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October 2020 Review

October came and went sort of in a rush and yet seemed to drag in other ways. Not a bad reading month, but one down on my usual target of 16 books as I ended up reading 15 in the end. There were some good books too and here they are.

 

I read my first Chelsea Green book over the summer and their MD contacted me offering to send me anything from their catalogue that took my eye. Material by Nick Kary was one of the books I chose. This is exploring a lifetime of creating products and artworks with his hands and how that very action can make all the difference to our well being. It is really nicely written too.

I had been meaning to read Modern Nature for a very long time. This is Derek Jarman’s book about his garden on the shingle peninsular of Dungeness and about his determination as he starts to succumb to HIV and then AIDs. Moving and poignant. Another book on gardening that was longlisted for the Wainwright Prize is Alice Vincent’s book, Rootbound. This is about her life in London and as a festival and gig reviewer and how a small balcony sparked a love of gardening.

     

I read two books on birds, the first Corvus is about Esther Woolfson’s adoption of a magpie and a crow and life with them around her Scottish home. Whilst I think these two creatures should be free, I also know that they had a life that may have been snatched from them when they were chicks. The second book is Mark Avery’s well-written argument to ban driven grouse shooting because of the effect it has on the moors and the devastation of the Hen Harrier but ruthless gamekeepers.

   

The second Chelsea Gren book was the wonderful titled, Bringing Back the Beaver. In here Derek Gow makes the case for bringing back the beaver to our riverscapes and the account of his efforts to do so, often stymied by ‘regulations’ and powerful landed people with vested interests to keep the status quo. Gow is somwhat a character too! Treated myself to the new Lost Spells book by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris. It is aimed at children primarily, but Morris is an artist with a stunning talent.

    

My two poetry books could not have been more different. Confess is about the Salaem witch trials and the arrest of a four-year-old girl, whose forced confession was used to condemn her own mother to death. It is a bit grim, but van der Molen’s prose is sensitive and full of power. My second poetry book was the new collection from Steve Denehan. These are modern and are about his family and life in general. I like the way that they feel relevant and accessible

   

I haven’t read much Doctorow but when I was offered a copy of his new book, Attack Surface, I thought that I would take a punt with it. And it was really good. And quite scary too. That is all will say here as I think that you should read it too.

The rise of AI gadgets in the home is growing apace, but most people don’t think what the implications are for these technologies. Thankfully there are people like, Flynn Coleman who does and her book, A Human Algorithm detail various ways that it is permeating our lives. If you have the slightest interest in this subject then I’d recommend reading it.

I did manage to read four travel books too. The first two are on islands, and I Am An Island by Tasmin Calidis is the account of her time spent on a tiny island in the Hebrides. it was a beautiful spot, but she didn’t have the easiest time settling in. The second island book is Peter Millar’s tale of travelling the length of the Caribean island of Cuba on their almost defunct trains. I really liked this and it made me want to visit the place, as all good travels books should do.

   

The second two travel books were stories of travels on a bicycle. In A Time Of Birds – Helen Moat cycles with her teenage son on the bike she calls the tank all the way across Europe in the spring. It is slow travel at its best.

My book of the month is Signs of Life by Stephen Fabes. Not content with a jaunt across Europe, he decides to take the long way cycling around the world. It is a six-year journey and he is an eloquent and sensitive writer. Cracking book.

It’s The End of the World by Adam Roberts

4 out of 5 stars

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

2020 has been pretty crap, to be honest. The pandemic spread around the world with startling rapidity and as I write this we are just entering lockdown for the second time in the UK. For some who have caught this virus, it is the end of the world, their individual world. But there are other things out there that scare people more than a virus, like the next asteroid, or the impending doom of climate change, amongst other things.

One of the most common types of apocalypse is the end of the world predicted by religions. A lot will be aware of the detail written in the books of revelations found at the end of the bible, but this is not a recent theme, as it can be found in other religions and even in the Norse mythologies. These are often tied into the return of a particular deity who with bring the end of days with them and amongst believers the belief that this will happen can be quite high. A lot of the reasons behind this end is a punishment for particular transgressions and is an opportunity for those in favour to move onto a better place. I have read lots of stories of those in cults who have trooped up hills expecting the end and a few days later shuffled back down again after nothing happened…

Science fiction is full of stories about worlds ending and one of the most popular genres at the moment is the Zombie one. Most of them are about these half-dead creatures that are intent on reducing you to the same as them. The lumber about, making them fairly easy to outrun, but I can see why these stories fill some people with dread. I am not a huge fan of zombie fiction, but of the few that I have read, The Girl With All The Gifts and the Boy On The Bridge by M.R. Carey are very good well-thought-out stories.

