Category: Book Musings (page 1 of 9)

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?


Book Musings – February 2019

For such a short month, February seemed to last for ages. I spent a lot of time heading from Dorset to London too, three times for work and a couple for personal reasons, one of which was to judge the Stanford Dolman award. More on that in a later post, after it has been printed in NB Magazine. Anyway onto the books that I read in February. I managed to read 17 in the end. First up are my fiction reads


I was recommended The Hours by Michael Cunningham by a friend on twitter. The library had a copy so I thought, I’d give it a go. It is three stories all intertwined together but focused on the book Mr Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I have read one of his others, and really liked it, but this didn’t do it so much for me. Maybe it was because of the Woolf links as the only book of hers that I have read I could not get along with. I really like spy fiction, but most of what is out there, is broadly similar. The latest book, from Sarah Armstrong, The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt              Fiction is the story of a woman who is kicked out of university and ends up marrying a childhood friend in a marriage of convenience before heading out to Moscow, where she becomes unintentionally embroiled in an espionage scandal. I also read one of the fiction offerings from the Wellcome longlist, Astoturf. This book by Matthew Sperling is about a character called Ned who isn’t getting the girls and is stuck in a dead end job. He is persuaded to try taking a short course in steroids to improve his physique. One thing leads to another and he starts a website selling his own brand of performance drugs. Very much a blokish book and I wasn’t that impressed.

In my reading challenges, I had promised to read the Discworld books that I hadn’t this year. The Last Hero was the first from that list and in true Terry Pratchett for it did not disappoint. Very funny and a tiny parody of life on our world too. I have been following Gareth L Powell on Twitter for a while now and was fortunate to be sent his book, Embers of War, last year. Didn’t get to read it until I picked it up when we were away for the weekend and heading up into London. This happened to be the weekend he was at the Forbidden Planet promoting his new book, Fleet of Knives, so I popped in to see him to buy a copy and to get both books signed. He is a genuinely nice guy and well worth following for his always positive posts. Anyway, the book, Embers of War is a book about a ship with a sparse crew on board who are there to help other ships in danger. When they are called to assist a ship in distress they don’t fully realise what they are getting into and it is not long before they realise they are right in the middle of a fast-escalating war. Really good stuff and I am looking forward to reading his next book.


Not really sure where to slot this one, but Silence: In The Age Of Noise is Erling Kagge’s thoughts and musings on the absence of noise and how it can benefit us. It is a beautifully produced book with lots of things to ponder.

There is a lot of talk about how the natural world can help you and how our lack of it is affecting mental health and wellbeing. This is brilliantly covered in the book, The Nature Fix. But how do you set about rediscovering something that we have been ignoring for the past few years? Well, Simon Barnes’ book, Rewild Yourself is a set of  23 ideas to help get you outside and making nature more relevant to you. There are lots of simple and inexpensive and most importantly practical tips to assist when you venture outside. I have lived some of my life near the coast and was really looking forward to reading the debut book by Charlotte Runcie called Salt On Your Tongue: Women And The Sea. This memoir is about her personal journey through pregnancy in the context of her love of the sea. She brings into it all sort of stories from myth and folklore as well as recent history. Really liked the writing style of it too, so if you have any longing for the coast then this could be for you.


My poetry book this month was Green Noise by the amazing Jean Sprackland. I had only read her non-fiction before now and now I have read this beautiful collection will read her other poetry books.

The Stanford Dolman shortlisted books are always worth reading, and Lights in the Distance by Daniel Trilling was one that I was looking forward to from there. It is about the realities of migration told through the personal stories of the people he meets. Powerful stuff and should be essential reading for lots of people.

I also read the others on the shortlist. Damian Le Bas’ book is called The Stopping Places where he travels around the UK and Southern France looking for the laybys where his Gypsy people paused in their journeys. Fascinating book on the almost hidden sub-culture of our country.  The Ottoman Empire was in existence for several hundred years before collapsing after the First World War. Even though it has been gone for a century, if you know where to look you can still see that the traces and echoes of the past are still there. Scott travels through twelve countries looking and talking to the people that have been displaced and who are still feeling the effects of the collapse. The Rhine is Europe longest river, reaching from the North Sea, across Germany and deep into the Alps. Ben Coates has written an entertaining book of his travel from his adopted home along the river to this source. Not quite as good as his first, but still worth reading though.


