March 2021 TBR

Blink and February has gone. I didn’t feel as long as January did. I think that the lengthening days helps. This time of year always makes me think of one of my favourite Kathleen Jamie quote:

Every year, in the third week of February, there is a day, or more usually a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky.

And it is true. You can sense the days getting longer, but then all of a sudden the days seem full of light and the promise of summer. If you haven’t read her books by the way, you really should do so. Anyway, you’re hopefully here about the books. Here is my totally ambitious plan for the books that I am intending on reading in March. I have split them into categories as usual, it helps me get my head around all the books that I am wanting to read.

Finishing Off (Still!)

The Marsh Arabs – Wilfred Theisger

Mrs Moreau’s Warbler How Birds Got Their Names – Stephen Moss

Lotharingia: A Personal History Of Europe’s Lost Country – Simon Winder

A Reed Shaken By The Wind: Travels Among The Marsh Arabs Of Iraq – Gavin Maxwell

Return To The Marshes – Gavin Young

BLOG TOUR

The Notebook – Tom Cox

Review Copies

Wyntertide – Andrew Caldecot

In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate The World – Simon Garfield

Stroke: A 5% Chance of Survival – Ricky Monhan Brown

The First of Everything: A History of Human Invention, Innovation and Discovery – Stewart Ross

Behind the Enigma: The Authorized History of GCHQ, Britain’s Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency – John Ferris

Astral Travel – Elizabeth Baines

The Germans and Europe: A Personal Frontline History -Peter Millar

Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society – Ronald J. Deibert

Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit – Philip Stephens

Like Fado – Graham Mort

Million-Story City: The Undiscovered Writings of Marcus Preece – Marcus Preece (Malu Halasa & Aura Saxén Editors)

How to be Sad: Everything I’ve learned about getting happier, by being sad, better – Helen Russell

Touring the Land of the Dead – Maki Kashimada Tr. Haydn Trowell

Barn Club: A Tale of Forgotten Elm Trees, Traditional Craft and Community Spirit – Robert Somerville

The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st-Century Technology? – Tracey Follows

Finding True North: The Healing Power of Place – Linda Gask

Hyphens Hashtags*: *The stories behind the symbols on our keyboard – Claire Cock-Starkey

 

Library

A Beginner’s Guide To Japan: Observations And Provocations – Pico Iyer

Constellations: Reflections From Life – Sinéad Gleeson

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time – Anna Sherman

Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are – Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Road Trip – Paul Theroux

 

Books to Clear

Our Kind of Traitor- John Le Carré

Symbols: A Universal Language- Joseph Piercy

So Long, See You Tomorrow- William Maxwell

 

Poetry

Desert Air: Arabia, Deserts And The Orient Of The Imagination- Ed. Barnaby Rogerson

Springlines – Clare Best and Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis

 

Challenge Books

From Rome to San Marino: A Walk in the Steps of Garibaldi- Oliver Knox

Hokkaido Highway Blues- Will Ferguson

 

Stanford Award

Without Ever Reaching the Summit- Paolo Cognetti

The Border – A Journey Around Russia: Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, … Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage- Erika Fatland Tr. Kari Dickson

Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul- Taran Khan

Travelling While Black- Nanjala Nyabola

Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl- Jonathan C. Slaght

 

Science Fiction

None this month; have you not seen all the books above ^^^

That is quite some list. There are a moderate number of shorter books, which will help, but still…

 

The Lost Orchard by Raymond Blanc

3 out of 5 stars

There is something quite magical about orchards. The most impressive that I have been to is the one at Brogdale in Kent. Not only is it vast, but the work that they do on fruit varieties benefits us all. My favourite orchard is the little community one in Bridport tucked away behind the houses and alongside the church; you’re not far from the road, but it is still a little haven of tranquillity. I would love to have enough land to have space for one, but I have to make doo with the half dozen or so trees that we have at home.

