Author: Paul (page 1 of 100)

Cobra in the Bath by Miles Moreland

2 out of 5 stars

Miles Morland had an unconventional upbringing. Born to a naval father and a mother who was described as the most dangerous woman in India, he was only with them both for a short while before they divorced. He ended up in Iran with his mother and were there until the Shah was overthrown. They ended up in Iraq and ended up leaving there in a rush after a revolution.

Having grown up with deserts he was sent back to the UK to attend boarding school. He somehow survived this and ended up at Oxford where he rowed mostly. After there he ended up in Greece where he took pains to do as little as he could get away with. But the real world beckoned and a city job was forthcoming. In his time he became one of the biggest investors in African markets.

Having seen some of the world when he was younger, he had a yearning to see more of it and he stopped at a motorcycle showroom on the way home and bought a bike. A steep learning curve on riding it, allowed him to indulge himself with trips away and he ended up in South America, Australia and a high-risk trip to the subcontinent of India

To say he had an interesting upbringing would be an understatement, that cannot be many who have been exposed to as many different cultures in the way that he was. It gave him that enthusiasm for life in general and his well-paid work meant that he could indulge himself. I picked this up because of the travel element, but this is such a small element of the book. His writing style is quite pompous too which meant that overall it was a bit disappointing for me.

Under The Stars by Matt Gaw

4 out of 5 stars

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

Until the invention of reliable electric light, we relied on poor quality candles or some form of an oil-based lamp. No at the flick of a switch on my wall, I can have more light output from one lamp than most people had in a home 150 years ago. Whilst this saturation of artificial light may have some positive effects, there are also lots of negative ones too, it affects wildlife and migration, our own natural rhythms including sleep are heavily affected and we have also lost sight of one our fantastic natural displays, the night sky.

Matt Gaw wants to rediscover this lost part of our natural world, but his first night out is walking through the snow under a brooding cloudy sky! It has been a while since he has been out watching the sun drop below the horizon, just for the pure pleasure in doing so. As his eyes adjust to the gloaming, he notices that his other senses sharpen to compensate for the lower resolution of his vision. Night has always been a time to do other things, but for the first time, he realises that it is not a gloomy place but full of subtle experiences for the senses.

Buoyed by the success of his first venture outdoors at night he starts to come up with other plans to discover the other half of our day. Realising that he has never seen a moonrise, he heads to the beach at Covehithe to watch it rise one evening and is slightly staggered by the size of the moon as it sits just above the horizon.

When there is a full moon you will see very few stars as the light reflected from the surface washes them from the sky. There is the same problem in cities and towns because of the light pollution, to see the stars properly you need to head to a place with very little human habitation so his next visit is the Galloway Forest. Back in 2009, this became the UK’s first dark sky park. Now there are 62 of them and they are places where the night sky is protected for its scientific, natural, educational and cultural value. In reality, what this means is that you can fully appreciate the majesty of the night sky and the Milky Way and appreciate just how much light is visible from stars millions of light-years away.

This night has also been considered the time when dark things happen. The absence of light turns things that wouldn’t worry us, into disturbing forms. So Gaw decides that the best place to experience this in its most elemental state is up on Dartmoor. This bleak and often inhospitable moor is full of places that have an otherworldly feeling or haunted atmosphere, or gruesome stories and of course, there is the Wisht Hounds, the inspiration for Hound of the Baskervilles. Half the time though he is not sure if the unease is caused by the nefarious presences or the fear of getting lost…

To understand just how much light pollution there is in a city and to see how pervasive it is, he heads into London with his friend, Shaun. They get off the train at Liverpool Street, which in times past, is a place where the curfew bell was tolled. Curfews were bought in by the Norman invaders and people had to be inside and lights extinguished. There was a safety aspect to this, but it is thought that they were primarily to minimise political rebellion. On the street, though there is light everywhere, it is flooding out the windows of empty offices and from the constant stream of traffic passing. The sky is not visible and the darkest part is the glistening wet road. This pervasive light pollution is slowly starting to change as local authorities assess ways of changing light according to needs.

