Category: Review (Page 1 of 92)

Hyphens & Hashtags by Claire Cock-Starkey

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Letters are combined to make words and sentences are the lifeblood of our language, but to make sense of things that we write we need those symbols that are scattered or frame the edges of our sentences. But there are far more than the full stops, commas and question marks that we currently use.

In this delightful little book, Cock-Starkey is on the search of the origins of thirty-eight different symbols in our language, mathematics and online world. There are essays on brackets, the copyright symbol, the equals sign and then even on some of those that are now falling out of use now.

I love the fantastically named interrobang, a symbol that is a combination of the exclamation and question marks and could frankly be often used when commenting on social media posts. Most people are aware of the hashtag # now (which as I am writing this on a Mac is always a pain to find). On Twitter and other social media sites is acts as a mini search engine that put you in contact with other thinking along the same lines. One tip I learnt recently is that for multi-word hashtags always capitalise #EachWord as some hashtags can look very rude out of context!

One of my favourite punctuation marks is the little-used semi-colon; I think that they’re great and add in that extra pause in the prose. The ampersand or & is a funny character, it looks like a number 8 that someone didn’t finish properly, but its origins can be traced back to the city of Pompei where an early example was discovered on a wall. Pi is one of those mathematical symbols that is literally infinite it goes on forever without any form of repetition forever and ever and ever… Another thing that I learnt was that I have been looking at the pilcrow for years in word documents and did not know what it was let alone what it is called.

If you are fascinated by languages then this book is a good sideways step to take to learn about some of the symbols that we use in our daily conversations. The essays are light and fun to read, they don’t go overboard with reams of information, but have enough detail to make them interesting.

How The Hell Are You? By Glyn Maxwell

4 out of 5 stars

Wandering through the library just before they shut for the latest lockdown after Christmas, I spotted this on the display table and thought I would grab a copy. I had a vague recollection that it was on my TBR and it turned out that it was.

It is a strange collection in some ways, there are poems he imagines an abandoned AI would write, poems on bluebirds and foxes, a poem about a conversation with time and another on waking. The form of each poem changes from short stanzas to long more immersive writing, some of them flow like water over rocks, in others, he has chosen words that deliberately jar against each other.

 

sunbeams at your fingers

are all the words you wish on me

the patterns of your dust

 

with nowhere to land,

no page or port or platform, no

whiteness to be seen

 

nor silence to be heard by,

no form on earth to catch them

as they fall, they still fall

 

I first read this a little while ago and have only got around to reviewing it recently. I looked a the scant notes that I had made and went back through looking at the poems that I liked and found others that when I first read it, hadn’t had an impact on me that they did the second time of dipping into the book. It is probably a sign of a good collection that each time you venture within the covers something different is revealed. I didn’t really notice it at the time, but the cover in itself is quite shocking, I find the image of a scarecrow with a gas mask has an element of folk horror; having the dog there diffuses it a little. I think that I might have to get my own copy of this.

 

Three Favourite Poems

The Forecast

Anniversary

Blank Pages Dream

Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler by Stephen Moss

4 out of 5 stars

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

As I am sitting here early in the morning writing this review I am watching a couple of blue tits feeding themselves from the coconut that is hanging outside my office window. They are fascinating little birds to watch, especially their acrobatics on the feeders. But where did their name come from? I can understand the blue part and the top plumage is a lovely sky blue However, there are also yellow and green feathers. What about the tit part? (Stop sniggering at the back). It turns out it means small.

Long time birder, Stephen Moss has been fascinated with the origins of birds manes since he first came across a bird from Africa called Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, a bird that he first came across in a weekly magazine called Birds of the World. It would drop onto his doormat early on a Saturday morning and he would spend the rest of the day engrossed in its contents. There was a clue in its Latin name, Scepomycter winifredae, it was named after someone called Winifred Moreau. But who was she? And how did she come to have a bird named after her? It was a story that he would keep returning to and it was also a bird that he hoped to travel all the way to Tanzania to see one day.

