Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman

4.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Of all the creatures on this planet, humanity is the one that has been able to change the very face of the earth in a way that no other animal is able to. We can raze the densest forests, cut holes through rock, change the course of rivers and obliterate mountains. The only other thing that has this ability to change the very landscape is the earth-changing events of volcanos, earthquake and tsunamis or the out of this world asteroids.

Hoffman heads all over the world from his home in Greece to find these places that are right at the very end of their existence. He visits Kansas to watch the mating ritual of the leks or prairie chickens on the Konza prairie. This place has been under threat since the 1800s as the European settlers saw that the land was rich and put it under the plough. There is almost none (around 0.1%) of the original grasslands left.

We hear a lot about the tropical jungles, how it is being devastated by logging and agriculture. Hoffman travels to the northeasternmost state of India, Arunachal Pradesh where he is there to see the landscape of the Himalayan flood plain. The people here, the Nyishs, have managed to co-exist in this landscape with tigers and elephants for years. But it is only in the past few years that the realisation that the elephants have started to raid crops so they have reluctantly retreated from their rice paddies and plots. Their state bird is the hornbill, a species that is essential to their identity, customs and beliefs. This bird has a casque on its bill and it is this part of the bird that is used on the headdress of the tribe. The bird is under threat though and the Nyish tribe are looking at other ways of replicating this part of the dress.

It is not just exotic places that are under threat, closer to home we have woodlands in the UK that have been in existence for hundreds of years.  The British have a deep love for woodlands, as was seen when the government a few years ago thought it was a good idea to privatise the Forestry Commission. The backlash from the public forced a U-turn and a backtrack on this. The woodland he visits is just outside Sheffield and has been in existence since the 100’s. It was split in two after the M1 carved its way through it, and has recently been suffering because of those that go there for their leisure activity or riding through it with quad bikes. It is under threat again and local residents have formed groups to resist this, applying for village green status to protect what is left. Sitting with his back resting on an old oak watching the breeze ripple the bluebells is a perfect way to spend the evening.

Stories about these and the other places strongly underline the main argument of the book that all of these places are utterly Irreplaceable. With wholesale destruction of these places comes the loss of habitats. Even if you were to plant the same species of trees in a field a couple of miles up the road in Sheffield, you can’t replicate an ancient woodland. The myriad species and underground mycelia that live in it along with the complex interactions that have developed over the past 400 or 500 years cannot just be reproduced.  These unique ecosystems are disappearing under the machines of mankind and when they are gone, that is it, finito, no more.

Hoffman has written an eloquent series of essays taken from his first-hand experience of seeing places that are under threat from human activity. It is partly a celebration of our diverse world but is also a call to arms for those that care about this planet. He shows how local people are fighting back against the things that are happening to their area. Most importantly, it is a book that needs to be read and more importantly a stepping stone to inspire us to action and to pressurise our political leaders into doing something when the places we live are threatened.

April 2020 TBR

I hope that all of you reading this are keeping safe and well. We are living in interesting times at the moment, my library service has shut for the foreseeable future and renewed all the books that I have out until the 2nd of July. Because of this, I have changed the priority of things around this month and resorted my spreadsheet and have come up with the following TBR. It is pretty long and there is no way that I am going to be able to get through all of them, but these have been sorted into 2020 books first.  I won’t probably read them in this particular order, but it is a plan.

