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The Little Book of Snow by Sally Coulthard

3 out of 5 stars

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

It snowed this week in the UK. You’d have thought the world had ended by the headlines and chaos that the white stuff causes, but no, it is just that we are not used to it. Gone are the days from our childhood where we seem to have snow for weeks, built snowmen, had snowball fights and went sledging. But if you look back at the weather reports it was never quite as long as we thought. However we remember the weather and however inconvenient the snow is to our lives, there is an element of beauty that it brings to the landscape when it does snow.

However there are a lot of facts about snow that aren’t always true and this book by Sally Coulthard uncovers the history, science, literary and cultural in a charming way. So if you want to know who holds the record for the largest snowball fight and why an attempt on the record failed, or why each snowflake is different, what the differences are between climate and weather and how ice can tell us about them. She tells us about snow rollers, what a blind smuir is and how old the ski is. This charming little book is a perfect gift for all those that like the winter.

How is the end of the first month already! And it felt so long too. Anyway, the advantage of a long month is that there is more opportunity to read, and this month I excelled myself and managed to finish 20 books. Though to be fair there were a few that I had started right at the end of December.  A few stats first, fourteen of the books that I read were by men, and six by women so that is 30%, a little low that my target. Did read one poetry book too. Nine of the books read were review copies and eleven library books, but none of my own.

So to the books then. First up is John Bew’s biography of the former Labour Leader and Prime Minister Clem Attlee, called Citizen Clem. Thought it was a well written and impartial assessment of  his life, from his inital work in the East End of London with the poor to being deputy Prime Minister in the War to the far-reaching changes that he instigated after World War II. Well worth reading.

I have been a great fan of Ben Aaronovitch’s  Rivers of London Series and have been collecting them too. I have the first four signed and am hoping to meet him again to get the others signed one day. I had got the new Lies Sleeping from the library and as it had been reserved then had to read it and return. It is another enjoyable one in the series, not quite as good as the Furthest Station but still has lots of life left in the series.

Only one fiction book this month, which was All Rivers Run Free by Natasha Carthew. This is a really good dystopian future about a young girl who decides to head back home across a shattered Cornish landscape. Well worth reading.

I didn’t get to read the Baillie Gifford Shortlist before they announced the prize but did finally get to another this month with the final two still reserved from the library. Stephen R. Platt has written an interesting book about the Chinese and British war called Imperial Twilight. It covers the Opium War and events leading up to it and signifies the beginning of the end of China’s Golden Age. I liked it, but it did feel a bit long.

I read three books that don’t really fit in any sort of category, really. Amateur by Thomas Page McBee is about his journey learning to box for a charity match. People have done this in the past, but McBee was a trans man and the people training him didn’t know. Really nicely written book. I had read the Book of Tides a couple of years ago, so was quite pleased to find The World of Tides in the library. This second book by William Thomson is similar to the first, lots of infographics and details on tides and waves around the world. I love books on Language and whenever Paul Anthony Jones (Haggard Hawks) writes one, you know it is going to be good. Around the World in 80 Words doe not disappoint and it will take you around the globe discovering the words that we have pilfered for our own use.

      

Three books that bridge between landscape and memoir. First up was The Dark Stuff by Donald S. Murray which is a celebration of the worlds peatlands and the story of his growing up next to one. Really enjoyed this. Whitney Brown is an American who ended up in Wales after seeing a man make a drystone wall. Her book, Between Stone And Sky, tells her story of learning to love in the Welsh hillsides. The Old Weird Albion is Justin Hoppers walk back through his family history and at the same time his exploration of the chalk hills that make the South Downs, culminating with him standing on Beachy Head where a family tragedy happened. Slightly surreal and very good.