As well as the Stanford Dolman books that I was reading to judge, I also have read the Adventure travel shortlist and the next three are from that. A short book about a woman who inadvertently adopts a dog by Ishbel Holmes is as much about her torrid past as it is about Lucy the street dog. Really enjoyable and uplifting story. I have read one of Ben Fogle’s books before on Land Rovers, which was ok, but not brilliantly written. Up, about his training and successful attempt to climb Everest is a little better. I particularly liked the other side of the story told by his wife, Marina. It added a better depth to the story. As an adventurer, Levison Wood is hard to beat. He has walked halfway across Africa, across the rooftop of the world and through the jungles of Central America. This latest book of his travel around the Arabian peninsula doesn’t have a TV series to accompany it but is still worth reading none the less.


After the Beast from the East I was hoping for another pile of snow this year, sadly we only got the merest dusting. But the day it did snow seemed to be a good day to start reading The Little Book of Snow by Sally Coulthard. This beautifully produced book was a delightfully cornucopia of all sorts of facts and anecdotes about the white stuff. It makes a beautiful gift book.

My book of the month was The Last Hero. I have forgotten just how good STP could be. So do you like the look of any of these?

Baring Your Bookish Soul

I found this via a Facebook group that I am in called A World Adventure by Book. In the post, Beth had listed 10 bookish facts about herself and you can read this here.  It was linked to a post that other bloggers and booktubers have made called 25 bookish facts about me. From what I can see I may have missed the boat on this one as a lot of them were around four years ago. However, I thought it was a good idea, and so have sat down and thought about what would be my bookish confessions and it tied in with a series of posts that I wanted to do in 2019 explaining why I am a reader and what makes me tick.

So here we go:


1. I have been a reader for as long as I can remember. I remember when I was eight I was given a book by my teacher at the time, Mrs Wilson. It was called The Otterbury Incident and the author is Cecil Day-Lewis. It was a book set in a fictional town in the aftermath of World War II. I sat down to read it after tea and pretty much inhaled the whole book that evening. Took it back the following morning and she didn’t believe that I had read it the previous evening, so I recounted the story. It kind of dawned on me then that I was a faster reader than most others.


2. If pushed I could probably narrow my favourite books down to 50 or so. But I don’t just have one favourite, so don’t ask.


3. The same applies to favourite authors. I might be able to narrow it down to two or three per genre, but every time a new author appears they get added on and none gets dropped. I am possibly slightly obsessive about reading every book that a favourite author has written.


4. I do like reading fiction, but the majority of my reading is non-fiction, in particular, travel, natural history and science. I have always tried to read the shortlists for my favourite prizes, The Wainwright and the Stanford Dolman, but until this year, never did I think that I would be a judge for one of them. I really enjoyed the experience and would recommend it if you have the chance.


5. I have been fortunate enough to have met lots of authors in my time and now have a lot of signed books. I mean a lot too. Horatio Clare was the last author that I met and I got him to sign eight of his books that I had taken up to London with me. I took a massive bag to the Wainwright Prize and came back with them signed too! I even have two signed Terry Pratchett Books that I have found in second hand and charity shops. Very lucky to have those. It might be coming to be an obsession.


6. I have nine bookshelves at home, most of which are double stacked. At the moment only one has some semblance of order on it, and that is the one where all my natural history and landscape books. All my Pratchetts are on one shelf with the Neil Gaiman books and some travel and a random selection of others. One day I will get a little bit more organised. There is no such thing as too many books, however, there is such a thing as not enough bookshelves.


7. I once set fire to a book. And it was a library book too! I was reading a book at the dining room table and managed to lean it back over the lit candle! Oops. The library staff were very good about it and managed to repair it.


8. I haven’t dared count the books around the house, but we are suffering from a severe case of tsundoku. I reckon that I must have over a 1000 books spread over the house ( and half a shelf on my daughter’s bookcase too). It does drive my long-suffering wife, Sarah, slightly mad… It is not hoarding, if it’s books, so they tell me.

9. The hardback / paperback / kindle / audiobook argument is ridiculous. I would rather see people reading in whatever format they choose, as it is the reading of different ideas and perspectives that is the important thing. I do have a preference to buy paperback books though as I can get slightly more of them on my shelves.