There are some birds where the common name that they have ended up with seems obvious, blackbird for example. But other birds are black, like ravens and crows, why are they not blackbirds too? It turns out that the explanation behind this is not much to do with the actual birds rather it comes from language and more specifically the melding of two languages, Germanic English and Norman French and how the meanings changed over time.

It is a natural thing for humans to want to label the things that they see around them each day. Because of this, bird names have not just come from language but have been named after people and places as well as their habits and how birds have also named other things, like a once-popular football game.

Moss’s writing is as good as ever. He mixes well-researched facts with personal stories and interesting anecdotes tracing the origins of the names of the birds that we see every day. Whilst it is not a comprehensive guide to every single one of the 10,000 or so species there is enough in here for the reader to begin their own searches for the bird names that fascinate them.

In Miniature by Simon Garfield

4 out of 5 stars

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

One of the places that we spent a lot of time when my children were grown up was Wimborne model town, we even bought a season ticket. They were fascinated by the tiny shop windows and the even tinier items displayed inside. There was a touch of humour for the adults if you knew where to look. This fascination with all things reduced in size is not just for children though, there are many grown-ups who share that same feeling

In this book on all things tiny, Garfield is seeking all those people that share these interests or to be franker, in a lot of cases, obsessions. Garfield travels will take him to different model towns around the country, a Blandford gentleman called Philip Warren who has built hundreds of boats out of matchsticks. The display he had at the corn exchange there was enough to fill it and that was only half the boats that he had made.

Model railways are a passion for a lot of people (mostly men) and one person who I hadn’t expected to be a fan, is 1970’s pop star, Rod Stewart. He has a massive model railway and loves the hobby so much that he takes s small layout on tour. Doll Houses can be works of art in their own right, and the one he writes about in the book was one made by Sir Edward Lutyens for Queen Mary. It is huge too, 5 feet high and 8 feet long with working electricity and pipes and even a library with 700 readable books.

Two of my favourite chapters were on books and art. There is even a convention in America for enthusiasts of these tiny works of literature. The smallest at this event measured 0.7mm x 0.7mm and had twenty-two pages. The art chapter has an image of Ronald McDonald on a crucifix, which I must admit I wasn’t expecting. This is the work of Dinos Chapman and his studio has lots of these macabre models around.

Models are often used to sell an idea, I remember seeing these in public places in 1970 as the council was trying to explain how they were going to squander your money on a swimming pool no one really wanted. It was a model that changed a lot of people’s mind on the slave trade too, Wilberforce has a model made showing the way that our fellow humans were crammed into these ships and taken across the Atlantic.

I really enjoyed reading this. Like the other books of his that I have read, this is a well researched and thoughtful exploration of his chosen subject. Like many others, me included, he is as fascinated with parts of our world reduced down to these miniature boats, houses and trains. He acknowledges the ways that it reflects something about our society and those people who use it as some form of personal escapism from the pressure of the real world.

Desert Air by Barnaby Rogerson

3 out of 5 stars

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

I have been collecting Eland books for a while now and as well as the ones that I have bought I am fortunate that they are generous enough to send me some of their latest releases too. I thought that I would pass on the poetry collections, partly as I haven’t finished collecting the other classics, but also, you know, bookshelf space… This arrived in a Christmas card from Eland at Christmas and having now read it I think that I am going to had to get some more to keep it company.

This is a nice little collection of poems centred on the deserts of Arabia and is split into two sections. The first section is the more familiar poems and verse from English poets and the second half draws from lesser-known Arabic poetry. Some of these are well known, Kubla Khan and The Song of Solomon and there are others that I have never come across before.

It is an interesting collection and as ever there were some poems that I liked a lot and there were others that I was less keen on. I did feel that some of the Arabic poems were songs that have been in poetic form and were less formal than the prose written by the Western writers. What I did find really helpful was that after each poem there is a brief resume of the writer which filled out the background nicely. It is a great little collection of poems.

Three Favourite Poems
To The Nile
Travel
Lament For The Desert

The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui

5 out of 5 stars

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

As tough as the various lockdowns have been on people this is a mere inconvenience compared to what the populace of Daraya has had to put up with. It was in this town that the Syrian Civil war began. It has been under siege for years; the Assad regime trying to starve and boom the people into submission or death. Thousands of bombs have rained down on the city reducing almost everything, including the hospitals to dusty smoking ruins. They were not even allowed basic aid from neutral independent organisations.

