Category: Review (Page 2 of 99)

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.

The Nightingale by Sam Lee

For the first time this year, I finally heard the very weird sound that a nightjar makes. It is described as a churring, but it reminded me of the sound of the cicadas that you get all around the Mediterranean as the light fades. Another night singing bird that I am yet to hear is the nightingale. I have never been lucky enough to hear one. Yet. It is on the list to do at some point.

These birds fly up from Africa and as they arrive in Europe their night-time singing is one of the heralds of springtime. They have captivated people for thousands of years with their breathtaking songs. Sam Lee first came across them through folk songs. An accomplished musician in his own right, this connection that folk music had to the natural world felt right and helped him become deeply rooted in this music. He first heard a nightingale sing when he was invited by friends on a cool May evening to the Arlington Reservoir. As they walked to the edge he could hear something that didn’t sound right.

The birds seemed to breathe a musical condensation that dripped from the branches of the trees in inky deliquescence

They sat and listened for what felt like hours and they started to hear others responding to the song of the first one. They are small non-descript brown birds that are hiding in scrub and as it is nighttime when they are active, pretty impossible to spot. But his ears told him this was something magical, he was reduced to a childlike state, grinning inanely at the sound and he was beguiled and hooked.

It is the beginning of a journey that will take him back through the history books to the Greeks, discovering the places that they overwinter in Africa and tracing their influence in folk music, folklore and in the art they have inspired. This is quite a different take on the natural history books that are being released at the moment, rather than being a memoir about him, seen through the prism of the nightingale it is full of richly linked and intertwined anecdotes.

Whilst he is deeply concerned about the loss of the habitat that these magnificent singers need to be able to survive, there are strong links to his other interest which is saving old folk songs for posterity. I didn’t find the writing exceptional, but it is very readable and his enthusiasm for his feathered subject is limitless. What is exceptional though is his passion for these birds, along with the action he’s taking over the environment something that is very evident that he writes about in the epilogue.

Bloody Brilliant Women by Cathy Newman

4 out of 5 stars

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

History at O level was one of the few that I passed waaaaay back when I took my exams. Thankfully I didn’t have to learn about the narrow political and regal landscape, but the history we learnt was the social changes through the ages and how they affected the population at large.

Now I have thought about it though almost all the people that we found out about were men, they built bridges, invented steam engines, robbed the common people of the land that had been theirs and shaped the country as we know it today. Sometimes they did a good job, but often they didn’t. There was the odd woman in this history that we were taught, but not many and they were portrayed as secondary figures.

In this book, Newman wants to set the record straight and tell us about the amazing women who have defied the odds to change a little bit of history for the better. She has chosen a wide range of women to celebrate what they do and to ensure that they are put back into the history books. These are not just women who have made a difference in medicine and education, but those who have become political giants, who have been actively involved in wars and developing engineering solutions and designing buildings.

There are too many to mention in this review, but three that I particularly liked discovering were Jane Drew who had her own architectural practice that, to begin with, only employed women and was not afraid to give as good as she got.
There was also Elizabeth Anderson who wanted to become a doctor. In the 1890s this was not the done thing, women were considered too sensitive for the anatomy lessons all doctors had to take. She enrolled as a nursing student, and was still getting rejection letters from everywhere she applied. She fought back and went on to form the New Hospital for Women.
Beatrice Shilling, whose ingenious and yet so simple device for the Spitfires’ Rolls-Royce V12 Merlin engines that stopped them cutting out during dogfights, was essential for the pilots as they fought in the battle of Britain. Not only did she invent it, but she travelled all around the airfields brazing the component in position for the pilots.

I really liked this book. Newman rightly so is trying to put the record straight and show that notable achievements were not just a male thing. All the women in this book had to push back against the values of society at the time and make a difference in their field of expertise. Rather than children learning about the stuffy and frankly mostly boring Kings and Queens of our country, the women in this book should be given equal prominence to the men that have shaped our future as their role is equal in importance.

White Spines by Nicholas Royle

5 out of 5 stars

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

He begins the book on a trip to see two authors, to get them to sign a set of books that are due to be despatched to bookshops soon In between visits he has time to stop in Norwich. He is there to visit an Oxfam bookshop too. This is not your two for a pound charity shop, these are priced at £4 and upwards, but the shop is well laid out and the people running it know what they have and what the value of each book is. He scours the shelves looking for literary treasure and there it is Nomad by Mary Anne Fitzgerald a 1994 edition in a Picador paperback. It is a book that he is sure he will never read, but it is the thrill of finding one that he is sure he has never owned before.

It’s not hoarding if it is books, so the saying goes, but there is probably is an element of truth in there…

When does an interest become a passion and then in turn become an obsession? I am not sure, but in White Spines, Nicholas Royle takes use through the threshold of each of these limits. He is passionate about the paperback Picador books that were published between the 1970s to the end of the 1990s. They were predominately fiction, but all the books they published were some non-fiction; I know I have several travel books in the series.