American Dirt by Jeanie Cummins
A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes
Origins by Lewis Dartnell
Unspeakable by Harriet Shawcross
To The Lake by Kapka Kassabova
The Ice House by Tim Clare
When by Daniel H. Pink
Lotharingia by Simon Winder
Last Days In Old Europe by Richard Bassett
Liquid Gold by Roger Morgan-Grenville
The Stonemason by Andrew Ziminski
Sea People by Christina Thompson
The Way To The Sea by Caroline Crampton
A Good Neighbourhood by Therese Anne Fowler
We’re Living Through The Breakdown by Tatton Spiller
Horizon by Barry Lopez
Marram by Leonie Charlton
The Supernavigators by David Barrie
Awakening by Sam Love
London Made Us by Robert Elms
The Fens by Francis Pryor
A Beginner’s Guide To Japan by Pico Iyer
Pie Fidelity by Pete Brown
The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman
A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
Holding Unfailing by Edward Ragg
Vickery’s Folk Flora by Roy Vickery
Lands Of Lost Borders by Kate Harris
Hollow Places by Christopher Hadley
The Many Lives of Carbon by Dag Olav Hessen, Tr. Kerri Pierce
The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers by Moritz Thomsen
The Book of Puka-Puka by Robert Dean Frisbie
The House of Islam by Ed Husain
Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols
When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce
The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea
Sunfall by Jim Al-Khalili
One Way by S.J. Morden

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong and published by Jonathan Cape.

About the Book

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born – a history whose epicentre is rooted in Vietnam – and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to the American moment, immersed as it is in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.

About the Author

Ocean Vuong is the author of The New York Times bestselling novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, out from Penguin Press (2019) and forthcoming in 30 languages worldwide. A recipient of a 2019 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, he is also the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2016, winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, his honors include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and the Pushcart Prize.

My Review

It is when he is in his twenties that Little Dog writes a letter to his mother. She is never going to be able to read it as she is illiterate. Contained within the letter is the family history that he has unearthed and that he traces his mothers side of the family back to Vietnam. In this letter are some of the experiences that his mother Rose, and grandmother, Lan have suffered during and after the war in Vietnam, before they arrived in America.

Little Dog is son to an American and who is still violent to Rose until the police take him away one day. But growing up in Connecticut is not easy when you are mixed race, and he suffers at school for a plethora of reasons. But he does find what he thinks is love, with another boy, an all American lad called Trevor, but is it not an even relationship, rather one where Little Dog is the submissive partner.

It is not the easiest book to read as he writes about things that a lot of people would count as trigger warnings, i.e. abuse, drugs, mental health issues, cruelty and so on. Yet with his prose, he can make this tender and intimate at one moment and then before you know it, it becomes brutal and violent in the next. Sometimes these are brought together in ways that make for uncomfortable reading. It does feel that he has drawn deep on his and his families experience as he touches on some of the factors that have affected him in his life: race, immigration, acceptance and love. Definitely an experience reading this book and you are unlikely to be unaffected reading it.

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour and have a look at the website to discover all the other books that have been longlisted.

Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here. They might not be open at the moment, but may be able to send you a copy.

My thanks to Martina at Midas PR for the copy of the book to read.

The Nature Of Spring by Jim Crumley

4 out of 5 stars

Regardless of what happens in the world, the seasons come and go without fail. The seasons may be stretched a little, especially with the effects of climate change at the moment as they seem to blend into each other more and more. With spring the main moment for me is when we reach the equinox, that day when the night and day are exactly the same length; 12 hours. This year that day was the 20th March and that seemed to me to be the best time to start this book by Crumley.

Spring in Scotland often begins with snow on the ground and in his first chapter of the book he is watching a kestrel over a landscape that is scattered with small patches of snow. She drops from the twig into the wind and begins to hunt. They keep pace with each other at a distance and just as he reached some newly planted native trees, she turns and rushes away downwind. Soon after he hears a mistle thrush singing as the urge to find a mate becomes all-consuming. These are what he considers the first syllables of spring.

Following the traces of spring around Scotland will take him up in the Highlands, and to the islands of Mull, Iona, Lismore and he even ventures out of Scotland to visit Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast. If feels like you are alongside him as he is watching the antics of Sea Eagles or spotting an unusual encounter between a fox and a pine marten or being a handful of yards away from a grey coated roebuck.

As with his other books in the series, this is another brilliant book from Crumley. He is passionate about his subjects too; his eye for the details of the way that the creatures behave, coupled with the descriptions of the landscape make this such a good book. He is not afraid to use the book as a soapbox either, putting forward solid arguments on a variety of subjects that he cares about. This is the third in the series so far, and there is just the final book, The Nature of Summer, to look forward to.

