Category: Review (Page 1 of 82)

Boundary Songs by David Banning

4 out of 5 stars

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

Shuttling back and forth between London and the North, never staying in one place to feel rooted. He existed without belonging anywhere and because of this felt of the periphery of places. It was those feelings that drew him to the edges of the Lake District National Park.

It was the discovery of The Lake District Boundary Walk devised by Graham K. Dugdale in 1996 buried in the Ambleside library that gave him an idea. He decided that he would follow these routes alone on these mostly forgotten parts of the park and being on the fringe took him away from all the crowds. He didn’t have the luxury of doing it all in one stage as Dugdale recommends, rather he had to do it in stages as and when he could. It would be kind of an enormous beating the bounds exercise, a modern-day pilgrimage to the real Lakes behind the tourist façade.

He begins his circular route around at the wonderfully named Plumgarths or Toadpool as it is known on the maps. It is a strange pear-shaped roundabout that you will only realise if you have to do a U-turn. Exploring the verge on foot, he is shouted at by some bloke in a white van, by the time he has got back to his car he is soaked and watches two ambulances and three police cars go past. He soon finds out what they are there for when he was asked to run around because of an accident. It was an inauspicious start to his journey; a week later he was back.

His first walk takes him past the Helsfell Wolf, a skeleton that was found among the stones and who now resides in the Kendal Museum and a haunting memory of the predators that once walked our landscapes. He soon passes the Greenside Lime Kiln, that was saved from dereliction back in 2009 and a reminder of our industrial past. This mix of wild landscape and ancient rocks alongside brightly lit industrial estates and small villages make up the majority of things that he sees on his circumnavigation of the park. He walks slowly through the Swinside Stone Circle moving from stone to stone, trying to imagine what is was like in the Neolithic age when it was built. It was thought to be a place where a sleepwalker entered the human world at night.

On his walk from Newbiggin to Gosforth, there is a misty gloom as he passes a 9th Century Anglo-Saxon Cross place to mark the point where four ancient trackways met. Near here is one of Britain’s most haunted castles and it is a place where human has tried to fight back against the sea, not always with total success. Windscale as it was originally called is a political folly on a monumental scale. Politician rushed the construction so they could have a seat on the global pollical table, but it was known to regularly emit vast quantities of radioactive contamination, and that was before the accident. It was renamed Sellafield in 1981 in the hope that people would forget the past. It is still a glowing hot potato… The armed guards outside the Sellafield power station had a dim view of him taking photographs of the site; it was amicably resolved though.

His final route takes him from Shap back to Plumgarths. It feels like the arse end of nowhere, but there are still hints of the modern world around as he locks his bike up opposite a quarry. It was in this are that Andy Goldsworthy built and moved his arch from town centres to laybys and before it ended up at Shap Beck Quarry.

I have been to the Lakes a few times and always thought that they were a beautiful part of our country. The thought of actually wanting to walk all around the edges would have never occurred to me, but defining the limits of something is what I like to do. Banning’s book is full of the mundane, littered grass verges, abandoned cars, telegraph pole and pylons and the occasional herd of cows. But in amongst the detritus of modern life is a glimpse of the ancient and the eerie that can still be found if you know where and how to look at the landscape. I really liked this book, the drawings by Iain Sharpe and the photos enhance the hallucinatory feel to the journey. Highly recommended.

Lone Rider by Elspeth Beard

4 out of 5 stars

Most 23-year-olds these days have just emerged from university with a mountain of debt and not much in the way of prospects. Way back in 1982 when Elspeth Beard was 23, she was halfway through her architecture degree and feeling miserable after a relationship had failed. She needed something to distract her so decided to embark on an around the world trip on her trusty 1974 BMW R60/6. She approached various bike manufacturers and press for support and possible sponsorship, but no one was interested, in fact, they were quite scathing of her attempt. This made her even more determined to do it.