10. I am slightly addicted to spreadsheets for my numerous booklists. I have one for everything that I have ever read, one for my library book loans, one that has several publishers entire book catalogues that I am slowly reading my way through. There is another for the book challenges that I do every year, one each for the awards that I follow.


11. I won a prize at school for the best project for a write up for a week away that my year did in Wales. The prize was a book token and I bought an Arthur Ransome book, Missee Lee and I still have it.


12. I don’t think I read a lot, given the size of my backlog. Last year I read 200, but normally (if it is normal…) I read 190 per year.

13. I have not read a single line of Shakespeare since school. The dreadful English teacher we had then managed to put me off them completely. The same applies to classics like Jane Eyre. I just have no desire to read them at all. I read Of Mice and men for the GCE (yes I am that old) and have rediscovered the delights of John Steinbeck and similar authors like Geroge Orwell and Graham Greene


14. Discovering a new author to me  is a thing of joy,  it means that I have a whole backlist to explore


15. I don’t really have a favourite place to read, as I can read pretty much anywhere, but if I had one it would be the conservatory. I used to read in there, but there is a drum kit in there at the moment. That will be going soon, so I can get a chair to go back in there.


16. It is not just books I have a thing about, I really love bookmarks too. I have hundreds of them as I make a point of helping myself to them when in bookshops and libraries. I have got all sorts, some beautiful and some not quite so practical, I even have a Chinese brass one that sits with part of it over the spine. I am not a corner folder as some are. My feeling is that if it is your book you are fully entitled to do exactly what you want to it. However, if it is my book that you have borrowed, then I expect you to look after it, return it and ideally return it undamaged.


17. I am fortunate to receive a lot of review copies through from publishers generous to send me them. Some of them I keep and I donate a lot to my local library after I have read them so others can borrow and enjoy them.


18. I am a big advocate for libraries and have two library cards. They are the best free bookshops in town. Not only do you get to take a book away with you gratis, but the author gets a little payment for each and everyone that you borrow. I am a member of the committee of the Friends groups for my local library too and we try to organise things for members every other month, support the library by buying covers for donated books and so on. Visit your library as the more people that use them means that it will be harder for the government to get rid of them; they are a vital resource for all of society and civilisation.

19. I rarely read hyped books. Mostly because they are in genres that I am not that worried about, but also because I have found the ones that I have read in the past have not been worth it.


20. I spend way too long on Good Reads. It is not a site for everyone, but it has been great to organise my virtual shelves into some order.


21. Love bookshops and could spend far too long in them, and too much money. I have pretty much stopped buying books off Amazon now, using them for second-hand books only. Support your local independent bookshop they are a vital resource for your community too.


22. I used to struggle through and finish a book, but with soooooo many to read, a book has to really prove that I need to read it. I give them three chapters or around 50 pages before setting it aside. Sometimes I will pick it up again, but more often than not I won’t. The flip side is that I won’t slate a book, but as a reader I reserve the right not to like it.


23. I buy a lot of books to give away to people as presents. No surprise there, I make sure I buy the nicely presented hardback book and before wrapping it up, I read it. I thought I was the only one to do this. Turns out I am not and this seems to be a thing with others too. When my children were younger they would occasionally tell the recipient of the gift that ‘dad’s just read that’… Ah well.


24. I love Terry Pratchett’s books and when he passed away I was genuinely was upset about that. He is a genius for comedy and parody and has an ability to hold a mirror to modern society to show our flaws and good points. I have got all the Discworld series but still have not finished them. Had been meaning to do it a couple of years ago and finally last month I got back to reading them. This year I will finish the books that I have not read from the 41 in the series. Then I intend to start them again as they give me so much reading pleasure.


25. I will often have five or six physical books with me at any one time.

An Interview with Matt Gaw

Today is the publication day of The Pull of the River by Matt Gaw in paperback. Here is the interview that I did with him when it came out in hardback and first appeared on NB Magazine.

Thank you for writing an entertaining book with a refreshing take on the natural world

Thank you for your support and kind words Paul, it was strange sending the book out into the world – like sending a child to school and hoping it doesn’t get bullied!


Of all the rivers you paddled and talked about in the book, which was your favourite?

It’s really hard to say, I know it sounds a bit of a cop-out answer, but all of the rivers were special in their own way. Each has its own character, its own history. There were definitely highlights though. When we paddled the Wye, it was glorious weather and it really is a beautiful piece of water – running through gorges and wooded valleys.

