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Book Musings – March 2019

We are eight days into April already. It does mean that we have passed the equinox and the clocks have moved to Summertime. Spring is fully here now! Just here to sum up what I read in March and look ahead to April’s reads. Even though it is a long month, I only managed to read 16 books, probably because I spent waaaay too long faffing around on Twitter. So to the books.

Mark Beaumont is a machine and this book is proof of that. He originally broke the record for cycling around the world a few years ago and had subsequently lost it to other riders. Around the World in 80 Days was his attempt to not only get it back but to pretty much ensure that no one else would be taking it off him for a very long time.

I don’t read many graphic novels, but when I found this one by Neil Gaiman in the library it was a must. Really good as ever and reassuringly disturbing.

 

A couple of fiction book too this month, the first was Sight by Jessie Greengrass. This was longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize and my library had it. Wasn’t overly struck by it, to begin with, but it grew on me a little more by the end. I was sent In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne. This is one of the books on the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist and is it set over 48 hours in London. We join it as tensions rise with a looming clash between the locals and a right-wing march through their home. Fast paced and visceral in its language.

I have only read one of Julia Blackburn’s book before call Thin paths. This latest one of hers, Time Song: Searching For Doggerland is partly a memoir and partly a book about this vanished landscape that is now under the North Sea. Well worth reading.

Jeremy Robson has been a publisher for years sometimes working for others, but mostly working form himself. This book, Under Cover, is all about his life spent publishing all sorts of people with all types of books. Highly entertaining reading.

Orchid Summer can be best summed up as a plant addict travelling all around the country to find the plants that he loves.  Jon Dunn is the addict concerned and he manages to make this very readable.

   

Assurances        J.O. Morgan        Poetry

The Point of Poetry        Joe Nutt        Poetry

The premise of Not Working: Why We Have to Stop sounded really good when I saw it in the catalogue, but it really didn’t work for me for a variety of reasons.

   

Adam Rutherford is best known as the presenter of Inside Science on BBC Radio 4, but he also writes some really good books. The Book of Humans is his latest and it is a well-written pop science book about our genetic story. New out this month is another book on the subject of the moment, sleep. This time Guy Leschziner is looking at how our brains and mind works when we are sleeping in The Nocturnal Brain. The best way of finding out how most people function is to look at those who don’t function correctly when it comes to sleep.

There are times when real ife is stranger than fiction and The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre recounts one of those stories here. Oleg Gordievsky was a KGB officer but also was a spy for MI6. The secrets and opinions that he passed back to his handlers were key in the cold war. It has a very dramatic ending too and is possibly better than some spy thrillers that I have read in the past.

Eight was a tiny theme going on this month, and the next book Around India in 80 Trains does exactly what it says on the title. Monisha Rajesh heads to the country of her parents to discover the places that have made India and at the same time get the cultural experience turned up to 11. Well worth reading. I have her next book to read in a week or so.

I hadn’t intended on collection this range of Little Toller books but somehow have ended up with four of them now. Ah well. This copy of In Pursuit of Spring had gone all the way out to Canada and then got sent to me by Allison. In the spring of 1913, beginning on March the 21st, Edward Thomas sets off on his bicycle to head to Somerset to discover the places in the south that were showing the first signs of spring. I started the book on the 21st and read a chapter a day. He travelled through places that I grew up in and my family name even gets a mention too!

The Wild Remedy was my book of the month. It is a book that is a thing of beauty and needs to be read by those that have emerged from the Winter and are still feeling the effects of depression. It is very personal too as Emma recounts points when she was at her very lowest ebb.

Any of these take your fancy? Or are there any that you have read?

 

Sincerity by Carol Anne Duffy

4 out of five stars

This collection demonstrates that Duffy is a current master of all that she writes, there are poems in here that are very personal and others that are contemporary and political. The common thread that links them though is that they are all written with passion. Duffy is not angry in these but furious, seething with the injustice and unfairness of the world and the vested interests that seek to keep it that way.

My hand on what I take from time and this world

And the stone’s shadow there on the grass with mine

This bold and political book can be summed up in the poem, Swearing In. In this, she does not pull any punches at all as she welcomes the tangerine terror to his new job… I liked the fact that the poems varied in style and length, each written to suit the story she wanted to tell in those few words. Really enjoyable collection.

