YA Review: “Fever 1793” by Laurie Halse Anderson

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Paperback: 272 pages

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Release Date: March 1, 2002

3 STARS

SET IN PHILADELPHIA

This is a classic coming-of-age story in a historical setting and whilst the narrative itself is rather formulaic, it is very well researched and would give younger readers plenty of historical perspective.

It follows Mattie Cook, a 14 year old girl who gets caught up in the Philadelphia yellow fever outbreak of 1793 and learns to survive despite the odds. There’s action, a bit of highly sanitized teenage romance and a healthy dollop of familial relationships.

The aspects that are most appealing in this YA novel mean that it will probably hit home more with girls than boys. It explores what it means to be a ‘good girl,’ expectations of behaviour and mother daughter relationships in a manner that clearly links the past and present. The change in Mattie as she learns to take care of herself and grows up is dealt with well and doesn’t bash you over the head with obvious metaphor. It is also somewhat convenient that by telling the story of the plague through the eyes of a child, Anderson is able to side skip much of the political implications of the time – everyone is stripped back to common humanity despite class and race.

Overall this is a sound read but I can see how some readers might become frustrated with the fact that the main events – people falling sick and everyone else turning into either nurses or looters, could become repetitive.

Top 5: Women Writers

Where to start…..

When I sat down to think about how I would choose my five favourite female authors, in honour of International Women’s Day, I felt completely overwhelmed. Most of my books seem to be written by women… It’s like my hands instinctively reach for female writers in the bookstore; perhaps it’s because the genres of novels I particularly like, historical fiction for example, seem to also attract a higher proportion of writers of the female persuasion? Maybe I feel a deeper connection to characters written from the female gaze? Perhaps I just like the covers more…

What I realised though was moving over the Atlantic forced me to dramatically scale down the size and scope of my bookshelves. I had already subconsciously done my editing – what had I chosen to take with me in the one box of books I had agreed with my husband I would ship?

 

  1. JK Rowling – who doesn’t love this woman?! She’s smart, empathetic and whip crack funny in that slightly brutal way that makes you wince and laugh at the same time. I adore her writing, not just Harry Potter (obviously), but also the Robert Galbraith crime books. You don’t even notice that you’re reading half the time, you’re just swept along. Plus she’s an Exeter University alumni (same as moi) and lived in Edinburgh near where I grew up – so I’m basically half a step away from being her…. right…?!
  2. Emily Brontë – I have always been obsessed with “Wuthering Heights”. I love how wonderful and awful Heathcliff and Cathy are. The characters and settings are harsh and complex, nothing here is glossed over or sugarcoated and it’s marvellous. The copy I brought wth me is a gorgeous leather bound edition bought for me by my husband for my birthday when we first started dating – the boy knows me well!
  3. Philippa Gregory – This woman is prolific and it’s a good job because I tend to whizz through her books in one sitting. The Queen of Historical Fiction, she brings far off settings and time periods to life with great description and really well drawn characters. There’s always plenty of action, mystery and romance to keep you entertained and she nearly always has a strong female protagonist you can get behind.
  4. Nora Ephron – It’s like talking to your best friend – but wiser and funnier. She’s so impressive partly because she’s also so multi-talented: writer, journalist, screenwriter and film director rolled into one. I adore the way she writes about so many things that are pertinent to women’s lives in a way that is both devastatingly, heartbreakingly astute and also so lightly worn that you can find humour in even the darkest of topics.
  5. Lian Hearn aka Gillian Rubinstein – I blame my sister for getting me into the “Tales of the Otori” YA fiction series; I was obsessed. Set in feudal Japan, these books are choc full of heroes, villains, escapes, magic and slightly dubious morality… which adds up to a pretty potent mixture. In fact, this and the Harry Potter books are the only ones I have actually set out to purposefully buy, first day out, in hardback. Just brilliant.

 

Who are your favourite female writers??

