Category: Review (Page 1 of 99)

No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen by Ken Worpole

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

There are lots of Second World War based history books that remember the heroism, battles and losses of the Second World War, just walk into any bookshop and you can pick from subjects as diverse as spies, naval battles, the D Day landings and so it goes on. There is very little around on those people that took the moral high ground and decided that they would not or could not fight. This book concerns a group of pacifists who in 1943 took possession of a vacant farm in Frating, a hamlet on the Essex Tendring Peninsula and it was here that they set about making a community farm.

Their inspiration was a number of writers who were associated with the Adelphi Journal such as Orwell and Lawrence who were thinking about radical ideas for society. It became a livelihood for individuals and families who wanted to do something different and came to support and help other refugees and even some prisoners of war. It was hard work, but it did manage to earn the respect of other farms in the area with its successes in arable and livestock farming.

Worpole tells how it began with a small community of 30 people, but by the time it had got to 1948, there were considerably more people living there and numbers swelled at harvest time too. It was never a utopia though, the work was hard and relentless and there always seemed to be some conflicting opinions between some of the main people on the farm in the book. The children who lived on the farm all seems to go on to do a whole variety of careers in educational or artistic positions. The farm was making a profit by the end of its tenure, but they still had to service its debt and those obligations meant the end of the venture.

I thought that this was a fascinating insight into a part of society in World War 2 that is very rarely written about. The research is meticulous and there are lots of photos of the people that are in the book as well as some of the activities that took place on the farm. I thought that Worpole has managed to make this a useful historical reference document as well as a series of personal stories about some of the characters that were at the farm. If you like history books with a different spin then this is well worth reading.

Flight Of The Diamond Smugglers by Matthew Gavin Frank

2.5 out of 5 stars

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

It is amazing to think that diamonds are made from the same stuff that you use on a barbeque. One is a black crumbly material that is utterly opaque, the other is a sparkling clear gemstone that allows rays of light to pass through while the internal structure reflects, refracts and disperses that light helping them shine brilliantly. Not only are they both forms of carbon, but they do both burn…

The majority of diamonds in the world have come out of Southern Africa and since 1888 it has been controlled by the global monopoly that is De Beers. They have controlled the market by limiting the availability of diamonds, buying up excess stock, flooding the market to reduce prices and damaging competitors as well as other methods of price-fixing.

They are not particularly great to their employees either, not only do they work in some pretty tough conditions and the company takes vast personal liberties to ensure that they are not stealing any of the product, but they only pay them the minuscule amount of 0.00019% of the final sale value of the precious stone that they have found. No wonder the methods of smuggling rough diamonds from the areas and novel and original, from sockets at the rear of false eyes, inserting them in various parts of the anatomy and by using homing pigeons.

It is the pigeons that are the lead-in story that is threaded about the book, he first meets with someone who he calls Msizi and his bird called Bartholomew. This pigeon is Msizi’s opportunity to smuggle diamonds from the mines to his home and bring a little hope to him and his family. Like with all of the methods that the smugglers use, the company comes down very hard of those that seek to steal from them and the policy is to shoot any birds they see.

This lead is the beginning to, Frank finding out more about just how the company operates, and he speaks to oppressed workers to some of the armed heavies that patrols the company lands. What he really wants to do though is meet the almost mythical Mr Lester, the all-seeing and all-knowing De Beers executive whose reputation is legendary among smugglers and company men alike.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I thought that parts of it were really well written, atmospheric and occasionally terrifying. I didn’t think that his personal story should have been in there. It felt like it was added to add the ‘personal interest’ element that editors feel should be there. There was enough in the stories that he did pick up on though to have a still made it a decent book. To begin with, it feels like the criminals are the smugglers who are trying to make a little more money for themselves and their families. But it ends up with the company looking like the real criminals in the end.

Wyntertide by Andrew Caldecott

3 out of 5 stars

The town of Rotherweird is an anomaly. It is independent from England and has been so for the past four hundred years all to protect a secret. The last man who tried to exploit that secret, Sir Veronal Slickstone is now dead. As Rotherweird tries to return to normal, or as normal as they can get in this strange town.