She serviced her bike and packed it up in a crate and sent it on it’s way to New York. She would be following by jet and a month later in October to begin her first leg across America. Riding out of New York was quite special, but she realised that she may have an issue being on a bike when she stopped for fuel and the attendants ignored her. It was only by taking her helmet off that they saw she wasn’t a troublesome biker and would serve her. Her route took her to Detroit and then south to New Orleans before heading west to Los Angeles. There were a few heart-stopping moments one in particular when four Hells Angels pull up alongside her, pure speed and excellent cornering ability of her bike meant she could get away.

Trying to get a visa into Australia was proving problematic, they wouldn’t let her have a working visa nor a tourist visa. Even flying to Hawaii to see if she could get a visa from there was to prove fruitless. Her bike went there and she ended up in New Zealand for a brief break and to meet up with a boyfriend from London called, Mark. A sympathetic official, who was a biker too, finally gave her the visa she wanted. Australia beckoned.

Please to be reunited with her bike, she needed to earn some money to fund the next stage of her trip. She had a contact with an architectural practise from London, so went to see them and they gave her a job; sadly they were much less bothered about paying her, so she ended up working in a bar in the evenings. She left the first place and they didn’t even notice, the second practice was much better and it gave her lots of experience and she saw some of her plans turn into real buildings. Six months had passed, she had built a custom set of aluminium panniers and it was time to hit the road again.

Her route around Australia would take her north to Townsville, before turning west and then south to pass Alice Springs and Ayres Rock and then west again to Perth. She was expecting to ride along dusty roads in the outback, but the time she was travelling through they had had tremendous storms and the road was flooded. She cadges a lift with a road train driver at one point as her bike can’t cope with the weather.

South-East Asia was next, her bike was shipped to Bali and she got on a plane to Singapore and this time was actually looking forward to seeing Mark. As much as she loved the place, this was the start of a small run of bad luck that caused little setbacks and delays, but she did make it to Bangkok safely. India beckoned.

As Madras emerged through the mist, it was exactly as she anticipated it would be, crumbling, chaotic, colourful and yet charming. Riding in this country would be a challenge and she had to reach Nepal so she could meet up with her parents for the first time in a long time, so had made the decision to take the train from Madras to Calcutta. It was a wise decision as it saved her at least two days travelling. Heading north from Calcutta, she realised how challenging it would be on the roads just to stay alive. Every time she stopped, especially in what seemed to be an empty part of the country, she was immediately surrounded by Indian men wanting to touch the bike. It was hard going, but she made it into Nepal. Mark arrived and they decided to take one of the organised treks up into the mountains.

Beard had now reached the final leg of her mammoth 35,000-mile journey, riding from Kathmandu all the way back to the UK. She was reluctant to head back to India but knew it had to be done, but before that, she had to carry out some urgent and necessary repairs on her bike. It was while doing this that she met another rider on a BMW. His name was Robert and he was Dutch. He had also been in Australia and was riding back home. Everywhere he went in Australia, he had heard about this lady riding a BMW around the world and had always hoped to meet her. They helped each other repair their bike and agreed to meet up in two weeks time at Agra.

Travelling through India was the toughest part of the trip, but having some company made things a little bit easier. There were a few delays in getting through the Punjab and into Pakistan, but they managed it in the end, but she was dreading crossing into Iran as she hadn’t ever got the correct paperwork because of the cost; she would have to try and blag her way in somehow. They made it, but she was wary of travelling through a country that had just had an Islamic Revolution and was at war with its neighbour. Before long they were in Turkey.

It was here that they suffered their first police hassle. They suspected them of carrying drugs, but a full search revealed nothing. This part of the trip felt like a small holiday, especially along the coast, where they spent time eating and swimming. They survived the road of death between Zagreb and Belgrade and they were finally into mainland Europe and then onto the terrifying system that is the German Autobahns. There was a brief detour to the Netherlands to meet Robert’s mother and then for the first time in 799 days, she was home.

For anyone to undertake a journey of this magnitude takes some doing, but to do it mostly alone in the age before modern and instant communication seems unreal now. Beard had to put up with hassle from men in most places she visited, but she was determined that this sort of behaviour would not be tolerated. Her tenacity meant that she kept going in what occasionally seemed to be overwhelming odds. She is one brave lady and this is a book that is well worth reading.