Somehow they kept going, helping each other out and making sure that people were looked after. After one bombing run, one group of young men were looking for survivors in amongst the chaos and they discovered and cache of books that had survived the destruction of the building. They collect the books and make the decision to look for more. A week later they have collected six thousand volumes and in a month they have fifteen thousand. The addresses of where they find the books are written on the inside covers should the previous owners ever wish to claim them back again. They create a library for the people of the city-based in a basement of a building, it is safe from the barrel bombs and becomes a place of learning and sanctuary for the oppressed people.

I listen to these poems like you’d listen to a secret voice whispering things you’re unable to express. The way someone sings what you’re incapable of singing. I find myself in every word, in every line.

A chance find on a Facebook page showing this secret library, inspired French-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui to find out more about it. She manages to track down one of its founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad and started to ask him questions about it. Those questions become a wider conversation and in the end a friendship. She learns why they have done it, how they are using the books to further their educations and the hope that they get from the project.

They communicate via WhatsApp and Facebook, and she sees them at their most vulnerable, hunched in the basements of shattered buildings hearing the dull thuds of yet more explosions. Sometimes there was almost no communication, a message she sent would not have a reply for days until suddenly a happy or sad-faced emoji would pop up on her phone. Then nothing again. She would worry about them even though she was incapable of doing anything to help. Minoui longed to meet them, but never tough that this was going to be possible at all.

At the end of the line, he’s unable to speak. He’s lost his voice. His throat is empty. I can tell that he is beaten, depressed. From all the time I have spent talking to him over the internet, I’ve learned to read between the lines, to anticipate his responses. This isn’t a normal silence. For the first time, he’s run out of things to say about Daraya.

At times this is a heart-wrenching read. I cannot even imagine what life, such as you can call it there, was like. But in amongst all the death and destruction, there is hope; the hope that they find within the pages of the books, the hope that this time will end and the hope that they can build a democracy in the country that they love. The book conveys the reality of what life was like there at the time and the fear that every message to her would be their last. Minoui’s writing is sharp and pithy. It feels like the short chapters were written as notes after each time she contacted the men as her emotions come across as raw and reactions to the situations as they happen. It is a wonderful book about the generosity of the human spirit and however bad life is there is still some solace within the pages of a book. There is a video about the Book Collectors of Daraya, here (£)

Skylarks With Rosie by Stephen Moss

4 out of 5 stars

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

On the 23rd March 2020, the UK entered lockdown. Overnight everything changed for the country. Travel for essential items was only permitted, everything except food shops and a handful of others deemed essential were open. We were allowed an hour of exercise per day outside but we were to stay and work from home.

Even though Stephen Moss mostly works from home now, but in normal time there are events in bookshops, Birdfair and other foreign trips that were all cancelled as the pandemic swamped out lives. Whilst he has seen many birds on his local patch, he would normally be of look elsewhere for all manner of different birds. Life for the foreseeable future would be different.

Written in a weekly diary form, this is his account of life under lockdown and the rediscovery of his local patch and accounts of the many walks and rides that he took around what he calls the loop, a three-mile. After a week of lockdown, he noticed that the volume and intensity of birdsong whilst cycling around the loop. But he didn’t know whether it was that the regular distractions of modern life would normally stop him noticing or that the silence of planes and cars made their songs sound louder. He was not the only one to notice this and he appeared on the Today programme to talk about how the dawn chorus was soothing the nation.

After a couple of weeks he had developed a routine, he would emerge from his garden office having completed some work and join his wife, Suzanne, and their dog, Rosie for morning coffee in the garden. They would scan the skies for raptors and they would often see them in the distance wheeling around on the thermals. A few days later he heard a tawny owl hoot just as he was going to bed, something that he wasn’t sure he’d hear again after finding a dead one nearby.