Three favourite poems

Stone Love

Wood

Once

Outpost by Dan Richards

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Should you wish to escape from the relentless 24 / 7 grip of the digital world then you need to turn off your phone and head outside. That will help in all sorts of ways, even if it is just for an hour or so. However to really get away from it all you need to head to the wilder parts of the world, to walk the hills, climb the mountains and cross the deserts. It is in these places where the changes over deep time are almost imperceptible, and that are as wild as they are beautiful.

The last thing that you would expect or actually want to see when you are miles from civilisation though is evidence that humans have already been there. However, occasionally a bothy appearing on the horizon can be a welcome sight. Five Star accommodation it isn’t, however, these very simple huts or shelters can offer some respite from the relentless weather that you will often find in the wild.

He was fascinated as a child by the picture of his father and his team outside a small shed in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, where they had stayed and the pelvis of a polar bear that his father had brought back from the far north. Richards’ desire to head to these far out of the way places is genetic. As you’d know if you read his previous book about his great-great-aunt, Dorothy Pilley, who was one of the pioneering women climbers of her time. With this inspiration and background, he sets off on his journeys from Scotland to Washington, to a mountain in Japan and a retreat in Switzerland and from the heat of Mexico to the bleakness and cold of the Arctic hoping to walk in his father’s footsteps. He ends up in Denmark to see an artistic interpretation of a shed too, but he starts his journey in the land of ice and fire; Iceland.

All these landscapes have these tiny places of refuge in common and it is these places that have inspired all sorts of people to write and make art and to seek their peace with our planet. In this book, Richards’ has sought them out to gain his own insight in what appeals with these remote and beautiful places. He writes in a lyrical way that also has an impish humour too, I know that you shouldn’t really laugh at others misfortune, but Dan’s description of his hangover as he stepped off the train in Scotland is truly hilarious. As this is the second family inspired travel book that Dan has written, I am hoping that he has got some more relatives that we don’t know about yet for his next book. Cracking stuff and one for anyone who likes well-written travel writing.

For those that want to go and find the bothies for themselves then there is this guide here: https://www.mountainbothies.org.uk

Or perhaps you have skills that can help keep them weatherproof:

https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2019/jan/25/mountain-rescue-why-bothies-need-a-helping-hand-a-photo-essay

Time Song by Julia Blackburn

4 out of 5 stars

Despite the recent shenanigans about our relationship with Europe, if you were to go back about 7000 years ago, you’d find that we were physically connected to the continent. This connection point was where the North Sea is now. We know that there were people and animals there because of the number of bones and other artefacts that keep being bought to the surface by trawlers. This land has a name too now, Doggerland.

For lots of people, the past has a lot of allure, there are stories to be told from the things that we find and tales from bumps in a field. Julia Blackburn is one of those who seeks out objects that can speak to her across the bridge of time. She has amassed more and more things but didn’t really feel that she knew much about this land just below the sea. Her curiosity would take her back and forth across this shallow sea and far back in time to the people that inhabited this landscape. She gets to see footprints from humans that had been fossilised in mud and silt, hold flint arrowheads that were last used  a millennia ago, discover the traces of plants that must have come across on the land bridge and even get to see those that have been preserved in the acid waters of the bogs that surround the North Sea.

This fascination, or almost borderline obsession with the past, stemmed from Blackburn’s desire to collect and hold objects from history. The paths she takes as she walks back in time are sometimes walked alone and sometimes with others there to guide her to the wider view or the minutia of the items she is looking at. Entwined with the history and archaeology is her very personal journey as she reminisces about her late husband, the artist Herman Makkink. This the second of Blackburn’s book that I have read now, the other was Thin Paths which I really enjoyed. She is such an evocative and beautiful writer and this has an intensity that makes you think of elements of it long after you have set it aside. I loved the art that was included from Enrique Brinkman, but personally wasn’t that keen on the Time Songs. However, they added a pause to the intensity of the writing. Can highly recommend this.

