Category: Review (page 1 of 54)

Up by Ben & Marina Fogle

3.5 out of 5 stars

As Fogle sat down at the table for a dinner at the Festival of Speed at Goodwood, he noticed that the space next to him was empty. The name said Victoria Gardener, someone he had never heard of. About 30 minutes later the person who was occupying that seat ran in and sat down. Turns out he had heard of her, but she was better known as Victoria Pendleton, the multiple gold medal-winning cyclist. They got chatting and hatched a plan together to head up the highest mountain on Earth. To do this Fogle needed to do two things, the first was to find someone who could help them do it. That was fairly straightforward as he roped in mountaineer Kenton Cool. The second was to persuade his wife, Marina that it was a really good idea…

It took a little persuasion, but she gave him the green light to prepare for the expedition. They would need to train in the Alps and other high mountain ranges before even making an attempt on the mountain and the team headed to La Paz in Bolivia. The plan was to conquer four mountains, with the final one being the 6500m Illimani which is a significant portion of what they would experience on Everest. This would give them the time that they needed to assess their own and the other team members performance at altitude. This was essential as the moment they went above the death zone on Everest all that preparation would be the fine line between succeeding and death.

The driving force behind Fogle in all the training and over the seven-week expedition to the roof of the world were the promises that he had made with Marina as he cradled his stillborn son, Willem. To be positive, to inspire, to embrace each day, to always smile, to live brightly and something that his grandmother had taught him, to always look up. And knowing that his family were waiting at home for him to return, gave him the inner strength that he needed.

Overall it is not a bad travel book, but it is as much about his personal journey and the relationship he has with Marina and their two children. Their stability means he has the chance to take on some amazing adventures, this being one of them. Having part of the book written by Marina is a nice touch too, she writes eloquently about the stresses and strains of having a husband most of the way up a mountain. We get so used to hearing about that author’s adventure, that we forget the normal life they have left behind. Still, an immense effort to stand on the roof of the world and a fitting tribute to his stillborn son.

Me, My Bike and a Street Dog Called Lucy by Ishbel Holmes

3.5 out of 5 stars

Ishbel Holmes has had a rough upbringing. Her father left when she was young, and then her mother abandoned her because she didn’t seem to fit with her life. She was abused in the care system and survived through her tenacity. At the age of 21, she had a stark choice; die, or choose to live.

She chose the latter.

She made the decision to cycle the world even though she didn’t really have the resources or equipment to do it. Since then she has pedalled through 20 countries, cycled mountain passes and across salt plains all on a painfully small budget or sometimes no money at all. A spell cycling on the velodrome with the Iranian Team had some success but didn’t make her happy either. In Turkey though her solo ride around the world came to an end when a stray decided to follow her when she was cycling along. She assumed it was just following for a brief period of time. But it didn’t leave, even after she sprinted away, so in the end, she stopped and it caught her up. She set up camp, cooked food for herself and ate what she could. She saw the dog eating her leftovers and it lay down to sleep as she went to bed. Looking out the following morning, she couldn’t see it initially, but it was still there; perhaps she wasn’t going to be doing this alone after all.

So begins her adventures with this dog that she called, Lucy. She built a box to go on the front of the bike for her. The intention was to take her to an animal shelter where she could be properly cared for, and with the help of people all around the world on social media managed to get her there. However, there was something that didn’t quite add up with the shelter, so he headed back in the following day and took Lucy away. Now there were two of them for her to look after, once again people all around the world stepped in to help her and her new companion.

It is not the best-written book that I have read, but that is not the point of it. It is a heartwarming tale of a broken and abused woman whose four-legged companion opens her heart to a new world of possibilities. Lucy’s devotion to Ishbel heals her and shows her the positive side of humanity and this is what makes it a great book to read.


Green Noise by Jean Sprackland

4 out of 5 stars

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

I have only read one of Jean Sprackland’s books before, her wonderful Strands, about her year of discoveries on a beach in the north west of England. That was non-fiction, but I have never read her poetry until this one.

