Category: Review (page 1 of 46)

Review: The Written World by Martin Puchner

3 out of 5 stars

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

Whether you are looking at your screen, a paper or an advert in the underground almost all we see around us has words in some form or other. Even the TV news has a ticker tape of other headlines now running underneath the presenter. This technology of the written word has shaped cultures through the ages as much as cultures have shaped language and the written world.

Beginning with Alexander and his pillow book, Puchner takes us from the first marks pressed into clay, the invention of vellum, paper and inks that were first made into codex’s or books as we now call them. Most importantly though was the stories, messages and words that were written on them. These words and works of literature from the epic classics to the political tracts and the religious texts, they have shaped the way people think, cause revolutions and inspired people to fight for the causes they believe in.

A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on. ― Terry Pratchett

That power of language is still with us today, as can be seen from modern day politics… This is an interesting book and Puchner has done pretty well to distil the vast magnitude of world literature and the effects that it has had around the world and bring it in between the covers of this book. It has a really helpful timeline at the beginning with locations where each chapter of our literary journey was started and the text is enhanced with images of some of the books he mentions in the text. It is an enjoyable read, the only flaw being that it cannot go into too much depth to make the book manageable, however, there is a large reference section though for those that want to discover more about our shared literary legacy.

Review: Arabia by Jonathan Raban

4 out of 5 stars

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

After the oil boom of the 1970’s Arabs lefts the security of their homelands and started to become more visible in the Western capitals. Seeing them around London made Raban think it would be good to travel to their home countries and see what life was like there. It was a journey that would take him from Bahrain to Qatar, Yemen to Jordon and finally to Egypt and he wanted to go there before the vast wealth from oil changed these places irreparably. He was a little late as wealth had flowed into the communities over there, sons had headed to Europe and America to learn medicine and engineering, The temperamental Range Rover had replaced the grumpy camel and the tents that had been the homes for the Bedouin for hundreds of years were stopping being used as they moved into homemade from brick and mortar.

However, the old way of life is still there if you want to go and look for it. Raban is gregarious nature means that he easily forges friendships with the people that he meets as he travels through each of the countries. Mixing with the expat community who are trying to recreate a little bit of England over there he finds interesting, but what he is there for is to walk the streets, absorbing the smells of the souks,  chew the qat sip strong coffee with men and get lost in the maze of street away from the tourist area. He speaks to fishermen on quaysides that have been almost untouched by the economic change, apart from making fish traps from wire and changing the sails on their dhows to engines. Walking through the night he hears the call of the muezzins before the first rays of dawn erupt across the sky.

This is the first Raban book that I have read, it won’t be the last either as I have been kindly sent a small pile from Eland of their republications and have bought a couple of others. He reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor in some ways with the way that he can engage with people from all walks of life from diplomats to the man squatting in the market with a few things to sell.  His prose is very eloquent, making it a readable travel book, but most importantly he is prepared to ask searching questions of those that he interacts with to get a better insight to the places he visits. Thoroughly enjoyable and looking forward to his next, Old Glory.

#BlogTour: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

The Blurb:

1967: Four female scientists invent a time-travel machine. They are on the cusp of fame: the pioneers who opened the world to new possibilities. But then one of them suffers a breakdown and puts the whole project in peril.

2017: Ruby knows her beloved Granny Bee was a pioneer, but they never talk about the past. Though time travel is now big business, Bee has never been part of it. Then they receive a message from the future–a newspaper clipping reporting the mysterious death of an elderly lady.

2018: When Odette discovered the body, she went into shock. Blood everywhere, bullet wounds, flesh. But when the inquest fails to answer any of her questions, Odette is frustrated. Who is this dead woman that haunts her dreams? And why is everyone determined to cover up her murder?

My review:

The year is 1967 and four women are about to achieve worldwide fame for being the first to reveal their invention to the world; a Time Machine. As the stand in front of the live television audience and demonstrate the machine, as they step out, one of the four, Barbara Hereford has a breakdown and is rushed away from the spotlight for medical attention.

Fifty-one years later and the time machines are run by the what is known as the Conclave still headed up by Margaret. The technology is now safe to use, and there have been various spin-offs, including a child’s toy called the candy box that could project the small object placed inside to a few minutes in the future. Odette is new to volunteering at the toy museum and has been asked to open up, but when she opens the door there is a strong smell of sulphur. Following the scent, she ends up in the basement and traces the smell to a locked cupboard. Unlocking it and opening it a body of a woman falls out that is bleeding profusely from gunshot wounds. More shocking is the fact that the inquest into her death fails to find any evidence or answer any of her questions.

Ruby knows that her grandmother, Barbara, was a pioneer on the time machines, but after her breakdown, she has never really spoken about it and it was something that was strongly enforced by Ruby’s mother. However, when they receive a message from the future about the mysterious death of an elderly lady it is time for Barbra to open up about the past and maybe she can help solve the mystery of the murder across time.

