Neil Peel’s Holiday (sequel to Ben Dixon’s 2020 novel The Heroic Truths of Neil Peel) narrates the real-life adventures of 12 years old Neil, who lives with his slightly dysfunctional but perfectly pleasant family in a small village called Lower Piercing.
“Honesty: my strength and my curse.” Teenage years can be challenging, but even more so if, like Neil, you always tell the truth. He just can’t help himself. Neil is a fundamentally shy, peculiar and curious boy trying to deal with growing up the best way he can. If only he could lie a little… the good thing is, people always know where they stand with him. In the words of Ben Dixon, “Neil lacks the elementary coordination needed to succeed” (both in PE and life); for this reason, he often finds himself in awkward situations (if not actual trouble) but always manages to wing it somehow.
The story takes place between Lower Piercing and Majorca, where Neil goes on holiday with his family and Steve’s, his best friend. The two have a completely different approach to how they want to enjoy their time there: while Neil is more interested in adventure than girls (he has a crush on a classmate and doesn’t see anybody else), Steve wants to meet a nice girl to practice “severe tongue interaction” (or STI). Neil eventually gives in and makes space in his holiday for Steve’s crush, the lovely Shamone Eehi from Egypt. This part of the story in particular is narrated with a touch of irony and extreme care, focusing on Neil’s feelings as he faces up to the fact that he does not have any relationship experience and recognises he may not be ready just yet.
Adding to these already challenging circumstances Neil had not planned for, his sister Lemony – with whom he has a true love-hate relationship – is also caught up in a spot of summer romance with waiter Stijve Tepels, who will eventually reveal his true colours, thanks to Neil’s relentless efforts to expose him for the shady character he is. This misadventure is a way to temporarily bond with his sister, as he tries to protect and vindicate her. Other unexpected and very funny holiday incidents include: unwelcome contact with topless ladies, a missing key at the bottom of the ocean, an unwanted visit to the Sugar Tots Club run by entertainment enthusiasts Ann Francisco e Felix Navidad, and a series of other embarrassing moments Neil could really have done without. The book ends with Neil returning to school and meeting a new archenemy, paving the way to Book Three.
There is only one way I can describe Neil Peel’s Holiday: clever, clever, clever. Hilarious at times and most certainly funny and witty, the story is well built from beginning to end, with no dull or slow moments. In addition to being an outstanding writer, Ben Dixon is very imaginative and successfully manages to create a very complex world around young Neil, made of awkward moments, mannerisms that make Neil unique and very real, as well as words (ever hear of “knickergred”?) and worlds that are a product of Neil’s fervid imagination.
Do not be fooled: Neil Peel’s Holiday is everything but a children’s book; it can be read by a younger audience of course – your children won’t be disappointed – but I strongly suggest you give it a go too, it won’t disappoint you either.
Ben Dixon is a father of four children, teacher of French and the author behind the hilarious world of Neil Peel. He grew up in Yorkshire, grew up a bit more in Leicestershire before moving to settle in Surrey. The Heroic Truths of Neil Peel was his first novel, published in 2020. Neil Peel’s Holiday was the sequel published in 2021. He lives in Guildford with his wife, Sarah, and children, Sophie, Isabelle, Max and Kiera (source: amazon.co.uk).
Book Two of the series A Gia, San Francisco Romance by Stephanie Shea
It’s right after Christmas and we are in sunny and cheerful Australia, inside an airport lounge. Avery, a brokenhearted American girl who spent her Christmas holidays miles and miles away from home, is all but cheerful. The whole trip had been planned to spend time with her long-distance boyfriend Oli, but the knob dumped her right before her plane to Australia took off, leaving Avery with no other choice than travelling there anyway. She obviously didn’t reach Australia in her best mind frame, but she was determined to make the best of this experience. While she did enjoy partying and meeting new people, with the occasional tear here and there, she can’t really say she feels sad when it’s time to go back home to the States.
While she is at the airport bar, waiting for her flight to be announced, she meets a girl, Kyla, who suggests her the best type of coffee to cure a hangover – a coconut iced coffee. Avery follows her suggestion, there is a brief exchange and Avery has the feeling Kyla is flirting, but she doesn’t want to give too much credit to it, even if she feels flattered. It’s not the first time another woman compliments her in such a way, she says to herself. There is no need to have butterflies in her stomach, right? Especially because she will never see Kyla again.
