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Our Kind Of Traitor by John le Carré

4 out of 5 stars

Perry and Gail were on a much needed holiday on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Perry was a big tennis player and along with the slightly overweight pro he had arranged a game with a honeymoon couple from India. It was a close-fought game and they even managed to draw a small crowd.

One of those watching was a Russian called Dima. He is a slightly aloof character, but he oozes power. He wants to play a game of tennis too and Perry reluctantly agrees. With Dima is his family, but also has an entourage of heavies that are there to ensure that their man is well protected. Dima has made his fortune in money laundering, and in deeply immersed in lucrative and very dodgy deals with the Russian mafia. His connections in the webs of high finance even reach into the British political elite and he has begun to realise that his position is a huge liability as he knows too many people.

Dima needs a sympathetic Englishman to put him in touch with the MI6 and with, Perry, he has struck it lucky. They reluctantly agree to help and take a USB stick back home with them. He knows a friend of a friend who is something important is the secret world and passes it onto them. He thinks that he has done his bit, but both Dima and MI6 want him and Gail to be the go-between and common point of contact. They never wanted to be spies; now they are in the secret world way over their heads.

I won’t give any more plot details away except that Le Carre has done it again with this book. It doesn’t have the same suspense or feeling of dread as his earlier books do though; this is more of a moral tale and most importantly a warning as to what the city (still) is doing by attracting vast sums of dirty money to be laundered through its systems. It is permeated with spycraft and dealings between those at the firm who realise that the asset they have secured is going to disrupt the cosy and very lucrative financial dealings that the city is looking forward to doing with the Russians. It doesn’t make it any less readable though and he is the master of the unexpected.

Notebook by Tom Cox

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Notebook by Tom Cox and published by Unbound.

About the Book

Sure, sex is great, but have you ever cracked open a new notebook and written something on the first page with a really nice pen? The story behind Notebook starts with a minor crime: the theft of Tom Cox’s rucksack from a Bristol pub in 2018. In that rucksack was a journal containing ten months worth of notes, one of the many Tom has used to record his thoughts and observations over the past twelve years. It wasn’t the best he had ever kept – his handwriting was messier than in his previous notebook, his entries more sporadic – but he still grieved for every one of the hundred or so lost pages. This incident made Tom appreciate how much notebook-keeping means to him: the act of putting pen to paper has always led him to write with an unvarnished, spur-of-the-moment honesty that he wouldn’t achieve on-screen. Here, Tom has assembled his favourite stories, fragments, moments and ideas from those notebooks, ranging from memories of his childhood to the revelation that ‘There are two types of people in the world. People who f*cking love maps, and people who don’t.’ The result is a book redolent of the real stuff of life, shot through with Cox’s trademark warmth and wit.

About the Author

Tom Cox lives in Norfolk. He is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling The Good, The Bad and The Furry and the William Hill Sports Book longlisted Bring Me the Head of Sergio Garcia. 21st-Century Yokel was longlisted for the Wainwright Prize, and the titular story of Help the Witch won a Shirley Jackson Award.

My Review

Sometimes the most mundane of objects can be the most precious. Tom Cox found this out one day when his rucksack was stolen in a pub in Bristol. It was one of several that were left alongside the dancefloor and was probably the scruffiest and grubbiest of all of them there. Inside were £46 his debit card, a novel, car keys, phone and charger and a black Moleskine notebook. He had a fraught 24 hours sorting things out, getting back home for the spare car keys and having to rely on the generosity of friends.

The memory of the things that were taken have long since faded, but the thing that he misses the most, even now, was the notebook. In there were his most random and intimate thoughts about anything and everything that he considered worthy of committing to paper. Not only has he got a gap in all the notebooks that he has ever had, it felt like amnesia that he could never recover.

A solid cooking rule to follow is to remember that when recipes say ‘add two cloves of garlic’, it’s always a misprint and what they actually mean is six.

Whilst there wasn’t notes for a specific book in its pages, there were notes that might appear in some form or other in something that he was yet to write. He would often discover these musings as he flicked back and forwards through his notebooks and be able to expand on them for the book he was currently writing. A lot of the stuff he scribbles down though is not really for publication, but some of it is and this is what appears in these pages.

‘Weird’ very rarely means ‘weird’. A lot of the time it’s just a word that boring people use to describe people with an imagination.

Having a glimpse inside someone’s mind can be a thing of terror! Thankfully in the case of Tom Cox, the musings repeated in here are as random as they are wide-ranging. There is gentle humour and profound insight into that particular day’s observation. One moment you are reading about what he is going to do with the 3000 courgettes that he has bought back from his parents home, the next about haircuts. There are snippets on books, words, spiders, mugs, cats, February and maps. There is of course his dad in the note, as loud as ever, and his mum had created the art that prefaces the beginning of each chapter.

