media can influence people’s beliefs and then claim to act based on what people want. By the way, I tried to visit your blog, but it gives an error message. Feel free to leave a different link here if you’ve changed it.

  2. *clicks tray table into upright position*

    That does sound like a satisfying mix of topics, styles, forms…all together. Unlike you, my month-to-month is very stationary, but like you, I’m finding books and reading offer an essential rootedness in these strange times. I’m reading just a little less than I usually read, likely because I rely on library books for recent publications and the duedates press me (because I borrow too many, really, but do want to read them, so other activities get set aside more readily). But even though I’m reading fewer books, I think I might be reading more pages because I just don’t give the pagecount much thought now as I never need to carry a book with me. In fact, a couple of times, passing a Little Free Library on morning walks, when I’ve spotted something irresistible and I’ve picked it up, I feel very strange even carrying a book, because we are supposed to be only out for exercise (or food/medical) and a book in hand feels so tightly associated with sit-on-a-bench-or-in-a-cafe reading that it feels transgressive!

    1. That’s interesting about the page count! I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes sense. I’ve been stuck in ebook world for so long now that I’d forgotten about the problem of carrying a heavy book around. I hate my Kindle as a reading device while also being grudgingly grateful to it for allowing me to access so many books so easily as I travel around the world.

      But I do miss “real” books, particularly library loans. Libraries fed my love of reading as a child, and I was a regular visitor throughout my life in London and New York (don’t get me started on the wonders of the New York Public Library!). But now it’s been years since I’ve been able to go. What’s a Little Free Library? Is that one of those little boxes on the street with free books to take and contribute? I spot those from time to time around Europe and think it’s such a wonderful idea. Hey, good for you for being a little transgressive! I think you could pass a book off as essential supplies, though 🙂

  3. Hey Andrew,
    Over the moon this morning to see Friday Nights on your reading list. Thank you very much for thinking of me, your opinion is held in very high regard.
    Like you I am confined to home and doing lots of reading and writing. Will check out the other books on your list. Look after yourself and keep safe. Hopefully it wont be too long before you can get back on the road.

    1. Hi Jennifer, Good to hear from you! Glad you’re doing OK and getting lots of reading and writing done. And I’m glad I read Friday Nights—in the midst of all this bad news, spending some time up in the hills of Jamaica was just what I needed! Be well, and I look forward to seeing the results of all that writing 🙂

  4. Sounds like you read some major books this month! I’m sure it is really hard after always traveling to be stuck at home. My sister moved to Scotland last October from NYC, and so she is really alone. She would have been traveling for her birthday last week, but not this year. Hopefully you’ll get a May back somewhat with some traveling.
    Lisa Loves Literature’s April Wrap-Up

    1. Hi Lisa, Yeah, it’s tough, but I’m lucky in the big scheme of things—I’m healthy so far, and I can still work from home and survive without financial worries. So things are good. It’s hard to be separated from loved ones at a time like this, though, so I can appreciate what you’re saying about your sister. Hope you two can meet up again before too long!

  5. I have Meena Kandasami’s book on my TBR. Will have to get it Soon-ish.

  6. You always have excellent works of fiction and nonfiction on your reading lists. Traveling through books has always been how I “see” the world, especially now. I’m currently reading an ARC of All Thirteen by Christina Soontornvat–it’s the story of the soccer team that was trapped inside a cave in Thailand. I enjoy this author’s writing and was thrilled when Candlewick sent me an ARC. So this week, I’ll be in Thailand is anyone needs me.

    1. Good to hear from you, Danielle! Books are great in a time like this, aren’t they? The lockdown is now starting to ease here in Belgrade, but it will still be a while before I can travel abroad again as easily as before. But how easy it is to go to Thailand through an author’s words. That sounds like a fascinating read! Enjoy your trip 🙂

Leave a Reply