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Around India in 80 Trains by Monica Rajesh

4 out of 5 stars

Monisha Rajesh’s family had moved over from India a while ago, but in 1991 they decided that they wanted to move back. Heading to Madras, they lasted two years before concluding they preferred the cold climate of the UK over rats and severed body parts. Twenty years later, she has the urge to return once again to India, but how to see it. An idea forms based on Jules Verne’s classic Around the world in 80 Days and she starts researching the railways of India hoping to find 80 separate train journey’s that would take her around the country and help her to re-discover it. But first, she needed a companion for her adventure. Fortunately, she knew a photographer who had some spare time and he agreed to come with her.

Her journey would take her across India from top to bottom, and right into the far reaches of the country. She passes through well-known cities like Mumbai and Delhi to places that are only known to the locals. Each journey was different and a challenge to all the senses from the sleekest sleeper trains to the carriages where she shared space with the mass of humanity each on their own personal journey. Herr companion, Passepartout, though turned out to be a radical atheist who was continually challenged and assaulted by the cacophony of sights and sounds in this deeply devout country.

A romantic evening haze hung over the treetops that sped past. I soon realised that this was a layer of filth on the window…

I thought that this was a really enjoyable account of a series of trip backwards and forwards around the subcontinent of India. Rajesh conveys the character of the country really well from the people that she meets on the trains as well as being able to draw on her dual cultural identity to understand the context of what she is seeing. Mixed with this is a blend of historical and personal anecdotes and written in a warm and conversational style. It is also a warning to choose your travelling companions wisely too…

Not Working by Josh Cohen

3 out of 5 stars

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

Work is a four letter work according to my long retired father. He is lucky to have left the world of work when he did, before the advent of 24 / 7 emails and messaging, constant stress and the relentless pace that we have today. Work can be a positive thing but it feels at the moment that there is no relief from it. The view from the treadmill of the people burning themselves out, seeing those that are choosing not to do anything is not always the best encouragement.

From his position as a psychoanalyst, Cohen looks at the four faces of inertia – the burnout, the slob, the daydreamer and the slacker. Using these generic themes he looks at four people, Andy Warhol, Orson Welles, Emily Dickinson and David Foster Wallace, who have shown strong signs of these types of inactivity. From these specific profiles, he poses the questions on how we might live a different and more contented life in the modern world.

 

There were several parts of this that I liked, in particular, the mini-biographies of the four people he uses to expand on the points he was making. However, I did find that he asked a lot of questions, but it felt like the answers were a little lacking as to how we set about unwinding our own personal addictions to the workplace. It would have been good to have methods to mitigate the effects that overwork has on our health and society. It did make for an interesting read though.

Rewild Yourself by Simon Barnes

There are a large number of people who only go outside if they have to, moving between house and car, car and office and almost never take the time to walk away from the asphalt, away from the modern technology and rediscover the wild. The evidence is starting to grow too that this is an essential part of our psyche and how spending just a short amount of time outdoors has significant short and long term benefits.

With the aim of encouraging people to head outdoors, Simon Bares has selected twenty-three different simple steps that anyone can do for almost no budget or a very small one. Example of the ideas that he suggests are always taking a plastic bag with you as the best way to start to see wildlife is to sit still and to sit still for a long time, it is not easy doing so with a wet bum. The same logic applies to getting waterproof trousers to make it more comfortable when out and about in inclement weathers. He will suggest when it is in your interest to spend some money. For example, investing in a bat detector or buying a decent set of binoculars will pay dividends. He recommends buying the best you can afford with sound advice on what to get depending on the sorts of things that you are wanting to look at.

The best thing about this book is that it is peppered with advice about the inexpensive ways to see wildlife. Taking time to slow down and let it come to you rather than crashing through the undergrowth and scaring it away. Also, sage wisdom is taking the time to celebrate everything that you see. You should get the same pleasure as you would seeing a red admiral as you would a purple emperor, Barnes argues.

