Category: Review (Page 1 of 111)

Salt Lick by Lulu Allison

3.5 out of 5 stars

In the UK set in the near future, the much smaller population is recovering from a flu pandemic. The countryside is more or less empty and the cities have absorbed most of the remaining people. One of the few left in the country is Jesse’s family, but they realise that they have to head to the city as they have no work left and head into London to begin a new life.

After her mother was killed in a terrorist incident, Isolde grew up in a children’s home. It made her tough, but happiness for her was mostly absent. She decides to exercise her right to see the man convicted for the crime in prison. After three decades of not knowing what happened, she learnt that it was not as she had been led to believe. She wants to learn more and starts to walk out to Suffolk to a small farmstead.

Lee is the third main character in this book. He is escaping from one of the White Towns where he has been a resident all his life. They have discovered that he is gay, or tainted as this group calls it. They want him back to inflict their cruel justice on him. He meets Isolde en route and they walk to Suffolk together. At this farmstead, the stories of these people come together briefly before unravelling once again.

She feels the space around her, stretches into it. She feels pressed thin as a membrane between earth and sky, between liquid and light.

There was a lot to like about this. The dystopia that she portrays after the flu pandemic feels utterly plausible. There are enclaves of white-only towns, a much-reduced population that is eking out a living in various small settlements around the country and centralised cities that are run by a strong authoritarian government. Allison has a very lyrical way of writing and I really liked her style. I kind of liked the chorus of the feral cows that are scattered liberally throughout the book, but I thought it was a little overdone. I did feel that the plot wasn’t as strong as it could have been, but it feels like a future that I would like to read more about other people who inhabit this place in another book.

The Hill of Devi by E.M. Forster

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

In the early 1900s E M Forster twice visited India where he served in the post of private secretary of the Rajah of Dewas. Even though he lost his father when he was two years old, he had grown up in a life of privilege in the UK and had an inheritance to ensure that he could live of independent means.

Arriving in this country was somewhat of a culture shock to him and this book is a collection of letters that he wrote describing what he saw all around him. They reveal details of the ancient court system that treated the Maharajah as a saint. He doesn’t quite go fully native, but he partakes in the rituals and court life and was in a uniquely privileged position.

I thought that this was a fascinating insight into life in the last days of the Raj in India. Forster gives a glimpse of what life was like for those at the top end of Indian society and the way they had been moulded under English rule. He never judges what he sees, rather he is amused and bemused with what he witnesses considering sometimes to be stranger than fiction.

Scraps Of Wool by Bill Colegrave

4 out of 5 stars

As regular readers of my reviews will know I have read a lot of travel books and have even been fortunate enough to be a judge on two of the prizes on the Stanford Travel writing awards. Of all of the books that I have read, I have had a number that I thought were outstanding, for example, An Unexpected Light, To A Mountain in Tibet and The Bells of Old Tokyo.

Each person reads a book differently, and in Scraps of Wool, Bill Colegrave has collected here some of his all-time favourite passages from the vast quantities of travel books that he has read. He hasn’t done this alone either, he has minded the minds and bookshelves of the greatest travel writers such as Dervla Murphy, Jan Morris and Sara Wheeler to name a few.

It is an eclectic and very personal collection and that is its strength. Some of the passages come from my favourite books and they are not the passages that I would have selected, which for me goes to show that each and every person gets something different from each book.

If you like travel writing then this is a great book to be able to dip into old favourites and discover books that you have not yet read. I have made a list and will slowly work my way through all the others that I haven’t read.

The Best British Travel Writing of the 21st Century Ed. by Jessica Vincent

4 out of 5 stars

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

Those of us who read travel writing, have a familiar canon to choose from the British set, Thubron, Raban, Thesiger, Young and Leigh Fermor. These guys and they were almost always guys in those days have written some really good books that still need to be read by those wanting to discover the world from their armchairs.

But the world was changing and since the Covid pandemic, it has changed immeasurably again. The writers that are making waves, following footpaths and rediscovering this dynamic world are bringing different voices and perspectives to the body of literature. For this collection, four editors, Levison Wood, Monisha Rajesh, Simon Willmore and Jessica Vincent, have chosen articles and short essays by a whole variety of authors.

