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Review: Ten Lessons From The Road by Alastair Humphries

3 out of 5 stars

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

Over the course of four years, Alastair Humphreys cycled around the world. He has pedalled across five continents and ended up covering over 46,000 miles. There was no charity link, he did this because he wanted to and because he could. The account of his journey is covered in two books, Moods of Future Joys and Thunder and Sunshine. Not only did he propel himself around the world, but along the way, he spent time talking to people about what inspired him to make this epic journey as well as trying to answer the thousands of questions that were sent into his website.

The prose in this book is fairly sparse, there are excerpts from his world adventure and a series of inspirational statements all overlaid over some truly stunning photos and it is littered with Alastair on his travels too. It is short and to the point and has some important lessons for those contemplating where to go next in their lives.

Review: Windblown by Tamsin Treverton Jones

4 out of 5 stars

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

“Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way… well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t!” – Michael Fish

He was technically correct too, what hit the north of France and the UK on the night of the 15th & 16th of October in 1987 was a violent extratropical cyclone, in fact, post analysis of the way that the storm rapidly developed means that nowadays it would be classified as a weather bomb. Regardless of what it is called, the winds were hurricane force, gusting over 100mph with a peak of 120mph in Shoreham on Sea and then it broke the anemometer. Over the period of one hour, the sustained wind speed was recorded at 75mph. The last time a storm like this had hit the UK was 300 years ago.

The devastation though was immense. Caravan parks were trashed, cars crushed, homes lost roofs, roads and railway lines were blocked, power lines failed and 22 people lost their lives. That night too fifteen million trees were flattened, Kew Gardens lost historic specimens, the grand gardens of the National Trust were equally devastated and six of the seven oaks in Sevenoaks were lost. A ferry was blown ashore and another cargo ship capsized. It reached the point where the people at the National Grid made the decision to shut down the grid to stop catastrophic damage to the power network.

The thing is though, I slept through the whole storm that night! I woke up to carnage the following morning and can still remember how long it took to get to work in the morning, passing fallen trees, doubling back because of roads being closed and seeing one home with a tree that had fallen onto it. Memories of this Great Storm were bought back to Tamsin Treverton Jones after she found a photograph of a mural that her late father had designed and was carved using wood from Kew Gardens by an incredibly talented sculptor called Robert Games who carved it at the startlingly young age of 16. This mural still hangs at Kew and starts the process of tracing the woodcarver to find out what had happened to him after producing this artwork. Going through the motions of finding Games, opens a series of other questions about the people and place that were affected that night, prompting her to visit orchards, grand gardens to see the recovery that they have had since and to discover what they have learnt for the next storm.

I can’t believe it is now over thirty years since this storm happened, I also remember heading out the weekend after to go mountain biking in the hills around Leith Hill in Surrey. We did get some cycling in, but there were an awful lot of trees to clamber over carrying a heavy bike. Treverton Jones’ own journey through the places and memories of her past is written with a wistful melancholy. She remembers the legacy of her late father Terry Thomas and travels around the country to meet with the families and friends of those who were tragically killed in the storm. There are positives too, at Kew and other large gardens she learns about the new techniques that they have developed in managing trees and woodlands to make them far more resilient when the next storm hits. When you remember the images of the flattened woodlands and majestic trees in parks in the days after, the changes since then have been quite dramatic.

Review: Reading Allowed by Chris Paling

3.5 out of 5 stars

Until the tsunami of information arrived via the internet back in the 1990’s we were reliant on libraries as those of us who didn’t have the Encyclopaedia Britannica at home needed to find out those details another way. I read a fair amount, as you may have gathered by now and I am fortunate enough to get many books through the post every month for me to read, however, I still go to the library at least once a week. Often twice… And still come back with way too many library books, at least that is according to my wife. They are the best free bookshop in town and not only do you get your books free, each author gets a little money each time you borrow a book.

It is rare that we see the view from the other side of the counter though. The man in charge of the date stamp is Chris Paling who works in a small town library somewhere in the UK. The people that beat a path to this place in the community are not just there for the books. A lot come into use the computers or just to socialise and for the company. His library gets homeless people seeking warmth in the winter, as well as attracting its fair share of the strange and the weird. His stories tell of the mundane daily life, shelving and answering simple queries from the public to the slightly shocking and often amusing tales that you get when you are a frontline public service.

Libraries are about Freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.” – Neil Gaiman

If you can’t remember the last time you went into a library then I would suggest that may be time to revisit one again. These are a precious resource and if we do not keep using them, then the already swinging cuts they have suffered will only get worse. I have used the quote above as Gaiman is one of those who pretty much read his library from one end to the other as a child, and it made him the writer he is today. Not everyone can afford to keep buying books all the time. Paling’s book is a useful insight into the daily life of a small town library and it will shock you and make you laugh with a page or so. Love reading and libraries, then you will probably like this. 3.5 stars

This Weeks Book Post

Thank you to Eye & Lightning Books for these:

And to Haus, Duckworth and my wife’s aunt for these:

And might have bought the odd one or two…

Review: The Book Of Book Lists by Alex Johnson

3 out of 5 stars

Bookish people tend to like a good list. A list of books by your favourite author, or even better selections of titles that they would recommend, the latest prize lists too. There are also books scribbled down on a piece of paper whilst in a bookshop and in my case the never-ending list of books that is my TBR. What is even better is being able to sneak a look at the list that other people have made, it is like being given an hour to examine their shelves in minute detail.