Drunk people rarely make good romantic choices. The problem is where the drinking takes place. Bookshops, that’s where people should drink.

Like Cox, I have a thing for notebooks too. I do have nine others that I have bought and not yet used. I am currently using a Star Wars Moleskine. Along with notebooks, I do have a thing for decent pens and pencils and I normally use a uni-ball eye micro and have a drawer full of Staedtler pencils. I must admit that I am a big fan of Tom Cox too, in particular his books on natural history and landscape that take a very different perspective on writing about the outdoors compared to other authors. This book is very different from those, but in lots of ways, it is the same. His unconventional way of looking at life is evident through those snippets they have selected for inclusion in here and it is a joy to read.

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour

Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here

My thanks to Anne Cater from Random Thing Tours for arranging a copy of the book to read.

Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

4 out of 5 stars

In the thousands of years since we stopped becoming hunter-gatherers and we have changed almost everything on the planet in one way or another. We have drained and flooded places, destroyed mountains, built brand new hills, changed the course of rivers, dug deep into the earth and obliterated whole cities. When we move on to the next places what then for the places we have trashed and ruined?

Rather than travelling to all the beauty spots in the world, In Islands of Abandonment Cal Flyn decides to head to all those places that most people wouldn’t be adding to their list of places to go after lockdown. As well as finding ruin and devastation, she also finds strange beauty, rare plants and nature starting to take back what is once owned.

Starting very close to home, she heads to a place called Five Sisters. This place in West Lothian is a series of hills that are the waste from shattering rocks to extract the shale oil from. When they were created they were a grim, dark site, but now they are now a soft green as life has found a foothold on their steep slopes. The vegetation is similar to what you would find on a tundra but after the site was surveyed in 2004 a biologist was startled to find that in amongst the willow herb there were some incredibly rare plants indeed, including the Young’s Helleborine and other orchids.

Borders that have been created following disputes in Korea and Cyprus are two places that are on her destination list. In Cyprus, she meets with a man who had to flee his home in 1974 and though that he would be back in a few days. He still hasn’t returned and he can see his former home through the fence. The DMZ between North and South Korea has almost become a wildlife sanctuary in its own right with various large mammals now being spotted.

In Spain there are now around 3000 villages that the populations have abandoned for the cities are slowly crumbling into dust and being reclaimed by nature. The same thing is happening in Detroit. They call it blight; gone are the industries of the region and the employment that it brought. Entire streets have been left as the people have moved elsewhere and Flyn has included some photo from Google Streetview as they are reclaimed by scrub and trees.

Landscapes have been irrevocably changed by disasters both natural and man-made. At the time of writing this both Mount Etna and another unpronounceable one in Iceland are very active at the moment. Being shown round the remains of a town that was covered after a volcano blew its top off is an eye-opening experience. For man-made disasters, there is little to touch Chernobyl for its impact in Ukraine and across the continent. I distinctly remember it happening way back in the 1980s and I am not sure what was the most disturbing, the disinformation and propaganda from the Soviets or the vast cloud of radiation drifting across the UK. The exclusion zone around the plant is slowly being reclaimed by nature and the scientists are still learning how the massive dose of radiation is still affecting the region.

In nearby Estonia, there are vast swathes of farmland that has been abandoned and Flyn sees how the landscapes are slowly re-foresting themselves. It is becoming a massive carbon sink and in some ways replacing the trees being lost from the Amazon. A completely different place is Slab City, this desert community is a place that those in our society who don’t really fit, or in certain cases are trying to evade the authorities end up. It is a bit of a lawless place and feels a bit, Mad Max.

Some of the places that she travels to are pretty grim, a reminder of the worst that we can do to this only planet that we have. Thankfully Flyn is a sensitive and perceptive writer, she engages with the people that she meets at the places mentioned and visited in the book and her detailed background research adds depth to the prose making this a fascinating study of the places around the planet.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

2 out of 5 stars

In the rural community of Lincoln, Illinois a farmer is murdered after a neighbouring farmer shoots him. The community is shocked by this and again by the second tragedy that was to befall them soon after. What is left of the two families are left to patch up their lives and the case is soon forgotten about. Except by the narrator of the story. He was almost friends with the son of one of the deceased and the memories of the time still weight heavily in his mind.