Other books on Spring that I can recommend:

In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas

Walking through Spring: An English Journey by Graham Hoyland

Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons by Melissa Harrison (Editor)

The Long Spring: Tracking the Arrival of Spring Through Europe by Laurence Rose

Ghost Town by Jeff Young

4.5 out of 5 stars

Near me are landscapes that have hundreds and hundreds of years of history draped across them, if you know what to look for and where to look it is fairly straight forward to find Roman or Bronze Age features in the landscape. Things do disappear though given enough time, either by erosion or human influence. Cities though are another matter, things can change in less that a generation, buildings are knocked down and replaced with another badly designed eyesore.

But if you know where to look in a city, especially one that you grew up in, a form of your past life can be found. Even though it may have been a while since you last walked down them, a walk down a little-used back alley that you last saw 20 years ago can fire those memory neurons in the brain in unexpected ways. Jeff Young’s stamping grounds as a child were the streets of Liverpool and in Ghost Town (does anyone hear the song that The Specials sung with those two words?). Beginning with a pile of photos that are spread out over the kitchen table, of his past life, he sees faded images of buildings that might still be there and smiling relatives who almost certainly aren’t now.

It brings back memories of sitting in his grandparents home, seeing the Christmas decorations around a room with no ceiling, but it was hardly surprising because the house was more or less derelict. His grandfather was a butcher by trade and one of those hard men who had spent a lifetime with horses and lived by his own rules. Just thinking of him bought back happy memories of sitting in the kitchen learning swear words.

He talks of the time he fell off his bike and on arriving home, was not allowed in the house as his dad had had an accident. He could still remember finding dead animals, playing truant and days spent down by the canal after they had moved from the city to Maghull. By the age of 16, he had flunked school and ended up as a packer in a warehouse. He manages to avoid the casual violent episodes that were taking place, drinking in back street pubs and wandering the streets supposedly delivering post to other offices.

Returning to those streets many years and a lifetime of experience later brings all these fragments of his past back, but time is messing with his memory and the significant events were blurring and moving on the timeline. He walks the streets of his past with Horatio Clare, fighting the bitter wind by fortifying themselves with rum and Guinness trying to locate the ghostly presence of Thomas de Quincey.

The cobbled streets still framed the emptiness, but there was no one left to walk through the flames, no photographer to capture the city as it once was. Just grandad walking through a city that is no longer there.

I am slightly ashamed to say that Liverpool is a city that I have been past many times and not ever visited. Yet from the beautiful prose in Young’s book it sounds a really dynamic place, that oozes history from every crack. His memories of past events are quite distinctive and in his writing, they have retained their sharpness without being softened by time nor coloured by nostalgia. It was seeing the photos that prompted Young to go out and walk around the streets of Liverpool that meant so much as he was growing up. The book does jump back and forwards in time, as he stands in front of a building in the present day he is immediately taken back to a memory from three decades ago in the same spot, and he doe it in a way that you don’t feel disjointed. The buildings in Liverpool are quite spectacular, and the photos in the book add to the atmosphere of the place.

If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton and published by Penguin

About the Book

When Stephen Sexton was young, video games were a way to slip through the looking glass; to be in two places at once; to be two people at once. In these poems about the death of his mother, this moving, otherworldly narrative takes us through the levels of Super Mario World, whose flowered landscapes bleed into our world, and ours, strange with loss, bleed into it. His remarkable debut is a daring exploration of memory, grief and the necessity of the unreal.

About the Author

Author Photo

Stephen Sexton lives in Belfast. His poems have appeared in Granta, POETRY, and Best British Poetry 2015. His pamphlet, Oils, was the Poetry Book Society’s Winter Pamphlet Choice. He was the winner of the 2016 National Poetry Competition, the recipient of an ACES award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and was awarded an Eric Gregory Award in 2018.