Losing Eden by Lucy Jones

4 out of 5 stars

A lot of people’s disconnect from the natural world is almost complete. They live in cities or heavily built-up suburban areas with little or no interaction with the wider world. Some cities have been removing trees making that connection to a non-human living thing even more remote. Our phones and screens provide us with non-stop notifications following the latest hashtags and rolling news.

This self-declared divorce from the natural world is affecting our psyche and wellbeing but scientific evidence is showing that its place at our heart; nature is deeply embedded within us still. It is something that Lucy Jones knows all too well, her recovery from addiction would have been a much more rocky path if she wasn’t able to get out on walks alongside the canals and Walthamstow Marshes. It genuinely saved her life.

Understanding why it saved her is the premise behind this book. To see how others are using the latent power behind nature will take her from the soils in her garden to prisons, how people in a hospital get better by having a view of trees rather than a brick wall. The benefits of outdoor learning for children and even to a secure NHS mental health unit that uses gardening to help with the patients. All of her travels and research are rooted in science as they discover just how important fresh air, trees and green spaces are for our welfare.

I realise the irony that I am sitting in front of a laptop screen typing this review about a book that advocates us getting out and about in the natural world. I spend most of the day in an office and factory and drive to and from there. But I do try to get out and about whenever I have the opportunity either by walking down to the woods or the river nearby. It may not be much some days but it is enough

This is another book that strongly advocates getting out there and using the natural world to help with a raft of mental and physical problems and this is written from the personal experience of addiction and being a new mother. I thought that the prologue and epilogue were a little wasted on me, but it is written with rigour and most of all passion for her subject. I would strongly recommend reading this especially the final chapter, Future Nature. I can also recommend The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, which is also strongly science-based.

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell

4 out of 5 stars

Durrel had been five years in Serbia and really wasn’t sure if he wanted to live in the Mediterranean anymore. He couldn’t afford to live in Athens so the next best thing after that was Cyprus. Decision made he makes his way to Venice to get the boat there. Falling into conversation with a man there, he questions why Durrell wants to go there at all: ‘It is not much of a place’, the man says, ‘Arid and without water. The people drink to excess.’ To Durrell, it sounded perfect.

As they depart, they are shadowed by a grey destroyer for a while before it turns abruptly and fades into the horizon. He opens the book that he had acquired from an overturned bookstall in Trieste, A Lady’s Impression of Cyprus by Mrs Lewis. It offered a splendid picture of the island and confirmed that he had made the right decision.

They docked at a town with a desolate silhouette, and he was overcharged portage to disembark. Passing through the customs check is an early eye-opener as to what the people of this island are going to be like. Most are surprised that he is fluent in Greek and it is in conversation with a man over the glass of the heavy red wine that he is provided with a man who could take him to the village of Kyrenia. One scary journey later and he is ready to spend his first night on the island.

Lodging with a friend, Panos, he can begin to get a measure of the people and culture. It is idyllic sitting on the terrace drinking wine before heading down to the harbour to watch the ‘sunset melt’. It was with this friend that he truly came to understand the meaning of the word ‘kopiaste’, or Cypriot hospitality. It was also the best way to see if he could really afford to buy a small place to live in. It would be.

The process of him buying a house there is one of the most entertaining passages that I have read in a while. He first charms the local rogue, Sabri, in the village into helping him. Between them, they agree on a budget and a few days later he is informed that there is a property that may be suitable in the village Bellapix. They visit on a rare wet day but the property is sound and dry but does require some work. Negotiations begin between Sabri and the feisty owner of the property and they are protracted and heated.

Eventually, it is resolved to all parties satisfaction and the essential renovation works begin. Soon after he moves in his visitors begin to arrive, Freya Stark, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Sir Harry lake. They bring wine, laughter and books and conversations that go deep into the night. AS he settles into life on the island other opportunities present themselves, he is first offered a position as a teacher and then the post of Press Advisor to the Colonial secretary is advertised. Much to his surprise, he gets the job.

