Category: Review (page 1 of 70)

The Golden Fleece by Esther Rutter

3.5 out of 5 stars

Growing up on a sheep farm in Suffolk and learning to spin weave and knit, meant that Esther Rutter has had wool running through her fingers since childhood. She has been a knitter for years and has had a fascination in the history of wool and the part it has played in the history of the UK.

However, no one had written about it from the behind a pair of needles. Moving to Scotland a few years ago meant there was a career gap and she seized the opportunity to do some research in the knitters.

Little did she know that it would be a journey around all of the UK, from the southern Channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey, across to Wales and back to the fens before heading north to Scotland. Each place that she visits is the opportunity to start a new knitting project so you hear and see in the photos the garments that she made, from funeral socks to a pussy hat, gloves to a cricket jumper and even knits herself a yellow bikini. She has another go at spinning again, with her mum re-teaching her some of the skills that she had long forgotten and knits a gansey for her father that uses a good couple of kilos of wool.

I thought that this was a very interesting take on the cultural history of our country. It was the woollen trade that made our country rich at the time and those financial influence affected all aspects of peoples lives. As well as the history, the author is prepared to make the things that she is finding out about and talk to the people who are keeping this little bit of our culture alive. I am not a knitter, (my wife is though) and it is something that has never really appealed as a hobby. Rutter has a strong narrative in the and I found this to be a fascinating book nonetheless.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

2.5 out of 5 stars

Cora is a slave on a plantation in Georgia. She has been abandoned there by her mother and the rest of the slaves treat her with contempt. Like most of she wishes she could be somewhere else, but most of all wishes she could be free. A fellow slave, Caesar, approaches her with details of a plan to escape. She is reluctant as capture means severe punishment and probably death. But as circumstances change, she reconsiders and decides to flee.

A contact takes them to the Underground Railroad, where they are placed on a train to Carolina. However, their owner is wanting them back and set off after them. They are relatively safe in South Carolina, as they are living under assumed names, but it isn’t safe there as she learns of a medical programme that will use her and others in an experiment. She is just in the process of planning to leave, but her owner arrives and she has a close escape and heads back to the railroad to go further north. She isn’t sure if she can keep running, but neither does she want to get caught.

In lots of ways, this is a powerful book about slavery. It doesn’t hold back on the brutal life that slaves had in America at that time and Whitehead has captured very well the fear that they had just existing and the daily terror that they had while on the run. Whist I felt for the characters and the trauma that they were going through, I found them a little two dimensional. I also didn’t find the plot that engaging and found the underground railroad quite implausible. I can kind of see why it won the Pulitzer, but not the Arthur C Clarke Award. Ah well, can’t love every book.

The Nature of Winter by Jim Crumley

4.5 out of 5 stars

Some people describe themselves as summer people, loving the heat and balmy days. Others prefer the spring with its new life and vitality. Autumn brings migration and a change in greens to browns and yellows and then there is Winter. It is the time of year that the countryside reveals its structure though, vegetation dies back and the skeletal outlines of trees are visible through the mist.

I like all the seasons, but winter I can love a loathe with equal measure. It used to be a mix of storms and bright, cold crisp days, but now seems to be endless grey and rain as the storms sweep in off the Atlantic to batter the south coast where I live. In Scotland, where Jim Crumley lives, it is much colder than here in Dorset. Even though he lives in a countryside that is deep in stasis, he knows the places to visit to see those eking out an existence at this time of the year.

In this book he takes us with him as he walks the in the hills, seeing eagles soaring high above the escarpments, watching deer as they graze the precious little nutrients left on the hills and seeking out the snow buntings. One philosophy that he wants to teach is that of sitting and waiting in a place and letting the wildlife come to you. Most of the time he sits and he waits and nothing much happens, but there are times when he has encounters with animals that are not expecting a human to be there that make the waits well worth it.

Crumley has a way with words and this is another beautifully written book about his local patch. But there is another element to this, he is passionate about the environment and all the way through the book you sense just how furious he is about the way that the climate change is affecting the landscape that he loves so much. This is a worthy sequel to his book on Autumn, and I have a copy of his book on Spring that I am really looking forward to now.