The most important thing that you can do though is to invest time in getting outdoors and seeing what is around in your local area. For those that can’t do that, then put out bird feeders and put plants in your garden that attract insects. Start off simply and build up. You do not need to be an expert, just a change in attitude and the wild world can be yours.

The Nocturnal Brain by Guy Leschziner

4 out of 5 stars

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

Thankfully I have never had any issues in sleeping. I put my head on the pillow and almost always I am asleep within a few minutes. I sleep deeply too, I missed the entire Great Storm in 1987 and was totally oblivious to a massive lightning storm that struck an oak tree opposite where I lived. My father has always called it a short course in death…

Sleep is essential to our health, but no one can say with any conviction exactly why we need it. If we are sleep deprived then there is a finite time that we can survive, hence why it is used as a form of torture. So what happens to our brain at night? A lot of what we can learn about the brain when it is resting is by studying those that struggle with all manner of sleep-related issues.

Guy Leschzineris well placed to explain these sleep issues as he is the head of the Sleep Disorders Centre at Guy’s and St. Thomas’s Hospitals. In this book, he explains the various types of disorders that he has come across, such as sleepwalking, apnoea, night terrors and narcolepsy through the stories of the people that he has met and treated. Some of the things that these people have to suffer sound horrendous, paralysis, tremors and hallucinations for example. The story of a lady who would wake in the middle of the night and drive around whilst asleep and be utterly unaware what she was doing is terrifying.

This book by Leschzineris a fine addition to the discussion and understanding of this little understood habit that we have to undertake every day for our health. His compassionate writing about the people that he is treating will help those that have been suffering from insomnia and other sleeping disorders to understand that they are not alone. There are several books out there now about sleeping. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker is a really good explanation of why we need sleep and this accessible book is a fine addition to the knowledge of sleep

Embers of War

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

When she was first built, Trouble Dog was a Carnivore class warship. Armed to the teeth, these were built for maximum destruction and mayhem and could reduce a planet to a smouldering rock. After one particularly brutal war, she begins to question the reasons behind what she had committed and why she was doing it. Unable to face the moral dilemma behind it she decides to take action to atone for the possible war crimes and joins the House of Reclamation, an organisation dedicated to rescuing ships in distress.

Being a super intelligent machine with human DNA embedded deep in her core, she finds her new role is very restricted and struggles daily with what her new purpose is especially as she has had most of her serious weaponry removed. But before she has time to dwell too much on it, they are the closest ship to another in distress. The captain, Sal Konstanz, takes the call and starts to calculate the fastest transit time there, but first, she needs to resolve a couple of issues…

There are others who are interested in the ship that has just gone missing though. The intelligence officer Ashton Childe is urgently seeking a poet called Ona Sudak. As they arrive in the system they realise that they or in the middle of a situation that is threatening to spiral out of control into a full-blown war. Faced with two of her sister ships, Fenrir and Adalwolf, that are fully armed and not really looking for a diplomatic solution, a virtually defenceless Trouble Dog is going to all of her guile to come out on top.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, there are some original themes and a well thought out plot. The pacing is good and it all feels reassuring plausible. The characterisation is really good too, in particular, the ship, Trouble Dog, though it did take a while to get used to which character was which. Already have the second in the series lined up to read at some point.

Book Musings – February 2019

For such a short month, February seemed to last for ages. I spent a lot of time heading from Dorset to London too, three times for work and a couple for personal reasons, one of which was to judge the Stanford Dolman award. More on that in a later post, after it has been printed in NB Magazine. Anyway onto the books that I read in February. I managed to read 17 in the end. First up are my fiction reads

   