But this is much more than a catalogue of all the Picadors that fit his criteria or a list of books that he has or is seeking to acquire, rather it is a trip down his literary memories, of where he found a particular edition or the time that he first read the book or was passed it by someone else. He has a thing about books that have the presence of a previous owner, a receipt that was used as a bookmark, an inscription in the front to the person receiving it as a gift or very occasionally a signed copy. These are his favourites as he feels like a custodian of the book.

This is a wonderful collection of memories about the books, where they were bought from and his favourite bookshops to find them in. I loved this book and I think that I have found a kindred spirit in Royle. Not only do I like to read, but I also like to find and collect books in second-hand book shops and charity shops. I collect books too, Royle has a thing for Picador White spines as well as some of the King Penguins, whereas my failing is collecting books by Little Toller and Eland as well as other travel and natural history books. It is a lovely hobby to have, books do furnish a room after all, but space is quite often an issue…

The Eternal Season by Stephen Rutt

4 out of 5 stars

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

Stephen Rutt was visiting family in Bedfordshire when the national lockdown was announced in March 2020. What was supposed to be a short visit became a much longer stay as they could not return to his home in Dumfries. It was a time of anxiety for many people and in particular for Rutt and his partner as they are medically vulnerable people too. It felt like his spring had been stolen and the book he was originally going to write on warblers became this on summers past and future.

He like so many others during the pandemic sought some solace in the natural world. You would expect that from a nature writer, but Rutt has a keener eye than most and one of the things that he begins to notice is the way that the seasons are being changed and moulded by the growing disaster that is climate change. In the past, there was a sense of order to things, cold winter days reset life each year and as the light increased during spring warmth and life flooded back into the world. Now we can get days in December that are as warm as July and rain in June that can be as bad as the worst of the winter storms.

How much the season and blending into each other was brought home in two instances he recounts. In the first he is in a friends garden with and that friend spots a browncap in the mahonia. It is the first he has seen overwintering in the UK. The second instance is on a break in Cornwall in February. The sky turned from grey to pewter and then the snow started to fall. A postman they passed, said he had not seen snow for 30 years there. The birds that would be deep in the scrub were everywhere searching for food, including a chiffchaff.

Until that point, he had considered both of these summer birds. They were there because they had adapted, rather they could stay in the UK because the climate was changing and it was more conducive for them to remain rather than travel south. Part of the world is getting weirder and the once familiar order of things is changing. It is happening at a speed that we cannot get used to either. It is on another trip to visit family that they become stuck as a national lockdown is enforced. They will be in Bedford for the foreseeable future with no option to return home. As worrying as it is, it does give him the time to ponder the way that the world is changing.

Being stuck in because of being medically vulnerable means that he has to rely on technology to move him to the places that he wants to see. Looking at these places on the screen gives him a stronger longing to go and see them in person when he is able to. Seeing them from a screen though also gives him time to think about phenology, The science of recording when things happen and to see how and if they move year on year. It is also a useful tool to see how a changing climate is affecting vast swathes of wildlife as the normal synchronisations fall out of place.

He does manage to make it out of the house they are locked down in for his one hour of permitted exercise, it helps with the natural history fix that he needs. The quieter roads with people forced to stay home mean that wildlife that you wouldn’t normally see is suddenly much more visible to an almost silent walker. He is surprised by a Little Owl and comes face to face with a Chinese Water Deer. As they pass the summer solstice they have the opportunity to return home to Scotland and restart their lives in a world that has changed.

This is another fine book from Rutt, he is not yet 30 and has written three! It is more personal than his first two and written with a wistful melancholy that the lockdown gave him. I like the way that he uses short essays on a variety of subjects from nightjars to spiders to how much wetter everything is getting in between the chapters. It is a book to make you think too, think about what we are doing to this planet, the changes that we are having on delicate and fragile ecosystems and what the long term implications are for us as a species.

Walking Pepys’s London by Jacky Colliss Harvey

4 out of 5 stars

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

Samuel Pepys, the well-known diarist of the seventeenth century walked around London for miles to and from work. He lived near the Tower of London and worked in various places, including Whitehall and Greenwich. The walks were chronicled in his diary and became part of his social and professional life with the people that accompanied him while walking.

A substantial amount of the city within the old Roman walls was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. When they came to rebuild it they retained the old street layout, rejecting the new layout that Sir Christopher Wren proposed. So believe it on not. those streets that he walked are still there and you can follow the most likely routes that Pepys took around the city.

In this delightful little book, Jacky Colliss Harvey brings history alive through five planned routes around the City of London. These take us from Westminster to the City, from there to the wonderfully named Seething Lane. One walk takes us on a night out with him and there are two longer routes along to Greenwich and the final walk wends its way through the city to Wapping.

I really liked this, the blend of history set against modern-day London is a reminder of how old the city actually is. It is full of tiny nuggets of history that are still visible provide you know where to look or are lucky enough to have a guide like Harvey to point them out to you. I have walked some of these streets when I have been in London, but there are some that I have not been along. Thankfully there are digital maps available for the walks, so next time I am in London I will be taking this book along with me.