But I also have a special place in my heart for the Lark, my local river. We canoed it in December and January, sleeping in hammocks as the temperature dropped to -7 and sections of the river were really neglected – straightened, hemmed in with concrete and full of litter. But seeing it flow through my home town it is a reminder of how adventure can be closer than you think. I guess it sums up for me how rivers can be secret windows into a different world.


Have you got any other rivers in mind to paddle this summer?

Yes, I’ll be heading down to the Dart at some point and I also want to go north to find some wild water. I’ll also be paddling some of the rivers that are closer to home. There are still some in Suffolk I haven’t been on and it’s always fascinating to re-explore places you thought you knew.


Making your own canoe as James did, is not going to be for everyone; are there ways that people can try out canoeing relatively inexpensively?

Yes definitely! There are lots of clubs up and down the country where you can learn or rent canoes or kayaks (whatever floats your boat). And if you don’t want to join a club, there are many stretches of river where you can hire for a few hours or even a week – they’ll supply everything you need.


And what sort of equipment would you recommend for those who were wishing to make the investment to start off with?

We were definitely unprepared when we started out. We borrowed life vests and paddles and stowed all our stuff in carrier bags. We eventually upgraded our kit (after learning the hard way) but it doesn’t have to be expensive. In terms of essentials, life vests are a must and I’d recommend good dry bags and a swim case for your phone. If you want to hit the water in the winter I would also invest in a drysuit: it’s the most expensive piece of equipment we bought but well worth it.


 If you could canoe some of the rivers in Europe, what rivers would be top of your list?

I would love to paddle the Danube. Not only is it somewhere that John MacGregor (who pretty much founded modern canoeing) explored in the Rob Roy, but it is such a varied landscape. I’ve got my eye on some North American rivers too, places that are boundaries and frontiers I just find so interesting.


I think that you are one of the first new clutch of authors from Melissa Harrison’s excellent seasonal anthologies to have a book come out from there; who else would you like to see have an opportunity to write a book next?

It’s hard to choose as there were so many wonderful writers in those anthologies. I am so grateful to Melissa and Elliott & Thompson for including me with them. I would definitely love to see more work from Nicola Chester and Kate Blincoe – two writers who have inspired and supported me.

Do you have somewhere particular to write, or are you an author who can write anywhere?

I can, or try to, write anywhere. I guess I’m nervous about putting writing on a pedestal.  I am currently trying to sort out a better space at home but I do worry that if I only write in one place I’ll find it easier to avoid it!


If you were to recommend three natural history books, what would they be?

For me A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold was formative, and I go back to it now. That line, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds” still resonates.

Notes from Walnut Tree Farm is probably my favourite book of Roger Deakin’s and again, something I often return to. It really evokes a wild life.

And, I’m not sure if I could call it a straight natural history book, but I often find myself thinking of Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. That sense of flight from the world, a keenness for adventure and experience is inspiring, even if does turn into a tragedy.


Do you have a second book in the pipeline yet?

Yes, I’m really excited about it. It’s a project I’m working on with Elliott & Thompson and due out in autumn 2019.


Which author(s) do you turn to for inspiration?

There are many, both non fiction and fiction. Paul Evans (Field Notes from the Edge), Amy Liptrot (The Outrun), Roger Deakin. But also Annie Proulx, Graham Swift, Andrew Michael Hurley and Daisy Johnson.


What book are you currently reading?
I’m reading a couple. Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello, which is a wonderful collection of essays about different animals that have been named and immortalised by humans. I’m also devouring Daisy Johnson’s new novel Everything Under, which comes out this summer. I love the sense of river damp it evokes. Takes me right back to the canoe.


An Interview with Nigel Barley

Nigel Barley was born in Kingston-on-Thames in 1947 and studied Modern Languages at Cambridge before completing a doctorate in Social Anthropology at Oxford. He taught at University College London and the Slade School of Art before joining The Department of Ethnography at the British Museum in 1988 where he remained for some twenty years. After several academic works, he wrote The Innocent Anthropologist in 1983. It contradicted so many cherished assumptions that it led to calls for his expulsion from the professional body of anthropologists. He remained, however, and now the book has been translated into some twenty-five languages and is often the first work embraced by students of anthropology in their studies. He left the Museum in 2002 and is now a professional writer, living in London and Indonesia. His most recent work is Island of Demons, a fictionalised treatment of the life of the painter Walter Spies.