But things start to happen and people become aware of omens that are disturbing. A warning is delivered at a funeral the Herald disappears and the covenant between town and countryside is under threat by democracy, of all things. The mayoral election has galvanised the population, but it is setting different factions against each other. As this is unfolding sinister things are happening in the background, Geryon Wynter, a man that everyone thought was buried in their dark Elizabethan past has been planning something over the past centuries. No one can really see exactly what is happening, but the approach of the Solstice may be the key.

Overall I thought this was fairly good. The plot is moderately paced, full of subtle clues and scenes that build towards the end as all the threads come together. Like with the first book, I thought that the mini world, Rotherweird, that he has constructed is unnerving and familiar at the same time. I like the use of magic and 16th-century tech that he mixes in with it too. One flaw for me was the number of characters that swirl through the plot, it felt like there were too many and it always took a moment to try to work out quite what was going on each time. I will be reading the last book in the series though, as I want to see how it ends.

Goshawk Summer by James Aldred

4 out of 5 stars

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

He is used to some of the more exotic regions of the planet but a commission is a commission and he agrees to take on the filming of a pair of Goshawks in the place that he remembers from a childhood growing up in Ringwood on the edge of the New Forest. He meets up with one of the rangers who takes him to the locations where he knows they are nesting. The first is the best with regards to location, but there are no birds around. They spend longer looking at the other sites but have no luck. A hunch takes them back to the original one and there on the nest is a female. He has found his pair.

There is a sublime chaos about ancient woodland that speaks of perfect natural balance, and for me, such places nourish the soul like no other environment.

Just as he is preparing the site the lockdown is announced in March 2020. It looks like he won’t be filming them anytime soon, but a few weeks into the lockdown he gets the permissions that he needs to undertake the filming. HE is in the forest at a time when it feels like the world has stopped. Gone is the constant rumble of traffic across the A31, the skies are silent and empty as nothing is flying out of Southampton and Bournemouth. There is just him and this pair of Goshawks.

So begins a spring and summer of studying these birds in perfect peace, as well as the pain and pleasure of climbing 50 feet up in the air to sit in a cramped hide all day to film a pair of Goshawks. He managed to get 400 hours of filming in the end. But there is much more to that book than this. He takes time away from the Goshawks to see Curlews, a much-endangered species as well as filming a family of fox cubs in a ditch near where their earth is.

For most, the tangled web of a forest canopy is a dangerous, impenetrable barrier. Even a peregrine wouldn’t enter it at speed. Yet – as we have come to see – goshawks aren’t like other birds.

As the restrictions are slowly lifted after the first lockdown the people return to the New Forest. Then as restrictions are eased again the forest fills with cars and people. They are taking their lockdown frustrations out on the place and leave litter, block roads and driveways and generally get angry anyone for no apparent reason. He worries that the noise will cause the Goshawks to abandon the nest, but they are more of stronger stuff, they are not the alpha predator for no reason at all. He carries on the filming, watching the chicks consume vast quantities of small birds and mammals.

There is much more depth to this book than just the diary of his filming. It is also the story of a thousand-year-old forest during one of the strangest times in our recent history, but it is a collection of thoughts on our wider relationship with the natural world and how we need to change to make it better, rather than just ruin it all the time. I did like this book a lot. It is a short book so his prose is taut and considered; there is not a wasted word here, however, he still manages to convey the brutal beauty of these fantastic birds. The diary format works really well too, it is a reminder that whatever happens in our own little worlds, the earth keeps turning and gradually changing each and every day. There was a brief eulogy to his late father, Chris, at the end of the book; he shared happy times with his father in the New Forest and lockdowns and work commitments meant that he never spent as much time with him in that last year. His life was cruelly taken too quickly by cancer at the end of 2020.

British Moths by James Lowen

4 out of 5 stars

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

Whilst I had always known about moths, I had never really taken the time to look at them as a group of insects. Since reading Much Ado about Mothing, which was published earlier this year I have been keeping my eyes peeled for moths around the home and garden. We have had a few and a friend and neighbour occasionally have a moth trap running so I have been round to see what they have attracted in the morning.