The timing of this is unfortunate though as this is just as there is growing civil unrest in Cyprus. Students are joining the rebellion and there are small acts of terror from grenades and homemade bombs. The British (as usual) misjudged the situation and made a bad situation much worse.

Lamplight, wine and good conversation sealed in the margins of the day so that one slept at night with a sense of repletion and plenitude, as if one were never more to wake.

This is the first Laurence Durrel book that I have ever read even though I have had a few of them languishing on my shelves at home. I thought that his writing is very evocative as he writes about the people and place of this island. It was good to see the brief appearances from Gerald and his mother, Louisa in the book too. The later part of the book turns more serious as the civil unrest grows, and it loses the warmth that is very much evident in the first part of the book. I did find that he has a traditional perspective with regards to colonialism and dealing with the local population, which I was a little surprised about. It is a book of its time though. All that said, it is a really good read and I can highly recommend it.

The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson

3 out of 5 stars

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

We know an awful lot about the planets in our solar system and the stars that surround us but if you were to look out to sea we have only explored around 5% of the oceans. There are things down there that we can barely imagine and creatures that we do know of we know so little about.

One of those creatures is the eel. It is one of the strangest creatures that has existed and even though they have been studied for hundreds of years, very little is known about it. The few things we do know about them are mere snapshots of their lives, even now it is thought that they spawn in the Sargasso Sea, it is not actually known that they actually do that. Attempting to get them to breed in captivity has met with abject failure every time.

Now their numbers are plummeting, there has been a 95% drop in the number of elvers in our streams and rivers and no one knows what to do about it or where to start looking for answers. Yet they have been a part of our culture since time immemorial. Thousands have been caught and cooked and eaten all over Europe in this time too.

One of those people who fished for this elusive creature is Patrick Svensson. It was kind of a hobby, but for his father, it was a borderline obsession. He would try the latest methods or new baits and traps in his drive to catch these creatures. But there was more to it than that, it was a welcome respite from his job as a road paver. He could come home from that hot smelly job have a short nap and then carry on for the rest of the day, but he always smelled of tar.

It began for his father in childhood, he always liked being down by the stream. It was a short distance from his home and was a slightly overgrown habitat that had its own magic. At the time it was the outer limit of his world and he fished and swam in it, skated over it in the winter, caught mice and listened to the soothing noise of flowing water when helping out on the farm. He was fond of the taste of eel too, loving the greasy gamey flavour, unlike his son. Fishing for eels became a thing that they did together and even though Svensson recalls it being the only thing that they talked of, but also remembers not talking that much at all when fishing.

Svensson is not the only one who has had a fascination with this enigmatic creature, it has been written about since Aristotle’s time and he explores what some of these people learnt and wrote about it.

It is a wide-ranging looking at some of the natural history, historical, culture and folklore behind eels but at its heart, this is a family memoir about the time Svensson spent fishing for eels with his father. He has a straightforward and matter of fact way of writing and I did like it, but the multi-faceted genres meant it lost a little bit of focus for me.

Brilliant Maps by Ian Wright

3.5 out of 5 stars

We live on a strange and beautiful planet. It is full of history, geology, people place and countries and if you’re anything like me, I find facts and figures endlessly fascinating. The best way of quantifying this data is to put it in graphical form, and Ian Wright has done this in Brilliant Maps.

He has separated the 100 maps in this books into eleven sections. The first three, People and Politics, Religion and Politics and power are very similar in scope. My favourite maps from these sections are Countries that have a smaller population than Tokyo and countries with large economies than California.

Our diversity across the planet has lead to a lot of different culture and customs, and know who drives on the wrong side of the road and writes the date wrong is useful if unimportant information.

Sadly, we do spend a lot of time arguing at personal and national levels. In Friends and Enemies, you can discover who the UK have not invaded, and who the Vikings invaded. Countries are not regular shapes, but the longest, Chile would reach from Spain to Norway and is just over 100 miles wide. There is a map showing just how many continents could fit inside the Pacific Ocean and how many roads actually lead to Rome.