Another man who has dreamt of having his own orchard, is Raymond Blanc. He has fortunately been in a position to be able to do just that. At his award-winning hotel-restaurant in Oxfordshire, he has been able to just do that. He currently has about 2500 trees planted there, including ancient and forgotten varieties of British apples and pears, as well as 600 or so French varieties as well. On top of that, he has walnut trees, quince, medlars, apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums, damsons and cherries. It provides him with over 30 tonnes of fruit each year.

In this book, he has picked a number of his favourite varieties to write about and to cook with. There is a page on each type with a little history, some growing notes. He has also cooked each apple variety in three ways, puree, baked and in a Tarte Tatin. For the other fruits, he has chosen other cooking methods as well as tasting them raw.

It is really nicely produced book, full of black and white sketches and a smattering of colour photos. He is selecting a lot of the varieties that he is picking on the basis of their flavour, he is a cook after all. He quite often would be grading the apples and saying that he had picked them at the wrong time, and would be wondering of they would be better if picked at the correct time. Well, yes they probably would… I would have liked to have seen more photos of his orchard. Not a bad book overall. If you want to read more about orchards, I’d recommend, The Apple Orchard by Pete Brown and the Common Ground Book Of Orchards.

The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes

3.5 out of 5 stars

It is 2008 and the rise and fall of the beast that was the Celtic tiger has left devastation and recession in its wake. One family that has been affected by it are the Blacks. They live on a farm in County Roscommon and the investments that they made while the markets were on the up have gone sour, whilst the people that they have invested with seem to have survived, they are holding the losses.

The family are Manus or Chief as he is better known, his wife, Nora and their sons, Cormac and Hart. There is a tension between the brothers as they both have affections for the same girl. Cormac has managed to escape to the city and university and Hart is seen as the natural successor to take over the farm. That moment is approaching soon though as Manus falls ill. He knows he is dying and springs a request onto the brothers that will place them in an untenable position…

In amongst all the bleakness and tension of the story though there is dry humour. I think that some of the subtleties of the plot washed over me, it harks back to the time when the Irish were oppressed and had to flee from their homeland, but set in the context of a small family facing a challenging time. She has a beautiful way of writing though, and even though it covers some challenging plot tropes, it was a pleasure to read.

Eating for England by Nigel Slater

4 out of 5 stars

The British have always had a strange relationship with food, if you don’t believe me have a look here. There are smells that just the whiff of can bring the memories from childhood rushing back, whether it is nail varnish and the hint of pear drops or the sulphurous odour of cabbage from school dining rooms. Gone are the days when food is seen as fuel only and we have passed through the celebrity chef phase, the growth of farmers markets and are now at a point where we have a small, if slightly elitist, food culture.

Slater has some strong opinions on all things to do with food, from the buying, preparing, eating and observations on how others consume the things that they eat. He has selected over 200 subjects that are as wide-ranging as fudge, mustard, toast, after eight mints and spangles and written either a couple of paragraphs or a short passage on each.

These short sharp essays are all food-focused and are full of bone dry humour and razor-sharp insights. We have been getting better at foodie related things than we ever were, but there are still some habits that are utterly unique to this country such as rhubarb and custard, Fray Bentos and midget gems.

Curly, golden brown, not unlike a hobbit’s toenails yet so obviously of the pig, scratching have a following all over the Midlands that could almost be described as fanatical.

There were several times that I found myself laughing at his pithy observations. It did occasionally feel a bit repetitive, I am not sure how many musings I read about toast in one form or other, but As ever his writing is a joy. It there was one flaw, I personally would have liked them grouped into themed sections rather than scattered all over the place.

The Actuality by Paul Braddon

4 out of 5 stars

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

Evie has a comfortable life in the luxury penthouse flat that she lives in with her husband, Matthew. She is fortunate to have a garden on the roof too otherwise after it would have come too oppressive. They have a live-in assistant called Daniels who helps in all sorts of ways around the place. They have been married for 40 years now and yet Evie still looks around 21 years old. This is because she is a near-perfect bioengineered human. This android type was declared illegal many years ago and if it was to become known that she still exists, then there are plenty of corporations that would want to use her to learn how she is made.