Given that there are around 2500 different species, it amazes me that so many of them have very different and individual names. There are some fantastic names too, including, Nut Tree Tussock, Scalloped Hazel, Frosted Orange and Feathered Thorn. I tended to think of butterflies having all the glamour, but looking at some of the photos in here, there are some equally beautiful moths, including, Waved Umber, Clouded Border, Brindled green and Scare Silver Lines.

In lots of ways, this is not an easy book to review, because it is not a book that you would generally read from cover to cover. That said what James Lowen has produced here is a first-class beginners guide book to British moths that you will be most like to find if using a moth trap. The photos are first class, and the information that accompanies each moth is full of useful details, such as when you are most likely to see one, the area of the country and any specific habitats that they are most likely to be found in. It must be remembered that this is a gateway guide and does not have every species in. If you are after more comprehensive books, he has even listed them in the back along with other resources for moth addiction…

An Affair Of The Heart by Dilys Powell

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Dilys Powell’s first fell in love with the country and people of Greece in 1931. She was there with her husband, the archaeologist Humfry Payne, who was undertaking an archaeological dig at the time. She came to know the villagers who were being employed as labourers on the site and came to know them as friends as they spent years camping on the sun-drenched site.

Tragically her husband was to die in 1936 from a staphylococcus infection. Her experience of the Greek people led to a Political Warfare Executive, but it was a place that she longed to return to. That opportunity came after the war when she returned time and time again to Perachora, the site of Payne’s excavations of the Heraion.

The water was soft and warm. I was content not to be reminded of the secrets beneath it, but simply to swim: to float, leisurely and indolent with the sun drying onto my face; to be solitary.

This book is a collection of her visits to the country, there are stories of her exploring remote parts in the company of shepherds walking along tracks to the coast. She learns of the atrocities that took place during the war, of villages being burnt in reprisal for the smallest of misdemeanours. All around homes are being rebuilt and she talks to those that survived the massacre by running to the mountains. She has a couple of unsuccessful attempts at diving but prefers to stick with the snorkel

Even though the timeline was fragmented in this book as she visits Greece multiple times, it still worked for me. It gives a sense of her picking the pieces up of her life after losing her husband, travelling back to the place that she loved and rebuilding her life once again. What her writing does best for me is the detail she reveals of the places that she passes through and the people that she meets. It is evocative travel writing though and she captures the moments that the country is changing before and after the war.

Weathering by Lucy Wood

2.5 out of 5 stars

Pearl hadn’t intended to end up in the river and she is not fully sure how she got there either. It might have been something to do with falling down the very dodgy stairs in her crumbling house. But she is in there.

Ada, Pearl’s daughter, had never expected to end back up in her mothers home again, in that rain-soaked valley and people that she wasn’t particularly looking forward to seeing after leaving them behind over a decade ago. The house is slowly succumbing to the relentless weather, the heating has failed and it is so damp that she can barely get a fire going.

Pepper has always followed her restless mother, Pearl, around from place to place as she sought somewhere to settle. She is a nomad too, but this house is full of things to discover, memories that she never knew she had from her past generations and there is that strange old woman who sits on the river bank with her feet in the cold water.

Pearl does not want to stay, this place has too many unhappy memories for her, but winter is coming and before they know it they are involved in life in the valley once again. They never thought that they would settle in one place, but things are changing, Pepper has calmed down and they feel they have a presence keeping an eye out for them both.

There were some parts of this that I liked, the writing is atmospheric and has wonderful descriptions of the river and the natural world outside the house. The three main characters, or two and a bit really… Pearl, Ada and Pepper are all independent and in some ways a bit dysfunctional way too, the way they interact and change as circumstances develop is the main point of the book. One problem that I did have with it was I kept thinking that Ada was the grandmother mother figure who permeates the book in all sorts of ways, but it was her daughter! There is precious little plot in here, and if you are after stories with a similar feel but with a bit more substance to them, I’d recommend Lanny or Elmet.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

4 out of 5 stars

This is a house like no other, there seems to be an endless number of rooms whose walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues. It is alongside the sea and at certain times the tides fill the lower rooms sending booms through the labyrinth of rooms.