She is so terribly wrong.
In fact, for a weird twist of fate, Kyla is not only on her same plane, but also on the seat next to hers. And since Sidney – San Francisco takes a very long time, what’s wrong with spending it having a chat with your neighbour? Even sharing a kiss that won’t have any future does not feel wrong, even though it leaves them both hungry for more.
Avery stops in San Francisco, where she lives and works at Gia’s Restaurant (the main pillar of the whole book series) while Kyla continues her journey to Rio. She is a travel influencer and, as much as she’d love to stop in San Francisco, she has previous work commitments she needs to attend to. They exchange Instagram handles, leaving a few likes here and there, but it’s not until Kyla’s birthday that they start a message exchange, timid at first but more and more intense as times goes on.
Six months go by and the two girls are once again under the same sky. Kyla is in San Francisco for a whole month, at the end of which she will attend her best friend’s wedding. She knows Avery lives there, but she avoided telling her, wanting to surprise her. When they finally meet, Avery is not only surprised, but also taken aback: what now? Because one thing is online, another is face to face. What she is feeling for Kyla is different under so many points of view. She never had a crush on a woman, but to her memory, she’s never felt anything like that for anyone else before. Is she running recklessly into something new and exciting and maybe a bit crazy just to get over Oli or is there something more?
Destiny will give her a hand to better understand the situation. In fact, on the day they agree to go out for lunch, Avery receives a call from the handyman of the building where she lives: her apartment has a leak. She rushes home, or better, Kyla takes her, only to find out that the leak is, in reality, a proper flood, the ceiling of her living room caved in, water all over the floor and urgent repairs will take at least two weeks. Two weeks where, clearly, she needs to find alternative accommodation. Kyla offers to host her and while Avery has plenty of other options, she accepts. This starts an unexpected cohabitation that will bring them even closer.
The story itself is very pleasant and easy to read, ideal for taking your mind off the stress of everyday life (literature is all about escapism after all). It follows all the typical canons and patterns of romance books and thankfully glides on openly and overly-sexual scenes that can happily be left to the reader’s imagination. There are also some delicate themes throughout the narration: Kyla’s mother is an alcoholic that is trying to get clean again, leaving Kyla to ponder whether she should believe her mother’s good intentions or not; Avery’s parents divorced after her mother discovered that her father had an on-off relationship with another woman that produced a lovechild, Whitney, for whom Avery has mixed feelings – to meet her or not to meet her, that is the question. However, the story comes across as slightly naïve at times: there aren’t many women romance stories out there, and I do understand the genre needs to adhere to specific criteria, but because the literature itself is so scarce, why not populating it with something more than just the traditional clichés? It would give this book a whole new perspective and elevate it to the next level.
Still, it is indeed a page turner, with a very well paced story and the right amount of action and characters’ internal conflict. In fact, we totally look forward to the next book in the series (end of October release) which we will be reviewing very soon!!
Stephanie Shea is a self-proclaimed introvert, who spends her days in corporate daydreaming of becoming a full-time novelist. Her favorite things include binging tv shows, creating worlds where no character is too queer, broken or sensitive, and snacks. Lots of snacks. Someday, she hopes to curb her road rage, and get past her anxiety over social media and author bios.
In the UK, October marks the beginning of Black History Month, a national initiative aiming to promote and celebrate the contributions of those with African and Caribbean heritage to British society and to foster an understanding of Black history in general. It was partially inspired by US Black History Month, celebrated annually every February.
To mark the occasion, Not for Vanity wants to showcase 10 books (five fiction and five non-fiction) that we think are worth reading this month and beyond, based on our existing reading lists. At the end of our article, we are also presenting a brief overview of the origins and evolution of Black History Month in the UK.
5 FICTION BOOKS
# 1:Another Country (James Baldwin, 1962) | Set for the most part in 1950s New York, the novel is renowned for its frank portrayal of bisexuality and interracial relations, published in a time when these subjects were taboo. Shortly after narration begins, Rufus Scott, a black jazz musician, commits suicide, impelling his friends to search for the meaning of his death and, consequently, for a deeper understanding of their own identities (Sub-genre: classic fiction).