      

I read two very different memoirs too. Swell by Jenny Landreth is what she calls a waterbiography. I this she recounts the history of women swimming and the things that they had to overcome to be able to get into the water. In amongst all this, we hear of her own story of swimming. Really enjoyable. It is the tenth year for the Wellcome book prize and I was on the book tour reading one of the books from the first year, called Illness. This book by Havi Carel is a philosophical look at long term illness and it is also a very personal diary of her own illness.

   

I had been sent a review copy of Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson and it fits with my aim of trying to read at least one poetry book each month. It was quite a challenging read and I prefered the second half of the book to the first. Good though.

I finally finished the last of the Royal Society Books from the shortlist last year, The Beautiful Cure by Daniel Davis. in this he looks at how our immune systems work and how these natural defences keep us alive. The next was a book that my wife wanted to read and after she had read it I thought that I would before it went back to the library. In Inferior, Angela Saini looks at how men and women are different, but also how women have been marginalised in science and life in general. Though it was very well written with some solid evidence behind her findings.

   

January is always a travel month as it is when the shortlists are announced for the Stanford Travel Writing Awards. If you hadn’t heard, I am an actual judge for one of the shortlists, but first I had been kindly sent the two new  Nigel Barley books and also the first that have all been republished by Eland. They all look magnificent together. The first, The Innocent Anthropologist, takes us to Africa and the Dowayo tribe in Cameroon and his first experience at fieldwork as an anthropologist. In A Plague of Caterpillars, he returns to the same village to see if he can witness a ceremony that only takes place every seven or eight years. His final book from Eland takes him to Indonesia to visit the Sulawesi tribe and he brings them back to London to show their skills off.

     

Two other travel books this month were The White Darkness a biography of the adventurer, Henry Worsley, and his travels across Antarctica pushing his body to the ultimate limit. The final travel book was one from the Stanford Dolman shortlist, Dancing Bears: True Stories about Longing for the Old Days by Witold Szabłowski and I won’t say any more about this until the winner is announced. Reviews and an interview with Nigel coming soon.

  

My book of the month was Not a Hazardous Sport. It is really funny and you can see how his writing improved from the first two.

What did you read this month? Did you have a favourite? Let me know in the comments below.

The Old Weird Albion by Justin Hopper

4 out of 5 stars

There are two places that I know well on the South Downs, Ditchling Beacon that I remember camping on one night in the late summer, and the other is Beachy Head. I remember walking up the hill to the top to look out and being terrified as a boy of going anywhere near the edge. It is Beachy Head where the American writer and artist Justin Hopper begins his book with his grandfather’s first wife, Doris Hopper, seen standing at the edge of the cliff and in the next moment then seen to be falling. This act would leave an echo in his family history that almost no one would speak of.

His journey to find her will take him along the chalk ridge from Winchester to the sea. Along the way, he meets pagans, eco-therapists and someone who knows something about crop circles. But this is not just about the people, it is also the landscape that Hopper wants to discover more about. Where I live at the moment has lots of history draped over the landscape and it turns out that Sussex is not a lot different to Dorset. There are layers and layers, some more visible than others; the landscape of cold rivers, standing stones, old churches and prehistoric remains that show how and where humanity has existed along this route and the pagan elements that existed for hundreds of years that are still present if you know where to look.

As Hopper unravels his complex family history to find out more about the tragic death that was not spoken of, he ventures into the surreal and the unknown. All the way through the book he uncovers more details about Doris, giving him a glimpse of her life and up to the point she stood at the top of the cliff. As an American with English relatives, he has some of a sense of who we are as a people, but he can also take a wider perspective too on our culture and foibles. I ended up liking this a lot without having a sense of being able to say absolutely why, but it is probably the mix of personal discovery and his explorations of the landscapes. As he travels the thousand-year-old paths over the chalk downs it really is the foundation and bedrock of the book. As a little aside, I really liked the brilliant illustrations from the artist Mairead Dunne at the beginning of each chapter.