Eland have just re-published two more of his books, A Plague of Caterpillarss and Not a Hazardous Sport to go with The Innocent Anthropologist that they republished back in 2011

1 Have you been back out to Cameroon since the books were written?

I went back some years later when there was a prospect of making a film about the Dowayos. The film never came to anything but there had been enormous changes.


2 Does the Dowayo society still exist, or has it been subsumed into wider Cameroon society?

There was a refugee problem, MSF were running a big operation and warring factions from Chad had all been lumped together in one place and were killing each other. With Boko Haram now operating further north and anglophone fighters further south, I imagine those changes have continued. For anthropologists, the world is actually a much more dangerous place than it was when I was young. There are more guns and more political resentments about.


3 You mentioned in the first book that you had to post the films back to the UK. Did you loose any when you did this?

Extraordinarily, I never lost a single film – though many arrived without stamps – these having been reacquired by postal officials along the way. Since then, I have lost many myself, having left them in university slide projectors or publishers’ offices.


4  Did you ever get to witness the ceremony that you went back out to Cameroon for?

I never did get to see the actual circumcision though I saw it mimed as part of other ceremonies.


5 Was the African bureaucracy one of the worst that you encountered?

Cameroonian bureaucracy was absolutely the worst as it was conducted with extreme bad humour. In Indonesia, I once spent three weeks getting an official letter from a ministry, confirming that I didn’t need a letter from that ministry but even the civil servants thought that was funny and we laughed about it.


6 Were there any stories that you had that didn’t make it into the book?

When I went back the last time, our luggage was impounded at the airport. We finally discovered that this was because our reason for visit was described as ‘making an ethnographic film’. The officer in charge read it as ‘making a pornographic film’.


7 Have you ever been on a horse since Indonesia?

Never! And never will again. I have been on an elephant. Much better!


8 Did you ever bring other people back to the UK to experience some of our life here, or were the Torajan the only tribe?

The Torajans were the only ones I actually brought back but, naturally, I have met lots of people from distant parts who happened to be in London. I once found a family of Indonesians from one of the more remote islands lost on the Circle Line and brought them home and they stayed for two weeks.


9 Are you still in contact with any people from the villages that you visited in the three books?

Not with anyone from Africa but I am still in contact with Torajans. I added a postscript to ‘Not a Hazardous Sport’ about that.


10 In the modern interconnected world, do you think that anthropology still has things to discover?

Anthropology is no longer about finding people who are still ‘uncontacted’ but of finding better ways of understanding what it means to be human. I’ve always been obsessed with the question of why anthropologists work on people they know nothing about as professional strangers rather than acting as their own ethnographic informants on the places they grew up in and know perfectly. One of the ways I tried to deal with that is in a book called, ‘Coronation Chicken’ trying to see my own childhood (50’s and 60’s Southern England) as a foreign country.


11 Do you think that anthropology will look at the tribes that now exist in the subcultures of cities?

It’s already doing that.


12 Are there any societies that you wished you had been able to visit in an anthropological capacity?

The real challenge would be ET. That would put all our assumptions, won over millennia of exploration, back in the melting pot.


13 If you have an opportunity to travel without doing fieldwork, where do you like to go to?

I always travelled seeking to find the place where I felt I truly belonged. For me, I discovered it in Indonesia. I love it and feel very much at home there. It’s beautiful, the food is great and the people are the nicest in the world.


14 Which author(s) do you turn to for inspiration?

Nowadays, I’m more a novelist than an anthropologist or a travel writer, so I like to travel in the imagination. For anthropology, it was Claude Levi-Strauss that brought me to the subject though I ended up approaching it from a very different angle than he did. I still feel we have much to learn from his vision of the world and I wrote a piece about that for his hundredth birthday. It appeared under the heading, ‘Levi-Strauss Lives’. Unfortunately, he had died the day before. The best novelistic travel writer is Anthony Burgess who spent years in Malaya and Brunei but with a very novelistic eye. His ‘Malayan Trilogy’ and ‘Earthly Powers’ confront the difficulties of intercultural understanding as well as any anthropology ever did.


15 If you were to recommend three books, what would they be?

‘Earthly Powers’ by Burgess, Totemism’ by Levi-Strauss and ‘Primordial Characters’ by Rodney Needham.


