Page 14 of 150

Index by Dennis Duncan

3 out of 5 stars

Ever had that moment when you remember reading something in a book and can’t remember what page it was on? I do frequently, especially when I am trying to find a quote for a review and when it is a fiction book I can sometimes not find what I am looking for at all. With non-fiction, I often stand a better chance as there is a tool I can use at the back of the book called the index.

It is the part of the book that people rarely venture too and I don’t always look at them, but there are points when trying to find a particular reference that is invaluable. But they need one other thing to work properly and that is page numbering. An index that can tell you what is in a book, but can’t tell you where to find it is not a lot of use…

He begins with just how we order things and the origins of the alphabet and how a man called Callimachus organised the 40,00 or so scrolls of Ptolemy II. Cicero the great Roman stateman also had an extensive library and he solved the problem of finding the scroll he needed by tags tied to the end of the scrolls. And it was these tags that gave us the word, index.

By the middle ages, the people that needed to find various references in books were the church and the codex, or the book format as we are familiar with nowadays had long been available. The two things that bring them together were the teaching and preaching of the age. Various religious men began to develop methods of finding scriptural references that they needed for sermons and the techniques caught on and were taken and developed by others.

The addition of page numbers would be a big help, but an index that referred to page numbers was not always accurate when dealing with handwritten books. A different scribe that had a larger script, could be producing a book that was several pages longer than the original. Ironically we have come full circle now as an e-reader can increase or decrease the font size making the page referencing nonsense…

He expands further on the way that these systems developed and ventures into the foolhardy attempts to try to index fiction. There is a section on searching the web, when you look for something on Google, you are not searching the web, rather you are looking at their index of pages and references that their bots have extracted, filtered and sorted.

It is not a bad book overall, but I did have the odd issue with it. I liked the way that he goes right back to find the very origins of the index and that the book is peppered with images from books and other sources as well as being crammed full of references and quotes. I liked that he had used a computer-generated index and a human-created index so you can see the differences between the two and make your own judgement about which s the best. This must be one of the few books with two indexes. However, I thought that the prose was a little dry and academic at times and thought that the narrative was not as strong as it could have been. Definitely one for the book geek.

Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Cathy Rentzenbrink has been a reader all of her life. As a child, she would lose herself in the stories and would read at every opportunity. This passion for books became a career too, she joined Waterstones as a bookseller and worked her way up to become a store manager before taking other opportunities in the publishing world.

Erwyn was in charge of reviewing the subs and came to find me. ‘Did you order sixteen copies of a reissue of Moon Tiger?’
‘Yes’, I squeaked. ‘It’s one of my favourite books of all time and it has an amazing new cover.’
‘Well, you’d better make sure they sell.’
Dear reader, I did

But this is more than a memoir of a bookseller seen through the pages of all the books she has read. Rather this is her life story so far and how through tragic events like the loss of her brother and the happier moments when she married and had her son, books and reading have been there to support her at every stage.

It always helped to know that others had walked through the fire and – though not undamaged – come out the other side.

This is a lovely book in lots of ways, even though she is dealing with the grief of losing her brother in the first part of the book all of her comfort is found between the pages of books. I liked that after every chapter in her life story she selects a small number of titles and tells us why she likes that particular book and the meaning that it holds for her still. I thought that it was nice to discover not only what books but also the reasons why.

The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West

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 Belfast in 1914, there is an added interest in spiritualism again. More people than ever are attending seances again, with the hope of getting back in contact with loved ones who have since departed. William Crawford Jackson’s wife, Elizabeth, is one of those from high society who has a particular interest in this, hoping to get back into contact with her brother who was lost on the Titanic two years before.

He had discovered this by accident when he found a letter from the maid who has just left and he decides to follow Elizabeth to see where she is going. He sees her disappear into a house and notices a figure in the upstairs window looking down on him. It turns out that this is the famed medium, Kathleen Goligher. Jackson who is a Professor of Engineering is not particularly happy about this. He is very sceptical that it is real and dissuades Elizabeth from going to them again.