I thought the comparison between travel time from London in the modern-day compared to 1914 where days have been replaced by hours was fascinating as well as the size and scope of the Roman and Mongol Empires when compared to modern countries such as China. It also shows in stark detail just what we have lost in our relentless expansion, especially with the map showing the current verses the old distribution of lions.

There is something satisfying in finding the differences between ourselves and other countries around the world, but not as satisfying as finding our common habits. Graphically these are excellent, clear maps about some interesting and entertaining subjects. There were a couple of flaws though. I think I would have preferred them to be split over the page rather than disappear into the middle and I would have liked more contrast on some of the colours as there wasn’t always that much difference. Stats in graphical form are so much more pleasing on the eye and this is a really nicely produced book. You can see more on his website here.

How To Make Curry Goat by Louise McStravick

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

How to make Curry Goat is probably the most unusual title for a poetry book that I have read in a while, and the title poem of the book is a meld of ingredients, instructions on how to make it, the eager anticipation of the food and the nostalgic look back at the culture that gave her this recipe.

This theme of multi-cultural poems carries on throughout the book. She is the daughter of the Windrush generation and whilst she does not fully belong to that culture, she an many others have carved out their own multidimensional and faceted life in this country.

But he does not realise that constellations
are stories we tell when the nights
are too dark and we need to
now we are not alone.

The poems are wide-ranging and are about her friends and family as well as many subjects such as braces, Earl Grey Tea, life on the sugar plantations and the first impression of England as the take the train from Southampton to Paddington.

Some of the stories that she is telling through her verse deal with quite emotive subjects and she tackles them sensitively and yet doesn’t hold back on her thoughts and emotions. The form of each poem varies which I liked as you never quite knew what you were going to get each time. Worth reading if you wish to immerse yourself in another culture.

Three Favourite Poems
Postcards From England
Move On

Dark, Salt, Clear by Lamona Ash

4.5 out of 5 stars

Lamorna Ash has headed out of London to Cornwall to Newlyn, a fishing town near Land’s End. The idyllic place of holidays past seems very different when you are living there. The Cornish are not very receptive to incomers, in particular those who want to buy properties there for a second home, driving the prices up so locals are not able to afford to live in the places that they grew up.

She is there because she is feeling lost and disconnected in London and is hoping that being back in the county her mother grew up in will help re-root her once again. She is welcomed by Denise wearing a similar blue striped top at Penzance Station. They have a slightly nervous conversation over tea and she heads up to bed, lulled to sleep by the booms of the waves against the harbour wall.

It is the same sound that wakes her in the morning and there is a waft of bacon cooking so she heads downstairs quickly. That day is the Newlyn tradition of the Lamorna Walk, where pretty much the whole town walks up the coastal path to the Lamorna Cove for a rowdy piss up at the Lamorna Wink pub and staggers back after. She knew she was named after a part of Cornwall, but didn’t expect to be taking part in something like this. She ends up drinking all day and by the end has made some firm friends.

What she really wants to do though is to secure a berth on a trawler. She is told that doing this is nigh on impossible. There are various superstitions to do with fishing, one is not being allowed to mention the word rabbit whilst aboard for some reason, the other is the presence of women on fishing vessels. It seems that Ash’s plan to be a crew member of a fishing boat may fall at the first hurdle. But she gets lucky, she talks to someone called David who has a share in a boat called the Crystal Sea and he is more than happy to have other along for the ride, even if they are there to liven the trip up a bit if they are ill.

Her first trip out to sea is cut short after a force 8 gales sweeps in, but even those few days are enough to light a fire inside to want to do this again and again. She bumps into Don, skipper of the Filadelfia and arranging a trip out on his boat is as straightforward as arranging a beer in a pub. Don is quite a character and so are the rest of his crew as she meets them on board. She will be away for seven days and night with these men and she is quickly accepted into their circle. Seasickness looms in the background but she is there to work for her board and is helping out with gutting the fish.