In this place lives a man called Piranesi. He has mapped the rooms in each direction and has favourite statues in some of them. He calculates when the tides will be high so he knows when to retreat to other parts for safety. Mostly he is alone, but once a week a man he calls The Other appears and speaks to him about what he has discovered in the past week. It is a life that he is happy with.

Except for one week, The Other says that someone else has found the way into this labyrinth. He warns Piranesi not to talk to them at all as the knowledge that they bring is dangerous. The very thought of his routines being disturbed is enough to panic Piranesi and that fear is magnified when he starts to find messages left from this intruder. He does his best to destroy them, but he sees snippets of what they are saying and he slowly begins to doubt all that he knows.

I found this to be a very strange tale indeed. Piranesi is the sole inhabitant of a series of thousands of rooms that are located on the coast somewhere. I much preferred it to Jonathan Strange and Dr Norrell which was far too overwritten in my opinion. In this book, the writing is taut as Clarke manages to paint scenes with a sparse number of words. It feels like a fantasy, to begin with, but as the plot unfolds it becomes much more sinister. It is very atmospheric too and one of the things that I also liked is that not everything is fully explained, so the conclusion of the story leaves lots to the imagination.

A Short History of Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce by Massimo Montanari

4 out of 5 stars

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

We have perfected the tomato sauce that we make for all sorts of pasta dishes over the years. It is made by frying onions and garlic, adding oregano, then tomato puree and then passata and leaving it to cook down and reduce for around an hour. Finally, add basil and then it is ready to be married to the pasta of our choice.

Pasta without tomato sauce doesn’t feel right in some ways. But how the Italians ended up using tomatoes is a story worth telling. In this book, Massimo Montanari is delving through the history of the Italian kitchens with the intention of separating fact from myth.

Before the tomato, there was pasta. This iconic Italian food originated from the breadbasket of the middle east and was originally unleavened and rolled bread, however finding when it went from rehydrating a dried food to a cooking process in boiling water requires a little more uncovering.

Back then the fashion was to make sure that the pasta was really well cooked. And I mean really well, none of the modern fashion of having pasta al dente. Having cooked the pasta the chose accompaniment was cheese, lots of cheese and much deliberation was given to the correct one to use. Then in the mid-1500s, the tomato arrived in Italy, the Spanish having bought it back from South America. They were originally considered to be ‘harmful and obnoxious’. It would be a while before they made their entrance into Italian cooking and become the staple that they are today

I thought that this was a fascinating little book on a food that has become as much as a staple in our kitchen as it is all across Italy. Montanari’s prose is entertaining and informative in equal measure, and he shows just how a national dish can trace its roots back across many cultures. If you like your pasta, this is a great little read

The Pay Off by Gottfried Leibbrandt & Natasha De Teran

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

They say that money makes the world go round. It doesn’t, but it is the fuel and blood of the modern world. Unless you are off-grid and living in a self-sufficient way, almost everything that you need or want will involve a financial transaction of some form or other. Cash was once king, but since the pandemic, that has become less popular with the rise of contactless payments becoming the norm in almost all places now.

Payments to and from people and companies banks and governments are some staggering amount each and every day. It is constant and unremitting and we are utterly reliant of them and most importantly them never ever breaking down. If that were ever to happen for even a short time there would be a fairly large economic breakdown and for even a short period of time, there would be a partial or total breakdown in law and order.

But this system is beginning to change. Banks are slowly starting to lose control as the tech wizards see a money-making opportunity in the new disruptive technologies that they are starting to launch. Some of these are new ways of paying using the current way that money moves, but some are reimagining the actual form that money will take.

But how does it actually all work? And should I care anyway?

Leibbrandt and De Terán are very well versed in the hidden systems that keep our democracies alive and functioning. In this book they will take us through all manner of payment systems, from the origins of cash, how the first credit cards were made from cardboard and the detail was written out by hand for each transaction (can you imagine that now) and what the dawn of cryptocurrencies mean for us. Where there is money there are often criminals and they talk about the rise of fraud and the methods used to combat it as well as a chapter on the attempt by North Korea to steal $1billion dollars.

I thought this was an informative and accessible guide to the modern financial world. It had the right balance between the narrative story and details without getting too technical or full of incomprehensible jargon. Worth a read if the world of money feels too baffling.

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