Category: Review (page 1 of 68)

Time and Place by Alexandra Harris

4 out of 5 stars

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

We are ruled by time, from the accurate time that GPS relies on to the less accurate timescales that the trains seem to run to. Slicing the year into even portions in the hope that we can get a handle on it has been a thing that we humans have done for years. It works too, if you were going to attend an event on a particular day at a specific time, then it helps if everyone uses the same system, so you can all be there together at the same time.

But how has humanity divided these portions of time up? It depends on the culture, but most seem to have decided on days, months and years with a whole variety of different starting times. To communicate this official time to their local populations, artists designed all manner of different almanacks and calendars to help people determine the time of year.

In this book, Alexandra Harris explores all sorts of different interpretations of time and how people back in time divided it up. There is a whole world of calendars out there, but she has concentrated on calendars from England specifically. She has included examples of psalters, standing stones, perpetual calendars and even an Anglo Saxon woodcut. Some of these show significant dates or events that were expected to be undertaken at that particular time of year.

This is another beautifully produced little book from Little Toller, that diverges a little from their usual output of classic and contemporary natural history books. It does touch on rural life as Harris looks at the that artists tried to limit time onto a single beautiful page. She has also asked four modern artists, Jo Sweeting, Kurt Jackson and Jem Southam and Alison Turnball to devise their own interpretation on dividing time in the modern age. Their results are very different and all beautiful. But there is more to this book than just that, it made me think about how I see time now compared to a few years ago. I am still tied to the regular clock and calendar, I have a job after all. But I now have a greater sense of the seasons as a time period than I did at the age of 18, I now see time as it passes the solstices and equinoxes. You cannot beat a book that makes you think.

100 Things I Meant To Tell You by Arthur Smith

4 out of 5 stars

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

I first came across Arthur Smith on the much-missed (by me at least) Excess Baggage. This was Radio 4’s half-hour slot on travel where he was a warm and generous host. It seems that he has been around forever though, comedy on stage and the radio, writing books and plays, and most famously appearing on Grumpy Old Men, where he fitted the archetypical profile perfectly. He is very much a London Boy, and is the self-titled Night Mayor of Balham, as he doesn’t want to do days.

His life experience of all of these wide-ranging things he has done has been distilled down into this book of 100 Things That He Meant to Tell You. In here are poems, anecdotes, articles and snippets from his life. There is the odd rant about modern life, stories from his father, who was a policeman and memories of time spent with his mum as her dementia took over.

It is a bittersweet collection. There are some genuine laugh out loud moments within, so much so, that I was getting strange looks from my family when reading it. But there are other pieces that make you stop and put the book down for a moment and think. Especially the moments that he shares about his mum and dad.  This book is just like Smith himself, what you see is what you get, warts and gravelly voice come included. Yes he is a little grumpy at times, but he is not vindictive with it, rather he is as happy to accept his flaws as he is the flaws in other people. If you have read, My Name is Daphne Fairfax, then you’ll love this; whatever you do though, try to avoid looking inside the rear flap!

Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

4 out of 5 stars

It sounds perfect, a mile of bookshelves, 100,000 books to choose from, open fires, a bookshop cat and when you have selected your purchases then you can take a walk down to the sea to sit and read them. This place can be found in Scotland’s book town, Wigtown, and if you were a visitor you’d hope that the proprietor, Shawn Bythell would be pleased to see every customer who walked in the door. Well, he is, sometimes, but he often isn’t…

“Do you have a list of your books, or do I just have to stare at them?”

Inundated with requests from customers that range from the regular requests for a particular copy of a book, people wanting to take selfies with the kindle to the slightly strange and often the outright bizarre requests from customers who really are not engaging their brains before opening their mouths. He also has to battle with those that think nothing of selecting a number of books off the shelf, coming up to the counter and then offering a paltry sum for the books that they want. No one would think of doing that in any other shop, so why should he be different.

He is still buying collections of books, from people who think that their value is far and above what he is prepared to pay. And every now and again he finds a gem of a book in those collections, however, I never cease to be amazed just how many he takes to be pulped. He lists the book via Amazon and Abe books, and while I can see that if a book listed will get snapped up, he frequently gets a book in the day after someone has asked for it…

Amazon is the bane of his life. The Monsoon system that they have to use to sell through Amazon seems not to work most of the time. They don’t get the orders, so, therefore, have no way of knowing what to ship and the customer rightly complains that they haven’t had the book yet. It makes the shop look bad, even though they are not at fault in any way and Amazon berates them and holds onto their money for longer.