I thought that it was a great introduction to the latest crop of writers that are making the travel writing genre their own now. I thought that the editors had pulled together an interesting variety of subjects and most importantly a diverse crop of authors for this book. I have read some of these writers before, but there are others in here that I have not come across until now.

I had a couple of minor issues with the collection though. I felt it would have been nice to have a little more of an introduction to the authors and the selected piece just before you went on to read it. I would have also liked to have seen some newly commissioned items in amongst the previously published work or extracts taken from books from authors like Gail Simmonds, Lara Prior-Palmer and Isambard Wilkinson, for example. I would recommend this if you want to discover new travel writing and I have another batch of writers to discover more from too.

New Leaf by Seán Lysaght

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 Lysaght’s books before now, the excellent Eagle Country. So when he offered me a review copy of his new poetry collection, New Leaf I jumped at the opportunity. As I expected he focuses his poems on the natural world, in particular from his adopted place but there are poems from the wider world too.

With pencil strokes as light
as marks on sand

The subjects covered are broad, The Green man is a very different take on what I would expect from this character from folklore. Orchid Darkening is about saving seeds from these precious plants from the mower. GAVDIVM, The Tuscan Sketchbook is the longest in the book and conveys the intensity of the Italian countryside.

Every day now I visit
my own wood to see
how wildness structures space

I really enjoyed the variety in this collection. All the poems vary in length and style which I really liked. As I found with his non-fiction book, he has a razor-sharp eye for the detail that he sees as he travels, and this comes across in his poetry too. But with that is a lyrical power to fill the details of a scene in a sparse number of words. If you want a collection that is rooted in the natural world with a strong view of life flowing past then I can recommend this.

Three Favourite Poems
An Opening

The Four Horsemen by Emily Mayhew

4 out of 5 stars

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

The four horsemen. War, Pestilence, Famine and Death appear in the Bible a couple of times, but they are best known in the book of Revelations. Their appearance on the Earth in this text is to bring about the end of humanity and they are pretty effective at their job. History shows how they can reduce cities and societies to a shadow of their former selves.

It can still happen these days, examples include Syria and Yemen. However, the tools that we have at our disposal in this modern age mean that we now have the ability to take them on. I this book, historian Emily Mayhew traces the advances in science, technology and humanitarianism that the engineers, scientists, doctors and other skilled professionals are using to combat these four horsemen.

In the book, Mayhew takes us through a little of the history behind each, before using real-life examples, to show exactly how we are standing up against these spectres. She details the way that the Iraqi city of Mosel was overrun with ISIS fighters and how the local people slowly reclaimed their ancient city. For the chapter on Pestilence, she looks at the response that the authorities had against the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2017. This was a precursor to the Covid pandemic that also is discussed.

The next horseman is famine. This slots in neatly behind the first two and has the capacity to bring a state or region to its knees. One example discussed in this chapter is wheat rust. One particular form appeared in 1999 and then promptly disappeared for a few years. When it returned, it suddenly was rife across East Africa. The other example discussed is bananas, the current species that is consumed in vast quantities is affected by Panama disease. Fighting this may mean going back to the jungles of New Guinea and finding a new resistant species. The final chapter, Death talks about the relief response to the tsunami that took place in 2004 along with other disasters that have claimed huge numbers of people. How the dead are handled with respect to the local cultures by the people that deal with the aftermath is quite moving reading.

I thought this was going to be a pretty grim read, and to my surprise, it wasn’t. That said, there are some grim elements to it, it is kind of inevitable really given that the subject is about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. However, Mayhew makes this eminently readable by looking at each of them in turn and explaining what used to happen and how the collective actions of scientists, medical staff and engineers who are pushing back again the potential tide of misery with solutions for the many problems that we face as a race.

The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich

3 out of 5 stars

Playing the stock market can be addictive there are thousands of people out there trying to make a fortune by thinking that they have that edge of hugely expensive computer systems and superfast fibre optic networks that the main players and hedge funds have. Most they can’t win against the might of the financial industry.

But every now and again there is a story of the little guy fighting back and managing to get one over the professionals; this is the story of those people that took down one of the biggest hedge funds on Wall Street. The stock that caused this was the retail shop called GameStop. They had not migrated online and still had a plethora of shops. Because of the transfer of the gaming industry to almost exclusively online, their financial position looked precarious. Big hedge funds were circling, they were looking at shorting the stock with the intention of making a lot of money as the share price fell.