Review: “Revenants: The Odyssey Home”

Author: Scott Kauffman

Kindle Edition: 275 pages

Publisher: Moonshine Cove Publishing, LLC

Release Date: 23 December 2015

Author Requested Review

3 STARS

This book was always going to have an epic hill to climb as a re-telling of Homer’s “The Odyssey”. By its very nature it was going to have to be expansive both in time and location, not to mention language and structure – all very problematic for an author… There are some elements of this that Scott Kauffman has really nailed and, as to be expected, others that slip through his grasp. In light of this, I am completely torn with this book.

A grief-stricken candy-striper serving in a VA hospital following her brother’s death in Vietnam struggles to return home an anonymous veteran of the Great War against the skullduggery of a congressman who not only controls the hospital as part of his small-town fiefdom but knows the name of her veteran. A name if revealed would end his political ambitions and his fifty-year marriage. In its retelling of Odysseus’ journey, Revenants casts a flickering candle upon the charon toll exacted not only from the families of those who fail to return home but of those who do.

The bulk of this historical, coming-of-age novel deals with the story of Betsy, a teenage girl who is recruited to serve as a volunteer nurse during the summer holidays after her brother is killed in Vietnam. Whilst at the VA hospital, she learns of a mysterious patient in the attic and becomes embroiled in attempting to discover his identity.To be honest, it’s here on this smaller stage – one summer, in a small mid-west town, that Kauffman produces some of his best writing. I really enjoyed the mystery element of the book – it had pace and you definitely felt drawn into wanting to solve the puzzle. Kauffman, through the narrative voice, creates genuine sympathy for Betsy here, and you are able to watch her mature and deal with her grief as the story develops, much more so than the first person ‘Betsy’ moments at the start and end.

Kauffman’s use of Homer’s non-linear narrative and shifts in perspective can  make it  hard to follow at times though, and it often doesn’t endear you to the characters, especially Betsy, at the start of the novel. It is worth pushing through though. The main bulk of this story about the effect of war on not only soldiers, but their loved ones, is very touching and has some really beautiful and unexpected poetic description.

Overall I found myself really drawn into the story after getting through the first few chapters. It’s certainly worth  persevering with this novel, it is extremely detailed in its research – so much so that as a Brit I had to look up several references to US pop-culture! And you get a strong sense of the characters and the worlds they inhabit. This is a solid bet if you are looking for something that explores the aftermath of war more than a war itself and whilst there are plenty of nods to “The Odyssey”, particularly in the repeated imagery and themes of homecoming and fate, it has its own charm.

Thanks to Scott Kauffman for making a copy of this novel available to me for review.

The Month in Books: February 2017

I’ve been up against it this month – I started my TBR list quite late, and it’s a short month. I know… excuses excuses! Still, I’ve got six books to feedback to you on and there’s a little bit of something for everyone…

AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie        *****

imgresI loved this. The book follows Ifemelu and Obinze, childhood sweethearts, who try to pursue new lives away from their home in Lagos, Nigeria. For me, this was a perfect coming together of author and reader in terms of timing, I felt it really spoke to me. It was great to see it up all around the subway too and I voted  for it as part of #OneBookNY. The characterisation was really sensitive and I thought the descriptions and emotions were astutely drawn. The novel itself is quite slow paced but that didn’t matter; I felt like it was just unfolding gradually as the characters adapted to their new lives. A totally relevant read given the current political climate in the US. See full post.

The Thin ManDashiell Hammett       ***

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A classic murder mystery. I liked the pithy style and slick art deco settings – but was distracted by everyone getting drunk all the time! It’s hard to really rate it though when you’ve been raised on Wodehouse. It’s a classy book but felt more like style over substance.

 

Hanging MarySusan Higginbotham     ***

25620676I love historical fiction but found this quite slow. The novel tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth from the point of view of Mary Surratt, a co-conspirator who became the first woman to be hanged by the United States, and her lodger, Nora. I must admit I didn’t really bond with the characters which made it hard to care about the outcome and whilst it really picked up pace in the second half, it was a little late by then. The settings are carefully researched and it’s great to have important historical events told by a female protagonist – although this does often mean that key action has to be missed and it is hard to maintain the level of tension when the really exciting bits happen ‘off-stage’ as it were. Unfortunately I also found the historical tone of the first person not entirely convincing, but his might just be me – I get a real bee in my bonnet about first person narration that doesn’t ring true!