16 What book(s) are you currently reading?

I’ve just finished ‘Pagan Light’ by Jamie James about the place of Capri in the Western imagination and some of the extraordinary characters that it attracted.


17 Do you have a favourite place to write?

At home in London. I’ve always been baffled by authors who go off to the Outer Hebrides or Tierra del Fuego to write. I’ve tried that. You spend two-thirds of the day keeping yourself fed and watered and, after writing two sides, you find you simply cannot write another word until you go and look something up at the British Library or go to one to of the major museums to see something crucial in the flesh. An exotic location is just a distraction. At home, you have everything you need already about you and you just have to have the courage to face the tyranny of the blank page without alibis.


18 Do you have another book in the pipeline?

I’ve just finished a book called’ The Ethnographic Seraglio’ about a 19th century English trader in the Indian Ocean who tried to establish himself in his own kingdom on a desert island with his 14 exotic ‘wives’. It ended badly, but I don’t need to tell you that.


Thank you to Nigel Barley for taking time to answer my questions and to Steph at Eland for arranging it all.


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.

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

Shortlists and longlists to read:


Royal Society,


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
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?

Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award Shortlists

There are Lots of excellent books to read on these shortlists announced today. The scary thing is that I am an official judge for the Stanford Dolman list!:


Ottoman Odyssey: Travels through a Lost Empire by Alev Scott

Lights In The Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe by Daniel Trilling

The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps by Ben Coates

Dancing Bears: True Stories about Longing for the Old Days by Witold Szablowski (translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd Jones)

The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain by Damian Le Bas

The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places by William Atkins


Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

The Madonna of The Mountains by Elise Valmorbida

Woman At Sea by Catherine Poulain

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma


The Secret Surfer by Iain Gately

Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth

Up: My Life’s Journey to the Top of Everest by Ben Fogle and Marina Fogle, Mark Fisher (photographer)

Arabia: A Journey Through The Heart of the Middle East by Levison Wood

Around the World in 80 Days: My World Record Breaking Adventure by Mark Beaumont

Me, My Bike and a Street Dog Called Lucy by Ishbel Holmes


Destination: Planet Earth by Jo Nelson, illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole

Alastair Humphreys’ Great Adventurers by Alastair Humphreys, illustrated by Kevin Ward

Explorers on Witch Mountain by Alex Bell

Atlas of Adventures: Wonders of the World by Ben Handicott, illustrated by Lucy Letherland

Journeys by Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Leo Hartas, Chris Chalik, Jon David and David Shephard

Maps of the United Kingdom by Rachel Dixon and Livi Gosling


The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands by Huw Lewis-Jones

The Hidden Tracks: Wanderlust – Hiking Adventures Off the Beaten Path by Cam Honan

Wonders: Spectacular Moments in Nature Photography by Rhonda Rubinstein and California Academy of Sciences

Maps of London and Beyond by Adam Dant, foreword by The Gentle Author

Escape by Bike: Adventure Cycling, Bikepacking and Touring Off-Road by Joshua Cunningham

The Golden Atlas: The Greatest Explorations, Quests and Discoveries on Maps by Simon & Schuster


Pasta, Pane, Vino: Deep Travels Through Italy’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding

Copenhagen Food: Stories, traditions and recipes by Trine Hahnemann, Photography by Columbus Leth

Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World by James & Tom Morton, Photography by Andy Sewell

Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes – Through Darkness and Light by Caroline Eden

Nightingales and Roses: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen by Maryam Sinaiee

Khazana: Saliha Mahmood Ahmed (Hodder & Stoughton) by Saliha Mahmood Ahmed


The Crossway by Guy Stagg

Step By Step by Jonathan Litton

Thinking on My Feet: The small joy of putting one foot in front of another by Kate Humble

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

Skybound: A Journey In Flight by Rebecca Loncraine

More details on this link:

2018 Books of the Year

2018 has been quite a year for reading really.  Went to two literary prize events, the Wellcome Prize and the Wainwright Prize, was a member of the official panel for the Young Writer award and got the briefest of mentions in the Sunday Times.

I reached the grand total of 200 books for the first time ever, and from those 200 I had twenty-one five star reads. I have featured eleven independent publishers on my blog too, each describing the unique way that they approach publishing books and finding authors who need to have a voice in this modern, multicultural country of ours. On to the books then.