Having avoided the undead, Robert’s then confronts the virus. Well not just that one, but the real-life viruses that have changed and shaped humanity in the past. These have never been the end, we’re still the most populous mammal on the plant after all, but the fear of catching something nasty or unpronounceable is high of people’s fear list. This fear has seeped into fiction too, with stories about the end of civilisation captivating and scaring people in equal measure.

The end of the world as seen in films like the Matrix and Terminator occupy some of our fears, especially with the rise of AI that some bright spark thought it would be a good idea to give weapons to. Thankfully these ideas mostly inhabit the minds of science fiction writer as they can give people serious nightmares.

I must admit that the earworm that kept going through my head reading this was ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by R.E.M. It is a good job I like the song. For a book about the end of the world it is actually quite upbeat and light-hearted at times, but not in a cynical way. He has a bone dry sense of humour, and I think that he is another Pratchett fan too! Roberts wants to take a look at our fears in a rational way with crystal clear analysis as to why we think the way that we do and the reality behind a lot of the scenarios described. He hits the nail on the head by saying the fear of a lot of people is our mortality rather than the world at large. We worth reading and it might even put your mind at rest too.

Corvus by Esther Woolfson

3.5 out of 5 stars

Every day that I am out and about there are four birds that I am guaranteed to see, gulls, pigeons, magpies and crows. I am not a fan of the first two, but the latter two are always fascinating to watch, whatever they are doing. Just watching crows dancing in the wind is quite something. We have had the odd bird in the house before now, including a magpie recently, but I am not sure that I would want one in the home as a pet though.

Esther Woolfson is another who is fascinated by corvids, but her interest began when her daughter brought home a fledgeling rook that she had rescued. She nursed it back to health and Woolfson clips her feathers to stop her flying as they are concerned that she wouldn’t survive in the wild. She ends up staying as a family pet. They call her the faintly ridiculous name of Madame Chickeboumskaya. It was shortened to Chicken, which I thought was equally daft!

They had had a number of birds before this rook and she had doves outside her Aberdeen home too. But watching her moving around the house and interacting with everything, she didn’t expect her to be quite as intelligent as she was. She would cache food, especially items that she liked, but would think nothing of ignoring some that were presented to her. They construct a wire enclosure to allow her outside sometimes, but they need to be wary of the neighbour’s cat. Her daily rituals become much as part of the family as their own.

Further along the line, she acquires a magpie that had fallen from the nest before fledging and she calls it Spike. His wings are not clipped. He was very different in behaviour to Chicken and she found it fascinating comparing them to each other. Watching these two birds piques her interest in other corvids and she is lucky to see ravens nesting on a trip to Lochaber.

I did like this book, reading it feels like you are sitting at the kitchen table watching the antics of her two semi-wild birds happen around you. Her writing is gentle, beautiful and occasionally whimsical. These are sparklingly intelligent birds that can even mimic her voice and some of the phrases that she says. They are characters and love a routine. However, I am not sure about the morality of keeping a rook and a magpie inside. I feel these are wild birds and should be free. That said, she cares deeply for them, almost as much as her children and they would not have stood much of a chance if they hadn’t have been rescued. All through the book are beautiful drawings by Helen Macdonald of H is for Hawk fame. Might not be for everyone, but I thought it was worth reading.

The Saints of Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for The Saints of Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton and published by Pan Macmillan

About the Book

Humanity welcomed the Olyix and their utopian technology. But mankind was tricked. Now these visitors are extracting a terrible price. For two years, the Olyix have laid siege to Earth, harvesting its people for their god. One by one, cities are falling to their devastating weaponry. And while millions have fled to seek refuge in space, others continue to fight an apparently unwinnable war. As Earth’s defeat draws near, a team attempts to infiltrate the Salvation of Life – the Olyix’s arkship.

If it succeeds, those chosen will travel to a hidden enclave thousands of light-years away. Once there, they must signal its location to future generations, to bring the battle to the enemy. Maybe allies scattered throughout space and time can join forces. Yet in the far future, humanity are still hunted by their ancient adversary. And as forces battle on in the cold reaches of space, hope seems distant indeed…

About the Author

Peter F. Hamilton was born in Rutland and now lives near Bristol. He began writing in 1987 has penned many bestselling novels, including the Greg Mandel series, the Night’s Dawn trilogy, the Commonwealth Saga, short-story collections and the Salvation Sequence, set in a new universe.

My Review

Having originally welcomed the Olyix and their technologies, it became apparent that they had tricked mankind. They laid siege to the Earth and began harvesting the people there, cocooning them and shipping them back through their wormholes as offering to their god. They claim it is a mission to present all sentient life to this god at the end of time. Humanity is fighting back though, and they are prepared to play the long game, their plan has been millennia in the making and they are starting to reach the point where the final elements can be put into action.