The world that they live in is very different from our own, it is after climate change has savaged people lives and the post-apocalyptical Britain is much colder after the Gulf Stream stopped, there has been a collapse in the birth rate, the food chain has been decimated the very fabric of the society that we know has been shattered. The police force is there to protect the wealthy from the poor and if you have money, you live in your own bubble away from the misery outside.

Her comfortable world comes to an abrupt end one day, a hova car drops down into her garden with the intention of capturing her and taking her for the reward that is offered. She resists capture, but she knows that she must flee to evade capture. She and Daniels head to Cambridge where there is a cottage that they can stay in while they decide what to do next. It is while in the city that she becomes aware that there is another of her kind around, but he is imprisoned behind glass. The authorities are on their tail though and they have barely been there before it is time to move on and see if they make it to Europe. The race to evade capture is on…

Braddon has written a fast-paced science fiction thriller with a fully believable plot. The main character, Evie feel fully developed, but the others that she interacts with feel a little two dimensional. I really liked the world that he has created in this book, his dystopian future, 100 years on from now, is utterly different to our own and feels both plausible and utterly terrifying at the same time. I thought that there were a couple of inconsistencies in some of the tiny details, but that was not enough to stop me from enjoying this book.

Red Sands by Caroline Eden

4.5 out of 5 stars

The title of the book takes its name from the vast Kyzylkum desert that is spread between the rivers of Amu Darya and Syr Darya. It crosses the boundaries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The five states that make up the Central Asian region used to be swallowed up by the red opaqueness that was the USSR and now are separated into Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Whilst there are formal borders between them, there are regions that still flow across these man-made lines that follow customs, food and culture. It was whilst stopping at a café for a memorable lunch of shashlik, bread, onion and melon between the cities of Burkara and Khiva that the idea for this book formed.

Her journey starts in the spring on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the town of Aktau. It feels slightly lawless being located a fair way from the capital. She didn’t want to eat where the monied people head too rather she wanted to discover for herself the more homely food available in the town. The food was superb and the bill was small; it was a good start to her culinary travels in the region. She heads out to the dark oily hear of Kazakhstan passing nodding donkeys that bring wealth to the country and onto an underground mosque that people stop in on a pilgrimage to Beket-Ata. She leaves her donation of food and they get back on the road to continue their journey. She finds the kitchen and questions the chefs about what is bubbling in the cauldrons.

This sets the tone of the books. She moves from place to place, drinking tea whilst meeting the locals. She shelters from the rain in and shares food in a home dripping with heirlooms, watching café owners spraying water over courtyards in the vain hope of suppressing the relentless dust. The architecture is as bleak as the desert at times, but she is really here for the food. She is fortunate to be asked to a wedding, heads to what sounds like an amazing forest in search of walnuts, she swims in a lake alongside a military sanatorium and admires the plov platters in the workshop that they are made.

Inside the walls of the clay tandoor were roundels of non bread, each one slowly baking and expanding until golden on top, chewy in the middle and crispy underneath. What smell in the world is more innocent, more primevally reassuring, than that of bread? No smell. Nothing is more soothing than the scent of bread.

This is a wonderful book, it is a sumptuous and heady mix of food, travel and reportage and it just works perfectly all together. She is a sensitive and curious traveller, seeking to tease out the stories that normal people have to tell her about the lives that they lead. Not only can you read about the places, but the recipes that are scattered liberally throughout mean that you can bring some of those flavours and smells into your home. Like Black Sands, the cover on this is just gorgeous and the photos taken in the locations are stunning too. Another fantastic book from Eden.