Time travel books are notoriously difficult to get right and in the pretty accomplished debut novel from Mascarenhas, she manages it pretty well. The story zips along pretty quickly as the story is told from different perspectives by the large number of characters in the book. The narrative jumps from the past to the future as each piece of the mystery is revealed. It is a really enjoyable story and if you liked the Fifteen Lives of Harry August then you should really give this a go too.

About the Author:

Born in 1980, she is of mixed heritage (white Irish father, brown British mother) and has family in Ireland and the Republic of Seychelles.

She studied English at Oxford and Applied Psychology at Derby. Her PhD, in literary studies and psychology, was completed at Worcester.

Since 2017 Kate has been a chartered psychologist. Previously she has been an advertising copywriter, bookbinder, and doll’s house maker. She lives in the English Midlands with her partner.

Take a moment to visit the others on the tour:

 

Thank you to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus for sending me a signed copy of the book to read. Follow the hashtag

 

Review: The Immeasurable World by William Atkins

4 out of 5 stars

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

Atkins is the latest one to be drawn to those impenetrable places, deserts. He joins an illustrious list of explorers and people who are seeking something amongst the arid sands. The geographer definition of a desert is somewhere that has less than 250mm of rain per year, but for those that know what to look for, they can be places of riches and places where life is right at the edge, but they are not lifeless if you know where to look. Atkins is not fully sure what he is seeking though, his partner of four years had accepted a job overseas and he was not going with her. Seeking some clarity of mind he heads out to the Empty Quarter on the Arabian peninsular a place made famous by the travel writer Wilfred Thesiger. In his book Arabian Sands, he went searching for those that still carried out the age-old Bedouin life and where others saw unforgiving wilderness, Thesiger found timeless peace. Standing in the mountainous pink dunes, he is humbled by the vastness of the place and by the people who know these places so intimately that they are never lost.

The Great Victorian Desert in Australia has been Aboriginal lands for millennia. The UK government with collusion from the Aussie PM used it for numerous nuclear tests. These were on ancient Aboriginal land and the fallout caused many health problems and displaced people who had no idea of what was really going on. Even though it echoed to the most powerful blasts that we humans can make it is still a place that has spiritual significance to the people that still choose to live there. The next two deserts are in Asia; the Gobi and what is left of the Aral Sea. These utterly different places have been used as a method of defence to protect China for people trying to enter the country and the other a site of a massive environmental disaster. Stepping once again in the footsteps of travellers before him, in this case in it is the Cable sisters, where he discovers a place that is tense and edgy. Standing in the desert that once was the Aral sea is quite a surreal experience and he learns how the waters that once contained sturgeon now hold no life and how the demands for irrigation drained this once great freshwater sea.

Next place to visit is the continent of America where Atkins visits two deserts are on the list. First up is the Sonoran Desert. It is a harsh and baked environment that borders Mexico and is a focus for those wanting to cross and realise their own American Dream. Very little of it is fenced to keep people out as the desert is pretty effective at doing that, and Atkins joins those that are trying to keep people out as well as those who are there to offer some humanity to those that have made the attempt to cross. The polarised views of each camp make this a tense place, very different to his next desert, which is the Black Rock Desert and the festival that is the Burning Man where he has offered to help out. The contrast between this place with its liberal perspective on sex, nudity and drugs and the previous location is stark. These places are both very different to his final location though, St Anthony’s Monastery in the Eastern Desert of Egypt a place that revels in its isolation from the pressures of the modern world and brings Atkins full circle to the spiritual and intangible elements of the desert.

Even though deserts are some of the lest populated places in the world, this is still a series of stories about the people that inhabit them, however, scarce they might be. I particularly liked the chapter on the Australian Great Victoria Desert, a place that was taken from its rightful inhabitants and is slowly being returned having been contaminated. It makes for painful reading. It is as much about Atkins though, he is using the vastness of the desert to clarify his mind and as a support for the pain that he went through at the end of a relationship. Whilst this is a travel book, there is history, poetry and philosophy in amongst the drifting sands. His prose is lucid with hints of melancholy and this book contains some of the best maps I have seen in a travel book yet. Well worth reading for a modern take on deserts.

 

Review: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

3 out of 5 stars

Roz, Charis, and Tony meet once a month for lunch and to catch up on all the gossip. This month though is different as they are stunned having all seen Zenia, someone they thought was dead. They had even all gone to the funeral to be certain. She was someone who they knew from university, and who had had affairs with their other halves stolen money and who they were collectively glad to see the back of. This common dislike of a woman, now seemingly back from the dead brings them closer together but also brings back the memories of what she did to them and the pain that she caused.

As they confront her separately to understand what was going on, Zenia begins to spin her web of half-truths and outright lies as she explains what was going on to the three friends. Her presence has caused much pain before and it looks like she is aiming to cause havoc with their lives once again.