I was recommended The Hours by Michael Cunningham by a friend on twitter. The library had a copy so I thought, I’d give it a go. It is three stories all intertwined together but focused on the book Mr Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I have read one of his others, and really liked it, but this didn’t do it so much for me. Maybe it was because of the Woolf links as the only book of hers that I have read I could not get along with. I really like spy fiction, but most of what is out there, is broadly similar. The latest book, from Sarah Armstrong, The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt              Fiction is the story of a woman who is kicked out of university and ends up marrying a childhood friend in a marriage of convenience before heading out to Moscow, where she becomes unintentionally embroiled in an espionage scandal. I also read one of the fiction offerings from the Wellcome longlist, Astoturf. This book by Matthew Sperling is about a character called Ned who isn’t getting the girls and is stuck in a dead end job. He is persuaded to try taking a short course in steroids to improve his physique. One thing leads to another and he starts a website selling his own brand of performance drugs. Very much a blokish book and I wasn’t that impressed.

In my reading challenges, I had promised to read the Discworld books that I hadn’t this year. The Last Hero was the first from that list and in true Terry Pratchett for it did not disappoint. Very funny and a tiny parody of life on our world too. I have been following Gareth L Powell on Twitter for a while now and was fortunate to be sent his book, Embers of War, last year. Didn’t get to read it until I picked it up when we were away for the weekend and heading up into London. This happened to be the weekend he was at the Forbidden Planet promoting his new book, Fleet of Knives, so I popped in to see him to buy a copy and to get both books signed. He is a genuinely nice guy and well worth following for his always positive posts. Anyway, the book, Embers of War is a book about a ship with a sparse crew on board who are there to help other ships in danger. When they are called to assist a ship in distress they don’t fully realise what they are getting into and it is not long before they realise they are right in the middle of a fast-escalating war. Really good stuff and I am looking forward to reading his next book.

 

Not really sure where to slot this one, but Silence: In The Age Of Noise is Erling Kagge’s thoughts and musings on the absence of noise and how it can benefit us. It is a beautifully produced book with lots of things to ponder.

There is a lot of talk about how the natural world can help you and how our lack of it is affecting mental health and wellbeing. This is brilliantly covered in the book, The Nature Fix. But how do you set about rediscovering something that we have been ignoring for the past few years? Well, Simon Barnes’ book, Rewild Yourself is a set of  23 ideas to help get you outside and making nature more relevant to you. There are lots of simple and inexpensive and most importantly practical tips to assist when you venture outside. I have lived some of my life near the coast and was really looking forward to reading the debut book by Charlotte Runcie called Salt On Your Tongue: Women And The Sea. This memoir is about her personal journey through pregnancy in the context of her love of the sea. She brings into it all sort of stories from myth and folklore as well as recent history. Really liked the writing style of it too, so if you have any longing for the coast then this could be for you.

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My poetry book this month was Green Noise by the amazing Jean Sprackland. I had only read her non-fiction before now and now I have read this beautiful collection will read her other poetry books.

The Stanford Dolman shortlisted books are always worth reading, and Lights in the Distance by Daniel Trilling was one that I was looking forward to from there. It is about the realities of migration told through the personal stories of the people he meets. Powerful stuff and should be essential reading for lots of people.

I also read the others on the shortlist. Damian Le Bas’ book is called The Stopping Places where he travels around the UK and Southern France looking for the laybys where his Gypsy people paused in their journeys. Fascinating book on the almost hidden sub-culture of our country.  The Ottoman Empire was in existence for several hundred years before collapsing after the First World War. Even though it has been gone for a century, if you know where to look you can still see that the traces and echoes of the past are still there. Scott travels through twelve countries looking and talking to the people that have been displaced and who are still feeling the effects of the collapse. The Rhine is Europe longest river, reaching from the North Sea, across Germany and deep into the Alps. Ben Coates has written an entertaining book of his travel from his adopted home along the river to this source. Not quite as good as his first, but still worth reading though.