Being confined to his locality was becoming special in lots of ways, rather than passing things by in the rush to get somewhere else, he was taking the time to get to know his local patch intimately and gain that deep-rooted sense of place that naturalists like John Clare experienced. As lockdown begins to ease, he is able to move further afield and meet up with friends elsewhere on the Somerset levels. But it is the regular trips around the loop that he grows most fond of. Moving at a slow walking pace with Rosie he starts to learn individual birds habits, when and where they will be singing from as well. It is a tonic for his soul every day.

It has been one of the strangest periods of my life, and whilst it feels that we are getting back to normal, there is still a way to go. Moss’s book on how he coped with the pandemic is a wonderful response to this strange time and I really enjoyed this book. Moss is on top form in his prose as ever when writing about the wildlife that he sees on his walks and cycle rides. It is probably his most political book too; he gets really angry about the response from the government to the pandemic fairly often! Highly recommended.

Barn Club by Robert J. Somerville

4 out of 5 stars

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

Twenty years ago I remember seeing a Grand Designs programme for a stunning property. Known as the Cruciform House, this amazing building was a perfect marriage between oak and glass. It sparked an interest in oak framed buildings, learning how they were built, that some of the techniques used in building these structures are having to be relearnt. One day I would love to be able to afford to build my own, but it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

When craftsman, Robert Somerville moved to Hertfordshire, in the home counties, he discovered by accident an ancient barn nearby in a place called Wallington. He was fascinated by the way the pre-industrial revolution craftsmen had made and constructed this barn and it had a literary link too, it was the inspiration for Animal Farm by George Orwell.

He was commissioned to make a small barn in a traditional way, but his clients had an unusual request. They wanted this to be a hand raised barn. They had been involved in a previous barn project and wanted this to be a project where volunteers could also join in and learn some life and practical skills. Somerville was as committed as they were to the project.

Until I picked this book up, I didn’t realise two things; one, that you could build a structure with elm, second, that there are still elms tree left! But Somerville knows where to look in the vicinity and manages to source the trees that he needs to start the project. They are going to have lots of volunteers with very different skill levels working on the site, they made the decision not to use any power tools for safety reasons. It is a decision that has lots of benefits, the biggest of which is that it becomes a social event as people can talk over the sound of hand tools, something that they would be able to do with power tools.

I thought that this was a really enjoyable book, Somerville takes you through every step of the processes of making a tree into a barn. He shows what trees to choose, and how to select the component parts from the trunk and branches and there are outline plans, details on how to build the plinths, how to make the frames and details on how to make the joints all done with delightful line drawings. I thought that It was very well written, he is generous with his knowledge with all the people that volunteered and us the reader. The structure that they build is beautiful and looking at it makes me want to find out if there is anything similar to this going to be happening in Dorset. If you have any interest in architecture or traditional crafts then you would probably like this. It is well worth watching the video on YouTube here

Our Kind Of Traitor by John le Carré

4 out of 5 stars

Perry and Gail were on a much needed holiday on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Perry was a big tennis player and along with the slightly overweight pro he had arranged a game with a honeymoon couple from India. It was a close-fought game and they even managed to draw a small crowd.

One of those watching was a Russian called Dima. He is a slightly aloof character, but he oozes power. He wants to play a game of tennis too and Perry reluctantly agrees. With Dima is his family, but also has an entourage of heavies that are there to ensure that their man is well protected. Dima has made his fortune in money laundering, and in deeply immersed in lucrative and very dodgy deals with the Russian mafia. His connections in the webs of high finance even reach into the British political elite and he has begun to realise that his position is a huge liability as he knows too many people.

Dima needs a sympathetic Englishman to put him in touch with the MI6 and with, Perry, he has struck it lucky. They reluctantly agree to help and take a USB stick back home with them. He knows a friend of a friend who is something important is the secret world and passes it onto them. He thinks that he has done his bit, but both Dima and MI6 want him and Gail to be the go-between and common point of contact. They never wanted to be spies; now they are in the secret world way over their heads.

I won’t give any more plot details away except that Le Carre has done it again with this book. It doesn’t have the same suspense or feeling of dread as his earlier books do though; this is more of a moral tale and most importantly a warning as to what the city (still) is doing by attracting vast sums of dirty money to be laundered through its systems. It is permeated with spycraft and dealings between those at the firm who realise that the asset they have secured is going to disrupt the cosy and very lucrative financial dealings that the city is looking forward to doing with the Russians. It doesn’t make it any less readable though and he is the master of the unexpected.

