Bitter Almonds by Mary Taylor Simeti & Maria Grammatico

3 out of 5 stars

This is an eye-opening personal history of a girl who grew up in a convent on Sicily after her mother realised that she couldn’t afford to bring her and sister, Angela up after their father passed on so they were passed to the orphanage, Istituto San Carlo. Sicily at the time was just beginning a slow recovery after the war and life there was tough, people scratched a living and there was a high rate of mortality too.

In this place, she learnt the secrets of the sweets that were prepared for the numerous religious festivals. They would rise before dawn to begin the day’s work and spend hours each day beating a rolling the sugar and almond mix to make the exquisite pastries. These would be sold to the general public through a small grille in the wall of San Carlo.

The skills that she learnt whilst there were to stand her in good stead when she emerged at the age of 22. She set up her own shop selling these pastries as well as cakes, biscotti and lots of other sweet delights. The reputation of the pasticceria grew and people flocked to buy the wares. Mary Taylor Simeti was one of those customers and as they became friends she realised that Maria Grammatico had a unique story to tell

She has a hard but simple life and this is an insight into a Sicily that was long gone. As a plus, half of the book is a wonderful collection of recipes too which made me very hungry reading them. I am off to Sicily soon and whilst we might not make it here, I am hoping to try some of the wonderful things found in a pasticceria.

Second Life by Karl Tearney

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Second Life by Karl Tearney and published by Fly on the Wall Press.

 

About the Book

 

As a newcomer to poetry and writing Karl has made quite an impact with his succinct and thought-provoking style. Encouraged by Emma Willis MBE after he’d sent her a thank you poem, Karl’s work has been coveted by many. His work has included appearances at festivals and readings around the country. He is hugely passionate about encouraging other sufferers of mental issues to look toward the Arts as a means of therapy.

 

About the Author

 

Karl Tearney enlisted into the British Army at 16 and dedicated 35 years of his life as a pilot in the Army Air Corps. He was medically retired in early 2016 and found great solace in writing and especially a new-found passion for poetry. The demand for his style of writing has led to National and local Television as well as Radio. In 2018, he was a panellist at the Hay literature festival, helped with a Poetry workshop at RADA and also exhibited some of his work at the ‘Art in the Aftermath’ Exhibition in Pall Mall.

 

My Review

There are stressful jobs and then there are jobs that are another level above that. Being in the army on operational service is one of those. Tearney was in the flying core in Northern Ireland and then Bosnia. On tour, he saw things that still haunt him even today. He had been coping, but it turns out it was just that he had been suppressing the pain within and after uncontrollable sobbing at work was admitted to hospital for treatment. It worked to a point, but it was only when he began to write, and write poems in particular that some of that internal tension began to release.  This collection is his first but it follows on from many appearances where he has shared his work with others.

This collection has been separated into three themed sections, My Mental Mind, Love and finally Moments. And they are raw and honest. Some poems are lighter in tone than others, and some are very bleak indeed as he confronts the demons within. He changes the pace of the poems, moving from a regular four-line pattern to others that are dense blocks of text to others that are a brief, but intense two-line cry. I liked the way that he has used language in his search for relief from his PTSD, and through that has helped himself and many others in one way or another.

Favourite Poems

The Tiny Door

Coffin

Coastal Path

Fog

Summer 1943

 

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 or direct from the publisher, here.

 

My thanks to Fly on the Wall Press and Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for the copy of the book to read.

Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy

4 out of 5 stars

I can still vividly remember the time we in the West first heard about a nuclear accident behind the Iron Curtain. Reports were appearing about a massive rise in radiation with denials from European states and a collective finger pointing to an accidental release somewhere in the USSR. At the height of the cold war, very little was confirmed on denied by the Soviets, but pressure built on the Kremlin and they began to reveal details of just what had happened in the Ukraine. It wasn’t an accidental release of a small amount of radiation that flowed across northern Europe, rather it was the aftermath of a reactor exploding at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.

And it could have been so much worse.