   

As well as the Stanford Dolman books that I was reading to judge, I also have read the Adventure travel shortlist and the next three are from that. A short book about a woman who inadvertently adopts a dog by Ishbel Holmes is as much about her torrid past as it is about Lucy the street dog. Really enjoyable and uplifting story. I have read one of Ben Fogle’s books before on Land Rovers, which was ok, but not brilliantly written. Up, about his training and successful attempt to climb Everest is a little better. I particularly liked the other side of the story told by his wife, Marina. It added a better depth to the story. As an adventurer, Levison Wood is hard to beat. He has walked halfway across Africa, across the rooftop of the world and through the jungles of Central America. This latest book of his travel around the Arabian peninsula doesn’t have a TV series to accompany it but is still worth reading none the less.

   

After the Beast from the East I was hoping for another pile of snow this year, sadly we only got the merest dusting. But the day it did snow seemed to be a good day to start reading The Little Book of Snow by Sally Coulthard. This beautifully produced book was a delightfully cornucopia of all sorts of facts and anecdotes about the white stuff. It makes a beautiful gift book.

My book of the month was The Last Hero. I have forgotten just how good STP could be. So do you like the look of any of these?

The Book of Humans by Adam Rutherford

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

To say we have dominated the globe would be an understatement. We have conquered the highest mountains, reached deep into the oceans, become one of the few mammals that can fly and even been in the unique position of having had a select number of people leave the planet when they ventured into space. We tend to think of ourselves as exceptional, but are we? When you look at it from a bigger perspective, we are a single twig on a four-billion-year-old family tree that has countless species and lots of dead ends. All of these from a single origin with a code that is the very heart of our existence; DNA.

Rutherford considers all the things that make us distinctive such as speech and communication, tool creation, art, fire, social skills and how sex has gone beyond just being for procreation. But if you look hard enough at the other species that we share this world with you can find traces of these habits where they exist. There are examples of tool usage in other primates, birds and even dolphins. He explains how raptor in Australia have learnt to move fire from one part of the landscape to another and where weapons have been used by all sorts of animals. He discusses how the various types of sex that it was only thought that the human race participated in also exist in other creatures and it makes for grim reading at times.

Our genes are a map and a history of our past. Looking into its mysteries can show all sort of things, like where genes that affect language are and what they do, just how much of us is Neanderthal and how many bits of our DNA we have acquired from elsewhere. We have come to dominate the rest of the world though, even though our roots are common. Even though he is rooting through the history of our cells, this books is just what a pop science should be; accessible, understandable and intriguing enough to make you want to go and discover more about certain aspects of the text. Another book that is well worth reading from Adam Rutherford.

Baring Your Bookish Soul

I found this via a Facebook group that I am in called A World Adventure by Book. In the post, Beth had listed 10 bookish facts about herself and you can read this here.  It was linked to a post that other bloggers and booktubers have made called 25 bookish facts about me. From what I can see I may have missed the boat on this one as a lot of them were around four years ago. However, I thought it was a good idea, and so have sat down and thought about what would be my bookish confessions and it tied in with a series of posts that I wanted to do in 2019 explaining why I am a reader and what makes me tick.

So here we go:

 

1. I have been a reader for as long as I can remember. I remember when I was eight I was given a book by my teacher at the time, Mrs Wilson. It was called The Otterbury Incident and the author is Cecil Day-Lewis. It was a book set in a fictional town in the aftermath of World War II. I sat down to read it after tea and pretty much inhaled the whole book that evening. Took it back the following morning and she didn’t believe that I had read it the previous evening, so I recounted the story. It kind of dawned on me then that I was a faster reader than most others.

 

2. If pushed I could probably narrow my favourite books down to 50 or so. But I don’t just have one favourite, so don’t ask.

 

3. The same applies to favourite authors. I might be able to narrow it down to two or three per genre, but every time a new author appears they get added on and none gets dropped. I am possibly slightly obsessive about reading every book that a favourite author has written.

 

4. I do like reading fiction, but the majority of my reading is non-fiction, in particular, travel, natural history and science. I have always tried to read the shortlists for my favourite prizes, The Wainwright and the Stanford Dolman, but until this year, never did I think that I would be a judge for one of them. I really enjoyed the experience and would recommend it if you have the chance.