Against them were a motley crew of amateur day traders, video game nuts, and internet trolls who were getting their financial information from a page on Reddit called WallStreetBets. On this page, people were not afraid to say exactly what they thought of companies and their share prices. A few of the members noticed that GameStop looked in better financial shape than the heavyweights of Wall street thought.

Mezrich has fleshed out the story of the stock stratospheric rise and we see that story from some of the major characters involved and the agony and delight as they won and lost fortunes every time the share price changed. I can recall this being aware of this at the time from some of the stuff I was reading from some of the people that I follow on Twitter at the beginning of 2021, however, I didn’t know much detail as I wasn’t following it in any depth so this was a learning curve for me. I thought that the narrative in this book was a bit disjointed because he switches to a different person in each chapter and it always takes a moment to work out where the story is going next. It did show what the little guy can do, however, even though they won some victories in this stock shorting game, the system always wins in these financial battles. Wel will have to see if anything changes.

Otherlands by Thomas Halliday

3.5 out of 5 stars

We have had life on this planet for a substantial period that it has been whirling around the sun. But the life that you will find is significantly different to the plants birds and animals that we can find around us now.

In this fascinating book, award-winning palaeobiologist Thomas Halliday will take us back to the dawn of time and talk us through the flora and fauna across all of the seven continents from Scotland, to Chile, Italy, Australia and Alaska to China.

In each of these locations he takes us on an immersive journey into the animals that you were likely to see should you be able to step out of a conveniently located time machine. Each chapter is packed with this level of detail and sadly this density is almost too much at times and I ended up skimming it a little.

Whilst I liked it, it was like reading the screenplay of an Attenborough documentary where someone had described every leaf and creature in each shot. I did feel that the epilogue kind of didn’t fit in with the rest of the book, but I get why he included it. It is a warning to say that where we are heading with the climate has happened in the past and it wasn’t a particularly easy time for life on earth. Not bad overall.

Mind Is The Ride by Jet McDonald

3.5 out of 5 stars

A journey begins with an idea, for the late Dervla Murphy it was getting a bicycle and an atlas and conjuring the idea in her head to cycle to India. McDonald wants to undertake a similar journey with his partner, but rather than doing just because he can, he is wanting to use the journey to explore the realms of philosophy and each component of the bike as well as the epic ride.

Whilst the trip is the important part of the trip, we read about the usual things that trouble a touring cyclist, the main focus of the book is the consideration of the philosophical idea that we use to determine who we are. Each chapter consists of the three themes of the book, intellectual exploration, his actual travels and the contemplation of the numerous components that go to make up a regular bicycle.

It is certainly one of the most unusual travel books that I have read. I liked certain past of this, but I didn’t get along with all of it. I liked the way that the bike was built chapter by chapter taking each significant component, even down to the individual tubes of the frame and assembling the bike as he cycled to India. I liked the travel elements too, and whilst I realise that this was not the entire reason behind the book, I would have liked more of it. For me, there was a slightly too much emphasis on the philosophy and I kind of wish that there was more of the travel writing in it. McDonald makes the subject interesting to read and I much preferred this to Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Notes From A Summer Cottage by Nina Burton

3 out of 5 stars

Nina Burton had always stayed in a cottage in the brief Scandinavian summer and after her mother passed away she sold her apartment and bought a country cottage deep in the Swedish countryside. It needs some improvement and this book is the story of the time spent there as the renovations took place and her discovery of the natural world around the cottage.

The work required was quite substantial and the workmen began with the roof. Not only did the roof have almost no insulation, but the little that was, had been used by a squirrel to make a nest so it could keep warm. For each of the animals she encounters, for example, pigeons, badgers, blackbirds and ants who are literally in and around the house there are stories to tell.

Burton is quite a keen observer of the plants and wildlife around her. The writing isn’t too bad either, quite matter of fact mostly, but she does have a habit of going off on a tangent. I must say that I disagreed with her using poison to kill some of the creatures that she was sharing the forest with. They have been there much longer than she has and hopefully will be there long after too. Not bad overall, but not the best that I have read.

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