What exactly happened on that fateful night of 26 April 1986 when at 1.23am the reactor exploded has never been fully known. The Soviets didn’t even release any details for a few days until pressure from around the world with the overwhelming evidence meant that they couldn’t do anything else but reveal the problem. Even then details were still sketchy and cold hard facts were very rare, not helped by the endemic secrecy and paranoia of the USSR. Slowly though, the facts surfaced and it was realised just how close we were to a European wide environmental catastrophe.

What actually happened all those years ago though? Thankfully Serhii Plokhy has been trawling the recently opened archives in search of the truth, finding out who was blamed and who actually was a fault for the disaster. He covers the flaws in the design or the reactor and the powerplay between the Kremlin and KGB as some scientists tried to tell the truth to the world. We hear the stories of those who gave their lives to stop it getting any worse and about the families who had almost no notice before they were told to leave the rapidly created exclusion zone.

At times it reads like a thriller, in particular, the event of that night and the schemes that they were using to contain the radiation and stop further explosions. Other time the narrative slows as you follow the convoluted and inept officials who seem more concerned with ensuring their arses were covered. He takes a wider look at the history of the region too, linking the events here to the eventual collapse of the  Soviet state and the splintering into separate Eastern block countries and how the Ukrainians have been behind the eco movement in the former block. Occasionally I got a little bogged down with all the people involved but apart from that this is an excellent modern history of a nuclear disaster.

The Girl Aquarium by Jen Campbell

3.5 out of 5 stars

I have been following Jen Campbell on various social media channels for years. On those channels, she has been a massive advocate for poetry, regular showing the slim volumes that she gets from publishers and buys herself. She has also presented videos on  where to start amongst many others

Even though she has been published before, this is her first full collection. It is full of poems that have personal elements and things that matter to her that she seeks to wrestle into a linguistic framework of a poem. All of them are full of whimsy and the poems swirl with light and dark elements depending on the subject.

I always wondered why a lass would stand on a hillside

With her arms spread wide like she’s reaching for the world

I have read her three bookshop based books which were are all brilliant, and thought I would give this a go as the library had a copy and I am trying to read more poetry. Overall I liked this, the mix of styles and formats worked well and I liked the use of poems written in the Geordie dialect. I didn’t get everyone though and had some that I liked much more than others.

Three favourite Poems:

Movement

Swimmin

Birdlasses

All Together Now? by Mike Carter

5 out of 5 stars

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

Thirty-eight years ago a guy called Pete Carter organised a protest march. Called the People’s March for Jobs, there were around 300 people who walked from Liverpool to London to protest about the Tory government policies pushed through by Thatcher and that had devastated the industrial heartlands of the north. Carter was a communist and fantastic orator and he could inspire the people that joined him on the march. Mike was 17 at the time and had left school and Pete, his father has asked him if he wanted to join them. He didn’t because of the history between them, rather he chose his own direction in life.

It was after Pete had died and they were sorting through his effects, he found a mug that commemorated the march in a box with letters and other things. Realising it was approaching 35 years since it had taken place he booked time off work and decided to walk the same route. Partly it was to see if he could understand his dad and partly to take the pulse of the country just before the 2016 referendum. He would see if he could find some of those that walked the march the first time too. He booked his one-way train ticket to Liverpool.

His walk would take him from there to Warrington, onto Manchester and then to Macclesfield. Other towns he walks through include Stoke-on-Trent, Birmingham, Coventry and then through the northern Home Counties. He stops to talk to as many people as he can, explaining the reasons why he is following the same route as the original marchers 35 years ago. He tells those who will listen to him, why he is doing it and asks how people are going to be voting in the up and coming referendum. He notes that the price of a pint seems to rise a penny each mile he gets nearer to London. It is also a walk back through his past too, as he revisits his tempestuous relationship that he and his sister had with his father. Some of the people he meets up with on his walk knew his father and were with him on the original march. They had a very different view of the man than he did.

The answers to his questions are quite eye-opening, not only in the way that people were intending on voting but also as a damming indictment of decades of Tory policy that left people in the former industrial heartlands without jobs or a future. Almost all of the reasons that his father originally organised the march in 1981 were still valid today. The only thing missing now is hope, as these people have been the casualties of the neo-liberal policies. All of this injustice makes Carter seethe with fury and that comes across as he pours his frustrations and passion into the writing of this book. He is open and honest about the problems that he had with his father throughout out his life and tries to understand what drove his father to be the person he was and goes some way to reconciliation with the memories that he had of him. All of these things combined are what make this such a good book and an essential read on the political health of our country.