 

5. I have been fortunate enough to have met lots of authors in my time and now have a lot of signed books. I mean a lot too. Horatio Clare was the last author that I met and I got him to sign eight of his books that I had taken up to London with me. I took a massive bag to the Wainwright Prize and came back with them signed too! I even have two signed Terry Pratchett Books that I have found in second hand and charity shops. Very lucky to have those. It might be coming to be an obsession.

 

6. I have nine bookshelves at home, most of which are double stacked. At the moment only one has some semblance of order on it, and that is the one where all my natural history and landscape books. All my Pratchetts are on one shelf with the Neil Gaiman books and some travel and a random selection of others. One day I will get a little bit more organised. There is no such thing as too many books, however, there is such a thing as not enough bookshelves.

 

7. I once set fire to a book. And it was a library book too! I was reading a book at the dining room table and managed to lean it back over the lit candle! Oops. The library staff were very good about it and managed to repair it.

 

8. I haven’t dared count the books around the house, but we are suffering from a severe case of tsundoku. I reckon that I must have over a 1000 books spread over the house ( and half a shelf on my daughter’s bookcase too). It does drive my long-suffering wife, Sarah, slightly mad… It is not hoarding, if it’s books, so they tell me.

9. The hardback / paperback / kindle / audiobook argument is ridiculous. I would rather see people reading in whatever format they choose, as it is the reading of different ideas and perspectives that is the important thing. I do have a preference to buy paperback books though as I can get slightly more of them on my shelves.

 

10. I am slightly addicted to spreadsheets for my numerous booklists. I have one for everything that I have ever read, one for my library book loans, one that has several publishers entire book catalogues that I am slowly reading my way through. There is another for the book challenges that I do every year, one each for the awards that I follow.

 

11. I won a prize at school for the best project for a write up for a week away that my year did in Wales. The prize was a book token and I bought an Arthur Ransome book, Missee Lee and I still have it.

 

12. I don’t think I read a lot, given the size of my backlog. Last year I read 200, but normally (if it is normal…) I read 190 per year.

13. I have not read a single line of Shakespeare since school. The dreadful English teacher we had then managed to put me off them completely. The same applies to classics like Jane Eyre. I just have no desire to read them at all. I read Of Mice and men for the GCE (yes I am that old) and have rediscovered the delights of John Steinbeck and similar authors like Geroge Orwell and Graham Greene

 

14. Discovering a new author to me  is a thing of joy,  it means that I have a whole backlist to explore

 

15. I don’t really have a favourite place to read, as I can read pretty much anywhere, but if I had one it would be the conservatory. I used to read in there, but there is a drum kit in there at the moment. That will be going soon, so I can get a chair to go back in there.

 

16. It is not just books I have a thing about, I really love bookmarks too. I have hundreds of them as I make a point of helping myself to them when in bookshops and libraries. I have got all sorts, some beautiful and some not quite so practical, I even have a Chinese brass one that sits with part of it over the spine. I am not a corner folder as some are. My feeling is that if it is your book you are fully entitled to do exactly what you want to it. However, if it is my book that you have borrowed, then I expect you to look after it, return it and ideally return it undamaged.

 

17. I am fortunate to receive a lot of review copies through from publishers generous to send me them. Some of them I keep and I donate a lot to my local library after I have read them so others can borrow and enjoy them.

 

18. I am a big advocate for libraries and have two library cards. They are the best free bookshops in town. Not only do you get to take a book away with you gratis, but the author gets a little payment for each and everyone that you borrow. I am a member of the committee of the Friends groups for my local library too and we try to organise things for members every other month, support the library by buying covers for donated books and so on. Visit your library as the more people that use them means that it will be harder for the government to get rid of them; they are a vital resource for all of society and civilisation.

19. I rarely read hyped books. Mostly because they are in genres that I am not that worried about, but also because I have found the ones that I have read in the past have not been worth it.

 

20. I spend way too long on Good Reads. It is not a site for everyone, but it has been great to organise my virtual shelves into some order.