Girl At WarSara Nović     *****

imgresThis was a brilliant book. Set during and after the Balkans war in the 1990s, it follows a young Croatian girl, Ana Jurić, who’s life has been shaped by the break up of Yugoslavia; an era and location that I haven’t seen many books about. It deals with the impact of war in an uncompromising manner combined with beautiful, poetic writing. The structure of the book is cleverly done, revealing Ana’s attempts at getting to grips with her past gradually and drawing you in. I was genuinely shocked and emotional at times reading this, despite the almost detached tone. This is another book that is great to read if you’re looking for something that is politically relevant in terms of international relations, the role of the UN peacekeepers, genocide and asylum. It’s also really interesting as Nović is a deaf author – the book is beautifully observed.

The Winter SeaSusanna Kearsley       ***

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This was a recommendation from another book blogger – A Wee Reader (check her out here) and I’m so pleased I took it up. I really enjoyed this despite some shortcomings. See full review.

 

 

 

Fever 1793 Laurie Halse Anderson       ***

781110This is a historical YA book that’s really well researched but I didn’t love it. Set during the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, it’s the classic coming-of-age story of Mattie Cook. It will appeal more to girls than boys I suspect – there’s lots about mother – daughter relationships and society’s expectations of women… the need to be a ‘good’ girl. With my teacher hat on it could open some interesting discussions with younger readers, there’s lots of Mattie’s inner monologue that seeks to put her down and how she moves past that, learning self reliance and dealing with loss. I also hated the front cover design – it looks like someone has coloured it in with a neon yellow highlighter…. Full review to come as part of a Great Read Great Place post in Philadelphia.

My March TBR list is still under construction so let me know if you think there’s something I should add 🙂

Review: “The Winter Sea” by Susanna Kearsley

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Paperback: 544 pages

Publisher: Sourcebooks, Inc.

Release Date: 1 December 2010

4 STARS

This book popped up as a recommendation by The Wee Reader in her 2016 round up and I couldn’t resist. I enjoyed plowing through all the Outlander books last year and was looking for something that might fill the little homesick hole in my life since I moved to New York.

History has all but forgotten…

In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown.

Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.

But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth—the ultimate betrayal—that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her…

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Slains Castle Aberdeenshire

There is some really beautiful description in The Winter Sea. The sense of place is evocative and Kearsley has a knack for seamlessly switching between the modern day and historic voices of the characters. In fact, Carrie’s narration is less ‘self-conscious’ than Diana Gabaldon’s Claire Fraser and I found that I was less aware of ‘reading a construction’ with this book – the narrative flowed well and didn’t jar in the way that Claire’s voice occasionally can. I found the characters to be well fleshed out and likeable in the main and I was pleased that whilst there was a bit of romance, this didn’t dominate.

This book is often classed as a ‘time travel’ novel, but this is slightly misleading. It is more that there are two parallel plot lines that are interwoven. This allows Kearsley to use meta-text to explore not only the events of the past, but also the writing process of her central character. Whilst slightly unexpected, I kept expecting the narratives to meet at some point as per a more traditional time travel arc, it was engaging.

On the downside, Kearsley is overly fond of repeated metaphors, especially when describing the cliffs and ‘winter sea’ of the title. My inner teacher was itching to take out a red pen and circle them – find something new! There is also some difficulty in having a central narrator who, by necessity of social and historical norms, is required to be absent from key bits of action. This only became an issue later in the book, but was frustrating and meant that Kearsley had to get around some awkward changes in narrative voice and time, dropping the pace somewhat.

