Category: Review (page 1 of 74)

Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Of all the creatures on this planet, humanity is the one that has been able to change the very face of the earth in a way that no other animal is able to. We can raze the densest forests, cut holes through rock, change the course of rivers and obliterate mountains. The only other thing that has this ability to change the very landscape is the earth-changing events of volcanos, earthquake and tsunamis or the out of this world asteroids.

Hoffman heads all over the world from his home in Greece to find these places that are right at the very end of their existence. He visits Kansas to watch the mating ritual of the leks or prairie chickens on the Konza prairie. This place has been under threat since the 1800s as the European settlers saw that the land was rich and put it under the plough. There is almost none (around 0.1%) of the original grasslands left.

We hear a lot about the tropical jungles, how it is being devastated by logging and agriculture. Hoffman travels to the northeasternmost state of India, Arunachal Pradesh where he is there to see the landscape of the Himalayan flood plain. The people here, the Nyishs, have managed to co-exist in this landscape with tigers and elephants for years. But it is only in the past few years that the realisation that the elephants have started to raid crops so they have reluctantly retreated from their rice paddies and plots. Their state bird is the hornbill, a species that is essential to their identity, customs and beliefs. This bird has a casque on its bill and it is this part of the bird that is used on the headdress of the tribe. The bird is under threat though and the Nyish tribe are looking at other ways of replicating this part of the dress.

It is not just exotic places that are under threat, closer to home we have woodlands in the UK that have been in existence for hundreds of years.  The British have a deep love for woodlands, as was seen when the government a few years ago thought it was a good idea to privatise the Forestry Commission. The backlash from the public forced a U-turn and a backtrack on this. The woodland he visits is just outside Sheffield and has been in existence since the 100’s. It was split in two after the M1 carved its way through it, and has recently been suffering because of those that go there for their leisure activity or riding through it with quad bikes. It is under threat again and local residents have formed groups to resist this, applying for village green status to protect what is left. Sitting with his back resting on an old oak watching the breeze ripple the bluebells is a perfect way to spend the evening.

Stories about these and the other places strongly underline the main argument of the book that all of these places are utterly Irreplaceable. With wholesale destruction of these places comes the loss of habitats. Even if you were to plant the same species of trees in a field a couple of miles up the road in Sheffield, you can’t replicate an ancient woodland. The myriad species and underground mycelia that live in it along with the complex interactions that have developed over the past 400 or 500 years cannot just be reproduced.  These unique ecosystems are disappearing under the machines of mankind and when they are gone, that is it, finito, no more.

Hoffman has written an eloquent series of essays taken from his first-hand experience of seeing places that are under threat from human activity. It is partly a celebration of our diverse world but is also a call to arms for those that care about this planet. He shows how local people are fighting back against the things that are happening to their area. Most importantly, it is a book that needs to be read and more importantly a stepping stone to inspire us to action and to pressurise our political leaders into doing something when the places we live are threatened.

The Nature Of Spring by Jim Crumley

4 out of 5 stars

Regardless of what happens in the world, the seasons come and go without fail. The seasons may be stretched a little, especially with the effects of climate change at the moment as they seem to blend into each other more and more. With spring the main moment for me is when we reach the equinox, that day when the night and day are exactly the same length; 12 hours. This year that day was the 20th March and that seemed to me to be the best time to start this book by Crumley.

Spring in Scotland often begins with snow on the ground and in his first chapter of the book he is watching a kestrel over a landscape that is scattered with small patches of snow. She drops from the twig into the wind and begins to hunt. They keep pace with each other at a distance and just as he reached some newly planted native trees, she turns and rushes away downwind. Soon after he hears a mistle thrush singing as the urge to find a mate becomes all-consuming. These are what he considers the first syllables of spring.

Following the traces of spring around Scotland will take him up in the Highlands, and to the islands of Mull, Iona, Lismore and he even ventures out of Scotland to visit Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast. If feels like you are alongside him as he is watching the antics of Sea Eagles or spotting an unusual encounter between a fox and a pine marten or being a handful of yards away from a grey coated roebuck.

As with his other books in the series, this is another brilliant book from Crumley. He is passionate about his subjects too; his eye for the details of the way that the creatures behave, coupled with the descriptions of the landscape make this such a good book. He is not afraid to use the book as a soapbox either, putting forward solid arguments on a variety of subjects that he cares about. This is the third in the series so far, and there is just the final book, The Nature of Summer, to look forward to.