First up are my fiction books. The Gallows Pole and  Beastings. They are both by Benjamin Myers and if you haven’t read them, then you need to read them as soon as possible.

I am an engineer in real life, and Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created The Modern World by Simon Winchester is a considered look at how almost everything that you touch or use has been created by engineers.

With The End In Mind by Kathryn Mannix is a book about a morbid and in modern society and almost taboo subject. This book needs to be read by many more people as Mannix shows that our last days on this planet need not be traumatic nor painful for the people that we are leaving behind.

I have never read Ring of Bright Water (have now got a copy, so it will be read at some point next year). Douglas Botting’s biography of  Gavin Maxwell tells the story of this man and holds no punches with regards to his attitude, flaws and brilliance.

I discovered Patrick Leigh Fermor a few years ago by accident after reading his biography by Artemis Cooper. I have since acquired most of his books and read a fair number of them. The biography of his wife is worth reading too, but I was delighted to receive a copy of The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor which is a celebration of her talents as a photographer. Edited and curated by Olivia Stewart & Ian Collins it should be an essential part of any Leigh Fermor’s fans library.


I read a lot of travel books and one essential place for the lover of travel writing to start is Eland. I have read several of theirs this year (and have a big pile still to read!!) but two that were outstanding were Forgotten Kingdom: Nine Years in Yunnan by Peter Goullart and Old Glory by Jonathan Raban. Both are brilliant books by two outstanding authors about two very different places.

Stanza Stones by Simon Armitage is a book about where poetry meets art and landscape. Just a thing of wonder.

I read a lot of natural history books as this is a subject that interests me. The natural world is a place of refuge for a lot of people now days and we all need to take time to get outdoors and walk through woodlands and sit by a river watching the water flow by. The Nature Fix by Florence Williams is a very well-written book with lots of examples of how the natural world can help people with mental health issues.


Two essential reads this year about the state of our natural world are Our Place by Mark Cocker and Wilding by Isabella Tree. The first is the perilous state that our wildlife is in at the moment and even though it is a polemic it should be compulsory reading by anyone with an interest in politics. Wilding is a different spin on the same crisis, in this Isabella tells the story of the decision to stop farming their land intensively and let their land revert to nature once again. They chose low impact animals and let them roam and watched in amazement as species they had never seen there appeared. The changes over a decade are quite staggering.


The next two that I really enjoyed reading were collections of writings from a wide range of authors. Both Ground Work and Cornerstones offer a range of subjects and perspectives from a complete range of authors. Both are good to dip into.


Of all the books that I read over the past twelve months, three soared above the others. Two are from Little Toller and are from their Monograph series. I have been fortunate enough to be sent some of these, but have now acquired the remainder in hardback to complete the collection:

This series is full of contemporary authors and their passions. Eagle Country by Seán Lysaght and Landfill by Tim Dee are fine additions to this and both are brilliant books about very different birds. Seán’s lyrical book is his story of looking for the places that the Golden and Sea Eagles used to live before they were eradicated from the West Coast of Ireland as well as the tentative steps that have been taken to re-introduce them. Landfill is about those chip stealing feathered hooligans that most people call seagulls. It seems to involve Tim spending a disproportionate amount of time at landfill sites spotting the rarities that appear with the more common gulls as well as discovering why gulls have gone from being a coastal bird to an urban bird.  Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? by Lev Parikian is his story of taking up the hobby of birdwatching again and setting himself the challenge of spotting 200 different species of birds over 12 months. It is a charming and very funny book.


The blurring of landscape, natural history and memoir writing is very common nowadays and there have been lots published this year. Three that are outstanding are Under The Rock by Benjamin Myers, 21st Century Yokel by Tom Cox and The Light In The Dark: A Winter Journal by Horatio Clare. Myers writing is quite something and his descriptions of Scout Rock in Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire, around where he lives is something else. Tom Cox does unconventional in a very unconventional way and this is his book about all manner of subjects, so if you want to read about cats, scarecrows and hear about his VERY LOUD DAD, this is a good place to begin. Lots of people find the darker nights of autumn and winter very hard to cope with; Horatio Clare is one of those. The Light In The Dark is a diary of how the long nights one winter almost consumed him and how with love from family and friends and the appropriate medical care got him out the other side.

So far I have only mentioned 20 books, which leaves one more which is my Book of 2018.