His final trip takes him back to Scotland and to the designated Dark Sky community on the Island of Coll. He is staggered by the number of stars that he can see and it takes him a little while to re-orientate himself with the constellations. This is the perfect place for him to introduce his children to the wonders of the Milky Way and the night sky.

I am fortunate to live just below Cranborne, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty and has applied to be Dark Sky reserve. I spent many evenings near there when my daughter was studying her Astronomy GCSE and have seen the Milky Way in its full glory. I was really looking forward to this book. This is another well-conceived and well-written book by Gaw. Like his first book, The Pull of the River, I like that he brings almost no personal baggage with him on these journeys. He is driven by his curiosity about a subject and wants to experience and discover for himself all about it. He is doing these things because he can and because he wants to. If you liked the sound of this I can also recommend Dark Skies by Tiffany Frances and Night Walks by Chris Yates.

Book Challenges

I had promised to write this post back in January, but things took over, so here I am midway through February writing it at last…

Book Challenges – are they a good thing or not? Well, it depends on the reader ultimately. I have taken part in the annual Good Reads Challenge since 2013. In this challenge, you set the number of books that you think you are going to be able to read over the course of 12 months. For some people, this can be as low as one (see below), but any number can be chosen. Apart from the first year where I set it at 185, have stuck to a regular total of 190 and have achieved that or exceeded it every year.

One of the disadvantages of this though is the self-inflicted pressure of trying to reach the total that you have set and for a number of people, it takes away from the pleasure of reading. Some people overcome this by setting their total for the year to one, finish it really early and then don’t have to worry about it until the following year. It will still keep a track of your exact number read by the end of the year too.

So should you do these? Well, it is entirely up to you. I do because I like doing them, and for those trying to get back into reading it can be a good way of getting a discipline of reading on a regular basis. It must work too as I frequently see comments where people are so pleased that they have achieved the target that they have set themselves.

The other sort of challenge is those that aim to push your reading boundaries. Often, people read well within their comfort zone, reading their preferred genres and almost never venture outside it. I run an online book group on Good Reads called Book Vipers and each year I have created a challenge for the members. This year it is the Dusty Shelf Challenge with the aim of getting people to rootle through their shelves and read some of the books that they have had for far too long.

I make these up in a bingo format. There are two reasons for this, one is the satisfaction of crossing off a square, secondly, those who might not read as much can do a row only should they wish.

The grid I created is below. The intention of some of these is to get you to find things that fit the criteria and often to do that you need to look outside your reading landscape.

The books that I have chosen to meet the criteria are below. I have had some of these on my shelves around the home for waaaaay too long, hence why I have picked them.

A Book With A Blue Cover – This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
A Book You Have Borrowed – Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran by Jason Elliot
A Book That Has Been Longest On Your TBR – Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
A Book You Started And Never Finished – Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
A Book With An Animal On The Cover – Corvus: A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson
A Book By A Female Author – Among Muslims by Kathleen Jamie
Free Choice – How the Light Gets In by Clare Fisher
A Book With A Red Cover – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Non Fiction Book – Gathering Carrageen by Monica Connell
A Book From A Literary Prize – In Search of Conrad by Gavin Young
A Book Published In The Last Century – Against a Peacock Sky by Monica Connell
A Book With A Green Cover – The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood
A Book By A Male Author – Naples 44 by Norman Lewis
A Book Borrowed From A Friend – The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Theisger
Free Choice – Herbaceous by Paul Evans
A Biography – Toast by Nigel Slater
A Library Book – The Edge Of The World: A Cultural History Of The North Sea And The Transformation Of Europe by Michael Pye
Free Choice – Letters by Saul Bellow
A Book With A Black Cover – The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
A Book With A Figure On The Cover – Travels With Myself And Another: Five Journeys From Hell by Martha Gellhorn
An Award Winner – The Prester Quest by Nicholas Jubber
A Book Over 500 Pages – Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
A Book Under 100 Pages – A Force That Takes by Edward Ragg
A Book In A Series – A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
A Book With A White Cover – Vicious by V.E Schwab

 

So do you take part in challenges?