Very British Problems Abroad by Rob Temple

3.5 out of 5 stars

Everyone loves a holiday, a new place to explore, a language to learn, a different culture to get a little insight of. But for some people, ok the British, it can be a time that is fraught with unforseen challenges such as a very different way of queuing that we are used to, discovering that the sun is much stronger and that pink is not just for lobsters. There is the food too, it’s different, and in certain cases was still moving not long before it appeared on your plate, and there is the issue of not being able to find crisps in anything other than paprika flavour or anything resembling a decent cup of tea.

 

Saying sorry to locals for no reason and getting annoyed when they don’t say it back

 

And even when we are not sure where to go on holiday, we know that we will probably end up in the same place as last year, just because. Taking us from the anticipation, the journey to the airport, what to pack and how to prepare for the flight. There are chapters on beachwear, the weather, cruises and even a chapter on skiing for those that think hurtling down a hill on a couple of planks of wood is fun. There is even a Staycation quiz for those not sure if they wish to go on holiday or not too.

 

Ooh, you’ve caught the sun

Translation: Ooh, you look like you’ve been swimming in a volcano

 

This is another really funny book by the guy who manages to succinctly sum up the peculiar way that the British interact with themselves and others around the world. He very much has his tongue in his cheek when writing this, but there are parts when you read them that make you cringe a little, as you have heard yourself say them. Great stuff

The Art of Life Admin by Elizabeth Emens

2 out of 5 stars

Admin, you either love it, hate it, or really hate it. Some of it is important, other elements less so, but ignoring it doesn’t make it go away however much you delay it. These things do have to be done though, you need to book appointments, fill out forms, pay bills, buy gifts and arrange things to make our lives a tiny bit easier

Elizabeth Emens was one of those who was becoming swamped with her life admin, running a busy home with two small children and all the things that that entails, was becoming a bit too much for her. So she started to see if there was an easier way, find the best shortcuts and tips from friends who were the model of efficiency in their own household. She collated them all together and has included them in this book.

There are some interesting things in here, but no more than I have got from other productivity and self-help books. There is quite a lot of her life story in here but seen from the context of the admin she was having to do. She does make some interesting points and comes up with lots of ideas of ways to improve your own admin workload. Hosting an admin party for close friends was one of the dafter suggestions in here though. Sadly, not sure I got that much from this book, I think I will just stick to my current practice of making a list and working my way through it.

Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding

3.5 out of 5 stars

In June 2006 police were called to search the home in a road in Hampstead. The reclusive owner, a writer called Allan Chappelow, had not been seen for a number of weeks. The house was borderline derelict, it had an overgrown garden, trees growing inside the building and piles of rubbish in every room. They searched, but could not find anything, but a couple of days later returned with a police dog and then discovered that there was a body in a room underneath half a tonne of papers. What began as a missing person inquiry was now a murder inquiry.

As the murder inquiry began they had no leads on what the motive might have been and who the killer might have been. As the leads developed they found that bank cards and money had been used by a Chinese dissident named Wang Yam. As the police started to close in on him, they realised that he had recently left for Switzerland and put a note out on Interpol. Yam had been in the UK for a number of years, claimed to be a grandson of one of Mao’s closest aides, had been divorced, been made bankrupt and sailed fairly close to the law with some of his financial arrangements.

He was arrested in Switzerland and escorted back to the UK where he was arrested for the murder of Allan Chappelow. He made history in his trial though, as it was the first in to be held ‘in camera’: closed, carefully controlled, secret, unheard of in modern Britain. But there were certain things about this that didn’t add up and there was no DNA evidence to place him a the scene of the crime.

It was a case that had intrigued Thomas Harding for a long time. He knew the area well, having grown up just around the corner from the deceased’s home. But investigating this case came with onerous obligations; the court order would stop him and many others speculating about any of the details of the case or they would be in contempt of court.

I thought that this was a really good book about a relatively recent case that is not as straightforward as it sounds. The research is meticulous and he writes with a very strong narrative as he peers into the murky aspects of the case. If you like true crime, this is worth reading.

Threads by Nathan Evans & Justin David

4 out of 5 stars

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

Some poetry sits lightly on the page, subtly infusing your mind with its imagery. Other poems are forged from sterner stuff, written with bold intent and carry a sense of urgency and drama within the carefully chosen words. Rarely do you get poetry that is created in conjunction with photographs. With Threads though, you get that, and it makes something greater than the two individual parts.