Other books on Spring that I can recommend:

In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas

Walking through Spring: An English Journey by Graham Hoyland

Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons by Melissa Harrison (Editor)

The Long Spring: Tracking the Arrival of Spring Through Europe by Laurence Rose

Ghost Town by Jeff Young

4.5 out of 5 stars

Near me are landscapes that have hundreds and hundreds of years of history draped across them, if you know what to look for and where to look it is fairly straight forward to find Roman or Bronze Age features in the landscape. Things do disappear though given enough time, either by erosion or human influence. Cities though are another matter, things can change in less that a generation, buildings are knocked down and replaced with another badly designed eyesore.

But if you know where to look in a city, especially one that you grew up in, a form of your past life can be found. Even though it may have been a while since you last walked down them, a walk down a little-used back alley that you last saw 20 years ago can fire those memory neurons in the brain in unexpected ways. Jeff Young’s stamping grounds as a child were the streets of Liverpool and in Ghost Town (does anyone hear the song that The Specials sung with those two words?). Beginning with a pile of photos that are spread out over the kitchen table, of his past life, he sees faded images of buildings that might still be there and smiling relatives who almost certainly aren’t now.

It brings back memories of sitting in his grandparents home, seeing the Christmas decorations around a room with no ceiling, but it was hardly surprising because the house was more or less derelict. His grandfather was a butcher by trade and one of those hard men who had spent a lifetime with horses and lived by his own rules. Just thinking of him bought back happy memories of sitting in the kitchen learning swear words.

He talks of the time he fell off his bike and on arriving home, was not allowed in the house as his dad had had an accident. He could still remember finding dead animals, playing truant and days spent down by the canal after they had moved from the city to Maghull. By the age of 16, he had flunked school and ended up as a packer in a warehouse. He manages to avoid the casual violent episodes that were taking place, drinking in back street pubs and wandering the streets supposedly delivering post to other offices.

Returning to those streets many years and a lifetime of experience later brings all these fragments of his past back, but time is messing with his memory and the significant events were blurring and moving on the timeline. He walks the streets of his past with Horatio Clare, fighting the bitter wind by fortifying themselves with rum and Guinness trying to locate the ghostly presence of Thomas de Quincey.

The cobbled streets still framed the emptiness, but there was no one left to walk through the flames, no photographer to capture the city as it once was. Just grandad walking through a city that is no longer there.

I am slightly ashamed to say that Liverpool is a city that I have been past many times and not ever visited. Yet from the beautiful prose in Young’s book it sounds a really dynamic place, that oozes history from every crack. His memories of past events are quite distinctive and in his writing, they have retained their sharpness without being softened by time nor coloured by nostalgia. It was seeing the photos that prompted Young to go out and walk around the streets of Liverpool that meant so much as he was growing up. The book does jump back and forwards in time, as he stands in front of a building in the present day he is immediately taken back to a memory from three decades ago in the same spot, and he doe it in a way that you don’t feel disjointed. The buildings in Liverpool are quite spectacular, and the photos in the book add to the atmosphere of the place.

A Month by the Sea by Dervla Murphy

3.5 out of 5 stars

Living in Gaza is just like living in a prison. On one side is the blockade that stops almost all people getting in or out, and there is a sea blockade in place that stops boats for venturing from the shore too far. It is not a place that is high on most people wish list for visiting, but spare a thought for the people that have to live there. Getting in was not going to be easy, but Dervla Murphy is tenacious. The regular route was shut down and then she had an opportunity to get in via Egypt, took it and got in.

This wasn’t going to be a fleeting visit like a lot of reporters either, she was intending to stay a whole month and get to know the people and see how they coped with day to day basic living in their prison. The media portrays the Palestinians as a radicalised people fighting and who are prepared to go to any lengths to strike terror against the state of Israel. What she finds there is utterly different to what she was expecting.

Yes, there are radical young men and women there who have no other channels to direct their anger, but there is also a population who are doing their very best to just get on with life, who have had enough of the fighting and pain and loss of loved ones. A people who long for a peace process that would mean they could get back on with their lives.

Puzzled by my lack of journalistic equipment: no camera, no tape recorder, not even a notebook and pencil. I explained that I don’t like interviewing people, I just like talking with them.

