Category: Review (page 1 of 64)

Everest England by Peter Owen Jones

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

Since 1953 when the tallest mountain was conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay the number of people reaching the summit has grown exponentially year on year, with well over 5000 people having made the ascent. Climbing to that height is not without risk, and with those numbers of people climbing there have of course been fatalities for a whole series of reasons, as well as the amount of junk left on the mountain has also grown too. Plus there is the cost of doing it, from somewhere you with have to find around £25k; most people will not ever reach this roof of our planet.

Conquering is a dreadful business, a blighted gene. I want nothing to do with it

Peter Owen Jones had another idea though, why not ascend the same vertical distance of 29,016 feet over a similar period of time that an ascent of Everest would take, but do it on some of the most beautiful hills that the UK has to offer. This has several advantages, you can get there quite quickly, you do not need to find large sums of money to do the challenge, you do not need oxygen and it you are still within reach of pubs and tea rooms for the required refreshment and recuperation.

Climbing up, walking to the summit, is a calling a summoning, for what can only be known, seen and heard on the edge of the land and the sky in the space between them.

In this book, Jones has collected together eighteen routes and climbs to achieve the total height that he wanted. These climbs begin in Cornwall and he heads up the west side of the country before reaching the summit on Scafell Pike in Cumbria. But there is much more to this book than just a series of walks. Jones is completing this partly as a personal pilgrimage but also as a way of taking a step away from the relentless stream of information from the internet, becoming an observer of people and things around his and taking time to reconnect with the natural world.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

5 out of 5 stars

Every town on Discworld has a story about rat infestation and a piper who can blow a magical tune to lead the rats away. Maurice, a streetwise tomcat saw this as a business opportunity and had cobbled together a bunch of rats who had been affected by the same magic as him. They had persuaded a young lad called Keith to be the piper and ‘lead’ the rats away.

The group are on their way to a small town called Bad Blintz and the rats persuade Maurice that this should be the last town that they pull this stunt on. But on arrival, they realise that there is something strange about the town, there are no other rats around. The residents of the town think they already have an infestation and have been paying two rat catchers to clear them. Their food still keeps disappearing and yet the rat-catchers hang up large numbers of tails from rats they have caught. Except these tails look suspiciously like shoelaces.

Malicia, the mayor’s daughter has concluded that the rat-catchers are up to something, but quite what she has no idea. As they investigate more, they realise that the rat-catchers have created a King Rat called Spider. This entity is pure evil and its presence is starting to affect the rats and Maurice realises that he knows what he has to do.

I thought that this was a really enjoyable book and the first set on the Discworld that is specifically aimed at a younger audience with simpler plot lines. However, it is still suitable for those of an older generation though (i.e. me), as the later part of the book really is quite dark. If there was one tiny flaw, things work out too well at the end for my liking. Great stuff and can highly recommend.

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi

2.5 out of 5 stars

Two decades ago a man disappeared in mysterious circumstances. His son ponders why he vanished in such mysterious circumstances and memories from that time keep flooding back to him. The one lead that he does have was that his father rode off on a particular bicycle and it helped him remember the bicycles that his father that had stolen or lost after particular family events.

The son’s investigation into his father begins to uncover all sorts of things and details in the overlapping histories between his family and others in the neighbourhoods that they lived. Discovering the little known world of those that collect antique bicycles brings all sort of revelations for him and a moment where he finds a tangible link. Draped over this is a history of Taiwan all the way back to the Second World War.

I was recommended this by Jessica J. Lee, the author of Turning as she described it as one of her all-time favourites. I didn’t fall for it in the same way that she did and I think that is because some of the cultural references are lost on me. However, I did enjoy the wistful and dreamlike writing, though the plot seemed to almost be stretched to gossamer-thin at times.

The Lark Ascending by Richard King

3 out of 5 stars

The piece of music behind the title of the book was first played in 1921. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ evocative piece has filtered its way into the national consciousness to portray a gentle countryside of meadows, quiet country lanes and of course, skylarks. But this rose-tinted view of a past that probably didn’t even exist. Unless you were in the upper echelons of society, living on the land was hard and relentless. But that emotive connection we have to our landscape is the same one that connects us to music.

King meanders through the links that have existed between a variety of music genres and the countryside. Some of the connections are obvious, folk music has very strong ties to the landscape and the farming seasons, but there are chapters on political action, Greenham Common, hippies and druids and most recently the Acid house scene and rave parties that were the precursor to clubbing.

I thought that this was an interesting take for a subject on a book. People connect to the landscape in all sorts of ways, and I had never thought of it with regards to music. I was more interested in the more contemporary accounts to do with the travelling community and rave culture in the later chapters in the book. It was interesting how this bought all sorts of draconian laws to curb their excesses. It did feel for a couple of the chapters that connections between the music elements and landscapes were an afterthought. There is a playlist to go with the book here.