The first thing to note is that the cover is very striking. At first glance, it looks like an insect, but on careful examination, you can see tiny brass cogs and gears. From that beginning, I knew that this was not going to be a conventional poetry book. This collection resonates with what she calls ‘Green noise’, some of the poems are seeking our place in the natural world, others are glimpses of a time now gone.

Has found instead a television

Flat out in the mud, and rimmed with moss.

He stands and watches a while

As clouds and crows flicker over the screen

It is quite something this book. This is the first of her poetry collections that I have read and this reinforces my original thought that Sprackland has an impressive command of the language which I had learnt from Strands. It draws from the undercurrents that are deep in the landscape and reflects our modern life. It is prose that deserves to be read out loud too.

Three Favourite Poems:



Human Things

The striking image on the front cover is from this artist:

The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

4 out of 5 stars

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

There comes a point in every anthropologist’s career when they have to stop looking at the academic papers or staring out the window and actually head out into the wide world. For Nigel Barley, a colleague posed the question, Why not go on fieldwork? He wasn’t sure if it was one of the perks of the job or a necessary evil like national service. Speaking to others in the department he would hear tales filtered through rose-tinted spectacles where the full horror of events in the field are tempered by time and probably alcohol…

But where to go? Africa was mentioned, and the island of Fernando Po seemed appealing, but the political situation there was deteriorating to say the least and getting shot at wasn’t on his list of things to do, so someone else suggested North Cameroon. A tribe there called the Dowayo, ticked lots of the boxes, strange coming of age rituals, pagan rituals, skull festivals and mummies. He began the task of doing more research and securing research funding. Barley needed to be stabbed by various medical professionals and two years after he started, he was on a plane to Africa.

On arrival in Cameroon, he had underestimated just how difficult it would be to get from the airport to the village. Forms were needed, lots of forms as well as being ‘aided’ by the officials who were more interested in reading the paper while the recent arrival slowly lost a large proportion of his wallet. Finally allowed entry to the country, he set about getting the provisions, an assistant and other items that he needed and headed off to the village. What he hoped would be a subtle entrance though, wasn’t when the whole village turned out to greet him.

There were lots of things that struck him immediately. Having been used to a more leisurely time of starting work in the UK, finding that the village was up and moving around 5.30 in the morning was a bit of a shock. And there was the language; he could not speak a word to begin with and as it was a tonal language he was going to struggle to do so too. But every so slowly he manages to master some of the words and amazed them by writing them down. The village slowly accepted him, almost to the point where he became an honorary resident. He started to understand more about the people and their way of doing things. Their rituals were quite unusual and one particular ceremony that made me wince quite a lot just reading it.

It is a really enjoyable book about a people that took Barley to heart as much as he did with them. He writes with a sharp wit and genuine warmth. One of the things that he speculates about is how the very act of observing the people you are there to study have an impact on the way they behave and hoehowe anthropologist can never be a passive observer. There are funny moments throughout the book, in particular, the accounts with the officials that he is dealing with and the exasperation at the speed of events in the constant battles against bureaucracy. Can highly recommend this.

A Plague of Caterpillars by Nigel Barley

4 out of 5 stars

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

Having failed to see the circumcision ceremony which marks the men of the Dowayo tribe transition from child to adulthood when he was there previously, Barley hears that it is due shortly to take place. Hot-footing it out to Cameroon again, he heads back to the village to see if he can witness this first hand. Re-installed in his square hut, that has been carefully ‘guarded’ by Zuuldibo, he picks up life there once again. It was almost like he had never been away, the friendly familiar faces popped by hoping for him to be a generous as he was the first time he visited…

However, details on the wince-inducing process of circumcision, like where it was going to take place and when, are very elusive so whilst waiting for the nod that it was on, he finds other things to do to fill the time. One on the list to do was a visit to the neighbouring Ninga tribe. It was said that the men did not have any nipples, but he felt that he needed to see this for himself and to endeavour to elicit some of the reasons behind this practice. However, his assistant, Matthieu continued to advise against travelling to this other village, but he persisted and finally got to meet the chief. He understood Barley’s desire to learn the customs of the village, but payment would be required; perhaps a large sum of francs for a goat?