Likely Stories by Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham

4 out of 5 stars

Most people headed to the after-hours bar called the Diogenes to concentrate on the serious business of drinking, but some chose to talk and tell each other stories. Men who are on the fringes of society telling each other unexpected strange tales. And they are slightly strange too, there is a girl Charlotte who appears in a soft porn magazine and who never seems to age as a photographer follows her career with interest. There is a man who is neighbours with an old lady who needs to feed on raw meat and a man who has somehow acquired an embarrassing disease and finally there is the ghost story with the suitably creepy house.

Somehow Gaiman manages to take what looks like a normal situation and with some of his magic turns it into something that just isn’t quite normal and it is the same with these four interlinked stories, Foreign Parts, Feeders and Eaters Looking for the Girl and Closing Time. The stories aren’t that dark compared to some of Gaiman’s that I have read, but they are reassuringly disturbing. It is very much an adult graphic novel too… I loved the art from Mark Buckingham, it lifts the book to another level. However, I would have liked to have seen nine panels per page for the stories rather than sixteen as it felt a little cramped. Definitely one for the NG aficionado, but if you have never read one of his graphic novels then you may just enjoy this as first.

The Woman Who Rode a Shark by Ailsa Ross

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

If you were to ask most people they could probably name several famous men who had achieved something significant in their lives, but if you were to ask the same people if they could think of any women who had achieved similar things then they would be hard pushed to name one or two in the majority of cases. Women are just a capable as men in achieving things that they set out to do, it is just we tend to hear about the men.

In this book there are the profiles of fifty women who have forged their own paths, climbed trees and mountains, flown and sailed solo around the world, crossed deserts, became spies and as the title says there is the profile of one woman, Kimi Werner, who rode a Great White shark. Sadly most of the women mentioned in here are not household names, I had only heard of a handful of them, but they should be. So if you want to know what Manon Ossevoor, Diana Nyad and Wang Zhenyi had achieved then you need to read this book.

Each of the women featured in here has accomplished something amazing or unique and this book is a celebration of all their lives. It is really nicely put together too, with single page profiles that give enough detail of the subject and suggestions of other women to discover and find out about. They are accompanied by bold art for each one to that complement This really nicely put together book should be read by all children, to prove that following your dreams can lead to many things.

Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize – Shortlist announcement!

Earlier today the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize was announced. The shortlist was chosen by a judging panel chaired by Swansea University Professor Dai Smith CBE with Professor Kurt Heinzelman; Books Editor for the BBC Di Speirs and award-winning novelist Kit de Waal.

The 6 shortlisted books comprise 5 novels and 1 collection of short stories and they are here:

American-Ghanaian writer Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (27) for his debut short story collection Friday Black (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (US) and Riverrun (UK)) which explores what it’s like to grow up as a black male in America, and whose powerful style of writing has been likened to George Saunders. He is from Spring Valley, New York and graduated from SUNY Albany and went on to receive his MFA from Syracuse University. He was the ’16-’17 Olive B. O’Connor fellow in fiction at Colgate University. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Guernica, Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, Printer’s Row, Gravel, and The Breakwater Review, where he was selected by ZZ Packer as the winner of the 2nd Annual Breakwater Review Fiction Contest. Friday Black is his first book.

Debut novelist Zoe Gilbert for Folk (Bloomsbury Publishing) which was developed from her fascination in ancient folklore and the resurgence of nature writing. She has previously won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014. Zoe Gilbert is the winner of the Costa Short Story Award 2014. Her work has appeared on BBC Radio 4, and in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally. She has taken part in writing projects in China and South Korea for the British Council, and she is completing a PhD on folk tales in contemporary fiction. The co-founder of London Lit Lab, which provides writing courses and mentoring for writers, she lives on the coast in Kent.

British-Sri-Lankan debut novelist, Guy Gunaratne for In Our Mad and Furious City (Tinder Press, Headline), longlisted for The Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize, The Gordon Burn Prize as well as the Writers Guild Awards. He lives between London, UK and Malmö, Sweden. His first novel In Our Mad and Furious City was longlisted for The Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize, The Gordon Burn Prize as well as the Writers Guild Awards. He has worked as a journalist and documentary filmmaker covering human rights stories around the world.

Louisa Hall with her latest book Trinity (Ecco) which tackles the complex life of the Father of the Atomic Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer through seven fictional characters. Louisa Hall grew up in Philadelphia. She is the author of the novels Speak and The Carriage House, and her poems have been published in The New Republic, Southwest Review, and other journals. She is a professor at the University of Iowa, and the Western Writer in Residence at Montana State University. Trinity is her third novel.