The Met Office Advises Caution by Rebecca Watts

3 out of 5 stars

This was just a chance pick up in the library, the cover appealed and the title of the collection was intriguing. That and I have been trying to read more poetry, it seemed to be worth a go. Whilst there are some poems in here that have some roots in the natural world, there are others that source material from others subjects that are unexpected, for example, Christmas, maps, milk the hare and insomnia to name a few. This approach to poems about unusual subjects means that she can play with the structure of the verse on the page.

 

The leaves are turning and the trees

are shaking them off. Bonfire smoke

between us like a promise lingers.

It is a very different way of writing compared to say, Alice Oswald, one of the other nature poets that I have read and I thought that it was an interesting poetry collection. As with others that I have read, there were some I loved and others I found harder to fathom, but as with all poetry, I read it seems to fill a necessary gap in my reading.

Three Favourite Poems:

The Ways, Map

Hawk-Eye

Turning

Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson

4 out of 5 stars

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

Almost all of the poetry I had read up until now has been contemplative and meditative on landscape, life and other matters that have trouble the poet in question. Vertigo & Ghost is utterly different to anything I have read poetry-wise. Fiona Benson’s new collection is divided into two parts, but before that begins with a poem called Ace of Bass. This concerns some girls on a tennis court who can feel the hormones coursing through themselves as they awaken sexually.

 

Hormones poured into me

Like an incredible chemical cocktail

 

The first part consists of 30 odd poems about Zeus. These are powerful, visceral prose that portrays him as a serial rapist, where woman are prey and sex is weaponised. The anger in these poems is quite something, but it is a response to the modern world where women are still subject to personal attacks on a daily basis.

The second half of the book is a much more personal reflection on her life, with poems on family, depression and the delights and fears of motherhood. It is a much slower pace unlike the first part that had a great sense of urgency to it,

For we are tracks in the dew

Vanishing at dawn,

We are mist, we are rain,

We are gone

This is not the easiest read for anyone who, like me, hasn’t read much poetry, but these things need to be read. I really liked what they had done with the physical layout of the words for some of the poems, it added a certain amount of dynamics to the page that added to the fieriness of the prose. I much preferred the second half of the book to the first, but it is a book I will be keeping and will read again.

My three favourite poems were:

Wood Song

Almond Blossom

Blue Heron

Swell by Jenny Landreth

4 out of 5 stars

Swimming seems to be a big thing now days, there are a plethora of books about people finding solace in the waves or ponds around our country, but if you go back far enough you would find that swimming was only a male preserve and rich men only too a lot of the time. Women didn’t even get the choice, being found in the water could lead to fines or even arrest. It took until the 1930s before women were granted equal access to the wet stuff.

In this Waterbiography, Landreth explores the ways that women have pushed to be allowed to swim in the same places as men and how access was reluctantly given. She highlights those women who have taken them on at their own records across the channel and other endurance events, fought against overt discrimination just for the right to swim. In amongst these social battles are some amazing women who would not take no for an answer, some pretty dire swimming costumes and Landreth’s own personal journey swimming in lidos.

It is a really enjoyable book, and well worth reading. Landreth has a seriously dry sense of humour as well as has some fairly forthright feminist views. However, given some of the petty reasons that women were denied that right to swim, you can see why.

2019 Reading Intentions

I know we are three-quarters of the way through January! I had meant to do this closer to the beginning of the month and even prepared a list of things to write about, but with one thing and another meant that I couldn’t get to it. So here we go.