Fifty years later, he decides that he wants to fill in the gaps of what happened at the time. He writes off to the local paper for copies of the articles that were written at the time and eventually gets a set of articles sent to him. It felt like looking at history through the wrong end of a set of binoculars. In amongst the $7 suit adverts of the time were the nuggets of information that washed over him as a child. As he starts to go back over the events that led up to this double tragedy he realises that he has more questions than answers now.

Even though I have only given this two stars, there were some parts of this novella that I liked, the prose is taut and sparse, he has barely wasted a letter in the writing of this. It felt at times a little like Of Mice and Men the way he portrayed the sense of place that you get from reading it. I could see the fields that the community lived in and sense the bleakness from the uniformity of it all. The main problem that I had with it was that it didn’t feel cohesive to me. It jumps back and forwards and you find out almost immediately about the murder and the remainder of the book is spent with the narrator exploring and trying to understand what happened all those years ago and coming to terms with his guilt.

The First of Everything by Stewart Ross

3 out of 5 stars

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

One of the things that differentiate us from the majority of the animal kingdom is our use and development of tools that aid us in doing all manner of things. Just on my desk are a plethora of items that have been invented by someone at some point in history. Just take the pencil, it first came about in 1564 in the UK as a piece of graphite. Then the Italians wrapped that in wood to stop getting their hands dirty. Two hundred years after that, the Austrians added clay to the graphite and came up with what we would recognise today.

Ross has split these human achievements into seven sections, In the Beginning, At Home, Health and Medicine, Getting About, Science and Engineering, Peace and War and Culture. The first section is the shortest, more of a marking of time until carbon-based bipeds became the human beings of today. Each section that follows has reams of facts and dates of items and subjects as diverse as door locks, blood groups, kites, bridges and diplomacy and evening the space hopper (remember those?).

I did like this, but in essence, this is a great big list that is full of facts and dates. Sadly there is very little context as to how the thing was first begun or invented and how the subsequent inventions were derived from previous items. That said, that is not the point of this book, if you need that extra depth of information then consult an encyclopaedia of original source of material for more detail. It would be a great source for those doing quizzes.

Springlines by Clare Best, Mary-Anne Aytoun-Ellis

4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the pleasures that I discovered from lockdown was the pleasure of sitting by the water, It is a dynamic medium that changes constantly during the day, it reflects the weather, moves as the breeze ripples the surface and is never the same each moment.

Way back in 2012, Clare Best and the artist Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis went in search of the water on the South Downs. There had been a drought that year that meant that the wells, furnace ponds, pools and dew ponds that they were looking for had more of less vanished, leaving only the faintest glimpse of their watery origins. Though the water was scarce, what they did find was the landscape that told the stories of those that had worked there as well as the richness of the natural world that of was claiming it back.

Now streams and lakes
Are lucent, hushed –
No hammers, no forges,
No cannon, no soot,
But fire that smoulders
In rusty pools

This beautifully laid out is split into three sections, the first is poetry, then there are short essays from other writers and their response to the landscape of the chalk down and watery places elsewhere in the country. They have also sourced artworks from a private collection that are just wonderful.

The poems are as sparse as they are beautiful. Coupled with Aytoun-Ellis’s artworks this makes a beautiful book to have and to hold. One to be dipped into again and again I think

Three Favourite Poems

How Water Comes Through

Ironmakers

Interval

A Reed Shaken by the Wind by Gavin Maxwell

4 out of 5 stars

They were flying over an endless desert at 220mph. It stretched to the horizon from both windows. Rather than feeling excited about the flight into Baghdad, Maxwell felt a touch of fear. This journey had begun a couple of years before when he had written to the man sitting alongside him on the plane, they met in London. He explained there would be no home comforts and it would be incredibly tough travelling. In the end, he agreed to take him the next time he was going there. That man dozing alongside him was the legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger and this was to be Maxwell’s first trip to the marshes of southern Iraq.

It was a place where outsiders were treated with suspicion, and not many ventured into their waterscape made up of a mass of tiny islands in a maze of reeds and swamps. They stopped for a few days in Basra where they were joined by the lads that Thesiger used to help him navigate the wilderness. They then all piled into a car and headed south before turning off the road and heading to where the lads had left their canoe. Finally, he was heading into the marshes.

Under a storm sky this landscape, too, could seem bleak and terrible, but now it seemed a wonderland, and the colours had the brilliance and clarity of fine enamel.

He would accompany Thesiger as he visited the various places that he wanted to go on this visit. They would only stay one night before moving on to another home so they didn’t become too much of a burden on their host. Moving across the water in a shallow draught canoe when the wind was blowing a gale is a bit nerve-wracking; especially if the local guides seemed to be worried too.