Overall this was a really fun read, not particularly taxing, but one where you definitely want to pick it up as soon as you get home. If you’re looking for something in the Gabaldon oeuvre or set in the Highlands, then this is a good bet.

Great Reads in Great Places: Providence, Rhode Island

I’m a sucker for wandering around old streets, visiting stately homes and sitting out with a good book and a great view to enjoy my coffee. But where to get this in a country that glorifies the new, the shiny, the current?

I fell in love with New England without ever actually visiting. Instagram is awash with gorgeous images of colonial clapboard houses, delicious seafood platters and LL Bean boots surrounded with enough snow and plaid to make a lumberjack blush. I was left with the impression that there is something rather magical and quaint about these northern states and as an émigré of Old England, I was curious to see how history was conserved and presented in the land of the free and home of the ‘what?! It’s 50 years old?! Tear it down and build something new!’ Part of me was secretly hoping that I would be able to find a little something of the wild and beautiful places described in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series and Sara Donati’s ‘Wilderness’ books on the way – obviously with 21st century luxuries like plumbing though!

Given that I can’t actually get on a plane without a doctor’s note now, being eight and a half months pregnant, one of our main criteria was that we should be able to road trip there in a decent amount of time from our Brooklyn apartment. Where was within a four hour drive of New York and could be ‘done’ in a weekend?

We plotted a route that would take us up the coast as far as Providence, Rhode Island, where we would spend the night, and would enable us to stop off and take in some typically New England sights.

The main book I’d be taking with me on this trip was Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper”. Set in fictional Upper Darby, Rhode Island, the book follows the story of 13 year old Anna who sues her parents for medical emancipation after she is expected to donate a kidney to her sister who is suffering from leukaemia.

Our first stop was in Connecticut. Mystic is famous for its pizza and its seaport and neither disappointed. The town itself is small and nestled on the coast, consisting of a busy (even in February) Main Street complete with cafés, artisan shops promoting local craftspeople and rather ingeniously, its very own Mystic Psychic!

Lunch was, obviously, at Mystic Pizza – the restaurant made famous by the eponymous 1988 Julia Roberts film. It proved to be a lovely slice of Americana; friendly staff and tasty deep pan pizza were the order of the day. They even have a decent range of gluten free options which was something we weren’t necessarily expecting outside of New York.

Our last stop in Mystic was the outdoor museum at Mystic Seaport. We arrived quite late in the afternoon and managed to get half price tickets as well – something to think about if you’re like us and tend to whizz around museums! In amongst the tall ships and whaling boats on display is also a fully restored whaling village. This was the best part of the museum for me. The attention to detail is second to none and the staff on hand to talk you through are extremely knowledgable. The actors in costume were a nice touch! I imagine that this gets very busy in the Summer months, but we really felt like we didn’t miss much coming in the off season.

Providence would be our main base for the weekend. We were staying at the Renaissance Downtown Providence – a lovely, if corporate feeling, hotel that overlooks the Rhode Island State House. Our concierge recommended Hemenway’s restaurant as a taste of New England for dinner. This raw bar and seafood specialty restaurant was extremely busy and definitely needs to be booked in advance. There’s a brilliant range of dishes on offer including classic chowder, oysters and lobster served in a myriad of imaginative and delicious ways.

The next morning we decided to walk around the Brown University campus and see Benefit Street, the main historic district. I was able to set up camp in these gorgeous surroundings and catch up on my Great Read.

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Jodi Picoult’s novel has a tendency to divide readers. Lauded by many, others find her style contrived and lightweight in nature. There is no doubt that this book is uneven in terms of how well each of the narrative voices are fleshed out, but in the main Picoult has done a good job of crafting separate rhythms and perspectives. The story is shamelessly emotional and uses a variety of metaphoric devices to ensure that you are in no doubt about the differing directions the characters are pulled in. It’s not a particularly subtle book, but it is eminently readable and, as a soon to be mother, certainly made me question what I might do if I found myself in Sara Fitzgerald’s awful situation. I enjoyed the pace of this novel and felt that it was easy to get swept along with the journeys these characters take.