If so, what are you preferred type?

What books would you include on this challenge?

Ghost in the Reflection: Letters to Erin by Jim Miller

In our current political and social climate, much-loved poet Jim Miller and his frank observations of a downtrodden society, seem both relevant and important for conversations regarding social reform. In this collection, it is the bonds of love, even through troubled waters, which are offered as solutions to a society currently shying away from a duty of care for one another.

This collection, which addresses addiction, recovery and love in its many forms, reflects the poet’s observations about regression in societal morals. Although these are Miller’s personal viewpoints, his political thinking is relevant against the wider backdrop of the USA, whose divisions threaten to tear its citizens down the centre.

Miller was born in 1970s, in a small town in northern Indiana. His early life was spent between Indiana, Florida and the New York area. After his many years in college, he took to the road and travelled the country in a quest to find himself and some meaning or purpose in life. Poetry helped Miller articulate his emotions. Miller said that he hopes his philosophical and reflective collection, “will bring comfort to readers who currently despair at societal divisions. We need to raise our children with hope and instil a sense of morality.”

 Isabelle Kenyon from Fly on the Wall Press said: “Divided into three sections, Miller is unafraid to delve into our current political and social climate in all its flaws, passionate love in all its ups and downs and presents an ode to hope for our future children, that they will learn from our mistakes.”

One thing is for sure, it is the vulnerability in Miller’s writing and his bravery in sharing his deepest thoughts and fears which will win his readers over, as he opens his notepad to journal his observations of society.

Here is a sample poem from his collection

The Phantom I Became

I awoke the other night inundated in my perspiration;
I saw her face where memory awakened,
walking away, her back towards the sun setting along the shoreline,
the golden-red tint of sunrays highlighted
her hair’s natural gold; I traced the silhouette of her face,
drunk in a love abandoned, once upon a distant day.

I cannot justify why still I refuse to remember;
I shake away the temptation,
that foolish urge to call out her name,
that taunting urge to scream, to call out for her.
I refuse to swallow the cyanide of decisions
as a sentence served in a prison of remorse.

A shot of bourbon swallowed to numb;
the other to ease the pain;
another shot for courage
and another, another, another…
wherein the darkness hides a ghost
& aches memory of decisions derived:
this life, that road, the many footsteps taken.

If apologies could bandage the scars
I have induced & the wreckage abandoned,
that she wears as a burden so beautifully flawed,
and could erase the scars embedded,
I would. but I cannot muster the courage
to master meaningless words,
words softly spoken sound so selfishly sincere,
words sadly spoken only so my suffering could dissipate,
evaporate like rain in a desert
to justify the decisions of a child: words that would do nothing
to bandage the wounds they helped create.

Even when reason remained dormant; unknown,
my every footstep made was destined,
delivering yesterday to today.
Still, it’s difficult to justify the emotions defied,
nor the costs or sacrifice.

I cannot fathom the means to forgive,
nor the reasons for the scared child I was
or for phantom I became.

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 Miller himself.

The Edge of the World by Michael Pye

2.5 out of 5 stars

Different regions of Europe have had power, from the Egyptians, the Greeks and Persians and Romans. But around 1000 years ago that focus of power moved from the Mediterranean area to the small shallow sea in between Britain and Europe, the North Sea.

The region had been conquered by the Romans 2000 years ago, but after they left it became a bit of a backwater. It changed as the people who lived on the shores came to master boat building, setting off on voyages far beyond the small limits of the North Sea to discover lands across the vast Atlantic Ocean.

Some of the seafarers bought terror to some places, we all know about the Vikings and their raids on coastal villages and monasteries, but slowly peaceful trade took over. Ideas and goods began to move back and forth across the waters, populations moved and settled, they adapted to change fairly quickly and the whole region thrived.