This mini-adventure along with taking a primate to the cinema, the possibilities of solar power, a novel repair to his teeth, seeing the response of the village when the UN showed a short film about the perils of malaria and the influx of insects that gave the book its title. It has the same sharp wit of the previous book where we were first introduced to the Dowayo, but with a few more funny anecdotes and is a Thoroughly enjoyable sequel to his first book Like with all societies, what seems barbarous and cruel to us, is a way of life to another people. In the same way, a lot of our routines and habits are equally strange and mysterious to them and the humour that lies in the cracks and fissures of misunderstanding.

Not a Hazardous Sport by Nigel Barley

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

According to Nigel Barley’s insurance company, anthropology was not considered ‘a hazardous sport’. This was reassuring to know as the small print had been as unhelpful as ever. Whilst he now knew it wasn’t a sport that didn’t seem to make it any less hazardous given the number of drugs he had spread out in front of him.  However, he now had it in black and white before setting off to Indonesia. He was heading to the island of Sulawesi to live amongst the Torajan people for the next few months and actually following the advice that he gave to students, that you should partake in fieldwork in places where the inhabitants are beautiful, friendly, where you would like the food.

Landing at Jakarta airport he headed to the queue for those with no visa, having been assured by the embassy in London that he would not need one. The official behind the desk frowned, then grinned and he was waved through. Tired he heads to the hotel and settles down to sleep, but at 4.30 in the morning his peace is shattered by the call of the muezzin, as five mosques in the vicinity called the faithful to prayer. To reach where he was staying though would involve further travels by boat, but he finally arrives on the island where the Torajan live.

Trying to understand the people he was with and what made them do certain things in a particular way and their own rituals lead to a series of amusing stories of his time on the island, the funniest of which was the antics when he was on a horse! In a nice touch and a touch of reverse anthropology, Barley invites four of the Torajan carvers to London to build a traditional rice barn at the Museum of Mankind. As you can imagine, the questions that they had about our society were as numerous as the questions that he had about theirs.

Of the three of his that I have now read, I thought this was my favourite. Written with the same wit and self-deprecating humour as the others, you can see how his writing has strengthened over the three books too. This, along with The Innocent Anthropologist and A Plague of Caterpillars are a little more in depth than the regular travel books, but that doesn’t make them any less fascinating way of learning about another culture and people.


Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

4 out of 5 stars

The Faceless Man has been unmasked. Wanted for a list of crimes that seems to get longer and longer, the Metropolitan Police have finally got him on the run. Detective Constable Peter Grant and his partner DC Sahra Guleed are uncovering clues that show that Martin Chorley is far from finished.

Tracing him though is proving difficult, so they are chipping away at his contacts and associates. They visit a guy called Richard Williams to ask some questions. Before they can question him to much, Chorley ensures that Williams will remain silent.  What they find doesn’t really answer anything, rather it poses yet more questions. As they follow things up, Grant realises that he has discovered something that has been years in the making, something magical and dark that has its roots 2000 years ago from the pagan past and is something that could bring chaos to the capital city.

When the bell sings, who knows what will survive after.

This is another cracker of a book from Aaronovitch with all the regular characters as you’d expect. I thought that the plot was really strong, full of subtle moments and comic touches along with the threads going all the way back through to the first books. It finished in a fast-paced and dramatic way. Again I would like a little more of Nightingale as I think he is such a strong character with a lot to offer. Liked the threads that are solved in this book, and those link onto the next ones that he is still writing.

The World for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews

3 out of 5 stars

Erin has been watching the likes of Bear Grylls having some wonderful adventures in some rugged and beautiful parts of the world for a few years now. Even though she is 19, she has hardly left the shores of England, but the call of the wild is too much to resist and why should all the men have the fun in the wild.