On top of all that he has to cope with belligerent staff, one of whom has a unique way of stacking the books on the shelves and around the shop and he is assisted by an Italian lady who is working for free but gets board and lodgings. His home fills up with people during the festival, bits of the wall fall off the building and he has a few hangovers to cope with. I thought that this was a really good follow up to his first book, Diary of a Bookseller. It is hilarious at times and occasionally quite melancholy. He is not afraid to talk about the problems facing those in the new and second-hand book trade and the massive problems caused by Amazon. I liked the way that he shows his daily takings and the books ordered online compared to those found. So go missing because of customers and others because of erratic filing… Somehow through all of this he manages to only be slightly sarcastic some of the time, exasperated most of the time and I have this sneaky feeling that he wouldn’t be anywhere else.

18 Bookshops by Anne Scott

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

What makes a good bookshop? Well having books is a good start. To be serious though, a well-curated selection of different genres that are drawn from mainstream and back catalogues and staff that are readers and know and love books. But what makes a good bookshop a great bookshop? That requires a little something extra, be it the selection of books, the bookseller or just the location of the shop.

From her first bookshelf that was originally an orange box and the happy memories of going with her brother to the bookshop each Saturday where he bought a Penguin paperback, Anne Scott has always had a thing about bookshops. In this beautifully produced volume, she has picked 18 of her favourite bookshops that she has developed a relationship with over her years.

They are mostly based in the around the UK, though one American one and another Irish one have snuck in, each has been chosen for a variety of reasons. Some because they were the places she discovered poets that other bookshops never even considered stocking, others have that quiet calm as if they were cathedrals to the written word. There are bookshops where the books were placed on easels, with pages opened out to show the art within and a London bookshop that sells children’s books, has ivy curling around the door and a secret garden within.

Sometimes, as here, a Bookshop may be defined forever in a life by a single found book.

I must be honest and say that I had only come across one of these bookshops, the rest were a mystery to me. But what a mystery though, Scott writes about these places in a dreamy evocative way, linking back to memories of discovering books and authors that would play a part in her life. It did make me think though about what bookshops would I include if I was choosing 18 that had made an impression on me as a reader. I really missed having page numbers, but I get why they did it, as each essay about the bookshop is short enough to read in a few minutes. If you have a thing about bookshops then I can recommend this as a book to lose yourself in.

The Secret Life of Books by Tom Mole

4 out of 5 stars

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

I am a book addict. There I have said it. They seem to consume my life at the moment. I have read more than ever this year, so much so that I am going to finish my Good Reads Challenge a month early this year. I spend lots of time in bookshops and charity shops looking for new things to read and the bargains. I have 12 bookcases around the home, all full to overflowing and ever-increasing tsundoku (piles of books) that my long-suffering wife is now commenting about…

Like Tom, I always look at the books when I visit someone’s home, even if I have been there many times before. Your library is a rare glimpse into your very soul. Shockingly, I have even been to houses where there are no books. NO BOOKS! (Yes this is a real thing). They feel empty and barren. There is much more to a physical book than thin slices of a tree with random marks on. I don’t know quite what it is about books that makes them so appealing. Perhaps it is the heft that you get from a quality hardback, or the detail that goes into binding them or for the price of a couple of coffees you can have an entertaining few hours venturing into another world that someone has created or that you can learn something about our amazing world and the people in it. For me, though I find their presence in my home reassuring, that I can access knowledge and experiences from other people by taking a book off the shelf.

Tom Mole is another fellow obsessive book collector. (It’s not hoarding if it’s books) He works at the University of Edinburgh and is Professor of English Literature and Book History, so he is perfectly placed to write this book about books. Beginning with clay tablets and papyrus he takes us all the way through the scrolls to the codex format that we see all around us today. You will learn about binding errors, how we can become utterly absorbed in the magic that is reading, how some people manage to read their books and leave them utterly pristine and others who pass them on (or horror of horrors back) most foxed and often slightly badgered too. There is a certain amount of pleasure in owning a signed book, even more so if it is dedicated.

Some people develop relationships with their copies of favourite books, scribbling notes, folding the corners of the pages down, leaving splatters from cooking and adding their own unique and distinctive embellishments. There is a chapter on how books can affect people’s lives and two on the future direction and technology of books? Is it kindles? Or apps on a phone? The physical object is resilient to the ravages of time there are books around that are hundreds of years old that can still be read, whereas if you have a novel on a 5 1/4″ floppy disk then you will be extremely lucky if you can ever read that again.