Pye looks at the history of this region through various subjects, money, fashion, nature and science to name a few, and teases out various stories and anecdotes to demonstrate his case. Wide-ranging though it might be, it sadly didn’t live up to expectations for me. Splitting it by theme meant that you were jumping backwards and forwards and from place to place. For me, concentrating on specific historical periods would have been better as it did feel that it was jumping around too much from period to period.

Eothen by Alexander Kinglake

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

It is almost 200 years since William Kinglake went travelling about the Ottoman Empire on the Balkan fringes before heading to Constantinople, Smyrna, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Cairo and Damascus. It is a world that has changed irrevocably since then; however, there are elements of that world still visible in ours. This almost wasn’t a book either, Kinglake had scribbled a few notes down on the back of a map for a friend who was considering taking a year off to travel too. Seven years later he had written this book.

This is not really about the places that he travels through on his journey. It is more about the people that he meets of his travels and his experiences which were quite varied from charging across a desert alone on a camel, being in a city whose population is dropping like flies with the plague, meets with an ex-pat called Lady Hester Stanhope, that knew his mother, see the Pyramids for the first time and marvels at the Sphinx.

This is the time when there are no cars or other mechanised transport so the art of travelling is a much drawn-out process. The language is quite different from our modern phrasing, but then it was written over 150 years ago. It took me a few chapters of the book to get into his style, but when he reached the desert I found that the writing was vastly better. He is a strange character in lots of ways, he has some respect for some of the people that he meets and for others, he can be quite condescending to the people he is travelling with as companions and those that he has employed to help him. Even though some of his attitudes are very alien from a modern perspective, I did like this and I can see why it is seen as a classic of travel writing.

Doggerland by Ben Smith

4.5 out of 5 stars

In the North Sea, a wind farm stretches for thousands of acres; the coastline, or what remains of it is far from here. Two men are responsible for maintaining all of these turbines, one younger is called the boy, though he has outgrown that title now. The other is the Old Man, who has been there for almost longer than he can remember.

Their work is continual, changing batteries, cogs, bearings and motors and moving from their accommodation rig to the turbines that need repairs. Every now and again they are visited by the pilot who brings tinned food for them and hopes to trade things. The work is mundane and tedious, the Old Man for amusement trawls the sea to collect the things are being washed past or to bring us ancient remains from Doggerland far below the service.

The boy was sent there by the company to replace his father who worked there before him and who vanished one day. He has many questions about why and where he went, but there are no answers forthcoming from the Old Man. Until one day he finds a clue that he has been looking for as to what happened to his father.

This dystopian novel set in a seascape that is harsh and utterly unforgiving. It has a haunting melancholy about it as the sea gradually claims back to turbines and it is written with a sparse precision that allows you to fill in the gaps in your mind. The three characters are strong, yet their feelings and thoughts are elusive. I really liked the world that he has created. I liked the way that he has linked it back to the ancient land that stood beneath the waves that still reveals itself every now and again. Yet it seems to be the last throw of the dice building this vast farm of wind turbines in response to some unknown climate disaster and yet it has come to nothing as the civilisation that it seems to have mostly gone. There are several threads in the storyline that were not really concluded and yet I didn’t mind that, as it portrays the ambiguity and complexity of this bleak future world. It reminded me of Stillicide by Cynan Jones which I read last year. It could almost be set in the same world.

The Finished Books Tag

I first saw this on my fellow blogger, Dave’s excellent blog, EspressoCoco and he had got it from the also brilliant, Womble of Run Along the Shelves. Links to their tags are here  and here

I believe that it was started by Headless Books, but I can’t find a link that works to them! So here I go:

 

Do you keep a list of the books you have read?

I do keep a track of all the books that I have read since 2002 and have an incomplete list of books from before then. I keep this in two places, Good Reads (You can find me here) and on a spreadsheet, there is a link to that here. I used to have them in separate documents and found it was easier to keep them all together as you can then extract lots of stats and data.