On our way back to Brooklyn we decided to stop in Newport and see the harbour and mansions that snake around the lower coast. I loved the rows of immaculate clapboard houses that lead onto upmarket Thames Street. It was strange to see plaques on the houses detailing date of construction and the original owner; some of the buildings were only 30 years older than our cottage in London! There was much about this little coastal town that reminded me of Padstow and Rock in Cornwall – a plethora of restaurants serving the day’s fresh catch and plenty of places to indulge in some serious retail therapy, especially if you have a thing for nautical home decor.

Standing proud on the cliff edge at the eastern tip is The Breakers – the grandest of the mansions around Bellevue Avenue, and former home of the Vanderbilt railroad family. This glorious Gatsbyesque monument to wealth and luxury has fabulous views of the rugged New England coastline and is full of carefully restored and preserved furniture from the house’s golden age in the late 19th / early 20th century. The audio tour is comprehensive and gives you a couple of hours to explore the main rooms.

Overall this was a really good mini road trip and we definitely felt that we were able to fit enough into the two days to give us a flavour of New England. I can’t wait to come back!

Already read ‘My Sister’s Keeper’?

Why not try these other titles set in Connecticut and Rhode Island:

  • ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ – John Updike
  • ‘Summer by the Sea’ – Susan Wiggs
  • ‘Theophilius North’ – Thornton Wilder
  • ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • ‘The Stepford Wives’ – Ira Levin
  • ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ – Mark Twain
  • ‘Revolutionary Road’ – Richard Yates
  • ‘The Great Gatsby’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald (not set in New England but reading this whilst walking around The Breakers is a perfect combo!)

If you have Rhode Island or Connecticut based recommendations then add them to the comments below 🙂

More Dark Materials…

I was very excited to hear on the bookish grapevine yesterday that Philip Pullman is revisiting His Dark Materials in October this year with a new ‘equel’ series – another trilogy of books set both before and after the original.

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For those of you who might not have come across these books, perhaps you were so obsessed with Harry Potter that they passed you by in the late 90s / early 00s, this clever, magical narrative explores the adventures of Lyra Belacqua and her daemon companion Pantalaimon as they get sucked into a world of Dust and realm jumping that takes her far beyond her home at Jordan College, Oxford.

I have long been a fan of Pullman’s work – it’s complex and has real depth that takes it farther than most YA fiction dares to tread. Not only is it full of the magical fantasy elements that you might expect, but it deals with interesting concepts of family, loyalty and friendship in a manner that doesn’t simplify or patronise. The relationships displayed are real, flawed and unexpected – keeping you hooked throughout.

Pullman explained that the draw to return to His Dark Materials was built not only on a desire to explore the world of Dust in more depth, but that he has been influenced by recent political events: “at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free”.

These books have never shied away from controversy – they have been roundly condemned by Christian organisations as promoting a world without God. Pullman is a well known supporter of the British Humanist Association and describes himself  as a Church of England Atheist. It will be interesting to see how these ideas are developed further in the new trilogy.

If you haven’t yet got stuck into this brilliant series – do it. The first book in the new series is being released on October 19th.

http://www.philip-pullman.com

@PhilipPullman

A Bawdy Night of Bard and Booze

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What happens when Britain’s greatest Bard meets tequila swigging Yanks off Broadway??

Genius happens. Silly, rude, sloshing Genius.

5 Stars

When booking to take out two sober pregnant ladies, one of whom has made a career out of studying and staging the Swan of Avon’s work – a more sensible man might have avoided a show with the title ‘Drunk Shakespeare’. Luckily I’m not married to a sensible man.

The premise of the show is that a nominated actor, each performance, is forced to down multiple shots and is then challenged to perform in a cut back version of a classic Shakespeare play: “Macbeth”. Our nominated actor was Hayley Palmer – and my my she was a valiant Lady Macbeth!