My Review

Sometimes a way of coping with events in the real world is to head back to the things that gave you comfort in the past. For Stephen Sexton this means heading to the world of Super Mario Kart, where he spent lots of his youth racing against the characters in this colourful and larger than life world. It was a place that infused his reality and gave him lots of happy memories to look back on.

It is this nostalgic place that he returns to in this book frequently as the poems take us through the various tracks and characters in the game. The fun though is short-lived, because all the way through, he has the agony of watching his mothers illness develop to the point where it finally claimed her.

For a collection of poems that leans heavily on gamer references about a fun thing to play, it is heavily draped with sorrow and grief. I liked the way that he varied the pace and structure of the poems, and having those two themes running all the way through, it builds into a narrative thread and feels like we are sharing his grief. Definitely one to read again one day.

Three Favourite Poems

Donut Plains 1

Chocolate Secret

#7 Larry’s Castle

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour and have a look at the website to discover all the other books that have been longlisted.

You can buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here. They might not be open at the moment, but may be able to send you a copy.

My thanks to Martina at Midas PR for the copy of the book to read.

A Month by the Sea by Dervla Murphy

3.5 out of 5 stars

Living in Gaza is just like living in a prison. On one side is the blockade that stops almost all people getting in or out, and there is a sea blockade in place that stops boats for venturing from the shore too far. It is not a place that is high on most people wish list for visiting, but spare a thought for the people that have to live there. Getting in was not going to be easy, but Dervla Murphy is tenacious. The regular route was shut down and then she had an opportunity to get in via Egypt, took it and got in.

This wasn’t going to be a fleeting visit like a lot of reporters either, she was intending to stay a whole month and get to know the people and see how they coped with day to day basic living in their prison. The media portrays the Palestinians as a radicalised people fighting and who are prepared to go to any lengths to strike terror against the state of Israel. What she finds there is utterly different to what she was expecting.

Yes, there are radical young men and women there who have no other channels to direct their anger, but there is also a population who are doing their very best to just get on with life, who have had enough of the fighting and pain and loss of loved ones. A people who long for a peace process that would mean they could get back on with their lives.

Puzzled by my lack of journalistic equipment: no camera, no tape recorder, not even a notebook and pencil. I explained that I don’t like interviewing people, I just like talking with them.

Murphy is prepared to go out and talk to people about how they feel and understand just how incredibly difficult struggle daily life is. She hears about the random attached that just happen with little or almost no warning, attacks that seem to be designed with the maximum amount of cruelty. She tries to think rationally about the situation and circumstances that they are under, as well as spending time question the motives and processes behind each sides actions. Seeing the evidence around her each day makes her think about the slender hopes for peace and the utter pain that she has from seeing the hypocrisy from both sides and how a people that suffered from horrific genocide and during the holocaust have elements in the society that seem to inflict it on another people. This is an uncompromising read seen from the perspective of an old Irish lady who grew up in a land that had similar problems, Ireland. It might not suit everyone, but if you like a challenging book, give it a read.

These Silent Mansions by Jean Sprackland

4 out of 5 stars

Near where I grew up, is a place called Brookwood Cemetery. For years this 500-acre site was the largest burial ground in the world and when it was first set aside it even had its own railway line and platform at Waterloo Station. I spent many an afternoon walking around there, and whilst some might find that morbid, there was a peacefulness to the place.

Sprackland is another person who fascinated by graveyards, so much so that she remembers the places that she has lived and significant family moments by the graveyards that were nearby. She has fond memories of these places and uses them to root her in the locality. Going back over people’s past make her want to travel back through her life, to the towns and cities that she has lived before. In each of the graveyards, she finds a glimpse of a life that has long ceased to exist but still has a story to tell of the people who once walked the streets that she now walks again.

Her journey will take her from Oxford to Devon, London to Norfolk. But also back into the past to learn about a drowned lad, the owner of a steam fairground, bodies used for medical research and a young lady who died after her clothes caught fire.