It is a well-researched book stuffed full of interesting anecdotes and facts and Mole has done a great job in not making this feel like a slightly stuffy academic paper. The chapters are short and can be dipped into in no particular order and I liked the brief interludes. If you have the remotest interest in reading or books then I can highly recommend this book. Great stuff.

The Art Of Urban Astronomy by Abigail Beall

3 out of 5 stars

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

Mankind has looked to the heavens for aeons. Sometimes seeking meaning for events, tracing the movement of the stars as the earth hurtles through space and often just marvelling at the wonders that the night sky can bring. We lost some of that magic with the advent of artificial light, the glory of the Milky Way faded as the glare from cities stopped us seeing it. But head out into the countryside away from street lights and security lighting, wait for your eyes to adjust and the wonder of the night sky is revealed once again.

But where do you start? This is a book that can help you discover the night sky. Abigal Beall has packed this full of seasonal star charts, constellation charts, details on the myths and legends of astronomy how to identify the stars and constellations in each month and information about some of the equipment that you’ll need to see the sky properly.

This is not a bad little book for those wishing to begin stargazing. The information is laid out is a logical and clear format and is eminently practical. This is very much a beginners guide though and should be considered a mere opening chapter for those that want to get into looking at the night sky. It has enough to pique the interest for someone wishing to dabble in it, but they will need more books on the subject if they wish to expand their hobby.

Copsford by Walter J.C. Murray

4 out of 5 stars

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

These days people imagine going off-grid, turning away from the technology, screens and the constant interruptions from the modern world. There are those that have done it are a special breed, such as Mark Boyle who tells his story in The Way Home. Most seem to be happy with their choice of limiting their interaction with the modern world.

And what a perfume there was to it! It was like the scent of fresh tea with something else added, something essentially English, the sweetness and fragrance of the woodlands of this England.

Go back 100 years and it was all off-grid! But even then you could find places that were isolated from normal life if you knew where to look. Back in the 1920s Walter Murray had been living in London and working as a journalist, but he had become tired of city life and decided to move back to the country. He moved to Horam in Sussex into an almost derelict house near a farm. He wanted to make a living writing and collecting wild herbs.

One of those days which are like jewels among the many-coloured beads of spring. A day when we seem to breathe not air, but sunshine, when the sky is high and deeply blue, the horizon faintly far, when the woods ring with the bird music and the new green is still so light that there seems to be more branch than leaf.

This is the book that he wrote about his stay there over the course of a year. It is partly a matter of fact journal of his day to day activities, the battle with purging the place of rats and making the place semi habitable. He wasn’t alone but had the company of a collie mixed breed dog called Floss but it was still a hard year collecting and carrying all the herbs back to Copsford for drying. Each chapter concentrates on a herb that is in season and the work he does in collecting them, it is back-breaking work for a paltry reward.

It is mundane work, but what he relishes is being outdoors. He goes from being restless and agitated to being calmed by the natural world. Staring at the hedgerows and slowly he beings to really see what is around him, the dance of light beneath the canopy of a tree, taking in the scents of the meadows and watching the birds go about their business without noticing him. This sort of work is lonely too, he manages mostly, but his spirit is lifted when a close friend from childhood visits.

I did think rather him than me a few times. The thought of spending a year in a dwelling that leaks and is borderline derelict (it’s the house on the cover), doesn’t hold a lot of appeal, really. That said, being able to take a step away from modern life and do something different every now and again does have some appeal. Murray writes about the things that he sees as he walks from the house to where he is collecting the herbs from and slowly over the summer he goes from being merely an observer to someone who becomes in tune with all the living things around him. This is one of those deceptive books, you think there is not going to be much apart from the tedium of work and yet there is much more to this and that is solely down to the quality of his writing.

Be My Guest by Priya Basil

4 out of 5 stars

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

There are five people in my house and as come meal times it is like feeding the 5000. We eat together almost every night, and if I can drag the teenagers away from their phones, we often have conversations about all sorts of things, including politics. It is the hospitality provided over those shared dinners where long term friendships are formed.