Money is tight in the house and his new textbook that the publisher thought would do well has sold poorly. He meets with a man at a party who persuades him to undertake some scientific research into mediums. His investigations become famous and he becomes known as the Spirit Engineer. However, will he prove one way or the other if these are genuine contacts with those now dead or just fraud…

I am not a great reader of Gothic melodramas, there is nothing wrong with them per se, it is just not my sort of thing, but I quite liked this. It is based on real events and people that West has used to create this story, adding to and embellishing the facts with a narrative that flows really well. The main character, William Crawford Jackson, is not particularly likeable, suffering as much from his own internal demons and vanity as he does from external pressure from society at that time. I don’t mind unlikeable characters in books as it makes for a more interesting story and it works in this book as the plot builds towards the end.

The Wheel by Jennifer Lane

4 out of 5 stars

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

Jennifer Lane had lots of opportunities ahead of her. She was an award-winning writer who had been published in many prestigious periodicals, but with this success came the many pressures of modern life. The relentless deadlines, long days and sometimes unbearable pressure. She thought she was coping, but one winter she reached a breaking point with the stress of everything.

She knew what she had to do though and that was to take charge of her destiny once again. The day was the 21st of December, I know it as the winter solstice but for a witch, this was Yule; the fire season. Her current life needed to go. Into the cauldron went the lists of things to do, notes for projects and other papers and she lit it. As they burnt, the white paper turning to black ash, a weight was lifted from her.

This was only the start though, she was going to rediscover the solace and purpose that witchcraft had given her as a teenager. She would follow the ritual from the Wheel of the Year that divides the regular calendar year into eight and is focused around the solstices and equinoxes. It is a system that seeks to find balance and harmony with the natural world and her body was yearning for it.

Her particular version of witchcraft is rooted in Wicca and she has adapted it to suit her particular needs, using Reiki and crystals at specific moments. Her journey was painful at times, as she moves away from the stresses and anxieties that nearly pushes her over the edge. But in here too, are moments of joy love, laughter and most of all healing as she rediscovers a path that she thought was once lost.

Lane is an engaging and thoughtful writer. She has a way of explaining the key elements of witchcraft that make it feel like a normal process that is as ancient as it is intrinsically linked to the world we inhabit. It doesn’t feel evil or weird occult practice. Her connection to this way of life has been rocky because of the pressures of modern life, but the journey that she takes us on around the wheel of the year shows how this works for her and gives her the tools to cope with the stresses of modern life.

Hag by Daisy Johnson

3.5 out of 5 stars

One of the things that set us apart from the other creatures of the planet is our ability to tell stories and to imagine ourselves in the place of others. The stories that we tell are sometimes true and at other times the truth is buried in the legends of the land. Those legends often have a fantastical element that is frequently dark.

To bring these stories to a new modern audience is quite a feat by all these authors. They have all taken the essence of the original and moulded and shaped it to a contemporary context. There was the odd outstanding one, in particular, I liked both the Panther’s Tale and Holloway.

I am going, to be honest and say that I really liked the re-telling and imagining of these old folklore tales compared to the originals. I think it was because the context feels more relevant. That said, the old tales do reach deeper into the darker and creepier shadows that inhabit our landscapes and all the authors of these stories have managed to convey that feeling of dread that you can sometimes get with the old stories both.

The Kindness Of Strangers Ed. By Fearghal O’Nuallain

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Travel is supposed to be challenging, you are out of your comfort zone, you are in unfamiliar places, often surrounded by people who don’t speak the same language as you and have a very different culture. It can pay rich dividends and give you an insight into how people live and how different it is to your way of life. These places that you see, the sunsets that you watch and the interactions that you have with other people, shape who you are.

It is no coincidence that kindness starts with ‘kin’

There are moments though where you are at your lowest ebb or something has happened where you need help and this book is full of those moments where travel writers needed that little bit of compassion from the people around them. There are stories from the well known, such as Benedict Allen and Ed Stafford and other stories from writers that I have not come across, such as Faraz Shibli and Tina Brocklebank.

The stories are as varies as the people who have written them; one writer tries to outrun a blizzard on her bicycle, an out of work forestry worker who would join Ed Stafford on the longest walk of his life and two men who wanted to do the Lands End to John O Groats route starting only in their underwear and who were utterly reliant on the generosity of strangers to clothe and feed them.

I am a part of all that I have met – Tennyson, Ulysses

This is a heartwarming collection of stories from travel writers who have experienced human kindness that was given selflessly by people who were are often in pretty dire straits themselves. That those people who showed compassion and empathy to others in their greatest need shows that as a species we are capable of doing these things.