Her journey will take her from the comfortable life that she has known. Deciding not to fly and instead travel by sea and land, she heads off to Iceland, before heading across wild seas where she will see whales for the first time, across Greenland and then the vast continent of America before finding a cabin in the wilds of Denali, Alaska. Along the way she contemplates subjects as different as physics and mutually assured destruction as well as meeting some wonderful and the occasional slightly creepy person.

The isolation she has whilst living in her cabin means that she sometimes not sure what is real and what is her imagination, but she manages to survive and feed herself. The natural world flows all around her every day and occasionally spooks her, such as when she sees a bear’s footprint near her cabin. It gives her time to contemplate the mostly male and occasional female writers who have sought the same isolation.

There are a lot of things that I liked about this debut; Erin has a strong voice and sense of purpose and is a teen who questions the male hierarchy and vested interests. It was refreshing to have this type of adventure told from the perspective of a modern day earth mother. I didn’t think that the plot was that strong, but then this is a very focused journey to a particular place. Erin’s character does come across as naïve and quite vulnerable given the place where she is staying. Another thing that I thought was really good was Andrews descriptions of the land and seascapes that Erin crosses on her journey to the cabin. They are quite something else, especially when you consider she wrote them after countless hours of watching videos and youtube videos of the places in the book. Looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.

The Little Book of Snow by Sally Coulthard

3 out of 5 stars

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

It snowed this week in the UK. You’d have thought the world had ended by the headlines and chaos that the white stuff causes, but no, it is just that we are not used to it. Gone are the days from our childhood where we seem to have snow for weeks, built snowmen, had snowball fights and went sledging. But if you look back at the weather reports it was never quite as long as we thought. However we remember the weather and however inconvenient the snow is to our lives, there is an element of beauty that it brings to the landscape when it does snow.

However there are a lot of facts about snow that aren’t always true and this book by Sally Coulthard uncovers the history, science, literary and cultural in a charming way. So if you want to know who holds the record for the largest snowball fight and why an attempt on the record failed, or why each snowflake is different, what the differences are between climate and weather and how ice can tell us about them. She tells us about snow rollers, what a blind smuir is and how old the ski is. This charming little book is a perfect gift for all those that like the winter.

The Old Weird Albion by Justin Hopper

4 out of 5 stars

There are two places that I know well on the South Downs, Ditchling Beacon that I remember camping on one night in the late summer, and the other is Beachy Head. I remember walking up the hill to the top to look out and being terrified as a boy of going anywhere near the edge. It is Beachy Head where the American writer and artist Justin Hopper begins his book with his grandfather’s first wife, Doris Hopper, seen standing at the edge of the cliff and in the next moment then seen to be falling. This act would leave an echo in his family history that almost no one would speak of.

His journey to find her will take him along the chalk ridge from Winchester to the sea. Along the way, he meets pagans, eco-therapists and someone who knows something about crop circles. But this is not just about the people, it is also the landscape that Hopper wants to discover more about. Where I live at the moment has lots of history draped over the landscape and it turns out that Sussex is not a lot different to Dorset. There are layers and layers, some more visible than others; the landscape of cold rivers, standing stones, old churches and prehistoric remains that show how and where humanity has existed along this route and the pagan elements that existed for hundreds of years that are still present if you know where to look.

As Hopper unravels his complex family history to find out more about the tragic death that was not spoken of, he ventures into the surreal and the unknown. All the way through the book he uncovers more details about Doris, giving him a glimpse of her life and up to the point she stood at the top of the cliff. As an American with English relatives, he has some of a sense of who we are as a people, but he can also take a wider perspective too on our culture and foibles. I ended up liking this a lot without having a sense of being able to say absolutely why, but it is probably the mix of personal discovery and his explorations of the landscapes. As he travels the thousand-year-old paths over the chalk downs it really is the foundation and bedrock of the book. As a little aside, I really liked the brilliant illustrations from the artist Mairead Dunne at the beginning of each chapter.

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