 

If you record statistics, what statistics do you record?

All sorts of things!

Number of books read in total per year

Number of books read in total per month

Number of pages read

Total number of male authors

Total number of female authors

Genres

Publishers

And so on.

My stats for 2019 are here

 

Do you give star ratings for books, and if so, what do you score books out of and how do you cone about this score?

I score books out of five stars and give half stars. I decide based on several factors for non-fiction:

Narrative

Quality of writing

Accuracy

 

And for fiction:

Plot

Characters

Plausibility

 

Do you review books?

Oh yes. I have a large number here on my blog and over 1600 on Good Reads

 

Where do you put your finished books?

I really need some of the L-Space that Pratchett wrote about to store all the books that I want to keep.

A lot of my review copies that I don’t want to keep, go to the library. Others can then read them, the authors get paid and I am doing my little bit to help them with the woeful underfunding they have currently got from central and local government

Some I keep (probably far too many according to my wife)

An ARC that I don’t want to keep goes in the recycling

 

How do you pick your next book?

I try and plan my reading ahead for the month, my last TBR was here for those that are interested. This is a plan only and not fixed in stone as inevitable what happens is that someone else reserves a book that I have out from the library and it gets bumped up the list, knocking others off the list. Or I change my mind. I do the odd occasional blog tour now, but I try to have far more than I will read on there as I can then pick and choose as I see fit.

 

Do you have any other rituals for when you have finished a book?

Update my spreadsheet and mark as read on Good Reads with the appropriate star rating, Start a new page on the OneNote book I use for writing reviews and copy the blurb in and very roughly type up any immediate notes and feelings about the book and write down any quotes that I want to use.

The book then ends up in a pile on my desk and then glares at me until I have read it or have to take it back to the library!

Down in the Valley by Laurie Lee

3 out of 5 stars

At the age of nineteen, Laurie Lee left the village of Slad in Gloustershire to go to London. From there he would go to Spain before being evacuated and returned to Spain again to help fight in the civil war. The books about his life there, Cider with Rosie and his journey through Spain, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and the final book, A Moment of War, would become best sellers.

After a lifetime of doing things including working for the government at one point, he returned to live out his final days. This book is a transcription of some of the interviews that he did with David Parker, for a documentary for the BBC. In here he speaks about his favourite pub, the Woolpack, school life, the local church and the village pond.

It has been a while since I have read any of Lee’s work and reading this reminded me just how warm his language is. It has some entertaining moments inside, but as it was a transcription, it did feel that it was lacking some of the depth that you’d get from a book that he had written. Definitely one for the dedicated Lee fan.

A Year in Kingcombe by Anita Roy

4 out of 5 stars

In times gone by meadows were full of a huge variety of plants and with that came lots of invertebrates and birds. Today, most farms have pastures that are often almost sterile with the vast amounts of chemicals that they are drenched in to ‘improve’ them. In a tiny spot in Dorset though is a place called Kingcombe.

Run by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, it is tucked away near Toller Porcorum. It is a beautiful place, full of ancient woodlands and stunning wildflower meadows with the River Hooke running through the middle. It is managed as a working farm, but not in the modern sense, as no chemicals are allowed. What you get is a time machine back to a landscape that is very rare these days and is continually busy with wildlife. It is very far from what Chris Packham describes as our ‘green and unpleasant land’.

And it is an utterly beautiful place to walk around.

This book by Anita Roy is a series of twelve articles that first appeared on The Clearing website hosted by Little Toller and have been pulled together into a book form. Over the course of a year, she visited the centre each month, taking the time to absorb the things around her, early daffodils, deer skulls, scarlet elf caps and watching the squirrels perform their acrobatics.

The time that she spent here is a respite from all that is going on in the real world, and proof that we need to spend more time in the natural world for our own good. I like her writing, she has an eye for details that others may miss if they were to walk the same paths as here. I can highly recommend this and a visit to Kingcombe if you are in West Dorset.

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