Onshore she is absorbed into the social life of the town, mostly because the couple she is staying with, know so many people. She plays pool badly in the Legion and contributes to the swear jar often. She manages to blag a trip on a crabber and finds it hard heavy work moving the pots around on the boat. The sea has got a hold on her now as it has with the other fishermen.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Ash has a lyrical and distinct voice as she writes about the real side of Cornwall and the people that live there. And it is those people that she shares pints with, stands alongside in a fishing boat gutting fish that make this book. They are rich and complex characters who tell her their anxieties, fears, hope and dreams as she gets to know them better and settles into life in the town. Highly recommended.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

4 out of 5 stars

It had all the hallmarks of a classic friendship, Roommates, Victor and Eli were both fiercely intelligent, rebellious and have a fascination with the people ExtraOrdinarys. These people were rumoured to have special powers, there were videos of people lifting cars and performing other small miracles. Eli has a theory that these have been acquired in near-death experiences and who have successfully be revived to live again. Eli wants to try it himself to see if he can get the same powers by coming as close to death as possible. Victor wants in on this too. They survive the experience, just, and they have both gained small but significant powers. A mutual friend doesn’t survive and Victor is accused of murder.

A decade later these two men have very different goals, Eli is determined to eliminate all of the people who have suffered trauma and have these small superpowers. All expect himself and a lady called Serena who has the power of control over people with just her voice. Victor has just broken out of prison and has revenge on his mind and wants to stop the unnecessary slaughter of his fellow ExtraOrdinarys. He is helped in this by Serena’s sister, Sydney who has a very special power.

There is going to be a showdown between these two men soon; will the hero or the villain win, and who is the hero and who is the villain…

I must admit I am not a huge fan of the superhero genre, I have seen a few of the Avenger and other movies and whilst they are pretty good action films, they really don’t do it for me. The only ones that do are the Dark Knight Batman series but that is as much about the cinemaphotography in those. As I hadn’t read the blurb, it was a little surprising that this was that genre. I was pleasantly surprised by it though, the superhero elements are very much present in the story and are really key to it, but they don’t feel too overbearing. The plot is written in such a way that you don’t really know what side to come down on in the first part of the book, but it is something that you some decide on. The two main characters and their sidekicks seem a little two dimensional at times but then it is such a fast-paced book that there is not the space in the plot for them to develop. I found this a bit of a page-turner and pretty much read it in a day and it has a cracking ending. Will definitely be reading the sequel.

Cut Stones and Crossroads by Ronald Wright

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Just out of university having studied archaeology, Ronald Wright had a whole world that he wanted to explore, but what piqued his interest was the history and architecture of Peru. It seems like the place to go and he could then find out about the ancient civilisations of the Incas and go and see royal cities of Cusco and Machu Picchu.

It wasn’t quite as was he was expecting though, what he found was a land of contrasts. They may have been suppressed by the Spanish invaders, but the spirited character of the people still shone through. He avoided the tourist routes, instead, taking the local transport or caging a lift in some very dubious cars and trucks, staying in seedy hotels and at other times camping.

He is endlessly fascinated by the ancient buildings and towns that are still visible in the landscape, spending time in amongst the stones to gain the most elementary of understandings as to why they are built. His descriptions of these places are very detailed and almost academic at times, but he is careful to link what he is seeing to the cultural and historical records of the people. His passage on the Saywite Stones is an excellent example of this.

The shadows lengthen now as evening approaches; around me the oblique lighting brings more and more of the strange, half natural landscape to life.

What really makes this book for me is the way that he takes to the people he encounters on his travels. His curiosity is boundless and it doesn’t matter if he is talking to a blind musician, crushed in a bus with 42 other people and a variety of animals watching two passengers slowly chew their coca leaves. I another moment, he is feeling ill and starts swaying from side to side, so sits down. Then he notices that the Land Rover is swaying too, it is a gentle earthquake.

Throughout all of this book you never feel that you get to know the man writing the book, he is to a certain extent elusive, reporting on events and interactions as he sees them and describing the people with empathy and places and architecture with an expert eye. He can see through the culture that the Spanish draped over the society and glimpses the strong spirit of the people that still shines through. I liked the way he has selected songs and poems from the people there and included them in the book, they add a touch of authenticity that you don’t always get in other travel books. Well worth reading and highly recommended.

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