Saving The World by Paola Diana

4 out of 5 stars

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

Being born into a very traditional Italian family where her father was in charge of making all the decisions and the money. She grew up being told that everything her brother did was always right and that she was good when she followed her father’s wishes and bad when she dared to criticise or go against his wishes. She was fortunate that she wasn’t born in Southern Italy where it was stricter again.

It was this upbringing that made her a feminist from an early age; she abhorred the injustice of the discrimination against her purely because of her gender with no logical reason behind it. It would be the driving force that gave her a degree in political science and the desire to study the history behind the oppression of women.  It is that same drive that has given us this book about how she thinks that women should and can take over the world.

In justifying her arguments she takes us on a whirlwind tour through the area that she thinks that women can make a significant difference. Beginning with diplomacy, an art that is often subject to much animosity and posturing between men, she tells us some of the stories where women have been appointed to these roles and the success they have had. Not being afraid of controversy, her second chapter is on religion and how the myriad of rules and regulations have been used to repress women over time.

Women have long been expected to do the most tedious and menial of jobs for the home and at the workplace. In here, Diana argues that women need to gain more control of their lives through work by pushing for their rights and getting more economic independence. The way to do this is to ensure that all girls have equal rights to education and these things will follow in due course. She also says that we need to get more women into STEM careers. Not only do these pay better, but we as a global society need their perspective on solving technological problems in the coming years.

Whilst women have more rights and freedoms in Western countries, in other parts of the world they still are suffering from oppression. She writes about women who suffer in Albania, how New Delhi in India is the rape capital of the world and how in China a lot of pregnancies are terminated when they find it is a girl. She includes a list of some of the cruelties that women suffer across the world. In parts of Africa, genital mutilation is still carried out. She writes about how women across the world must support those that are still seen as minority or second class citizens. There is a chapter about how far we have come in the UK, but also how far we still have to go.

Gender equality is starting to move higher up the agenda in some places, but in a lot of the world, it isn’t even on the agenda. In this book, Diana argues that we need to make it a priority to help those that aren’t even enjoying the benefits that some of their compatriots are. It is an interesting book and I must say that I agree with a lot of what she had to say. The writing is plain and straightforward if a little clipped at times, but she wants to get across her points as efficiently as she can. Definitely worth a read.

The Mahogany Pod by Jill Hopper

4 out of 5 stars

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

The decorator was going to be there in a few days and she had to clear and tidy the study. The tiny box room had just enough room for a desk, a bookcase and an armchair, but it was the room where things that never had a proper home ended up. The plan is to decorate, change the carpet and after making an effort to keep it tidy and usable. As she is removing the books from the top shelf her hand touches something at the back that is nestling among the dust. It has the texture of dried leather and the seeds within rattle as she picks it up.

It is a mahogany pod and the memories of Arif, who gave it to her just before he died of cancer, crash back into her mind like a tsunami.

She has found it a few days before the anniversary of his death and decides to pay his grave a visit. Soon after she is settling into a train seat as it leaves Paddington, off to Oxford. It has been twenty-three years since she saw him. Her grief overwhelming means that she only remembers fragments from the day of the funeral and standing here again opens that raw emotion once again. Her fingers are going numb in the cold and she knows that she has spent enough time there today. It is time to head home. Sitting at the dinner table later, she has no words for her feelings.

The following morning find finds the shoebox of letters and photos tucked away in the loft. The dust makes her cough, but on lifting the lid, there is a hint of the aftershave that he used from the bottle in there and she begins to sift through the letters from their shared past. It takes her back to the time that she lived on the island of Osney, a place a stone’s throw from the centre of Oxford and a watery place of tranquillity. It bought back memories of the happy times spent in the house there. She was renting a house and had some rooms spare for others to rent and this was when she first met Arif.

She still had a boyfriend at that point, but the relationship was starting to founder. Kevin, Kate, Arif and herself all got on really well as housemates, sharing chores, going to the Watermans Arms and cooking for each other. After she splits with her current boyfriend, they realise that not only do they have lots of common interests but they also have feelings for each other. As the relationship intensifies, there is bad news, the cancer that he thought was cured of, is back.