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The format is not in itself a new concept. There’s Drunk History for starters and the Reduced Shakespeare Company has been producing abridged versions of the plays for donkey’s years. (I’m also fairly certain that I’ve seen really bad student takes on it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival).

The thing that’s so wonderful about this production is that it dances between decent delivery of the key speeches throughout the play and bizarre, high energy current events sketches and improv. The cast’s ability to maintain an almost frantic approach for the full, uninterrupted 90 mins was impressive, and it’s genuinely funny.

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The show is clearly very tightly edited – despite the ‘off-the-cuff’ style of performance – but it allows just enough room for playing with the audience and the actors are skilled in bouncing off one another. They work hard to cultivate a feeling of being ‘in cahoots’ with the audience, from the gorgeous close quartered library set to the sharp, but never nasty, banter that flies across the stage.

This won’t be for you if you can’t bear to see the poetry butchered – or if you are squeamish about bad language and badly simulated sex – but if you like to laugh and like your classics tossed up with a decent helping of pop culture, this is one of the best nights out I’ve had in years – even stone cold sober.

http://www.drunkshakespeare.com

@drunkshakes

Bottoms Up with “The Thin Man”

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Would vintage 1930s New York be useful for helping me acclimatise? No. But it was jolly entertaining.

Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man’ is sparse and very of its time. The characters are almost entirely unlikeable, apart from Nora, and it’s a miracle anyone was able to get any deducing done given that they all seem to hit the sauce before breakfast.

Still – an engaging murder mystery with plenty of glamour.

I’d rather have a bit of P.G Wodehouse though… Tally Ho!

Welcome to “Americanah”

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I feel as if Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 offering, “Americanah,” fell into my lap at the perfect time. As a recent immigrant to Brooklyn, I was looking to diversify my reading list and maybe find out something of the place I had landed in through the eyes of others who have found themselves swallowed up by this noisy, raucous city. I had read Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” some years ago and whilst I couldn’t remember much specific about it, vaguely thought it had been enjoyable at the time. This seemed like a safe bet book – especially with the lovely gold New York Times Book Review 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR medal tacked on the front cover.

What I wasn’t expecting was to find a book that spoke to me so clearly that I couldn’t sleep the night I finished it. Here was a woman who had perfectly captured my own feelings on being dropped into the Brooklyn maelstrom. There are moments where she describes the simple experience of being in an American grocery store, the enormous, flavourless fruit, the overwhelming array of toxic multicoloured cereals, of accents heard but not understood and I was able to recognise myself the week before. A sense of things being familiar in some ways and inexplicably alien in others. I will never make the mistake of asking the concierge for a ‘parcel’ as supposed to ‘package’ again…

There is much in this book that is thought provoking. Whilst I do not share the heroine, Ifemelu’s, Nigerian roots and therefore experiences of race and race relations in the USA, her sense of separateness, otherness and struggle to find an identity that was both true to where she came from and open to embracing her new home was something that I could viscerally identify with. It is testament to Adichie’s skilful prose that this book is able to transcend, for me, the very obvious social commentary regarding race and culture.

That this novel has also made an appearance in my life the week of Trump’s new travel ban seems also, searingly prescient. The talk of immigrants is everywhere in New York at the moment. The collective horror and urgent conversations around dinner tables making the issues surrounding immigration and race central to more people’s lives than ever before. It has been eye opening and disconcerting to find myself even tiptoeing on the other side of the fence, to think of myself as an immigrant and what that means in terms of personal identity – how much loyalty to have to home and how much to embrace a new culture. Adichie’s bold and sharply observed portraits have driven home how complex and ever present the issue of race, of otherness is, not only in the USA, but also Britain. Something that last year, whilst comfortably ensconced in my teaching job, living in my cottage, I would have academically appreciated but not dwelled upon, has been thrown starkly into the light for me.

And so my small sense of otherness in the vast sprawl of New York continues. The realisation that whilst “Americans are so friendly!” “New York is different,” everyone is in their own bubble. Separate. Which this new immigrant finds oddly reassuring.