# 2: The Broken Earth Trilogy (N.K. Jemisin, 2015 – 2018) | Post-apocalyptic saga set on a massive continent called the Stillness, in a far-future Earth wracked with periodic disasters known as Seasons, the result of an open war between this planet & the people who live on it. With the trilogy, N.K. Jemisin became the first Black woman to win the Hugo Award (a prestigious award for science fiction & fantasy) in 2016 and the following two years (Sub-genre: fantasy).
# 3: Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi, 2016)| The novel traces the descendants of two half-sisters Effia and Esi, born into different villages in Ghana. The sisters’ lives follow different paths: Effia marries a wealthy Englishman and lives in Cape Coast Castle, while Esi is captured during a raid and sold into slavery. Homegoing follows the parallel narrative lines of their descendants through 8 generations, portraying the African & African American experience in the aftermath of enslavement (Sub-genre: historical fiction).
# 4: Punching the Air (Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam, 2020) | 16 years old Amal is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit – assaulting a white boy during an altercation in a gentrifying neighbourhood – and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. As weeks turn to months, Amal reflects on life inside/outside of prison, the positive & negative experiences that fuel his creativity and the people that make him believe in a brighter future. (Sub-genre: YA, novel in verse)
# 5: The Selfless Act of Breathing (JJ Bola, 2021) | Michael Kabongo is a teacher (and son of Congolese immigrants) who seems to have it all, but he’s conflicted by the state of the world around him. After a life-changing loss, he decides to leave everything behind in search of something greater and moves to America. On this transformative journey, Michael travels from New York to San Francisco, partying with new friends, sparking fleeting romances, and splurging on big adventures, with the intention of living the life of his dreams until his money runs out (Sub-genre: contemporary fiction).
5 NON-FICTION BOOKS
# 6: Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Peter Fryer, 1984) | A panoramic history of black Britons stretching back to the Romans, encompassing the court of Henry VIII, and following historic figures from Mary Seacole to the abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. First published in the ’80s, amid race riots and police brutality, Fryer’s history revealed how Africans, Asians and their descendants had been erased from British history. His purpose was to show that instead these communities did influence political traditions, social institutions & cultural life. The book represents a true political act against the ultra-nationalist agenda.
# 7: Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (Reni Eddo-Lodge, 2017) | In 2014, award-winning journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote about her frustration with the way discussions of race and racism in Britain were led by those who weren’t affected by it. She posted a piece on her blog, entitled: “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” which went viral. Comments flooded in from people who wanted to share their own experiences. For this reason, she decided to dig further into the source of these feelings and write the book. Exploring issues from eradicated black history to the political purpose of white dominance, whitewashed feminism to the link between class and race, she offers a new framework learn to see, acknowledge and counter racism.
# 8: The Good Immigrant: 21 writers reflect on race in contemporary Britain (Nikesh Shukla, 2017) | A collection of essays by emerging British BAME writers, poets, journalists & artists to confront the issue of being an immigrant in the UK. Focusing on race and immigration, they paint a picture of what it means to be “other” in a country that wants you, doesn’t want you, doesn’t accept you and needs you for its equality monitoring forms. The book explores why immigrants come and decide to stay, what it means for their identity if they’re mixed race, where their place is in the world if they’re unwelcome in the UK, and how this affects the education system. Curator Nikesh Shukla has long championed diversity in publishing and literary life in the Britain.
# 9: Brit(ish) (Afua Hirsch, 2018) | Journalist and broadcaster Afua Hirsch explores race, identity & belonging in 21st century Britain. She touches on personal experiences and challenges society, questioning what exactly it means to be British. “You’re British. Your parents are British. Your partner, your children and most of your friends are British. So why do people keep asking where you’re from? We are a nation in denial about our imperial past and the racism that plagues our present. Brit(ish) is Afua Hirsch’s personal and provocative exploration of how this came to be – and an urgent call for change”.(source: waterstones.com)
# 10: Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World (Layla F. Saad, 2020) | Layla Saad is an East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman living in Qatar who came up with a 28-day process called a “personal anti-racism tool” designed to teach those with white privilege how systemic racism works and how they can stop contributing to world white supremacy. The book blends practical exercises with real anecdotes and reflections on the contemporary historic and cultural context/debate around race. It all started when the author began an Instagram challenge called #MeAndWhiteSupremacy, encouraging people to own up and share their racist behaviours, big and small. Thousands of people participated, and over 90,000 users downloaded the book.