Dent’s Modern Tribes by Susie Dent

4 out of 5 stars

I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member. – Groucho Marx.

Becoming a member of a club has benefits, exclusive access to people and ideas, acknowledgement of a certain point in your life. With that though comes an inside knowledge too. This is also replicated with professions too, that if you become a cabbie, or a barista or undertaker that you learn the tricks of the trade and most importantly the language too.

In this exploration of the language of tribes, Dent has spent hours interviewing people from a complete variety of professions, from the armed forces and police, butchers, bankers, cabin crew and even some of the most secretive the masons and the spooks. But there are others too, so we will learn how the meaning of the words that skateboarders use, how to sound like you know what you are talking about when you’re at a rave, or if you prefer your dancing to be a little more leisurely the terms that you will need to use when Morris Dancing.

In this book, Dent uncovers all sorts of words and phrases that you wouldn’t normally hear in day to day life and if you did hear them, you wouldn’t get the meaning. There are some great insults in here too, so if you want to know what a camper, funt or a who an organ donor is, then you need to read this book.

Wainwright Prize 2019

On Sunday I finished the last of the 13 books on this year’s Wainwright Prize Longlist. There are some cracking books on there covering subjects as diverse as gulls to moles, wild swimming and gipsy parking places. London features twice with sexual adventures in Epping Forrest and ghost trees in Poplar and there are two books on what is happening to our wildlife and the possibilities of what might happen if we change. We head under the sea to Doggerland and deep beneath the surface in Underland. Unusually there is a fiction book on the longlist, however, Lanny is a disturbing read but closely linked to the pagan landscape that we can still see if we look. Lastly, there is a book on the pleasures of walking and another about the loss of coastal landscape on the east coast of Britain.

There were a few surprises on this list, and I think that it was missing some that I read and really enjoyed last year, for example, Under the Rock and The Pull of the River to name but two.

I do not envy the judges selecting the shortlist but it is announced this morning. There is an event tonight at Waterstones Picadilly and I am going to be there. I am really looking forward to meeting the authors and will be taking a small pile of books to be signed too.

Links to all of my reviews are below:

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

Wilding: The Return Of Nature To A British Farm by Isabella Tree

Lanny by Max Porter

Landfill by Tim Dee

Time Song: Searching For Doggerland by Julia Blackburn

Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? by Mark Cocker

How To Catch A Mole And Find Yourself In Nature by Marc Hamer

The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain by Damian Le Bas

Thinking On My Feet by Kate Humble

Wild Woman Swimming by Lynne Roper

Out of the Woods by Luke Turner

The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland

Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish by Bob Gilbert

My favourites on the list are, Wilding, Landfill, Underland and Our Place. Closely followed by Lanny and Wild Woman Swimming.

Who do you think is going to be on the shortlist?

Who do you want to be on the shortlist?

July 2019 TBR

This is the second time that I have put forward a TBR for the coming month as the last one seemed to go down well. Some of the review copies and Wishful thinking are the same as last time as I ended up reading the five on the Wainwright longlist that I hadn’t yet read. There are quite a few library books to read too, as these are reaching the end of their renewal phase. Probably not going to get to all of those. I know I am not going to get to all of these, I only managed 17 last month in the end, but aiming to make a serious indent into the list below

Blog Tours 

Second Life – Karl Tearney

Library Books

The Stolen Bicycle by Ming-Yi Wu

Chernobyl: History of A Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy

Untie The Lines: Setting Sail And Breaking Free by Emma Bamford

Cobra In The Bath: Adventures In Less Travelled Lands by Miles Morland

The Edge Of The World: A Cultural History Of The North Sea And The Transformation Of Europe by Michael Pye

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind The Myth Of The Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth

Tweet Of The Day: A Year Of Britain’S Birds From The Acclaimed Radio 4 Series by Brett Westwood & Stephen Moss