Maxwell is quite a good shot on land, shooting coots and ducks while sitting cross-legged in a gently rocking canoe is another matter. Sometimes he got lucky and sometimes he didn’t. As honoured guests, they attend weddings, watch dancers and share stories around the buffalo dung fires in the evenings. He watches how they construct their houses, and make the reed matting that is used for all manner of things.

It was a landscape as weird as a Lost World, and through it flew birds as strange and unfamiliar in flight as pterodactyls; snake-necked African darters, pygmy cormorants and halcyon kingfishers

The is the final book following on from Thesiger’s classic and Gavin Young’s Return To The Marshes in the triage of books I read about the Marsh Arabs. I think that I liked them all about the same but for a variety of different reasons. Thesiger and Young came across as more seasoned travellers, but in A Reed Shaken by the Wind, you got the sense that Maxwell was a little out of his depth travelling in the region for the first time.

Whilst he may have been outside his comfort zone, his prose can be magnificent at times. He has an eye for details about the people, their sparse but simple homes, the weather and the watery landscapes they are traversing in the canoes. I felt more of a sense of how it felt to be in the region more than with the other two authors. It was here too that he was to become the owner of an otter cub, Mijbil and the author of a book that would make him famous.

Like Fado by Graham Mort

4 out of 5 stars

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

There are a diverse set of plots in this collection, from a man still mourning the death of his brother all those years ago and trying to understand just what happened on that day. There is Peter showing a previous resident around the home that he has just bought with his boyfriend and that they are just starting to renovate. A man who is in between jobs is staying at an apartment in Rome and he is called upon to help after an earthquake strikes the region. Another story tells of a brief dalliance with another lady who was working at the same supermarket as him before they went their own separate ways in the world once again.

Set in all parts of the world, all of the stories have richly formed characters and there is enough detail of each of them for you to be able to grasp their backstory as they are thrust deep into the plot. They feel like real people too, not wildly implausible characters, doing real, mundane things and experiencing the joys and pains of life.

I thought that there were some really good stories in this collection of thirteen by Mort. They are not always cheerful, so if you are looking for something uplifting at the moment, others might be more appropriate. Three of my favourite stories were Saint Peter, Pepe’s and Oliva, which I thought was superb.

Black Country by Liz Berry

3.5 out of 5 stars

The maxim, write about what you know rings true in this instance. Berry has tapped deeply into the Black Country as a source of the material in this collection. There are poems on the legacy of the coal industry, memories of camping in the Guides and of eating brains for tea at Nanny’s.

There are poems about places, Gotsy Hilland Tipton-On-Cut, (which are both fantastic names by the way) and some about the heavy industry that came to define the region. Among the poems are some on the natural world, including Owl, The Silver Birth and Woodkeeper.

I will ripen you like a rare Chanterelle,
Let you creep into tender cracks of my bark
penetrate the dearest heartwood at my core

What I most liked about this collection was the language. Not only does Berry have a way with words but she is utilising her local dialect to its maximum advantage. The poems flow with words that I have never come across before, such as canting, jedden, donkey bite and the fabulous tranklement. I liked this a lot and am going to try to get hold of her other collections.

Three Favourite Poems
The Year We Married Birds
The Silver Birch
Echo

Million-Story City by Marcus Preece

4 out of 5 stars

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

Marcus Preece is said to be one of the most interesting writers you’ve never heard of. They were right too, I have never heard of him until this landed on my doorstep. This is likely to be the only book that he has to his name too as he sadly passed away in 2017 at the age of 54.

Thankfully his friend, Malu Halasa sifted through his draft notes and incomplete projects for dozens of stories, screenplays and comic strips along with essays, journalism, poetry and random pieces that didn’t quite fit in anywhere else. And amongst that mass of material, there were some gems. Thankfully Halasa is an editor and she knew what she could make from his work. Even though Preece is the author of this book, this is her work in compiling it into a cohesive entity.

As I find with any collection there are some things that I like more than others. There were a couple of screenplays that didn’t really work for me but I did have some particular favourites from this book. I thought that the poems here were excellent, it is such a shame there were so few of them. His music journalism too was really good, he manages in so few words to really convey the vibe of the bands and the venue. Swiftnick and The Legend of the Lonesome Cowboy were really good too. The final part of the book is another screenplay, Everybody’s Happy Nowadays. To begin with, I wasn’t sure, but then it reached a point where everything slotted into place and I really ended up liking it.

As it is so diverse, not only in its styles but also in the material that he covers, there is something for everyone in here. They even made space for friends to pay their own tributes to him. If you want a challenging and often entertaining read then give this a go.

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