I only managed to read eight books last year for my The World From My Armchair Challenge which was pathetic. I have though been accumulating books that I am fully intending on reading towards it this year, and have managed two so far in January. Still one of the greatest pleasures of the challenge is finding the books to match against a country, especially when you find an out of print book in a second-hand bookshop. Ones on the list to read this year include:

Facing the Congo
Red Tape and White Knuckles: One Woman’s Motorcycle Journey Through Africa
The Nomad’s Path: Travels in the Sahel
Desert Travels: Motorbike Journeys in the Sahara and West Africa
Warriors: Life And Death Among The Somalis
The Places in Between
Not a Hazardous Sport: Misadventures of an Anthropologist in Indonesia
Hokkaido Highway Blues
In Search of Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared
Gatecrashing Paradise: Adventures in the Maldives
Finding George Orwell in Burma
White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas
Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka
Slow Train to Guantanamo
The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands
The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas
Bitter Lemons of Cyprus
Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece
Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and its World Cup Dream
Journey Through Europe
The Way Of The World: Two Men In A Car From Geneva To The Khyber Pass
Sacred Sierra: A Year on a Spanish Mountain
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind The Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
Between River and Sea, Encounters in Israel and Palestine
Mirror to Damascus
Voyageur: Across the Rocky Mountains in a Birchbark Canoe
A Pattern of Islands
A Footnote to History Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa
Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic
Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons
The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe
Amber, Furs and Cockleshells: Bike Rides with Pilgrims and Merchants
Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Adventure, Danger and Survival
An Englishman in Patagonia
Living Poor: An American’s Encounter With Ecuador

Staying on the subject of travel books though, I am almost halfway through the shortlists for the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. This year I am an actual judge so have to finish them before a meeting with the other judges on the 15th February. Need to get a wriggle on!

Last year around 35% of my reading was by female authors and this year I would like to get it closer to 40%, so far it is going well.

I am intending on reading a poetry book each and every month

I want to read more BAME authors this year because we all should and if more people are reading them, then publishers will start to look at their work. A good place to start, especially if you like nature writing, is https://www.thewillowherbreview.com

Shortlists and longlists to read:

Wainwright

Royal Society,

Wellcome

Ballie Gifford

Arthur C Clarke

Way back in 2017 I had intended to read the remaining Discworld books that I hadn’t read so far. Failed again to do this in 2018, so this year I will be definitely be completing the Discworld ones that I haven’t read, starting with The Last Hero, and then going onto these:

The Wee Free Men
A Hat Full of Sky
Unseen Academicals
I Shall Wear Midnight
Snuff
Raising Steam
The Shepherd’s Crown

Please feel free to pester me to remind me that I haven’t read any.

I am grateful for every book I receive through the post from publishers, thank you to you all. But I am so behind on my review copies and after I have finished the Standford shortlists aim to make inroads into the seriously large backlog. Also library books, I have far too many, but this is a precious resource that this government seems to be hell-bent on destroying so I feel that we need to use them as much as possible before we lose them. It is my intention to get down to a sensible number of library books (Note, I may have a different number in mind to what Sarah thinks is a sensible number). I really need to read more of my own books that I have bought as I only read 18 in total last year. (Major Tsundoku around the house at the moment!! )

I only read seven science fiction in 2018. That will change as I have a large pile to get through! And some steampunk! This year. I promise. I have even bought two.

Somewhere in the middle of that lot, I will work, play games, watch some telly and even head to the pub every now and again.

What are you reading intentions?

All Rivers Run Free by Natasha Carthew

4 out of 5 stars

On the coast of Cornwall lives, Ia Pendilly. She is eking out an existence in a caravan in a Britain that is under military rule after being ravaged by floods and cut off from Europe. She is cohabiting with a bloke called Bran, who is some sort of cousin. He is involved in some fairly dodgy stuff as well as his regular job and treats her like dirt when he appears back at irregular intervals.

Whilst walking the beaches finds a child washed up who is just clinging onto life. Nursing this girl back to health opens once again that deep longing that she has had for a family, but she has never been able to carry any of the children she has had with Bran past a few weeks. A chance encounter with someone else shows that people can care for her and as the girl regains her strength it opens a memory and a longing for a past that she remembers. It will take courage though, and a journey downriver, with the hope of a better life.