This is a heart-wrenching account of her relationship with Arif and its tragic ending. But there is much more to it than this, it is also her story of finding answers to questions that at the age of twenty-three, she didn’t know she needed answers too at the time. It is a very personal journey that will take her to plant hunting at Kew Gardens and back to Oxford to make peace with the grief of her past. Most of all this is Jill’s fitting eulogy to Arif’s brief but intensely full life.

How Britain Ends by Gavin Esler

4 out of 5 stars

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

There is a meme on the internet that showing which parts of the country comprise the alternative names for these islands; Great Britain, The British Isles, The United Kingdom. It was meant as a humorous guide for those trying to work out how this little part of the globe could have so many names depending on how you wanted to understand it. But in that humour is a serious question as to the makeup of our country and the fundamental laws that have held us together and the possible futures we have with the rise of English nationalism.

To answer the question; where are we going and how are we going to get there, is pretty complicated. The lack of a written constitution means that where other countries have clear and unequivocal limits and can work within them, we have a jumble of partly submerged laws and precedents that define who we are. In this murky definition of our country, there are very few people who actually know their way around it and the implications of any form of splintering following Brexit.

One man who is attempting to answer this question is Gavin Esler. He has lived in all the capital cities of the nations that make up our country and in his role as a journalist, he is well placed to ask the probing questions about the state of the state. To learn about how we got to where we are at the moment, first you need to understand our particular and peculiar history. Since the Normans invaded almost 1000 years ago, we have had a strong feudal society, it has been eroded to a certain extent and there have been some power transfers from crown to other positions, but the fundamental principles that existed then still exist now if you know where to look in our state structures. We have seconded the other nations in our Isles to be part of the union and whilst there have always been some separation and nationalistic elements in each of the individual countries, we have managed to stay and for the past 400 years have (mostly) acted as one country.

That started to change in 2014 though with the Scottish Independence Referendum and it was won narrowly by those wishing to remain a part of the Union. Part of what helped that was the promise that the UK would remain part of the EU. Two years later, partly as a response to the rise of UKIP in local elections and to placate a section of the Conservative party that had lurched to the right, the Prime Minister of the time called a Referendum about our place in the EU. We voted to leave by the narrow margin of 52% versus 48% and from that moment on the union was under threat. In Esler’s eyes, this was the point where the rise of English nationalism became a real threat to the union rather than just a low-level concern.

In this book, he lays out the reason behind why he thinks English nationalism has more of a chance of breaking up the UK than previous attempts by Welsh, Irish and Scottish nationalists. He looks at how the Conservative have moved further to the right and to a greater extent have tried to absorb the votes that previously went to UKIP and have co-opted nationalism as well as taking deep draughts from the poisoned well that is nostalgia. They are not huge fans of devolved power to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, and they have been seeking ways that they are trying to recover some of the powers that have been lost. The concentration of power in Westminster is quite acute, and what happens there feels remote and irrelevant to most people outside of the London bubble, where being able to make decisions that are relevant at a local level are important to a lot of people. It feels like a democratic deficit and it isn’t going away.

He has some sensible suggestion on how we can avoid what is feeling inevitable at the moment, including repairing some of the damage done by Brexit, reforms and more devolution of power to the individual nations. It all seems sensible and rational stuff coming from a guy who has no political axe to grind too.

This is not an easy book to like, it is not an easy subject after all, but I thought that the way that Esler has laid out the book and sought to find a deep understanding as to how and why we have reached this point in our collective nation’s history has been well written and thought through. Might not be the most comfortable of reads for some people, but that seems a good reason to read it.

Botanical Curses and Poisons by Fez Inkwright

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Botanical Curses and Poisons by Fez Inkwright and published by Liminal 11

About the Book

Discover the folklore and history of our most toxic plants through this beautifully produced, gorgeously illustrated compendium.