For the second time Sarah Perry has been shortlisted for the Prize this time for Melmoth (Serpent’s Tail), one of The Observer’s Best Fiction Books of the Year 2018, and a masterpiece of moral complexity, asking us profound questions about mercy, redemption, and how to make the best of our conflicted world. Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. She has been the writer in residence at Gladstone’s Library and the UNESCO World City of Literature Writer in Residence in Prague. After Me Comes the Flood, her first novel, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize and won the East Anglian Book of the Year Award in 2014. Her latest novel, The Essex Serpent, was a number one bestseller in hardback, Waterstones Book of the Year 2016, the British Book Awards Book of the Year 2017, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and Dylan Thomas Award, and longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017. Her work has been translated into twenty languages. She lives in Norwich.

Zimbabwean debut novelist Novuyo Rosa Tshuma with her wildly inventive and darkly humorous novel House of Stone (Atlantic Books) which reveals the mad and glorious death of colonial Rhodesia and the bloody birth of modern Zimbabwe. She grew up in Zimbabwe and has lived in South Africa and the USA. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has been featured in numerous anthologies, and she was awarded the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize for the best literary work in English

The winner will be announced on Thursday 16th May at Swansea University’s Great Hall, just after International Dylan Thomas Day on 14th May.

The International Dylan Thomas Prize was launched in 2006. It is one of the most prestigious awards for young writers, aimed at encouraging raw creative talent worldwide. It celebrates and nurtures international literary excellence. Worth £30,000, it is one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes as well as the world’s largest literary prize for young writers. Awarded for the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under, the Prize celebrates the international world of fiction in all its forms including poetry, novels, short stories and drama. The prize is named after the Swansea-born writer, Dylan Thomas, and celebrates his 39 years of creativity and productivity. One of the most influential, internationally-renowned writers of the mid-twentieth century, the prize invokes his memory to support the writers of today and nurture the talents of tomorrow.

Follow Dylan Thomas Prize on Twitter here: @dylanthomprize

In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas

4 out of 5 stars

On March the 21st 1913, the poet Edward Thomas set off from Clapham with the intention of heading to Somerset in the West Country searching out the first signs of spring. His journey on his bike would take him through the lanes of Surrey, through my home town of Guildford, across the downs and past Winchester. He heads across a pre-Army controlled Salisbury Plain and onto Somerset where his journey ended.

This is a heady blend of travel, natural history and architecture as well as the history of the places he visits on his ride across the country. He is a keen observer of the things that he sees as he travels through the countryside, spotting flowers just breaking through in the hedgerows, hearing the chatter of birds as he pedalled through a quiet lane and stopping to take in the views, which he relays details of in the account. Intertwined in the book are his thoughts on other writers who he recalls as he passes through areas associated by them. He also takes time to read the epitaphs of people that he never knew and discover stories of others that he comes across on his travels.

The Plain assumes the character by which it is best known, that of a sublime, inhospitable wilderness. It makes us feel the age of the earth, the greatest of Time, Space and Nature; the littleness of man, even in an aeroplane, the fact that the earth does not belong to man, but man to earth.

When Thomas cycled across the south of the UK looking for the first signs of spring, he saw a country that was at peace with itself. A year later that was all to change as war broke out over Europe and men rushed to sign up. Their drain of manpower from the countryside was to change the country forever. A lifelong pacifist he still felt an obligation to enlist for the Great War, which he did in 1915. Sadly his life was tragically taken far too early from us in 1917 in the Battle of Arras.

This is the first of his that I have read, and oddly enough at the same time a poem of his was in another book I was reading, but it won’t be the last. He has a way with words in his descriptions that are quite evocative and in other parts, he can be quite matter of fact about what he is seeing around him. This edition includes several photographs from his collection as he cycled across the country and it adds a wonderful touch to the text.

The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt and published by Unbound.

About the Book

What’s the point of poetry? It’s a question asked in classrooms all over the world, but it rarely receives a satisfactory answer. Which is why so many people, who read all kinds of books, never read poetry after leaving school.