The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt

4 out of 5 stars

The insane craziness of London gets to people in many different ways and in 2015 it happened to Stephen Rutt. Rather than just downsize and move out to the country, he decided to take himself as far away from London as he could. This was why he found himself in North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney Islands, at the bird observatory there. It is in these places where the open ocean meets the land where the birds that he is seeking, live. They thrive in these dynamic environments and Rutt’s experiences on these windblown edges of our coasts are the closest he can come to experiencing what an ocean-going bird feels. Most of our seabird colonies are located in Scotland and he is naturally drawn to these places, but he travels all over the UK,  from Wales to Northumberland to experience other colonies of birds and to uncover a little of the history between us and the seabirds.

Rutt has a really nice writing style, informative without feeling that you are being lectured too. He describes enough detail in the scenes that he sees in his prose that you feel like you are stood alongside him as he watches the skuas stoop towards his head, or standing in the dark listening to the shearwaters return to their nests, when he takes off in tiny rickety places to hop between the islands and is buffeted by the same winds that they fly in every day in the open ocean. Woven into all of this are his observations on the landscape and geology of the places with just enough history to add context. It is a great insight into the life of the birds he is following and has a wonderful resonance.  I can recommend this if you wish to know about the birds of the open ocean, skua, gannets and fulmars and also to be read in conjunction with the Seabird’s Cry by Adam Nicolson, to get some idea of the threats that these birds are under.

On the Red Hill by Mike Parker

4.5 out of 5 stars

Shortly after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1972, Reg and George moved to deepest rural Wales from Bournemouth. They had a couple of homes before settling into a house that would become a B&B and be their home until 2011. In total, they were together over six decades, the first two of which their relationship was deemed to be illegal by the state. In 2006 they formally became a couple with a short civil partnership ceremony in the town of Machynlleth. They had two witnesses to this momentous occasion, Peredur and Mike Parker.

Mike Parker was another exile from England having first gone to Wales to write a Rough Guide and realised that he actually quite liked the place. Discovering his sexuality, Parker had had a large number of flings and very short term relationships in his younger days but arriving in Wales calmed him and it was there that he first met Peredur. Finding excuses to go and see him in the shop he was working they both realised that they were attracted to each other and both fell in love.

Reg, George, Preds and Mike were to become close friends, hence why the younger guys ended up as witnesses and came to love the house that the older guys owned. They started to save up with the intention of purchasing it after they had passed away; but in a remarkable turn of events, Reg and George left the property to them in the will. For the first time, they had some proper financial security and Preds was living in the home that he always dreamed of. They didn’t change much, to begin with, but added a swimming pond for bracing dips

After moving in they begun to sort through their home and discovered a rich history of Reg and George’s younger lives through their diaries, letter and personal effects. This is not just the story of the older and younger guys and their lives. Rather it is a layered and multi-faceted memoir of Parker’s time growing up, Preds life in a small Welsh town and the way that the community supports each other. The book is split into the four parts and he writes about the seasons, the four elements of earth, wire, fire and water and about each of them. Central to all of this though is Rhiw Goch, or the Red Hill, and how it changes every single day with the seasons, the way that kites hang in the air and the thrill of snow cutting them off sometimes, though the thrill of being isolated wears off after a brief period of time. I had read Parker’s previous books on maps and this was recommended to me. I thought this was a really enjoyable book about a new life in Wales coupled with a touch of history, landscape, social history and the natural world of Wales that captivates him every time he steps outside the door. It is a book full of deep love for the man and the land he now inhabits.

Sicily: Through the Writers’ Eyes by Horatio Clare

4 out of 5 stars

Sicily is the very essence of Italy distilled down to an espresso sized shot. The food is strongly flavoured, the sun bakes the landscape over the long summer and the intense rush that assault all of your senses. Its position in the centre of the Mediterranean meant that it had suffered invasions all the way through its long history too, Phoenicians, Athenians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Habsburgs, Bourbons and Byzantines are just some of the cultures that have come and gone, leaving traces on the landscape, culture and people.

Travel writer Horatio Clare is one of a long list of writers who have been inspired to write about their adventure and experiences of the island. In this book, he has sifted through some of the vast quantity of writings and annotated them with his own personal stories. Some of the stories told reach as far back as the Greek classics, and in Arrivals, he begins with Homer from the Odyssey where the first mention of the island appears in literature.

The next section is called Miracles, and in this Clare has selected stories and tales from the diverse religions and peoples that have occupied the island in times past from writers and poets such as Vincent Cronin, Ibn Jubayr and Johann Wolfgang von Gothe. People of the Earth is concerned with those that have scratched a living from the scorched earth and have been the victims of a millennia-old feudal system that the island still has echoes of if you know where to look. This neatly leads on to the next section, The Curse is about the horrors that the Mafia have inflicted on the population of the island. In her are passages from the great, Norman Lewis, Leonardo Sciascia and Peter Robb. The final section brings us to the modern-day where there are passages from Mary Taylor Simeti and Theresa Maggio of life on the island.