Alex Johnson has collected together a whole pile of lists (does anyone know what the collective term for a list of lists is?) of famous and some infamous people of books that they have loved or owned. Beginning with the books that we know so far from Bin Laden’s bookshelf, some are still secret, we venture forth into the literary realms of presidents, prime ministers, famous authors, pop stars and even a footballer, yes really. Libraries feature heavily as you’d expect, and there are lists of books from prisons, books from films, books in telephone boxes and even books that have never been written.

There is some overlap between the different lists, but each of them reflects the people or place that they represent, Each book list comes with a short and useful overview from Johnson about the individual and a little insight as to why those particular books appear on that list. I did like the fact that Scoot of Antarctic fame too an ‘essential’ 1000 books with him on one exhibition. It does have a certain charm and I now have a few more ideas for books to read.

Review: Jacob’s Room Is Full Of Books by Susan Hill

4 out of 5 stars

When you read a lot, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the reality and the literary, the worlds sometimes meld into one another, perspectives can be enhanced but you cannot separate the two. Susan Hill is one of those people, not only is she a writer, more importantly, she is a reader too, and this book, Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books is a year full of her reading.

Set over a calendar year, Hill charts a month by month reading diary. She tells us what she is reading and when and most importantly why. Her reading is wide-ranging but tends to be focused more on fiction. Even though she gets a lot of proofs from publishers hoping for that front cover quote, she reads what she wants, from classics to favoured authors and new authors. She is not afraid to be critical of books that she finds below par and is more than happy to champion books that she has always loved and new discoveries that have come to light.

Hill is excited about reading a new book as she is about gleaning some elements from a favourite book that she has re-read a dozen times before. For her it is just the pleasure of reading, gaining that extra insight into what the author meant by a sentence. This enthusiasm comes across in the books that she talks about, she is opinionated and knows what she wants from a book. She is one of those authors who is very well known, however, I must admit that I have never (yet) read her works of fiction. The only book of hers that I have read is Howard’s End is on the Landing, another book about books. This I think has the edge on that one, which was about her reading the books that inhabited her home over the course of a year. This is a more contemplative and thoughtful discourse of the books that made her literary landscape for the year.

One of the things that worked for me in this book, is that she is prepared to talk about the books she liked and loved as well as those that weren’t quite what she had hoped for. It would never work if we all liked the same books. My favourites would not be yours and vice versa, but with all books, there should be overlap and more importantly points for discussion too. She donates generously to libraries, a resource under threat in this country at the moment, seeing the good that they do in the communities that she has lived. Almost as an afterthought are glimpses of the natural world around her, the rare sight of a bittern, the geese that race overhead onto places far away. If you like to read books about books, then you cannot beat a writer talking about the books that she reads and the list of books mentioned in the text at the back of the book was really useful.

Review: Scribbles in the Margins by Daniel Grey

3.5 out of 5 stars

In these 50 short essays, Daniel Gray talks about the ways that book lovers are people of habit. We have preferred spots to read in comfortable chairs, favourite authors that you read regardless, cherished bookmarks and those little rituals that any bookworm goes through that to others seem pointless.

So if you want to know about why people smell books, the protocols behind inspecting other peoples bookshelves and if there is a right point to give up on a book then this is a good place to start. But there is more, the delights in finding a dedication from one unknown person to another, poses questions that hang in the air,  the joys of starting a crisp new book, the dilemmas and joys of choosing books to take on holiday trying to see what the person on the tube opposite you, is reading. Something that happens a fair amount in my house is trying to hide purchases from my (thankfully tolerant) another half. It is more of an art form now.

I really enjoyed this delightful little book on the things that bookworms do. It has a certain charm and is really funny at times. If you are book obsessed then you’ll smile and maybe even wince at some of the truths that he speaks. If you want to understand that person in your life who is obsessed by these rectangular pieces of sliced trees then this is a good place to start. 3.5 stars.

 

Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

3 out of 5 stars

The year is 1893 and the ‘White City’ has just opened in Chicago. This latest World Fair was the most spectacular so far, the landscape of white buildings set amongst tranquil gardens and canals. The man behind this was Daniel H. Burnham and to get it built was a struggle. Not only was the land basically a swamp, but he had to play the political game, battle with egos and strong personalities, and faced a never-ending stream of issues with the workers. There were up to 10,000 workers on site at any one time and no one thought that it would be built on time.