Exploring twenty-two works from poets as varied as William Blake, Seamus Heaney, Rita Dove and Hollie McNish, this book makes the case for what poetry has to offer us, what it can tell us about the things that matter in life. Each poem is discussed with humour and refreshing clarity, using a mixture of anecdote and literary criticism that has been honed over a lifetime of teaching.

Poetry can enrich our lives, if we’ll let it. The Point of Poetry is the perfect companion for anyone looking to discover how.

 

About the Author

Joe Nutt’s writing career really began when he published an essay on Anthony Powell as a postgraduate student at The University of Warwick, (after his tutor had graded it B) and then followed that up by winning first prize in the university’s short story competition. His academic books are used by some of the leading schools in the UK but he is saddened at the way so many other schools shy away from great literature. He has written a fortnightly column for the Times Educational Supplement since 2015 and articles for The Spectator, Spiked and Areo magazines

 

My Review

If you’d have asked me what’s the point of poetry at the age of sixteen you would have got a very different answer than I would give now. My English teach of the time had managed to almost put the entire class off reading and it would be a very long time before I even though about picking up a book of poems. In the end, I came back to poetry a couple of decades later via a circuitous route. Some of my favourite books on the natural world have been by authors who are best known as poets, such as Kathleen Jamie and Paul Farley, and it was the desire to read more by them led me to pick up their poetry books. From those small re-beginnings, I have made a conscious effort to read at least one poetry book a month now.

Joe Nutt is well placed to reignite a love for poetry in other people, as his love for it has been honed over a lifetime of teaching it to others. In this book, he considers twenty-two poems, taking a chapter to concentrate on a specific poem. There are some really famous ones in here, such as The Tyger by William Blake and Adlestrop by Edward Thomas as well others that are less well known, such as The Gun by Vicki Feaver. So I had heard of, but most of them I hadn’t come across before at all, nor read. He takes each poem and breaks it down into manageable sections before analysing those parts and drawing out exactly what the poet was trying to do. Thankfully he doesn’t go into endless detail, but his pointers will help you get the maximum out of the poem.

Each of the poems he has selected build towards the final two that he considers the two best written in the English language, The Prelude by William Wordsworth and Paradise Lost by John Milton. With these, he encourages you to use the techniques for gaining deeper meaning that he explained throughout the book with the other poems and get you to apply them to these. I liked having the single chapter per poem, it works well and you can dip in as you want. It is good to have poems that he loved in there as well as ones that he was not so keen on. Poets have a way of cramming so much meaning into so few words and overall I thought this was worth reading, to have someone explain just what the poet had in mind as they pulled the words onto the page.

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 through my Letterbox for arranging this and to Unbound for a copy of the book to read.

The Lights in the Distance by Daniel Trilling

4 out of 5 stars

To be a modern European means that you have the opportunity to travel amongst the member countries with little or no identification. Quite amazing to think that this is possible when less than a century ago, we were all at War. That was the last in a series of wars that had taken place on the continent over the past millennia too. Should someone from the Netherlands wish to move to Spain to work they are perfectly entitled to do so. This has gone a long way in ensuring that the horrendous things that happen back then are never repeated and that human rights have become one of the key values of the European project.

Whilst freedom of movement is allowed within the borders, if you live outside those lines, don’t have the right passport or sadly don’t have the correct colour skin, it is much much harder to get across and move within. With various conflicts going on around the world, there are a lot of people who want to come here to make some attempt to rebuild their lives.

This displacement affects real people and in 2015 this river of people wanting to come to Europe became a flood. It is these people that Trilling wants to meet with and talk with and try to understand their predicament. To do this he sneaks into detention centres, goes to the camps and hostels with the intention of understanding why the felt the need to move from their homeland. He also hopes to understand what drove his ancestors to do a similar thing when they were displaced from Russia to Germany and then again from there to the UK.

In talking to these people he hopes to find what the differences are between, economic migrant, asylum seeker and refugee and to see if these broad definitions stand up to the reality of life. He helps people like, Jamal, Caesar and Farhan tell the stories from their perspective as well as asking the bigger questions about the way our societies treat these people, why we should we regulate their movement and if there are better ways of dealing with the whole immigration issue. Whilst this is not the most cheerful of books to read, it is an important book in lots of ways and deserves to be read by more people so they can understand the issues we all face.

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