Murphy is prepared to go out and talk to people about how they feel and understand just how incredibly difficult struggle daily life is. She hears about the random attached that just happen with little or almost no warning, attacks that seem to be designed with the maximum amount of cruelty. She tries to think rationally about the situation and circumstances that they are under, as well as spending time question the motives and processes behind each sides actions. Seeing the evidence around her each day makes her think about the slender hopes for peace and the utter pain that she has from seeing the hypocrisy from both sides and how a people that suffered from horrific genocide and during the holocaust have elements in the society that seem to inflict it on another people. This is an uncompromising read seen from the perspective of an old Irish lady who grew up in a land that had similar problems, Ireland. It might not suit everyone, but if you like a challenging book, give it a read.

These Silent Mansions by Jean Sprackland

4 out of 5 stars

Near where I grew up, is a place called Brookwood Cemetery. For years this 500-acre site was the largest burial ground in the world and when it was first set aside it even had its own railway line and platform at Waterloo Station. I spent many an afternoon walking around there, and whilst some might find that morbid, there was a peacefulness to the place.

Sprackland is another person who fascinated by graveyards, so much so that she remembers the places that she has lived and significant family moments by the graveyards that were nearby. She has fond memories of these places and uses them to root her in the locality. Going back over people’s past make her want to travel back through her life, to the towns and cities that she has lived before. In each of the graveyards, she finds a glimpse of a life that has long ceased to exist but still has a story to tell of the people who once walked the streets that she now walks again.

Her journey will take her from Oxford to Devon, London to Norfolk. But also back into the past to learn about a drowned lad, the owner of a steam fairground, bodies used for medical research and a young lady who died after her clothes caught fire.

Wherever I have lived, I have found them – some like cities, others like gardens, or forests of stone – and they have become the counterparts of those lived places: the otherworlds which have helped make sense of this world.

Each of these stories is told with Sprackland’s keen eye for detail in the lives that were once lived and their final resting place as she traces the inscriptions in the stone. Death is still a taboo object, however, there is something peaceful about graveyards, not only are they are a haven of quiet in a relentless world, but they are one of those thin places where you feel closer to other worlds. It is beautifully written as I have come to expect with all of her books, she has immensely powerful prose. Even though it is about the dead, it not morbid at all, rather she is curious about the past and the relics that we leave to remember someone.

Along the Amber Route by C.J. Schüler

4 out of 5 stars

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

Amber has captivated people for the past 12,000 years. The golden coloured fossilised tree resins were first made into beads in the Neolithic time and have been highly sought after ever since. The lumps of amber can be cut and polished and turned into beautiful jewellery. Because of its value it has been highly sought after and as it doesn’t weight much it has been easy to transport for trade.

Since the Roman times, there has been a route from the north of Europe that bought this precious material from the beaches of the Baltic Sea all the way down to the Mediterranean. This is the beginning of a 2500 kilometre journey that will take him from the northern shores of Europe where a lot of the amber can be picked off the beaches of the Baltic Sea if you have sharp enough eyes to spot it.

Heading along the Baltic Coast, he passes through the countries of Estonia, Latvia, briefly into Russia and then Lithuania. While he is that far north, he has a go at finding it on those beaches though takes a sharp eye and after spending a little while looking, Schüler gets his eye in and finds his first piece, a cylinder about the size of a fingernail that still had an impression of the bark of the tree it came from 50 million years ago.

While in Russia he goes to visit the Amber Room in the Catherin Palace in St Petersburg. This is a replica of the original room which was looted in World War II and taken to Königsberg. It was thought to have been damaged when bombed, but there were rumours that it might have survived. This magnificent room glows in the light.

Turning inland the journey takes him to Poland next. There are two main routes here that archaeological evidence suggests could have been in use at the same time. He is bowled over by the amber collection in Marienburg which has pieces that go back to 2000bc but the centrepiece is the Renaissance and Baroque collections. In the Czech Republic, he heads to the town of Olomouc where he is hoping to find more amber in the museum.

Just over the border into Hungary, he is in the city of Sopron to visit the city museum in Fabricius House where they have some finely carved amber which showed that the raw amber that had headed south would work its way back north as finished pieces. His journey is almost at an end as he approaches southern Europe, where there are still people creating jewellery from amber.

I really liked this book following alongside Schüler down the Amber Route. It was good to read about very different parts of Europe than I usually do. Woven throughout the book is his own personal family history, of relatives who survived the holocaust in the second world war and tribute to those that tragically didn’t. Coupled with that is a fascinating history over 2000 years of the people and places that were obsessed with this precious material. If there was one tiny flaw, I would have liked to have had some photos included of the places that he visits.

This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay

4 out of 5 stars

Adam Kay had come from a family of medics, so becoming a doctor was inevitable. He knew some of what he was going to have to do as a junior doctor, but he didn’t quite realise how much doing that job would take out of him. This book is the diary that he kept of his time working on the maternity ward.