 

Most of it was, and as well as the huge centrepiece, the water pool, there was an 80m high Ferris wheel that could take around 40 people per car, life-size reproductions of Christopher Columbus’ three ships, the worlds first travelator and Little Egypt where Americans first saw a belly dancer for the first time. Even Buffalo Bill set up his own Wild West Show alongside after he was refused a spot inside. At its very peak, the fair drew 750,000 in one day. The fair was a massive draw bringing around 27 million people to the city from all across America and the world. Lots of people set up business hoping to gain an income from the visitors. One place was the World Fair Hotel, constructed by a handsome young doctor called H. H. Holmes. He was a charming man, and as he walked around the fair he would attract the single girls who had come to Chicago to see the bright lights and persuade them to come back to his hotel.

 

But his place was not a regular hotel. It was much more sinister than that.

 

As well as the regular rooms he had managed to get parts of it built that were not what people thought they were. Cleverly using different contractors to only do a section of the room, but not the whole thing he had constructed in this building airtight rooms, a gas chamber and a crematorium. The young ladies that entered the doors of his establishment rarely left. He was a fraud and a charlatan too, swindling people out of large sums of money, not paying for goods, claiming to be a medical practitioner and trying to stay ahead of his creditors. Whilst the shenanigans about the building of the world fair was interesting, that is merely a sideshow to the story about Holmes that is compelling as it is creepy. He was a sinister man who seemed to get a thrill from murder. He confessed to 27, but the police could only find evidence for nine but there was speculation that he could have murdered many more than that. It is something that will never be known given the way that he disposed of the bodies. Would have liked the part about building the fair to be a bit shorter, but that said, it would have been a struggle to fill any more detail in about Holmes given how secret he was. If you like true crime books then this is worth reading.

Review: Our Place by Mark Cocker

5 out of 5 stars

Britain has always liked to think of itself as a nation of animal lovers, we spend several billion pounds on our pets each year get outraged when people commit acts of cruelty towards our furry friends. This love of animals drives people who care about wildlife too. It wasn’t until 2013 that we finally voted for our own national animal, the hedgehog and there are a couple of million people in organisations such as the RSPB and the various wildlife trusts. The National Trust has now reached five million members. Programmes like Springwatch have made people far more aware of the amazing variety of wildlife in our country, they are more aware of environmental issues, try to put food out for the birds and make their gardens a little more friendly towards wildlife.

Cocker celebrates the achievements of the visionary people who have managed to save a landscape or a species, create some of our national institutions and inspire others to do the same. However, the reality is that our wildlife is suffering; species are going extinct, the whole ecosystem from the bottom up is reaching a critical tipping point that we may never return from. The numbers are pretty horrific, in the past 50 years, we have lost 50% of our biodiversity. That is the past 50 years, not since the industrial revolution. Just in the case of farmland birds, there are 44 million less now than there were in 1970. We only have 1% of our wildflower meadows left now.

So how did we reach the point where green concerns are on the rise just as the creatures people are beginning to care about fall off an actual and metaphorical cliff? In this really radical text, Cocker takes a long hard look at how we have got to this moment, what has caused this, and the people and systems to blame and boy, he does not hold back. He argues that the roots of this reach way back to almost 100 years ago after William invade with his Norman Army. This feudal system that he imposed on the country has shaped our politics and culture ever since. The landed classes manage to avoid almost all tax on their properties and still get large subsidies from the UK government and EU. They have no interest in preserving the fragile ecosystems unless it suits their narrow interests. He is prepared to criticise other organisations too, the Forestry Commission has a scathing attack on the monoculture of trees that they have imposed on regions that are totally unsuitable for them. Again they are another organisation that the elite has used for tax evasion, I mean efficient investments. The NT fairs a little better, but with its focus on maintaining the properties as the previous owners would have wanted and the continuation of their sporting activities, which mostly involves shooting, rather than making an effort to preserve the wildlife that they have on their extensive properties.

There are many other examples that make this essential reading, but as the subtitle says, is it too late? Whilst this is an intense polemic, he still manages to be lyrical, I was delighted by the writing whilst seething reading about the things that have happened. Part of his enthusiasm is driven by a small part of Norfolk that he has purchased and is slowly restoring to become a wildlife haven. Whilst he is doing his own small thing there are lots of people who aren’t. We are to blame in part too, for example, we have demanded cheaper food, meaning that agri-business has managed to make farms and fields outdoor factories that wildlife does not play a part at all. But can we make a difference? There are around 8 million of us in the RSPB, National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts, but only a handful are prepared to rattle the doors of the politicians and ask them some very difficult questions. Another problem is the small number of people that own vast swathes of the land, they have no desire to change at the moment and will fit all the way to stop this.

Would also recommend Wild Kingdom: Bringing Back Britain’s Wildlife by Stephen Moss and The Running hare by John Lewis-Stempel as must-read books in the same vein. It is not a book that you will like reading, but it demands to be read. Then acted on. Join a wildlife trust and start to make a difference.

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