Notebook by Tom Cox

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Notebook by Tom Cox and published by Unbound.

About the Book

Sure, sex is great, but have you ever cracked open a new notebook and written something on the first page with a really nice pen? The story behind Notebook starts with a minor crime: the theft of Tom Cox’s rucksack from a Bristol pub in 2018. In that rucksack was a journal containing ten months worth of notes, one of the many Tom has used to record his thoughts and observations over the past twelve years. It wasn’t the best he had ever kept – his handwriting was messier than in his previous notebook, his entries more sporadic – but he still grieved for every one of the hundred or so lost pages. This incident made Tom appreciate how much notebook-keeping means to him: the act of putting pen to paper has always led him to write with an unvarnished, spur-of-the-moment honesty that he wouldn’t achieve on-screen. Here, Tom has assembled his favourite stories, fragments, moments and ideas from those notebooks, ranging from memories of his childhood to the revelation that ‘There are two types of people in the world. People who f*cking love maps, and people who don’t.’ The result is a book redolent of the real stuff of life, shot through with Cox’s trademark warmth and wit.

About the Author

Tom Cox lives in Norfolk. He is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling The Good, The Bad and The Furry and the William Hill Sports Book longlisted Bring Me the Head of Sergio Garcia. 21st-Century Yokel was longlisted for the Wainwright Prize, and the titular story of Help the Witch won a Shirley Jackson Award.

My Review

Sometimes the most mundane of objects can be the most precious. Tom Cox found this out one day when his rucksack was stolen in a pub in Bristol. It was one of several that were left alongside the dancefloor and was probably the scruffiest and grubbiest of all of them there. Inside were £46 his debit card, a novel, car keys, phone and charger and a black Moleskine notebook. He had a fraught 24 hours sorting things out, getting back home for the spare car keys and having to rely on the generosity of friends.

The memory of the things that were taken have long since faded, but the thing that he misses the most, even now, was the notebook. In there were his most random and intimate thoughts about anything and everything that he considered worthy of committing to paper. Not only has he got a gap in all the notebooks that he has ever had, it felt like amnesia that he could never recover.

A solid cooking rule to follow is to remember that when recipes say ‘add two cloves of garlic’, it’s always a misprint and what they actually mean is six.

Whilst there wasn’t notes for a specific book in its pages, there were notes that might appear in some form or other in something that he was yet to write. He would often discover these musings as he flicked back and forwards through his notebooks and be able to expand on them for the book he was currently writing. A lot of the stuff he scribbles down though is not really for publication, but some of it is and this is what appears in these pages.

‘Weird’ very rarely means ‘weird’. A lot of the time it’s just a word that boring people use to describe people with an imagination.

Having a glimpse inside someone’s mind can be a thing of terror! Thankfully in the case of Tom Cox, the musings repeated in here are as random as they are wide-ranging. There is gentle humour and profound insight into that particular day’s observation. One moment you are reading about what he is going to do with the 3000 courgettes that he has bought back from his parents home, the next about haircuts. There are snippets on books, words, spiders, mugs, cats, February and maps. There is of course his dad in the note, as loud as ever, and his mum had created the art that prefaces the beginning of each chapter.

Drunk people rarely make good romantic choices. The problem is where the drinking takes place. Bookshops, that’s where people should drink.

Like Cox, I have a thing for notebooks too. I do have nine others that I have bought and not yet used. I am currently using a Star Wars Moleskine. Along with notebooks, I do have a thing for decent pens and pencils and I normally use a uni-ball eye micro and have a drawer full of Staedtler pencils. I must admit that I am a big fan of Tom Cox too, in particular his books on natural history and landscape that take a very different perspective on writing about the outdoors compared to other authors. This book is very different from those, but in lots of ways, it is the same. His unconventional way of looking at life is evident through those snippets they have selected for inclusion in here and it is a joy to read.

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour

Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here

My thanks to Anne Cater from Random Thing Tours for arranging a copy of the book to read.

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