Elephant Complex: Travels In Sri Lanka by John Gimlette

White Mountain: Real And Imagined Journeys In The Himalayas by Robert Twigger

Concretopia: A journey around the rebuilding of postwar Britain by John Grindrod

#20BooksOfSummer

In Sicily by Norman Lewis

Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons: Travels in Sicily on a Vespa by Matthew Fort

Sicily: Through the Writers’ Eyes by Horatio Clare

Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood by Mary Taylor Simeti

The March of the Long Shadows by Norman Lewis

Review Books

Limits of the Known by David Roberts

Vickery’s Folk Flora: An A-Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants by Roy Vickery

All Together Now: One Man’s Walk in Search of His Father and a Lost England by Mike Carter

The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds by Stephen Rutt

Sunfall by Jim Al-Khalili

Tempest: An Anthology        Edited by Anna Vaught & Anna Johnson

Still Water: Reflections on the Deep Life of the Pond by John Lewis-Stempel

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: A Lone Trader in the South Pacific by Robert Dean Frisbie

Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

Irreplaceable: The Fight To Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman

The Ancient Woods of the Helford River by Oliver Rackham

Wishful Thinking

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

The House of Islam by Ed Husain

Chasing the Ghost: My Search for all the Wild Flowers of Britain by Peter Marren

Origins: How The Earth Made Us by Lewis Dartnell

Quicksand Tales: The Misadventures Of Keggie Carew by Keggie Carew

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

The Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds

Origins: How The Earth Made Us by Lewis Dartnell

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

When: The Scientific Secrets Of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink

The Good Life: Up the Yukon Without a Paddle by Dorian Amos

A Raindrop in the Ocean: The Extraordinary Life of a Global Adventurer by Michael Dobbs-Higginson

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott

Coasting by Jonathan Raban

Any on there that you have read, or want to read? Let me know in the comments below.

Book Musings – June 2019

Halfway through the year. It seems to go faster Didn’t read quite as many as May but still had a very varied month with regards to the books that I did read. I am not going to do a favourites so far through the year as others are doing, but I am going to do a few stats.

Books Read so far: 108

Male authors: 66

Female authors: 42 (39%)

Review Copies: 54

Library Books: 47

Own Books: 7

Top Five Publishers:

Unbound

Jonathan Cape

Riverrun

Bloomsbury

Simon & Schuster

Top Five Genres:

Travel

Fiction

Science

Natural History

Poetry

I am really pleased to almost reach 40% female authors. in my reading. Having that variety adds further depth to my reading.

Anyway onto the books that I read in June. Dixe Wills is carving himself out a very small genre and Tiny Churches one of his books that have covered subjects as diverse as campsites, islands and stations. Informative and enjoyable and quirky.

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, was a book that my wife spotted in a bookshop one day, and the library had it.  Philippa Perry writes about how we need to learn from what our parents did and improve on it. Our relationships are as good as the effort we put in at the end of the day. Very much focused on new parents, it had a little suitable for my three teenagers.

I rarely read crime fiction, because it is not really my thing. However, Benjamin Myers is another thing. As Rebecca from Bookish Beck says, he could make a shopping list interesting. These Darkening Days is about a series of attached in a northern town and the race to find the perpetrator after one victim is killed. Very good as I have come to expect by Myers.

The Wolfson history prize looks to celebrate the very best in historical non-fiction each year and Trading in War by Margarette Lincoln is her book about London’s docklands in the Age of Cook and Nelson. She has included an immense amount of detail in here and has still made it very readable.

I have been a fan of both Tony Hawk and Tony Hawks for years. The latter has been inundated by fans of the former asking all manner of skateboarding questions, that to put it frankly he is ill equiped to answer. The A to Z of Skateboarding is his slightly (ok very) sarcastic repsonse. Hilarious.

Most people are fed up with the news now days, it is a relentless stream of violence, politics and is just grim. Jodie Jackson  has a different take on it and in You Are What You Read: Why Changing Your Media Diet Can Change the World she advocates taking a very different approach to the way that you consume it.

I love being alongside the sea and this book by Isobel Carlson is a celebration of all things wet, sandy and rocky. Not a bad gift book and has some beautiful photgraphs.