The Last Wilderness: A Journey into Silence by Neil Ansell is about him returning to the same part of Scotland. Each visit is in a different season and you feel the changes that have happened since he was last there. It feels like a spiritual journey too, as he connects deeply to the landscape each time he visits, but it is tinged with the remorse that he has of no longer being able to hear the birdsong. It is a beautiful book to read, he has a knack of teasing out all that he sees around him into the most exquisite prose.

2018 Book Stats

This past year has been my best ever for reading and I finished 200 books. This was eight more than last year. So here are my stats:

There is a slightly staggering total number of pages – 59181, and my monthly average was 16.7 books and I read this many each month:

January – 16.0

February – 17.0

March – 17.0

April – 20.0

May – 18.0

June – 17.0

July – 15.0

August – 17.0

September – 16.0

October – 18.0

November – 18.0

December – 11.0

Of those 200 books read:

Male Authors – 131

Female Authors – 69 i.e. 35%

I am aiming to get the number of female authors that I read up to nearer 40% in the future.

The split of books read

Review – 109 – 55%

Library – 73 – 37%

Own – 18 – 9%

I really need to read more of my own books that I have bought. (Major Tsundoku around the house at the moment!! )

As I say in my bio, travel and natural history are my favourite reads and this is shown in my totals at the end of the year. I have read more fiction this year thatn in 2017, too.

Genre                          Number of Books Read

Travel                          27

Natural History     27

Fiction                        25

Science                      13

Books                         12

History                     10

Biography               8

Miscellaneous      8

Science Fiction     7

Landscape              7

Fantasy                    5

Memoir                   5

Mental Health    5

Humour                 4

Poetry                    4

Weather               3

Language             3

Woodlands        3

Technology        3

Food                      3

Politics                2

Social History  2

Transport          1

Motorsport      1

True Crime        1

Photography    1

Engineering      1

Economics        1

Architecture    1

Cycling                1

Britain                 1

Dorset                 1

Maths                  1

Spying                 1

Craft                    1

Sport                   1

I read books from a  total of 92 publishers! Which slightly staggered me

Publishers                                       Number of Books Read

Bloomsbury Publishing        10

Canongate                                    8

Gollancz                                         7

Faber & Faber                            6

Unbound                                       6

Vintage                                          6

Eland                                              6

Little Toller                                 6

William Collins                         5

Head of Zeus                             5

Picador                                         5

Elliott & Thompson               5

Jonathan Cape                        5

Ebury Press                              4

Duckworth Overlook         4

Granta                                         4

Penguin                                      4

Doubleday                               3

The AA                                       3

Sandstone Press                  3

4th Estate                                3

Viking                                         2

Allen Lane                                2

National Trust                       2

Oneworld                                2

Transworld                             2

Haus Publishing                  2

Virago                                       2

Patrician Press                    2

Self Published                     2

Bluemoose Books            2

The Bodley Head              2

Hodder & Stoughton      2

Black Swan                           2

Profile Books                      2

John Murray                       2

Rider                                       2

W & N                                     2

Salt Publishing                  2

Bodleian Library              2

Modern Press                   2

Pan Macmillan                 2

W.W. Norton                    1

W&N                                     1

Serpents Tail                     1

Bloodaxe Books              1

Acorn                                    1

Paladin Books                  1

Yale                                       1

Fourth Estate                 1

Enitharmon Press        1

Full Circle                         1

Igloo Books                     1

Galileo Publishers       1

Macmillan                         1

Piatkus                               1

WH Allen                         1

Carcanet Press             1

Eye Books                        1

Profile                                 1

Influx Press                     1

Chatto & Windus        1

Dovecote Press            1

Random House            1

Yale Press                       1

Hamish Hamilton       1

Ikon Books                     1

Harvard University   1

Boxtree                           1

Constable                    1

Michael Joseph        1

Saraband                     1

WF Howes                1

Aurum Press            1

British Library        1

September Books  1

Yellow Jersey Press 1

Short Books            1

Bodleian Library    1

Simon & Schuster  1

Particular Books     1

Square Peg                1

Harvill Secker         1

Ballentine                 1

Orion                          1

I.B. Tauris                 1

Quadrille                 1

Tinder                       1

Scribner                  1

Titan Books          1

Nicholas Brealey 1

TOR                           1


« Older posts

© 2019 Halfman, Halfbook

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