Category: Review (page 1 of 72)

Cobra in the Bath by Miles Moreland

2 out of 5 stars

Miles Morland had an unconventional upbringing. Born to a naval father and a mother who was described as the most dangerous woman in India, he was only with them both for a short while before they divorced. He ended up in Iran with his mother and were there until the Shah was overthrown. They ended up in Iraq and ended up leaving there in a rush after a revolution.

Having grown up with deserts he was sent back to the UK to attend boarding school. He somehow survived this and ended up at Oxford where he rowed mostly. After there he ended up in Greece where he took pains to do as little as he could get away with. But the real world beckoned and a city job was forthcoming. In his time he became one of the biggest investors in African markets.

Having seen some of the world when he was younger, he had a yearning to see more of it and he stopped at a motorcycle showroom on the way home and bought a bike. A steep learning curve on riding it, allowed him to indulge himself with trips away and he ended up in South America, Australia and a high-risk trip to the subcontinent of India

To say he had an interesting upbringing would be an understatement, that cannot be many who have been exposed to as many different cultures in the way that he was. It gave him that enthusiasm for life in general and his well-paid work meant that he could indulge himself. I picked this up because of the travel element, but this is such a small element of the book. His writing style is quite pompous too which meant that overall it was a bit disappointing for me.

Under The Stars by Matt Gaw

4 out of 5 stars

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

Until the invention of reliable electric light, we relied on poor quality candles or some form of an oil-based lamp. No at the flick of a switch on my wall, I can have more light output from one lamp than most people had in a home 150 years ago. Whilst this saturation of artificial light may have some positive effects, there are also lots of negative ones too, it affects wildlife and migration, our own natural rhythms including sleep are heavily affected and we have also lost sight of one our fantastic natural displays, the night sky.

Matt Gaw wants to rediscover this lost part of our natural world, but his first night out is walking through the snow under a brooding cloudy sky! It has been a while since he has been out watching the sun drop below the horizon, just for the pure pleasure in doing so. As his eyes adjust to the gloaming, he notices that his other senses sharpen to compensate for the lower resolution of his vision. Night has always been a time to do other things, but for the first time, he realises that it is not a gloomy place but full of subtle experiences for the senses.

Buoyed by the success of his first venture outdoors at night he starts to come up with other plans to discover the other half of our day. Realising that he has never seen a moonrise, he heads to the beach at Covehithe to watch it rise one evening and is slightly staggered by the size of the moon as it sits just above the horizon.

When there is a full moon you will see very few stars as the light reflected from the surface washes them from the sky. There is the same problem in cities and towns because of the light pollution, to see the stars properly you need to head to a place with very little human habitation so his next visit is the Galloway Forest. Back in 2009, this became the UK’s first dark sky park. Now there are 62 of them and they are places where the night sky is protected for its scientific, natural, educational and cultural value. In reality, what this means is that you can fully appreciate the majesty of the night sky and the Milky Way and appreciate just how much light is visible from stars millions of light-years away.

This night has also been considered the time when dark things happen. The absence of light turns things that wouldn’t worry us, into disturbing forms. So Gaw decides that the best place to experience this in its most elemental state is up on Dartmoor. This bleak and often inhospitable moor is full of places that have an otherworldly feeling or haunted atmosphere, or gruesome stories and of course, there is the Wisht Hounds, the inspiration for Hound of the Baskervilles. Half the time though he is not sure if the unease is caused by the nefarious presences or the fear of getting lost…

To understand just how much light pollution there is in a city and to see how pervasive it is, he heads into London with his friend, Shaun. They get off the train at Liverpool Street, which in times past, is a place where the curfew bell was tolled. Curfews were bought in by the Norman invaders and people had to be inside and lights extinguished. There was a safety aspect to this, but it is thought that they were primarily to minimise political rebellion. On the street, though there is light everywhere, it is flooding out the windows of empty offices and from the constant stream of traffic passing. The sky is not visible and the darkest part is the glistening wet road. This pervasive light pollution is slowly starting to change as local authorities assess ways of changing light according to needs.

His final trip takes him back to Scotland and to the designated Dark Sky community on the Island of Coll. He is staggered by the number of stars that he can see and it takes him a little while to re-orientate himself with the constellations. This is the perfect place for him to introduce his children to the wonders of the Milky Way and the night sky.

I am fortunate to live just below Cranborne, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty and has applied to be Dark Sky reserve. I spent many evenings near there when my daughter was studying her Astronomy GCSE and have seen the Milky Way in its full glory. I was really looking forward to this book. This is another well-conceived and well-written book by Gaw. Like his first book, The Pull of the River, I like that he brings almost no personal baggage with him on these journeys. He is driven by his curiosity about a subject and wants to experience and discover for himself all about it. He is doing these things because he can and because he wants to. If you liked the sound of this I can also recommend Dark Skies by Tiffany Frances and Night Walks by Chris Yates.