I also managed to read the five on the Wainwright Prize longlist that hadn’t got to.  I have been vaguely aware of Kate Humble via Springwatch but Thinking On My Feet is the first book by her that I have read. In this, she champions taking time each day to get outside and go for a walk and she takes us through a fairly hectic year in her life and the walks that she enjoyed all over the world. Marc Hamer spent a lot of his working life killing moles for people who wanted pristine lawns until one day he decided that he no longer wanted to do it anymore. How To Catch A Mole And Find Yourself In Nature is an exploration of his life being outdoors. It is a really nicely written book.

     

Lynne Roper discovered wild swimming when she was recovering from breast cancer and she swam in the sea, rivers and ponds until she died from a brain tumour. This diary of her favourite swimming was put together by Tanya Shadrick who couldn’t find anyone to publish it, so she formed her own publishing company and it ended up on the Wainwright. I had the privilege of meeting her last week and she is an amazing woman in her own right. People underestimate urban wildlife, thinking that to get that experience in the natural world you need to be in the wilds of Scotland. You don’t and Ghost Trees by Bob Gilbert proves that. He lives in the East End parish of Poplar and he discoveres the wildness that our capital city has evry day of the year. A charming book.

     

My poetry book this month was The Sea That Beckoned by Angela Gabrielle Fabunan. It is an interesting collection exploring those places we’ve sought to call home.

Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer is partly sport and partly travel. In this, she describes her participation in the World’s Wildest Horse Race across the Mongolian Steppe. I am not a big horse person, so initially wasn’t sure on this, but it was a really good read.

I also read a couple of travel books and both walking. Kathryn Barnes does not consider herself a walker, but there was something about the Pacific Trail that appealed. In, The Unlikeliest Backpacker is her story of the walk she undertook with her husband and the characters that she met on the way. I have read a few of Hugh Thomson’s books before, Green Road into the Trees and the excellent, Tequilla Oil. One Man And A Mule is the account of his journey across the North of Britain accompanied by Jethro the Mule and Jasper Winn. It isn’t about the journey though, rather about the people that he meets on the way. Really enjoyable book.

    

I had two books of the month. First up is the magnificent Underland by Robert Macfarlane with his accounts of heading deep underneath the surface of our planet. Secondly is a searingly honest account by Joe Harkness from stepping away from the twisted blanket around his neck and his slow recovery aided by rediscovering his love of bird watching. Bird Therapy is a force for the good that the natural world can bring to our mental health.

    

Ghost Trees by Bob Gilbert

4 out of 5 stars

When you think of wild landscapes the images of great African Plains, or rainforest canopies spring to mind. These are often seen on the fantastic television programmes that the BBC and others produce for us. But the wild landscape is all around us if you know where and when to look. Even in the centre of London, which has lots of trees and parkland, there is wildlife all around. However, the parish of Poplar is not necessarily the first one that springs to mind when you do think of wilderness, it is one of the most deprived in the capital, has rundown areas and also hosts some of the vast sums of money travelling constantly around the world in the financial system.

The area was named after the Black Poplar tree, that used to be common here, but now has vanished. Thankfully there are lots of other trees and wildlife around if you know where to look or have a good guide. Bob Gilbert is that guide. His wife is a vicar in the East End parish and in this book he walks the streets seeking out the native trees and the immigrant plants that came over here when the area was part of London docks and even recent arrivals that are an aspect of that society. Each of these plants has a story behind why it is there, and he teases these out as you go through the book teaching us about the social context and the local history.

I loved the chapters on tracing the Black Ditch, a subterranean river that is under the parish. He is assisted by the artist Amy Sharrocks and they try and locate it by dowsing. There is a chapter where he follows the progress of the plane tree he can see from his home, documenting the changes through the seasons. It proves that natural history writing can be equally rich when it is centred on where you live as it is about the great spectacles of our planet. He takes part in the beating the bounds of the parish too and explains the gossamer-thin threads that link this back to the pagan ceremonies. I have only been to the area once, but my great grandmother was born in Poplar and lived in Stebondale Street, but this lyrical account makes me want to go and see it for myself.

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