This dystopian future set in Cornwall in the UK that that has been devastated by climate change and a collapse in society is quite a shocking read. As Ia and Jenna head south across this landscape, Carthew has captured this broken countryside well it is full of passionate and lyrical prose, which is understandable given her background as a poet who spends as much of her time outdoors as she can. It reminded me of The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Nominton where his third and final story in that book is of a landscape that has been irreversibly changed from what we have today. Definitely, an author to read more of.

The House On Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell

3.5 out of 5 stars

On a bitterly cold night, three seemingly unconnected events happen. Lord Strythe who is being watched by Octavia Hillingdon who thinks she is onto a story, vanishes into the night. In his home, a seamstress who is there to make alterations to a finely crafted gown is locked into the attic room to carry out her duties. She has been careful to disguise her pain in front of the butler from the words sewn into her own flesh, but she climbs through the window onto the sill before turning and jumping. That same night, Gideon Bliss seeks shelter from the snow in a Soho church, where he finds Angie Tatton, a former love of his, lying before the altar. In her delirium, he hears snatches of phrases about black air and Spiriters before he is knocked out. When he comes to she is no longer there.

In the cold light of day, Inspector Cutter of Scotland Yard begins his investigation into the suspicious death of Eleanor Tull and the disappearance of Angie Tatton. Gideon Bliss offers to help given his personal connection and Cutter is reluctant at first, but eventually relents. As they start to find out more about the people affected, they hear rumours of a shadowy group of men that may be the Spiriters. Octavia Hillingdon’s own research for her paper on the group who claim to be stealing souls is rapidly heading to a similar conclusion as Cutter and Bliss, that all these threads lead to the mysterious house on Vesper Sands

I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of these Victorian Gothic melodramas, but this came highly recommended by Melissa Harrison, no less. And O’Donnell has done a pretty good job with this one. He captures the atmosphere of the places really well, the brooding and pervasive dampness of London fogs, the bleakness of the Kent coast in winter coupled with strong flawed characters and blended all those elements with a reasonable plot and a sprinkling of supernatural otherness that don’t undermine the plausibility of the story. I thought it was worth reading and if you have read an loved The Essex Serpent and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock then this will be right up your darkened alley.

Between Sky and Stone by Whitney Brown

3.5 out of 5 stars

There is something about drystone wall that fit the countryside they inhabit. They are self-supporting structures that look simple to make, however, it is a craft that takes a while to master to ensure that they are strong and safe. Making them look beautiful though is another level up again. At the age of twenty-six, Whitney Brown had never seen a dry stone wall, let alone met a met a dry-stone waller. But chance meant that whilst helping at the Smithsonian Folk Festival she was introduced to a contingent of Welsh people including a female blacksmith and a man called Jack. 

She was going through an emotional time and feeling the urge to smash things with a hammer would stop by to learn a little about how it was done. As they got talking they started to learn more about each other’s home country and by the end of the festival, Brown knew that all she wanted to head to the Welsh hills to learn about this craft. Declining a position at the Smithsonian, her parents tried to dissuade her from heading across the Atlantic, but she was smitten by the look of the countryside and could not think of any other way of quenching her burning desire on how to learn how to make dry stone walls.

Dry stone walling though is a tough job, but Brown grew to love it. The physical effort of shifting tonnes of stones took its toll on her body along with the wear and tear on her hands. She grew to love the countryside that she ventured out in every day, often getting cold and frequently wet (especially in Wales). She had the companionship of Jack who was twice her age, but more importantly the fellowship of the women in the local area who took her under their wings and carried her in her lowest ebbs.

This is a warm and touching memoir of a lady who completely fell in love with a country and a craft. It is raw and emotional too, as she wears her heart on her sleeve for a lot of the book, detailing the positive and the negatives of being so far from home and in the company of strangers. She was determined to take back what she has learnt on the hillsides of Wales and make a career from back in America, and it is something she has achieved judging by the impressive structures completed on her website.. She is one impressive lady who has the eye of an artist and the muscles of a waller.

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