Origins of Black History Month
The origins of Black History Month can be traced back to National Negro History Week, started in 1926 to advocate for the inclusion of Black History in the US national public education system. This week gradually evolved into the month it is today, especially thanks to the momentum and support of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a Ghanian activist and Special Projects Coordinator for the Greater London Council was instrumental in bringing Black History Month to Britain, as he wanted to boost the self-esteem of Black British children and young adults by educating on them on the achievements of Black people in the UK. Black History Month was first celebrated in London in 1987. It quickly spread to other parts of the country, with many boroughs beginning to formally recognise October as Black History Month. Celebrations have since expanded to include the history of African, Asian, and Caribbean peoples and their contribution to Britain’s history.
This year’s theme for BHM is “Time for Change: Action Not Words”, a series of initiatives to encourage everybody to focus on the future, come together around a shared common goal to achieve a better world for everyone by tackling racism, reclaiming Black history and ensuring Black history is represented and celebrated all year round.
N.B. Books in this blog article are listed in chronological order.
Book Four of the DCI Jane Birchfield Murder Mysteries by Heaton Wilson
The old adagio “starting in medias res” (i.e. into the midst of things) takes a whole new meaning in this recently released crime fiction novel. The opening pages of Beneath the Surface already contain all the core elements of a crime scene: a young woman, Mary MacDonald and her lover, Geoff Pegg are spending a spicy afternoon at her place in the small idyllic village of Cardale (just north of Manchester), when Rob Simmons, a local boy, runs into the side of the house with his tractor, causing the whole building to collapse on the two unlucky lovers, killing them instantly.
DCI Jane Birchfield, the main character of all books in the series, begins to investigate. The first thing she wants to clarify is: was it an accident, was the driver drunk, was it a scorned rejected lover or were drugs involved? As a matter of fact, under the rubbles of what once was Mary’s cottage, the police finds a small bag containing a white powder that turns out to be cocaine.
Birchfield peruses all possibilities, but while Rob Simmons was probably tipsy – he himself declares he was at the pub before crushing into the cottage – he also mentions that the brakes of his tractor weren’t working properly. Birchfield decides to pay a visit to Sid Marsh, owner of Marsh Farm (and the tractor). Sid is a city boy who, tired and engrossed with London, decided to move up North with his wife Julie, where they bought a farm. Their dream is to successfully produce and sell organic products, proving to the locals they are not the rookies everyone believes, but things are not going as well as they hoped and, despite all their efforts, the Farm is in debt. For this reason, the tractor was not sent for the annual MOT. Birchfield is not totally sold on this version of events and continues her investigation.
Behind closed doors, Sid and Julie Marsh are far from the idyllic couple they want to portray in public but are instead on the verge of divorce. He is a heavy drinker/borderline alcoholic, full of debts and in the process of selling part of his land to property developers. He did have a reason for wanting Mary dead, as she used to run the village residents group, in charge of preserving the local territory against savage property speculation.
At the same time, though, there are plans afoot in the village for gas exploration, which are most welcome, as they will create new jobs within the struggling rural community. Sid and Julie strongly oppose these, as they would have a negative impact on the environment, destroy habitats and poison the atmosphere. One more reason to point at Sid as the most probable suspect.
Things suddenly take a turn for the worse when, on his way back home after a night at the local pub, Rob Simmons is found unconscious in a nearby ditch. It seems like an accident, but he’s found with cocaine in his pocket and Jane is on the alert once again. She rightly decides to pursue the drugs lead, but what she will find out is totally unexpected and definitely impossible to imagine, in a twists and turns final that will leave readers’ heads spinning.
‘Beneath the Surface’ is simply brilliant: it’s well written, it shows the writer’s great knowledge of the Mancunian territory and population and it’s clear that a great amount of research on police procedures and investigative methods has gone into it. It’s an absolute page turner, from the beginning to the end, which is absolutely unexpected and unpredictable: in fact, there are no tell-tale signs of who is the real mastermind behind the whole drug ring.