Atwood is a talented author, and this is a very cleverly created story of how one woman can cause so much suffering to people who just want to get on with their lives. Whilst Zenia was a captivating character, the other three were slightly shallow and occasionally annoying. The story took ages to build up, so much so that the first 250 odd pages dragged somewhat. I am not keen on novels that jump back and forwards in time, as it takes a page or so to re-orientate myself to again to the story, and this was another small flaw in here. The final third of the book was the best part as the threads begun in the first half were pulled tight. Really liked the dramatic ending and was as enigmatic as Zenia herself.

Review: The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor by Olivia Stewart & Ian Collins

5 out of 5 stars

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

For years Joan stood in the shadow of her much more famous husband Patrick Leigh Fermor. Hus accounts of travelling around the Caribbean, his World War two exploits and his ‘great trudge’ across pre-war Europe are well known. Thankfully Joan is now getting some attention. Her biography by Simon Fenwick is well worth reading for greater insight into her own life.

One of the things that she was most famous for before the war was her photographs, most notably of the London blitz and architectural photos.  After separating from her husband, she headed out to Egypt and it was there that she met Paddy. After the war then ended up in Kardamyli, in the Mani, where they put down roots and eventually built their own home there. She never gave up the photography though, and this book drawn is from an unknown treasure trove of photos that was discovered after her death.

It is quite a special collection that Olivia Stewart & Ian Collins have drawn together. In here are photos of Paddy and the people that were in their circle of friends, but there is a much richer seam of life that she has captured from Greece. In here she has captured the buildings and people that inhabit the landscapes in a series of beautifully composed images. Even though these are a curated selection from an archive of 5000 images, she is a photography of some talent. Each of the images have some element that captures the eye, the people, the places or just the energy from the subject matter. The second part of the books is a biography of her and her work, not as comprehensive as Simon Fenwick’s book, as you’d expect, but this is about the photos and shows her mastery of the subject. This beautiful book is essential for any fan of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Review: London Fog by Christine L. Corton

3 out of 5 stars

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

Way back in my childhood I remember my father, who is a Londoner, talking about the Smog’s that they used to have. These ‘pea soupers’ basically rendered the capital incapacitated until they cleared. These were the result of the location of London combined with vast amounts of pollution from open fires and industry and not only did people struggle to move around in them, they were killers too. The fog held in suspension poisoned the population, provided cover for crime and other nefarious activities and caused all manner of accidents on the days that they existed. They were last seen in the 1960’s after the government of the day finally passed and enforced the Clean Air Act.

London became known as the City of Fog and this seeped into the art and literature. This book just on this weather phenomena, Corton peers through the gloom to bring us the stories from history, excerpts from writers such as T. S. Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson and of course Charles Dickens. There are a large number of artworks, cartoon and photographs included in the book adding to the atmosphere. The photos are particularly poignant as they really show just how bad it was to live through. The research that has gone into this is extensive, as the 60 odd pages of notes attest. Occasionally the prose could be a little dry and academical, but there was normally something interesting along out of the murk to pique your interest once again.

Review: The Timbuktu School for Nomads by Nicholas Jubber

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Sahara desert is the largest hot desert in the world. The only deserts larger than it, are the polar regions. It covers the top part of Africa and is around 3.6 million square miles in area. It hasn’t always been a desert as every 41,000 years or so it changes back into grasslands before reverting to desert once again. It is harsh there too, the temperature in the hottest part of the year can reach 40 deg. C with the sand reaching 85 deg. C and the night time temperatures can drop to 13 deg. C. The surreal landscape has attracted all sorts of people of the millennia, the people who managed to survive there became nomads, travelling from waterhole to waterhole, eking a living from the shifting sands. The cities became places of legend, centres where the merchants who brought a substance more valuable than gold from the arid land, salt and it is the place where the richest man who ever lived made his fortune.

Even with the threat of jihadists, it is a place that still attracts travellers. Nicholas Jubber is one of those who is captivated by the region and is hoping to follow in the footsteps of the 16th-century traveller Leo Africanus. His journey will take him from the sands of Morocco to the markets of Mauritania and onto the city of the sands, Timbuktu. On his journey around these countries, he wants to be involved with the locals; help them, learn from them and discover the secrets of the desert. He ends up helping in a tannery, wandering the sands alone while friends that he has made keep an eye on him, ride camels and glean the ways to look for water in a landscape that surrenders very little.

By travelling with the locals he immerses himself in the culture. slowly they come to accept this man who mangles their language, shares their food and camps deep in the dunes. He absorbs the peace of the desert, understanding the people that choose to live there and why they would not swap this life for anything. Not only is he a sensitive traveller, it is really well written too, describing what he sees with the excited eyes of a child. But it is a place of danger too, the journey into Timbuktu was fraught and the stories that he heard when he arrived were horrific. Can really recommend this for those that want something a little different from regular travel books and it is about a part of our world that is rarely written about now. 4.5 stars.

Review: Ten Lessons From The Road by Alastair Humphries

3 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

Review: Windblown by Tamsin Treverton Jones

4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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