Fire, Storm Flood by James Dyke

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Regardless of what the oil industry-funded climate change deniers would have you think, the climate of this tiny blue dot that we inhabit is changing in ways that we can only speculate on. It feels like we are just about at a tipping point too. Recently the temperatures in Europe have reached the highest levels ever recorded, there have been wildfires and for the first time ever rain rather than snow has fallen in part of Greenland.

There is a lots of political noise and talk about changing the way that we do things. However, vested interests and a concerted effort from the oil industry spread enough doubt to get parts of the population to question everything. (It is well worth reading Merchants of Doubt). All of this could change should the Earth begin one of its violent phases again, but at the moment we are the instigators behind these changes.

In this book, Dyke reminds us of the ancient geological history of our planet by looking at how events have shaped it and both brought forth life as well as eradicating it. However, the focus is really about what we are doing to it.  In between each of the overviews are little essays about a particular event that happened along with a photo relevant to it. The events are a huge as Snowball Earth to the 1976 heatwave, the Chicago Fire in 1871, Hurricane Katrina, floods from all around the world, wildfires and even the stuff we can’t always see, like coral bleaching.

I can’t say that I truly liked this book. It does have a cruel beauty and a stark and unequivocal warning. The images within of a planet suffering are beautiful and disturbing in equal measure. Dyke’s writing is not gloating at all, rather the words are a considered response to the unfolding catastrophe that is climate change. This book and the events of the past few months are a reminder that it is not coming anymore.


It is here now.

Girl Squads by Sam Maggs

3 out of 5 stars

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

Sometimes all you need is a friend. Even though the #girlsquad hashtag is relatively recent, the bond formed between women over time has a long and interesting history. She has collected together these stories about women from politics, activism, art, science and even sport. They are all fascinating,  but I had some in particular that stood out.

Firstly there is the story of Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, two Vietnamese sisters who were leaders in a matriarchal society. They organised a fight back against an invasion by the Chinese. Being a medical professional was a challenging job before basic hygiene and it was something that only men were permitted to do as it was thought that the sight of certain parts of the anatomy would be too much for women. It was nonsense, of course. Seven women defied the social pressure of the time and they began to do their best to move into the profession as best they could. The rules slowly changed where they could sit their exams, but were not permitted to pass or be awarded their MD’s. In the end, they set up their own London School of Medicine for Women and slowly the law changed to catch up with what they were doing.

I had two favourite stories from this book, the first was about the patriotic women of Iran who turned their oppression around and began to push back against the patriarchy. Their cause was helped by a daughter of a Qajar Prince and the progress was mixed. It is still something that they are fighting today. My other favourite took place during the second world war. There was a shortage of mathematicians as most had been called up to fight, so the military started employing women to fill the gaps. The few men that were left resented this until they realise that they were actually much better mathematicians. Even though segregation was banned in the army there was still a lot of discrimination. One of the women subject to some of this was Katherine Johnson who joined NACA. She was still there when it back NASA and was a key mathematician responsible for calculating the trajectories of the Apollo capsules.

I quite liked this, there are some very interesting stores in here and Maggs has written about them in a light-hearted and entertaining way. If you want to learn a little about how women have made amazing contributions to societies all around the world, this is a good place to start.

Nature Fast and Nature Slow by Nicholas P. Money

4 out of 5 stars

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

Supposedly we have threescore and ten on this earth. Sadly that isn’t everyone as many lose their lives far too early. The longest-lived person on this planet reached 119, though there is a disputed age older than that. Some creatures are barely around long enough to register on the scale, mayflies for example who emerge from the river and have an urgent rush to find a mate before becoming food.

Do other creatures count time though? Well, they don’t generally, their lives can be short and brutal or extremely long-lived, the factors that govern these things are numerous and multifaceted. In this book, he begins with the microseconds that it takes for a jellyfish to fire a poisonous spine into an unaware swimmer. It may only reach 44mph but the g force is just staggering.

A second passes in almost no time at all. It is the speed, more or less, of our hearts that beat until we breathe out our very last breath. It is thought that every mammal has the same number of heartbeats, from the Etruscan Shrew whose heartbeats 25 times a second to the blue whale that beats 10 times a minute. Not everything huge has a long life, the tiny water bear can live for decades and survive almost everything that this planet can through at it.

For other species time can be measured in days, weeks and months, in particular, the summer flowers that appear as the equinox is reached and follow a circadian pattern. The fleeting glimpse of a flower though pales into insignificance when compared to the bristlecone pine. These trees can last a thousand years and these are by no means the oldest plants out there. Yews, giant sequoias and baobabs can reach equally vast ages that watch the humans that pass as mere flickers on their journey through time.

I thought that this was a really clever way of looking at life on this planet. Taking each chapter as a step up in time gave me a great insight into the way that the natural world works and highlights the fact that we may feel we live a long time, but we are a mere snapshot compared to other lifeforms. The writing does occasionally veer into the academic realm, however, mostly it is a very readable science book on life and its rich and varied time that it chooses to exist. Well worth reading.

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