In addition, the intermissions provided by personal matters (a friends’ wedding, Jane and her former boyfriend trying to get back together, Ross and Lorry’s meaningful exchanges of personal problems in the police station cafeteria) make the characters vibrant, human and extremely likeable, drawing the reader even more into the story.
The only thing that could probably be improved is the tone: at times the pace is too slow and not gripping enough. If you consider this is a thriller, as a reader I’d like to be constantly on my toes. However, this is a minor weakness that doesn’t take anything away from the story.
Definitely a book I would read again and I do look forward to reading the other books in the series!
Originally from Manchester, he now lives on the beautiful Isle of Wight. When he’s not writing stories, he loves campervan trips and working outdoors, maintaining the garden against attack from sea breezes, bracken, brambles and rabbits; and walking his two dogs, Robbie and Twiggy. Heaton loves writing crime fiction and has published a series featuring the nice/tough/feisty DCI Jane Birchfield. All his other books (‘Every Reason’, ‘Whatever It Takes’ and ‘Retribution’) are available on Amazon. (source: heatonwilsonbooks.com)
Have you ever been to a class reunion or casually met an old school friend you haven’t seen in a very long time? If the answer to any of these questions is YES, you know way too well how it feels: awkward moments, all sorts of memories flooding back to you (mostly bad for some reason), idle chit chat and reflections on how the world has changes (as well as you).
This is exactly the situation our protagonist Nick Taylor finds himself in. A retired Media PR expert and former journalist, he is reluctantly attending the 50th high school reunion of the Class of 1969. Despite a successful career in a relationship-based profession, Nick is an introvert by nature and finds it challenging to interact with his former classmates, especially those he hasn’t seen in ages (he actually keeps count of how many people he’s managed to talk to during the evening, so he can tell his wife). Nick has also a fatal flaw: he remembers absolutely EVERYTHING: events in the past down to the tiniest detail, songs (lyrics, singers, writers and trivia) and futile information nobody else would normally remember – basically a living encyclopaedia.
Utilising copious references to 60s songs and key events in American history, Nick – who narrates in first person – explores crucial parts of his past, gradually telling us more about him as the story progresses. It’s coming of age in reverse: page after page, we discover how Nick evolved from a chubby, insecure teenager with several interests (mostly music and sports) and a small bunch of friends to a more mature, self-confident (but not quite) young man. The narration also focuses heavily on the political and social turmoil of the late 1960s, from the Vietnam War and the Mobe activist movement, to student protests (especially around Kent State, given our protagonist went to college there), the Moon landing and even Woodstock. In all this, we also gauge his thoughts about a potential face-to-face encounter with “THAT Girl”, his high school sweetheart who rarely attends reunions: will she turn up this time? Nick reflects on his friendship with those who were there for him all along like the very social, charming Tom Baker, (almost his polar opposite), those who have just appeared briefly in his life and those he’s never shared a moment or memory with.
‘The Reunion’ is not an easy read, especially if you are not well versed in American culture (being originally from Southern Europe, it was a crash-course in 60s history, politics and music). However, I mean this in the most positive way: Gary Wells is an extremely gifted writer, his style showing enviable wit and a complexity I honestly haven’t come across in any other self-published author so far. Real-life, historic events are masterfully intertwined with the protagonist’s many personal memories brought to the surface every time he meets somebody new – the level of detail in describing each one so impressive it’s almost disturbing (and perhaps overwhelming at times).
While Wells drew from his own life experience for inspiration (see his Amazon bio here), there are certainly elements of his book we can all relate to, regardless of our age: moments in the past that stayed with us forever, the inner struggles of being a teenager, the difficulty to socialise and be true to ourselves, fears and expectations around the future or something as simple as a specific soundtrack to our memories. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the fact that I too remember everything: my friends find it mostly entertaining (and sometimes annoying, exactly like Tom in the book) but some things are better left in the past where they belong. Well, Gary/Nick seems to think otherwise: “Preserve your memories, son. They’re all that’s left you”. Want to find out what’s yours? I thoroughly recommend you buy a copy and start reading now to find out.