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Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons by Matthew Fort

4.5 out of 5 stars

The first time Matthew Fort set foot on the island of Sicily he was the tender age of 26. He was visiting in the early 1970s and was looking forward to the beaches and spending time with his brother. What he didn’t realise was just how this place would get its hooks into him.

Which was why three decades after that first visit he was back again to explore the island. Travelling backwards and forwards on a scarlet Vespa, that he had named Monica this was a pilgrimage with the sole intention of discovering the nicest foods that he could find.

Occasionally this book will terrify you, as he takes his life into his own hands to ride the scooter from place to place, and I know how bad it is even when you are in a car. Each meal that he has with the locals seems more memorable than the last, as they welcome his curiosity about their culture and produce from the land. Mixed in with all of this is a little history, landscape and snapshots of some great people who care about the food that they eat and who work the magic to turn ingredients that are full of flavour into mouth watering dishes. Reading this book will make you very, very hungry. Wonderful stuff.

The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

3.5 out of 5 stars

Trier is one of Germany’s oldest cities, scratch the surface and the history goes back and beyond the Romans if you know where to look. It is also known for wine and a relatively peaceful life. However, when a body is found in unusual circumstances, it is covered in noble rot, then the authorities realise that it needs an unconventional investigation. A call is put into the Abteilungand and Investigator Tobias Winter is dispatched to the city. He is joined by one of the local police, Vanessa Summer, to see if they can fathom out just what is going on, but first, he is going to have to explain to her just what he does and why he is there…

Their leads take them to the owner of a local vineyard, Jacky Stracker, who is the latest in a long line of family members who have a deep connection to the land and the loci around. She tells them some stories about her grandfather and how he used to leave offerings to the river. Tobias buys a bottle of wine and leaves it on the tree with his business card. Shortly after, he is rung up by a lady calling herself Kelly, she is the goddess of the river and wants to talk. It doesn’t take long for them to find out who he is and discover who his friends are. Bringing them in for questioning reveals that they are just a group of guys who want to drink wine and talk about art. But there is something else going on, and slowly it dawns on them they are witnessing the continuation of a conflict that has been going on for over a century in the magical realm of the city.

I liked this a lot and it was an interesting story taken from the perspective of the German equivalents to Grant and Nightingale. The plot was fairly straightforward with some nice touches and interplay between the two main characters. You also get the sense that he spent a fair amount of time there researching the city, and it has those details that I have come to expect in the previous books as we tear around London. However, I did miss Peter, Nightingale, the Folly and London that I have come to know from all the other books. Would be good to see each character travel to each other’s city in future books.

The March of the Long Shadows by Norman Lewis

2.5 out of 5 stars

British Intelligence are concerned about the rise of the Sicilian Separatist Movement and dispatch John Philips to see what he can discover about them. It is a place that he knows well, but in 1947 when he arrives the island is almost at its limit of what it can endure. The population is starving and there is political and social strife. He can almost smell the revolution in the air. Philips has a lot of catching up to do with old friends and is hoping to catch up with the beautiful Marchesina, once an old flame of his. But the pressures of the world are going to make his visit there much more complicated than he envisaged.

The is the first fiction book by Norman Lewis that I have read and I didn’t think it was as good as his non-fiction. I didn’t think that the plot was very strong, but what he does in this book is to make the atmosphere and culture of Sicily come alive and provide an account of the way that the island had begun to change after the Second World War. I had hoped it would have been more of a spy novel, but it wasn’t really. The characters were a little shallow, and there are some interesting characters in the book, in particular, the two Americans.

In Sicily by Norman Lewis

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Sicily is an island that Norman Lewis grew to love after he first visited there during the war. He married the daughter of a Sicilian Mafiosi and returned many times over a sixty-year period. The mafia was the theme of his first book on the island and this one is dedicated to a journalist, Marcello Cimino, killed by a bomb. This book is an account of his return to the island in the late 1990s and is partly a love letter to the place and partly a lament to the current state of affairs. He nostalgically looks back to the past and happy times spent on there, revisits old haunts and catches up with friends all over the island.

At this time the mafia is still a significant force in the island and by travelling around with the locals, he comes across their nefarious activities. However this is a time of change; their iron grip, along with that of the church and landowners under the feudal system is beginning to lessen. But if you know where to look, you can still see ancient rituals that predate even the Roman period.

There is something about Lewis’s writing that makes this a please to read. He has a falcon’s eye for detail and has the language to paint an evocative scene of the places he visits in just a few sentences. Kind of wish I had read The Honoured Society before this, but I still have that treat for another day.

Coasting by Jonathan Raban

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Following on from his journey down the great Mississippi, Jonathan Raban decided to explore his homeland from the see. He acquired a small boat and filled it with personal effects and a lot of books, some relevant to his research and some just for the pleasure of having them nearby. He set off in 1982 to see if we were still a nation that loved the sea.

His journey would be back through the pages of our history, a semi nostalgic look back at his own childhood and a contemporary take on the state of our nation under the rule of Thatcher in the early 1980’s and the effect that the outbreak of war with Argentina over the Falklands Islands would have on our outlook as a people. However, this was all a backdrop to the seascapes that he travels through, the looking cliffs, fast races and eddy’s, sandbanks and other much larger boats that would challenge him every day of the journey.

He has a slightly tense meeting with Paul Theroux in Brighton who is heading around the UK in the opposite direction and also in the process of writing his book, The Kingdom by the Sea. Raban joins the miners on the picket lines to see what real political action is like and takes the views from the locals on their opinions of the Falklands War. There is often a vast gulf between the rabid right-wing press and their attitude to the war and the indifference of the general populace.

I didn’t think this was quite as good as Old Glory, but I don’t think it is as easy for an author to understand their home country as sometimes it is for an outsider to do. That said, it was written just as the country had begun an enormous political change, was at war and in the middle of a enormous strike by the miners. This means that he could easily see the differences and splits that were very visible in society at large. There is something about Raban’s writing that is beguiling and very readable too, he is a stickler for the details that he drops into the narrative when meeting people like Philip Larkin or talking to the owners of trawlers in Lyme Regis but also has that ability to present you the seascape; you sense the rock of the boat and the wind on your cheek as you bob along with him, in sparse lyrical prose.

Untie the Lines by Emma Bamford

3 out of 5 stars

For some people, the thought of living on a boat is enough to send shivers down their spine. Even if it is travelling through some of the exotic parts of the world with the sun shining all day. But for Emma Bamford, it is all she has ever wanted to do. The last time that she tried it though it didn’t quite work out, however, she has high hopes for this trip with Guy, even though she hardly knows him at all. Whilst they get on fairly well, it is not a relationship that is destined to last. So she heads back to London to pick up some of her media contacts to get a job and an income once again, she re-enters the relentless and non-stop world of the news desk once again.

But the call of the sea is too much to resist and she heads over to the states to help deliver a boat from America to the Caribbean with another couple. It is a tough journey as they struggle with the weather and have a few run-ins with the authorities with visa issues. Back in London, she is promoted to editor, more work for less money, but in the end, it becomes overwhelming and she is forced to make a choice in what she wants to do, for her health as much as her sanity.

I quite enjoyed this book, Bamford writes with honesty about working for a newspaper and the immense pressures that they are all under to deliver the constant 24 / 7 stream of news that people now expect and how she found her work life balance. But this is primarily about two boat journeys across two very different parts of the world and the freedom that she feels when holding the tiller with the wind in her hair. Should have read Casting Off first, but I will get to it one day.

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

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