A Spotter’s Guide to Countryside Mysteries by John Wright

4 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 ever been out for a walk in the countryside and wonder what those lumps and bumps in the field are, or curious as to what that pile of sticks is in a tree, then A Spotter’s Guide to Countryside Mysteries is a good a place as any on your journey of discovery.

Split into three sections, the Field, The Wood and the Seashore, Wright leads us on a journey of discovery through the natural and man-made worlds. If you want to know the difference between a tussock, a piddock and a pollard, or what animal actually makes cuckoo spit or where and when you would find hair ice or if cramp balls are as painful as it sounds…

The book is packed full of information about the features that Wright has chosen to include in the book, along with pictures of typical examples to help you find them when you are out and about. I have come across some of the features that he mentions, such as holloways, pollards and water meadows. There were lots of subjects that I hadn’t come across, tussocks, pillow mounds, spalted wood and the honeycomb worm.

I really liked this book. Wright takes what you would think is a complex subject matter and makes it simple to understand and more importantly easy to spot the things that he talks about in this book. He has a way with words, making this an easy and entertaining read with the occasional part that made me chuckle. If you want to find out more about the lumps and bumps in the countryside around you when you are walking then this is a good place to start.


The Con Artist by Fred Van Lette

4 out of 5 stars

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

Comic book artist Mike Mason arrives at San Diego Comic-Con expecting the usual things, fan contact, meeting up with other creators and spending time in the bars with the odd hangover.

What he is not expecting though is his main rival, Danny Lieber, to stagger through a load of cosplayers and drop down dead from two gunshot wounds. Nor is he expecting to be the prime suspect of murder because Danny had been having an affair with his wife.

He knows he didn’t do it, however, persuading the police that he is innocent is going to take a lot of work. First, he has to find the girl who took him on her rickshaw to the Unconditional Surrender statue to prove that he wasn’t there when it took place. Finding her would take him into some of the darker and weirder places of counter culture and be a bit of an eye-opener for him.

I don’t want to say too much more as it would give stuff away, but I thought that this was a bit of a romp. It is full of things that you would expect to find at a con, loads of comic book references and dropped unsubtly in the middle is a murder mystery. I liked the fast pace of it too and thought that the plot was fairly well constructed all things considered.

Light Of The Stars by Adam 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.

Is there life out there? It is a question that has taxed some of the finest minds and we are not really any closer to answering it. We can speculate about how many stars have planets that might have the particular and specific factors that allow life to arise. Even though we can now see those stars that have planets orbiting, we are still no closer to proving that they carry a form of life that we can detect.

What we have learnt through the pioneering work of scientists such as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, Jack James, Vladimir Vernadsky and James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis is much more about is how life has formed and was created on this planet. Their pioneering work is explored in this book as Frank writes about their discoveries and the way that they changed our understanding of how a planet changes and evolves over millennia.

Overall I thought this was ok. He is a reasonable writer and the prose was engaging without being too dry and academic. That said I felt that it seemed to lack a little focus as to what he was trying to achieve from a popular science book and it felt too speculative at times throughout the book.

My Cyprus by Joachim Sartorius Tr. Stephen Brown

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

The island of Cyprus holds a strategic position in the Mediterranean and it has been invaded by various powers from the Phoenicians right up to the Turkish who invaded in 1974, they split the island in two and their portion is only recognised by Turkey. There is a lot of history on this tiny island.

When Joachim Sartorius arrived there in 1984, s decade after the invasion, he was there in an official capacity as the German Ambassador to the island. This meant that he could do something that most of the residents couldn’t do, which was to freely travel from the north to the south. What he did on these journeys over three summers was to make a record of what life was like in each partitioned part of the island.

This book is part of that record, and he took the time to return years after to fill in some of the gaps that he had in his notes. I really liked this book. Sartorius writes with an obvious affection for the island and the people who live there. His prose (or at least the translated version) is quite beautiful, I liked the way that he wove the troubled history of the island into the encounters that he had, without looking to judge why it had happened or who was to blame. I felt that he has completely captured the atmosphere of the islands, from the old rural side of the islands away from the tourist bustle, or watching donkeys trying to grab the little shade that they can find under a mulberry tree.

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