The Edge of the World by Michael Pye

2.5 out of 5 stars

Different regions of Europe have had power, from the Egyptians, the Greeks and Persians and Romans. But around 1000 years ago that focus of power moved from the Mediterranean area to the small shallow sea in between Britain and Europe, the North Sea.

The region had been conquered by the Romans 2000 years ago, but after they left it became a bit of a backwater. It changed as the people who lived on the shores came to master boat building, setting off on voyages far beyond the small limits of the North Sea to discover lands across the vast Atlantic Ocean.

Some of the seafarers bought terror to some places, we all know about the Vikings and their raids on coastal villages and monasteries, but slowly peaceful trade took over. Ideas and goods began to move back and forth across the waters, populations moved and settled, they adapted to change fairly quickly and the whole region thrived.

Pye looks at the history of this region through various subjects, money, fashion, nature and science to name a few, and teases out various stories and anecdotes to demonstrate his case. Wide-ranging though it might be, it sadly didn’t live up to expectations for me. Splitting it by theme meant that you were jumping backwards and forwards and from place to place. For me, concentrating on specific historical periods would have been better as it did feel that it was jumping around too much from period to period.

Eothen by Alexander Kinglake

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

It is almost 200 years since William Kinglake went travelling about the Ottoman Empire on the Balkan fringes before heading to Constantinople, Smyrna, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Cairo and Damascus. It is a world that has changed irrevocably since then; however, there are elements of that world still visible in ours. This almost wasn’t a book either, Kinglake had scribbled a few notes down on the back of a map for a friend who was considering taking a year off to travel too. Seven years later he had written this book.

This is not really about the places that he travels through on his journey. It is more about the people that he meets of his travels and his experiences which were quite varied from charging across a desert alone on a camel, being in a city whose population is dropping like flies with the plague, meets with an ex-pat called Lady Hester Stanhope, that knew his mother, see the Pyramids for the first time and marvels at the Sphinx.

This is the time when there are no cars or other mechanised transport so the art of travelling is a much drawn-out process. The language is quite different from our modern phrasing, but then it was written over 150 years ago. It took me a few chapters of the book to get into his style, but when he reached the desert I found that the writing was vastly better. He is a strange character in lots of ways, he has some respect for some of the people that he meets and for others, he can be quite condescending to the people he is travelling with as companions and those that he has employed to help him. Even though some of his attitudes are very alien from a modern perspective, I did like this and I can see why it is seen as a classic of travel writing.

Doggerland by Ben Smith

4.5 out of 5 stars

In the North Sea, a wind farm stretches for thousands of acres; the coastline, or what remains of it is far from here. Two men are responsible for maintaining all of these turbines, one younger is called the boy, though he has outgrown that title now. The other is the Old Man, who has been there for almost longer than he can remember.

Their work is continual, changing batteries, cogs, bearings and motors and moving from their accommodation rig to the turbines that need repairs. Every now and again they are visited by the pilot who brings tinned food for them and hopes to trade things. The work is mundane and tedious, the Old Man for amusement trawls the sea to collect the things are being washed past or to bring us ancient remains from Doggerland far below the service.

The boy was sent there by the company to replace his father who worked there before him and who vanished one day. He has many questions about why and where he went, but there are no answers forthcoming from the Old Man. Until one day he finds a clue that he has been looking for as to what happened to his father.

This dystopian novel set in a seascape that is harsh and utterly unforgiving. It has a haunting melancholy about it as the sea gradually claims back to turbines and it is written with a sparse precision that allows you to fill in the gaps in your mind. The three characters are strong, yet their feelings and thoughts are elusive. I really liked the world that he has created. I liked the way that he has linked it back to the ancient land that stood beneath the waves that still reveals itself every now and again. Yet it seems to be the last throw of the dice building this vast farm of wind turbines in response to some unknown climate disaster and yet it has come to nothing as the civilisation that it seems to have mostly gone. There are several threads in the storyline that were not really concluded and yet I didn’t mind that, as it portrays the ambiguity and complexity of this bleak future world. It reminded me of Stillicide by Cynan Jones which I read last year. It could almost be set in the same world.

The Finished Books Tag

I first saw this on my fellow blogger, Dave’s excellent blog, EspressoCoco and he had got it from the also brilliant, Womble of Run Along the Shelves. Links to their tags are here  and here

I believe that it was started by Headless Books, but I can’t find a link that works to them! So here I go:

 

Do you keep a list of the books you have read?