 

21. Love bookshops and could spend far too long in them, and too much money. I have pretty much stopped buying books off Amazon now, using them for second-hand books only. Support your local independent bookshop they are a vital resource for your community too.

 

22. I used to struggle through and finish a book, but with soooooo many to read, a book has to really prove that I need to read it. I give them three chapters or around 50 pages before setting it aside. Sometimes I will pick it up again, but more often than not I won’t. The flip side is that I won’t slate a book, but as a reader I reserve the right not to like it.

 

23. I buy a lot of books to give away to people as presents. No surprise there, I make sure I buy the nicely presented hardback book and before wrapping it up, I read it. I thought I was the only one to do this. Turns out I am not and this seems to be a thing with others too. When my children were younger they would occasionally tell the recipient of the gift that ‘dad’s just read that’… Ah well.

 

24. I love Terry Pratchett’s books and when he passed away I was genuinely was upset about that. He is a genius for comedy and parody and has an ability to hold a mirror to modern society to show our flaws and good points. I have got all the Discworld series but still have not finished them. Had been meaning to do it a couple of years ago and finally last month I got back to reading them. This year I will finish the books that I have not read from the 41 in the series. Then I intend to start them again as they give me so much reading pleasure.

 

25. I will often have five or six physical books with me at any one time.

Under Cover by Jeremy Robson

4 out of 5 stars

As an independent publisher, Robson Books always punched way above their weight they seemed to be able to attract the most desirable authors and secure the best deals in the business. A lot of that was because of the driving force behind it, Jeremy Robson. But it almost never happened, he began in the law but after realising that he couldn’t bear it, ended up ill for three weeks before getting a lucky break to begin working for a publisher.

This lucky break into publishing was the beginning of a captivating fifty years in the world of books. He was fortunate to be supported by a friend, to start his own independent publishing house. When the property market faltered his father in law stepped in to keep the business going. It was there that he brought stars from screen and radio to the written page, people like Maureen Lipman and Alan Coren, Michael Winner and the Goons as well as international superstars like Mohammed Ali. H Robson Books even had positions one and two with books by Michael Caine and Mike Harding in the bestseller list in the runup to Christmas, the only change was when they swapped places.

This is a highly entertaining book about life as an independent publisher, full of life, laughter, people and most importantly books. As you’d expect, it is very readable too, full of the scrapes and near misses as well as the moments of success and the joy that the written word has brought to countless people who bought the books that they published. As well as the work, Robson brings in his own personal life too, with anecdotes that will make you smile when reading them. What it was like growing up in a wider Jewish community, his own family from grandparents to grandchildren and how it has bout great richness to his life. Well worth reading for an insider view of the publishing world.

Astro Turf by Matthew Sperling

2 out of 5 stars

Ned feels that he is at a dead end. The bedsit he lives in is a bit of a dump and he has pretty had enough of his job and he has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Grace. She had been fortunate enough to be bought a property by her parents, he cannot see any way that he will get on the property ladder anytime soon. A chance meeting in the street with the trainer from his gym reignites his interest in getting fitter and the Darius suggests that he takes a small quantity of steroids to give him the boost that he needs. Sceptical at first, he reads up about it and decides to take the plunge and buys his first lot over the web.

It takes a couple of weeks, but soon he can see that it is beginning to have an effect on his performance. He can lift more and go longer at the at the gym and the results are beginning to show. He is performing better at his job and bumping into a friend of Grace’s is the beginning of a new relationship. Then he has an idea for a business that could make him a fortune. Using his web skills he registers the website Gear4U and starts to build a campaign to promote the site selling his own bodybuilding products. What could possibly go wrong…

Astroturf is very much a book for blokes, it is full of laddish references and tropes. It is supposedly a funny book, but It barely made me smile when reading it. Ned as a character has a fairly low moral bar in the way he is prepared to take a very dubious line on the law when selling drugs. It wasn’t badly written, and is fairly short and really just a bit meh really.

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