Naturally, he has changed names and significant details to anonymise the events, but what he recounts here dealing with the general public is very very funny at times!

There are sad moments too, which you are naturally going to get in any hospital that is caring for any really ill people.

There are times when he brushes off near-death moments as a seasoned pro and other times when he needs to sit a cry for an hour having not being able to help a particular individual. Just when you think that you have heard it all, then comes another person in with an object inserted literally where the sun doesn’t shine. The funniest one was the candle…

He is an eloquent writer who is not scared to get angry about things when it comes to the NHS. I do feel that the whole system is broken if they are having to push doctors to the point where they can make life-changing mistakes. This is an NHS that has been worn down by successive governments and just at the moment where we have a pandemic hit us it is at its lowest point.

This Book Will Blow Your Mind

3 out of 5 stars

Science works by asking questions and then seeking answers to those questions and modifying as you go along until you learn more about the thing that you asked the question about. In this book, a plethora of authors have looked at some of the most imagination-stretching, brain-staggering questions in the universe and have set about trying their best to answer them.

It is wide-ranging in its choice of subject matter, from the tiny quantum world to the vast chasms of space, trying to understand why lightning shouldn’t exist and how we can read each other minds all the time. It ventures into the seriously weird world of quantum physics and heads beneath the surface of the earth to discover creatures that somehow are managing to live without oxygen. There are people who can see time, some seriously odd materials and details on why we all need to take an acid trip every now and again.

It had some interesting stuff that I didn’t know, but did it blow my mind though? No. Though there were some articles that I had not come across, a fair number of them I had had some prior knowledge of. If you read widely you will have almost certainly come across some of these stories already. Not a bad book if you want to introduce someone to a broad range of science.

A Pattern Of Islands by Arthur Grimble

4 out of 5 stars

Arthur Grimble was fresh out of Oxford and was interviewed by the colonial office for a post overseas. He got the job and was despatched to the other side of the world to work on the Gilbert Islands in the pacific. This was the time of colonialism and he was starting there as a cadet officer. Coming from the UK this was a form of paradise and it was going to be a place that he was to fall in love with over the next three decades.

You probably think, Grimble, that you’re here to teach these people our code of manners, not to learn theirs. You’re making a big mistake.

He was given the piece of advice above and he took it completely to heart. He was fascinated by the islanders, their history and just how they managed to eke a living in the middle of the vast ocean. Not only did they survive by developing unique ways of catching food from the ocean but they also developed a sophisticated pagan culture that was full of legends, folklore, rituals and spells. It was a way of life that was vanishing as the Catholic and Protestant religion was being draped over the culture. But if you knew where to look you could still see their earlier pagan culture shining through and as the people began to trust him they began to share their stories.

I really liked this, he is an eloquent author and a sensitive observer of the culture of these islands. He is prepared to get involved in the activities too, learning to catch octopus seeing men face tiger sharks with only a spear and witnessing the initiation rituals of the clans. I think if he hadn’t have taken that small piece of advice then this would have been a much poorer book. A great read of a part of the world that I have never heard of.

Alcoholic Betty by Elizabeth Horan

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Death: ‘THERE ARE BETTER THINGS IN THE WORLD THAN ALCOHOL, ALBERT.’

Albert: ‘Oh, yes, sir. But alcohol sort of compensates for not getting them.’

Terry Pratchett

I have always liked this quote from Pratchett, not only is it amusing, but it contains so much truth in it. I like a drink, a few pints down the pub with some friends every now and again, a couple of glasses of wine over dinner or a contemplative whiskey while reading a book late on a Friday night. However, alcohol has earned its moniker, demon for a number of reasons. It is very easy to go from a modest drinker to a heavy drinker to an alcoholic without yourself or anyone noticing your dependence on the bottle. Owning up to this to your self and others takes an immense amount of

courage.

 

That time when

I was so bad

 

When I said

Hahahaha, I’m fine

 

Of course I’m not fine though —

drinking too much

 

Horan has that courage to face up to the things that she has been doing and part of facing that has been to write her thoughts down on the page. She pours out her feelings and actions in these verses at her very lowest points. This raw and emotive prose makes this a very tough read at times and there are subjects that are about some very dark moments in her life. It is difficult to like poetry like this given how bleak some of the poems are, that said there is immense power in her words that will help someone facing some of the same issues that she has.

 

Favourite Poems

The It Girl

The Light Was Not for Me

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