Clare has curated a great and varied collection of prose about this small but significant island in the middle of the Mediterranean. Each passage gives a strongly flavoured taste of what it is like there. I really liked most of the chosen passages, but most fascinating was the part by Charlotte Gower Chapman called Milocca: A Sicilian Village where she reveals so much detail about life there in the late 1920s. The manuscript was lost and reappeared in 1978 and was thankfully published. I read this whilst on holiday in the island and even travelled to one or two of the places that are mentioned, and it is a great way to discover a lot of different things about Sicily.

Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

5 out of 5 stars

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

Kingsnorth thought having access to his own patch of land would settle his very being, give him a sense of belonging, somewhere where he could be rooted for the first time. An opportunity came to acquire a smallholding in Ireland and after a lot of thought, they grasped it. The family could begin a simpler life, growing their own food, homeschooling and become more in tune with the natural world. A place that they could call home and discover contentment for the first time in a very long time.

Except it didn’t work out that way. He didn’t feel settled, nor that he belonged or had become an integral part of the landscape. Most troubling of all was the fact that the skills he had relied on for decades, the art of conjuring words into sentences, which he would then mould into a cohesive body of work were deserting him and he was at a total loss at what to do. It began to affect his outlook on life and he was starting to move closer to the abyss.

His exploration of why this happened will take him back to the first alphabets and their connections to the things around us, how as our language evolved, the process of abstraction from the natural world came in stages until the letters we write with bear no resemblance to things any more. He considers the ‘European Mind’ and how the desire to quantify everything has also contributed to the breaking of the links between us and the places we inhabit.

I regret every word that I have ever written, and every word I will ever write.

And I stand by all of it.

However, this disconnection to things that have been important to him all his life, has given us this searingly honest account of the meanders through his thoughts and feelings. The chapters vary in length from a few intense words to longer more reflective pieces. It does feel like the passages have had minimal editing too as you read what was swirling around in his mind at that very moment. He wonders where the words that were so freely flowing have gone, and if they will ever return. As well as pondering if the modern world with its relentless all-consuming consumption has robbed us all of the connections that we now need more than ever. Compelling reading indeed.

Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons by Matthew Fort

4.5 out of 5 stars

The first time Matthew Fort set foot on the island of Sicily he was the tender age of 26. He was visiting in the early 1970s and was looking forward to the beaches and spending time with his brother. What he didn’t realise was just how this place would get its hooks into him.

Which was why three decades after that first visit he was back again to explore the island. Travelling backwards and forwards on a scarlet Vespa, that he had named Monica this was a pilgrimage with the sole intention of discovering the nicest foods that he could find.

Occasionally this book will terrify you, as he takes his life into his own hands to ride the scooter from place to place, and I know how bad it is even when you are in a car. Each meal that he has with the locals seems more memorable than the last, as they welcome his curiosity about their culture and produce from the land. Mixed in with all of this is a little history, landscape and snapshots of some great people who care about the food that they eat and who work the magic to turn ingredients that are full of flavour into mouth watering dishes. Reading this book will make you very, very hungry. Wonderful stuff.

The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

3.5 out of 5 stars

Trier is one of Germany’s oldest cities, scratch the surface and the history goes back and beyond the Romans if you know where to look. It is also known for wine and a relatively peaceful life. However, when a body is found in unusual circumstances, it is covered in noble rot, then the authorities realise that it needs an unconventional investigation. A call is put into the Abteilungand and Investigator Tobias Winter is dispatched to the city. He is joined by one of the local police, Vanessa Summer, to see if they can fathom out just what is going on, but first, he is going to have to explain to her just what he does and why he is there…

Their leads take them to the owner of a local vineyard, Jacky Stracker, who is the latest in a long line of family members who have a deep connection to the land and the loci around. She tells them some stories about her grandfather and how he used to leave offerings to the river. Tobias buys a bottle of wine and leaves it on the tree with his business card. Shortly after, he is rung up by a lady calling herself Kelly, she is the goddess of the river and wants to talk. It doesn’t take long for them to find out who he is and discover who his friends are. Bringing them in for questioning reveals that they are just a group of guys who want to drink wine and talk about art. But there is something else going on, and slowly it dawns on them they are witnessing the continuation of a conflict that has been going on for over a century in the magical realm of the city.

I liked this a lot and it was an interesting story taken from the perspective of the German equivalents to Grant and Nightingale. The plot was fairly straightforward with some nice touches and interplay between the two main characters. You also get the sense that he spent a fair amount of time there researching the city, and it has those details that I have come to expect in the previous books as we tear around London. However, I did miss Peter, Nightingale, the Folly and London that I have come to know from all the other books. Would be good to see each character travel to each other’s city in future books.

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