I do keep a track of all the books that I have read since 2002 and have an incomplete list of books from before then. I keep this in two places, Good Reads (You can find me here) and on a spreadsheet, there is a link to that here. I used to have them in separate documents and found it was easier to keep them all together as you can then extract lots of stats and data.

 

If you record statistics, what statistics do you record?

All sorts of things!

Number of books read in total per year

Number of books read in total per month

Number of pages read

Total number of male authors

Total number of female authors

Genres

Publishers

And so on.

My stats for 2019 are here

 

Do you give star ratings for books, and if so, what do you score books out of and how do you cone about this score?

I score books out of five stars and give half stars. I decide based on several factors for non-fiction:

Narrative

Quality of writing

Accuracy

 

And for fiction:

Plot

Characters

Plausibility

 

Do you review books?

Oh yes. I have a large number here on my blog and over 1600 on Good Reads

 

Where do you put your finished books?

I really need some of the L-Space that Pratchett wrote about to store all the books that I want to keep.

A lot of my review copies that I don’t want to keep, go to the library. Others can then read them, the authors get paid and I am doing my little bit to help them with the woeful underfunding they have currently got from central and local government

Some I keep (probably far too many according to my wife)

An ARC that I don’t want to keep goes in the recycling

 

How do you pick your next book?

I try and plan my reading ahead for the month, my last TBR was here for those that are interested. This is a plan only and not fixed in stone as inevitable what happens is that someone else reserves a book that I have out from the library and it gets bumped up the list, knocking others off the list. Or I change my mind. I do the odd occasional blog tour now, but I try to have far more than I will read on there as I can then pick and choose as I see fit.

 

Do you have any other rituals for when you have finished a book?

Update my spreadsheet and mark as read on Good Reads with the appropriate star rating, Start a new page on the OneNote book I use for writing reviews and copy the blurb in and very roughly type up any immediate notes and feelings about the book and write down any quotes that I want to use.

The book then ends up in a pile on my desk and then glares at me until I have read it or have to take it back to the library!

Down in the Valley by Laurie Lee

3 out of 5 stars

At the age of nineteen, Laurie Lee left the village of Slad in Gloustershire to go to London. From there he would go to Spain before being evacuated and returned to Spain again to help fight in the civil war. The books about his life there, Cider with Rosie and his journey through Spain, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and the final book, A Moment of War, would become best sellers.

After a lifetime of doing things including working for the government at one point, he returned to live out his final days. This book is a transcription of some of the interviews that he did with David Parker, for a documentary for the BBC. In here he speaks about his favourite pub, the Woolpack, school life, the local church and the village pond.

It has been a while since I have read any of Lee’s work and reading this reminded me just how warm his language is. It has some entertaining moments inside, but as it was a transcription, it did feel that it was lacking some of the depth that you’d get from a book that he had written. Definitely one for the dedicated Lee fan.

A Year in Kingcombe by Anita Roy

4 out of 5 stars

In times gone by meadows were full of a huge variety of plants and with that came lots of invertebrates and birds. Today, most farms have pastures that are often almost sterile with the vast amounts of chemicals that they are drenched in to ‘improve’ them. In a tiny spot in Dorset though is a place called Kingcombe.

Run by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, it is tucked away near Toller Porcorum. It is a beautiful place, full of ancient woodlands and stunning wildflower meadows with the River Hooke running through the middle. It is managed as a working farm, but not in the modern sense, as no chemicals are allowed. What you get is a time machine back to a landscape that is very rare these days and is continually busy with wildlife. It is very far from what Chris Packham describes as our ‘green and unpleasant land’.

And it is an utterly beautiful place to walk around.

This book by Anita Roy is a series of twelve articles that first appeared on The Clearing website hosted by Little Toller and have been pulled together into a book form. Over the course of a year, she visited the centre each month, taking the time to absorb the things around her, early daffodils, deer skulls, scarlet elf caps and watching the squirrels perform their acrobatics.

The time that she spent here is a respite from all that is going on in the real world, and proof that we need to spend more time in the natural world for our own good. I like her writing, she has an eye for details that others may miss if they were to walk the same paths as here. I can highly recommend this and a visit to Kingcombe if you are in West Dorset.

Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem

4 out of 5 stars

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

Pretty much everything that humans have made used and thrown away will be here forever. Often these possessions have ended up in middens and now we bury vast quantities of our unwanted stuff in the ground in dumps. If you know where to look these relics from a time long gone can be found, especially along the foreshore of the tidal Thames.

There have been people finding the detritus and treasure alongside the capital’s river for hundreds of years. It has been called the world’s longest archaeological site! The people who look for those discarded and lost items are called mudlarks and for the past fifteen years, Lara Maiklem has walked searching for anything that she can find. The variety of things that she spots is quite astounding, and these tell the story of London going back several thousand years to the Neolithic.