 

We’re on a rollercoaster
                  with no safety bar except each other

 

This collection is as flamboyant as it is surreal. There are pictures of mundane household objects alongside poetry about longing, images of aliens with a verse on being an outsider. There are poems of the suffocating embrace of love, photos of tattoos and street scenes. Each poem is coupled with bold and original images that challenge you. I really liked this book, the combination of words and photos have been lavishly put together and it really does work. I found the poems really accessible, but it is the subjects that Evans is writing about that challenge your perspectives. It did remind me of a book that I read last year called Take Me To The Edge by Katya Boirand which also combined poetry with strong images. Can recommend this if you want to take your poetry explorations in a different direction.

Three Favourite Poems
Bloody Valentine
Freakosphere
At the Serpentine

The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell

4 out of 5 stars

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

Water is one of the only elements that can exist on our planet in its solid, liquid and gaseous state. At the poles and high points of our world is where the ice, for the time being at least, still exists. It seems like a permanent, immovable substance, which it mostly is, but as the global temperatures climb then this cold heaven becomes more transient. Snow and ice are substances that have captivated Nancy Campbell since childhood and she decided that she wanted to follow in the literary footstep of other great writers and write about ice.

However this is not a travel book in the usual sense, she is as happy wading through the archives in the Bodleian library and looking at art as she is visiting Greenland and Iceland in the far north or reminiscing about the ice dance champions from the 1980s. She sees a shaman dressed in white and wearing antlers who is there to open the curling ceremony and learns in Scotland the correct way to make a rink for the sport.

To understand the ice, you need to think in term of deep time. Ice at the bottom of the glaciers in Antarctica has been there for thousands of years, and Campbell ponders the science of looking back through our planets climate history through cylinders of ice.

I really liked this book, there are contemplative and reflective moments as she seeks out these cold places of our planet, but also moments of warmth as she spends time with the Inuit in Greenland and understands how they have depended upon the ice for generations and the threats that they face. With her writing, there are points of lucid clarity like sparkling clear ice and other moments where the writing is diffused by the history of a moment.

Wintering by Stephen Rutt

4 out of 5 stars

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

It is only very occasionally that I see skeins of geese flying overhead around where I live. However, when I do it is quite a sight to see thirty or more birds in that distinctive V formation that they have. They are passing overhead to reach Poole Harbour home to many wading birds. When I go to Poole Park I always see the giant Canada goose that seems to have made this country it’s home too. But the regular native geese are not quite as big, and if you look carefully there then you can see some of them too.

Whilst Rutt has always been a bird fan, it wasn’t until he went to live in Scotland near the Solway Firth, that he became more aware of the geese that were there. He sees thousands of pink-footed geese arriving in his hometown as they head south from the far north and Arctic.

With these arrivals comes winter.

This goose, along with the Barnacle, Greylag, Brent Bean and White-fronted become an obsession for him, he follows the skeins through the skies, revelling in the connections that they bring him to distant lands and the rhythm of the seasons. They brighten a bleak, dreich day, dragging him from a cursor blinking on a blank document to windswept fields in search of them.  This interest becomes an obsession and it will take him to different parts of the country in search of these magnificent birds. Heading south for Christmas, they celebrate it with a goose, a domesticated bird that has been eaten for over 3000 years now. Spending time away from the regular day to day stuff gives him time to ponder how humans and geese have interacted over that time.

In some ways, it is quite difficult to believe that this is the second book that Rutt has had published in the same year. He is quite an accomplished writer and like his first, The Seafarers, this has just the right mix of fact and anecdote tied together with a strong narrative. There are some personal elements in here, but no more than is needed to add context to what he is writing about. One for the nature lovers bookshelf.

Father Christmas’s Fake Beard by Terry Pratchett

4.5 out of 5 stars

This short, sweet and amusing collection of children stories from the master that is Terry Pratchett all have a Christmas or winter theme. There are some great little stories too, some are quite funny, some a little subversive and all have that bottomless depth from his imagination.

Not quite as good as his adult books, which have a darker and subtler humour, but huge fun none the less. These do show the vast scope of his imagination though and there are certain details in here that were developed much more in the Discworld series.

Great fun, easy to read and gives children that little opening into the magical worlds that he has created. Have passed it onto my son to read now.

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