“If you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison,’ it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland  In both history and fiction, some of the most dramatic, notorious deaths have been through poisonings. Concealed and deliberate, it’s a crime that requires advance planning and that for many centuries could go virtually undetected. And yet there is a fine line between healing and killing: the difference lies only in the dosage! In Botanical Curses and Poisons, Fez Inkwright returns to folkloric and historical archives to reveal the fascinating, untold stories behind a variety of lethal plants, witching herbs, and funghi. Going from A to Z, she covers everything from apple (think of the poisoned fruit in “Snow White”) and the hallucinogenic angel’s trumpet to laurel, which emits toxic fumes, to oleander (a deadly ornamental shrub), with each plant beautifully illustrated by the author herself. This enthralling treasury is packed with insight, lore, and the revealed mysteries of everyday flora—including the prevalence of poisoning in ancient Rome, its use in religion and magic, and common antidotes—making this perfect for gardeners, writers, folklorists, witches, and scientists alike!

About the Author

Fez Inkwright is an illustrator, author and folklorist. Her greatest passions are botany, nature, primitive religions, and folklore, which flavour most of her work. For the past eight years she has produced work for children’s books, hand-drawn maps and tattoo design and now spends her time indulging in conservation work and writing. She lives in Bristol with two cats and several hundred bees.

My Review

At a fundamental level, we are all sustained by plants, either from the oxygen they supply or from the food they can provide or by using them to build shelters. But we would be foolish to think of them as passive lifeforms that can accept being munched by any passing animal. They have developed sophisticated defences to stop them from disappearing down the gullet of a herbivore. These defences can vary from the spiked leaves, sour-tasting stems all the way to the utterly lethal parts of some plants that can kill an animal in a short space of time.

People have learnt the very hard way over time immemorial which plants are safe and which are deadly. People have used this plant knowledge too for all sorts of nefarious dealings too, planning a murder using the poisons from a plant requires careful and deliberate preparation. Yet some of these plants have a very grey line between medicine and toxin and knowing what plant is capable of what normally needs an expert.

Some of these I know from childhood, I remember being told very sternly that I must never ever touch the glistening berries of the Deadly Nightshade that I used to see growing down the lane near my house. I grew to learn which plants could hurt when you fell off your bike into them and even contemplating touching a mushroom was forbidden. Thankfully in this beautiful book by Fez Inkwright, the knowledge of which plants to avoid has been brought bang up to date.

It is an A to Z list and begins with the most unlikely of fruits, the apple. It is here for good reason though, the pips in every apple contain cyanide. There is not enough in any apple that you are eating to be deadly, however, it has been found that it could leech out when apples are crushed to make cider. The apple has been used in literature to represent a deadly fruit as well as having associations with the dead and various enchantments. It is not the only fruit I here, there are sections about sloes and the blackthorn, peppers and walnuts. There are plants that I expected to find within, such as hellebore, wolfsbane and hemlock.

Unexpected additions to this list were plants such as broad beans, hydrangea, willow and even basil. There are some truly deadly additions to this list including one that is highly restricted under the terrorism act in the UK. As well as the plants that will make your life much shorter and painful, Inkwright has included plants that have been used in folklore to curse others, such as elder, hellebore and willow.

As grim as its subject material is, Inkwright has written a fascinating book on this subject. I have read other weighty tomes on plant folklore, and whilst it isn’t as comprehensive as some others, it is well written and full of fascinating details and anecdotes. A lot of that knowledge in here has been lost as the current generation has retreated to stare at the screens that dominate our lives now days. Definitely worth reading for those that have a passing interest in the subject and has more depth (and a decent bibliography) for those that were to explore this subject more.  There is also a poison garden that is up in Northumbria (here) for those that want to really get to know their subject.

 

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour

Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here

My thanks to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for the copy of the book to read.

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