Wherever I have lived, I have found them – some like cities, others like gardens, or forests of stone – and they have become the counterparts of those lived places: the otherworlds which have helped make sense of this world.

Each of these stories is told with Sprackland’s keen eye for detail in the lives that were once lived and their final resting place as she traces the inscriptions in the stone. Death is still a taboo object, however, there is something peaceful about graveyards, not only are they are a haven of quiet in a relentless world, but they are one of those thin places where you feel closer to other worlds. It is beautifully written as I have come to expect with all of her books, she has immensely powerful prose. Even though it is about the dead, it not morbid at all, rather she is curious about the past and the relics that we leave to remember someone.

Along the Amber Route by C.J. Schüler

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Amber has captivated people for the past 12,000 years. The golden coloured fossilised tree resins were first made into beads in the Neolithic time and have been highly sought after ever since. The lumps of amber can be cut and polished and turned into beautiful jewellery. Because of its value it has been highly sought after and as it doesn’t weight much it has been easy to transport for trade.

Since the Roman times, there has been a route from the north of Europe that bought this precious material from the beaches of the Baltic Sea all the way down to the Mediterranean. This is the beginning of a 2500 kilometre journey that will take him from the northern shores of Europe where a lot of the amber can be picked off the beaches of the Baltic Sea if you have sharp enough eyes to spot it.

Heading along the Baltic Coast, he passes through the countries of Estonia, Latvia, briefly into Russia and then Lithuania. While he is that far north, he has a go at finding it on those beaches though takes a sharp eye and after spending a little while looking, Schüler gets his eye in and finds his first piece, a cylinder about the size of a fingernail that still had an impression of the bark of the tree it came from 50 million years ago.

While in Russia he goes to visit the Amber Room in the Catherin Palace in St Petersburg. This is a replica of the original room which was looted in World War II and taken to Königsberg. It was thought to have been damaged when bombed, but there were rumours that it might have survived. This magnificent room glows in the light.

Turning inland the journey takes him to Poland next. There are two main routes here that archaeological evidence suggests could have been in use at the same time. He is bowled over by the amber collection in Marienburg which has pieces that go back to 2000bc but the centrepiece is the Renaissance and Baroque collections. In the Czech Republic, he heads to the town of Olomouc where he is hoping to find more amber in the museum.

Just over the border into Hungary, he is in the city of Sopron to visit the city museum in Fabricius House where they have some finely carved amber which showed that the raw amber that had headed south would work its way back north as finished pieces. His journey is almost at an end as he approaches southern Europe, where there are still people creating jewellery from amber.

I really liked this book following alongside Schüler down the Amber Route. It was good to read about very different parts of Europe than I usually do. Woven throughout the book is his own personal family history, of relatives who survived the holocaust in the second world war and tribute to those that tragically didn’t. Coupled with that is a fascinating history over 2000 years of the people and places that were obsessed with this precious material. If there was one tiny flaw, I would have liked to have had some photos included of the places that he visits.

This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay

4 out of 5 stars

Adam Kay had come from a family of medics, so becoming a doctor was inevitable. He knew some of what he was going to have to do as a junior doctor, but he didn’t quite realise how much doing that job would take out of him. This book is the diary that he kept of his time working on the maternity ward.

Naturally, he has changed names and significant details to anonymise the events, but what he recounts here dealing with the general public is very very funny at times!

There are sad moments too, which you are naturally going to get in any hospital that is caring for any really ill people.

There are times when he brushes off near-death moments as a seasoned pro and other times when he needs to sit a cry for an hour having not being able to help a particular individual. Just when you think that you have heard it all, then comes another person in with an object inserted literally where the sun doesn’t shine. The funniest one was the candle…

He is an eloquent writer who is not scared to get angry about things when it comes to the NHS. I do feel that the whole system is broken if they are having to push doctors to the point where they can make life-changing mistakes. This is an NHS that has been worn down by successive governments and just at the moment where we have a pandemic hit us it is at its lowest point.

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