Priya Basil has grown up in a family of food fanatics and she probably thinks that it goes way back past her grandmother. She has provided for years for her family, ensuring that all those that sit at her table struggle to get up after. This greed-gene flew in the face of her mothers aim to get her and her sister to sit and eat politely, as every time temptation loomed, she abandoned all that she had learnt, just to eat. When it comes to her mothers kadhi though, she still experiences pure greed.

Recipes are the original open source … You only need to successfully make a recipe once to feel it is your own. Make it three more times and suddenly it’s a tradition.

The etymological origins of the word hospitality are from ghosti; the word hostility also shares these same roots and Basil traces the history of food being used as a weapon against populations to starve them or force them to migrate against their will. Sadly, we are in a time where hostility seems to be on the rise and places where people once looked after each other have become places of tension.

Thankfully, this is a book that concentrates about the shared pleasures of good conversation and even better food. It is also a call to say rather than being selfish, sharing mealtimes with friends and neighbours will help people belong in that community. We can play a part in reducing the friction that seems to be growing, by becoming a generous and selfless host. A slender volume, full of wisdom and is very much worth reading.

My Midsummer Morning by Alastair Humphreys

4 out of 5 stars

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

In the mid-1930s a young man called Laurie Lee arrived in Spain. For most of his life, he had not been out of the village of Slad where he grew up. He had worked for a while in London, but this new country was a revelation. He walked across the country playing his violin to earn a little money to enable him to eat.

Humphreys is an adventurer who has been around the world on a bike (as written about in Moods Of Future Joys and Thunder and Sunshine), crossed seas and deserts and many other things. He has also pioneered the micro-adventure, which is a small and cheap adventure that still pushes your boundaries and get you out into the wider world. But since getting married, having kids and ending up with something that he never would get, a mortgage, he was missing the challenge of something bigger.

Lee’s simple travel has long inspired others, including Alastair, and he had the idea of doing a modern-day version of the same trip discovering inland Spain and sleeping out under the stars. But he needed a violin first. Oh, and more importantly, some lessons to be able to play it and earn some money. He finds a teacher online who declares her musical inspiration to be heavy metal and classical and heads to a music shop and buys the cheapest instrument that he can find. Arriving for his first lesson he discovers an Australian lady who has a very different life to his, he has seven months to learn how to play. The first screeches send shivers down his spine; it was then it dawned on him that he might not earn enough to eat!

A few months later Humphreys was sitting on the harbour wall in the port of Vigo, in northwest Spain. It was time for the adventure to begin. He left his small pile of change on the bench to ensure that he knew he was starting with absolutely nothing as he began his walk. Later on that day he would hopefully earn the first money of his walk…

This is the fourth of Humphreys books that I have read now and like all of his others, it is an enjoyable read. He finds the Spanish people warm and generous and falls in love with the country. He swims in rivers, suffers the heat of the day, helps a postman deliver letters in exchange for a lift as he wanders from the coast to Madrid before heading south. I liked the way he links his trip back to Lee’s journey AS I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. The Spain that Humphreys is walking through though is a very different country than that of the 1930s which was teetering on the brink of a civil war.

It is not a superhuman effort like his cycle trip, but he does push his own boundaries by playing the violin to earn his keep. He thinks the world of his wife and children, but this book and walk is as much about his need to be out there doing something. Getting that balance between responsibility and adventure is very difficult and he is striving to find that in here. I must admit that I have resisted the temptation to go and watch the videos of Humphreys playing his violin though…

Tempest – Editors Anna Vaught & Anna Johnson

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

If you have looked at the news recently you’d realise that we are in a time of political turmoil; Brexit dominates everything in the national conversation, other urgent matters about the climate and the social malaise of the country are falling by the wayside as we get more and more introspective. I am one of those who has taken to skimming the weekend papers and generally avoiding the news as it is just so depressing.

There are others though who see that this time is an opportunity to explore a post-Brexit Britain, and Tempest is a collection of poetry, short stories and articles that contemplate a time after. Some of these stories were from a dystopian and science fiction perspective, which as a fan of that sort of material was good to read.

I really liked some of them, in particular, We should Own the stars, Nature and Culture and The Carp Whisperer. As with any collection like this, there were the odd one or two that didn’t work for me. But then the idea of these collections is to bring your attention to authors who you may not have known about and to hear viewpoints that you wouldn’t normally hear in your regular media consumption. I must say though that the cover is by an artist called Roz Strauss and it is stunning. Solid little collection.

« Older posts

© 2019 Halfman, Halfbook

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