I have been following her via various social media accounts for years now, so nice to read a little more on the subject as well as a little of her own history as to what she finds so addictive about doing it. I really enjoyed this and liked the way each chapter concentrated on different parts of the capital, from Hammersmith, Rotherhithe and right out into the estuary. I found her to be an informative writer who is passionate about her subject and keen to discover more about the objects she finds. If the book has one tiny flaw, it is that there are very few pictures of her finds. I know she has an Instagram account (here) that is linked to the book, but I am not on Instagram so couldn’t see them.

Epic Continent by Nicholas Jubber

4 out of 5 stars

Before the written word, stories were spoken, and those that were popular became learnt by others and spread further afield. The best known of them, such as Odyssey and Beowulf, became epics in their own right. We now know them, as they have been written down and even transferred to the screen, but are the people where these stories emerged from still aware of them?

Award-winning travel writer Nicholas Jubber, decided to find out for himself if he could still find traces across the European continent of these stories in the countries that they originated. Beginning in Chios, just of the Turkish coast is where he starts looking for The Odyssey, the story of the aftermath of the Trojan War. Here it doesn’t take long for him to find traces from the story on the wall in graffiti, as well as meeting people who still seek meaning and comfort from the tales. He listens to recitals, debates over gritty coffee about the power it still has and manages to mislay various things…

The second story in the book is the Serbian Kosovo Cycle. This is about the battle between the sultan Murad and Prince Lazar. It is a fairly bloody and brutal affair if truth be told, and it is often recited by guslars, or bards, who play a single-stringed instrument called the gusle. It was a story of rebellion too, as the recitals evolved as they were under the Turkish occupation, before becoming more written down in the early nineteenth century. There is a much darker and more recent aspect to them though, the stories were used as propaganda by Milosevic who exploited it to bring his own conflict to the region. The stories that he is following through Europe tend to be draped over the culture of each of the countries, but this story is unique that one of the main characters, Prince Lazar, remains can still be seen in a church in Ravanica. He wanted to hear the epic recited by a gusle, heading to the mountains, he didn’t know if he would find one though.

The third story in the book is the French Song of Roland, another battle between the forces of Christendom and Islam. The story was originally written in the eleventh century and then was rediscovered in the Bodleian library by a French scholar who was following a mention in Chaucer. Since that, a further nine manuscripts of the epic have been found. But as it is a French story, the place to start would be Sicily and then onto Spain, before eventually making it to France. Sicily is an amazing island, I know, I saw a little of it last year and it has long been a melting pot of cultures and civilisations. Whilst there he visits the puppeteers in Palermo who have been performing the story for several generations; this may be the last though as people are more interested in their phones that performances.

A brief trip across Sardinia takes him to Saragossa in Spain for the next element in this epic, there he sees the influence that the Moors had over the town before moving onto Roncesvalles to see the place where a major battle took place in the epic. Then on a train to the town of Rocamadour in France to experience the Black Madonna in the twelfth century Chapel of Notre Dame.

Another country and another epic beckons, this time it is Germany and the fantastical The Song of the Nibelungen tracks the collapse of a Germanic kingdom on the edge of the Roman Empire involving dragons, murder and betrayal. All a bit Game of Thrones really… This is another of those stories that was misappropriated by the government of the time. The German Nazi government in the 1930s  used the messages within for their own propaganda.

Finally, we make it to the UK for Beowulf,  that was first written down around 1000 years ago, but first came to light because of the work of an Icelandic bibliophile. It was first seen as a Danish story but has now come to be the only surviving Old English epic. It is full of fantastical tales and elements like the dark fens, feasting in old halls and dragons one again that is somehow familiar to us. This may be because of one JRR Tolkien who robustly interpreted it and used many of the themes in his own books.

The final epic in the book is the great Icelandic Saga of Burnt Njal. there is still the tumult of murder, revenge and betrayal that we have come to expect from the other stories, but Unlike all the others this one has a lawyer in the story. The place is quite spectacular from his descriptions in the book as well as being incredibly wet and windy from the storms. It is so very different from where he began his journey in the balmy Mediterranean in Greece.

This is the second book of Jubber’s that I have read and it is as equally enjoyable as that other one. Epic Continent is part history book, part travelogue and him seeking those threads that run right back to the stories of old. It is quite staggering to think that words that were written a millennia ago still can have power and most importantly resonance in the modern world. It is sometimes amusing and I like his sense of immediacy that he comes across in his writing as he deals with the minutiae of daily life as he travels. Well worth reading.


 

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