The final part of this huge trilogy is set in two separate timelines. The main story is of Yirella and Ainsley and their efforts to take the fight to the Olyix. They decide to take a few calculated risks in their preparation to stop the Olyix taking humans and other species to their deity. The second smaller sub-plot is set on Earth; it is not a place as we would recognise. Cities are protected by shields to stop the harvesting of the population by the Olyix. They have laid waste to the world and slowly their agents and are some traitors are ensuring that the shields are coming down so their capturesnakes can capture the people left.

The final battle between humanity and the Olyix is frantically paced and contains all the things that I have come to expect from Hamilton, new concepts like time flowing differently only meters apart, wormholes linking places thousands of light-years apart, star-sized weapons, huge 3-metre tall humans that have evolved down a different path. On top of that, all the technologies feel plausible and utterly alien at the same time.

I really liked this as with the other two books in the trilogy. He has a knack of writing the huge galaxy-wide space operas that still have those intimate stories woven through it. It is very much plot-driven and the various threads that were teased out from the first two books are concluded almost neatly. I say almost, as there are certain suggestions in the book that implies there is much more to come from this universe that he has created here. I really hope that is the case.

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 Bethan at ed public relations for the copy of the book to read.

Non-Fiction November

For those that follow my blog, you’ll already know that I am a big fan of non-fiction. It makes up around 80% of the books that I read. The genres that I like the most are travel and natural history, but I also like reading books on subjects as diverse as economics, history, architecture, spies, technology and I even read maths books.

While a lot of bloggers and Booktubers read fiction, there are some out there that read non-fiction and six years ago they started talking about the non-fiction they liked to read and thought that the best way to promote it was to have a specific time of the year to persuade people to pick up at least one non-fiction title in that month, and #NonfictionNovember was created.

I would love to see more people reading non-fiction. Rather than them being like reading a dry textbook for school, the very best books can be as good as the fiction out there. One of the biggest advocates of this is Olive, who can be found here on YouTube. Her video for this year’s event is here.

In this, she details some of the prompts that they suggest to help guide you in selecting titles to read and they are:

Time

Movement

Buzz

Discovery

 

As Olive says in the video, these are guides for you to interpret in any way you see fit and they can be a loose as you want! So I thought that I would suggest some of the books that I have read that fit these:

Time

Timekeepers – Simon Garfield

A Time of Gifts – Patrick leigh Fermor

Secondhand Time – Svetlana Alexievich

Time and Place – Alexandra Harris

 

Movement

Move Along Please – Mark Mason

Nightwalk – Chris Yates

The Pull Of the River – Matt Gaw

Around the World in 80 Trains – Monisha Rajesh

 

Buzz

A Buzz In The Meadow – Dave Goulson

Dancing with Bees – Brigit Strawbridge Howard

Extraordinary Insects – Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

Magnificent Desolation – Buzz Aldrin

 

Discovery

Strands – Jean Sprackland

Mucdlarking – Lara Maiklem

The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf

Gathering Carrageen – Monica Connell

 

They are my suggestions. What do you think of them? What would you pick to meet those prompts? Most importantly, are you going to be joining in by reading a non-fiction book this month?

 

You can follow #NonfictionNovember on these various social media sites:

Twitter

Instagram

Goodreads Group

TikTok: @NonfictionNovember

November 2020 TBR

Where did October go? I cannot believe that it is November tomorrow. The clocks have gone back, it is now dark early evening and we are probably going to be in lockdown (again)… Seems like I am going to have plenty of time to read then. I have 28 books to go on my Good Reads Challenge and a huge pile of books to read for various other challenges and reviews. Might get to more of them this month, but we’ll see. The list below is what I am planning to pick from, but there are always extras that sneak in from the side, like library books that others have reserved,

 

Finishing Off (Still!)

Vickery’s Folk Flora: An A-Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants – Roy Vickery

Lotharingia: A Personal History Of Europe’s Lost Country – Simon Winder

The Saints of Salvation – Peter F. Hamilton

Nine Pints – Rose George

 

Blog Tours

The Saints of Salvation – Peter F. Hamilton

Music To Eat Cake By – Lev Parikian

The Greatest Beer Run Ever – John Donohue

 

Review Copies

Thank you to the publishers that have sent me these review copies:

American Dirt – Jeanie Cummins

The Maths Of Life And Death – Kit Yates

Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico – Ronald Wright

A Bird a Day – Dominic Couzens

The Age of Static: How TV Explains Modern Britain – Phil Harrison

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecot

Wyntertide – Andrew Caldecot

Featherhood – Charlie Gilmour

Blood Ties –  Ben Crane

On Fiji Islands – Ronald Wright

It’s the End of the World – Adam Roberts

The Secret Life of Fungi – Aliya Whiteley

How Spies Think – David Omand

Behind the Enigma – John Ferris

One Day in August – David O’Keefe

Democracy for Sale – Peter Geoghegan

 

Library Books

Did get to read three last month. These are next up

Nightingales In November – Mike Dilger

Nine Pints – Rose George

Buzz – Thor Hanson

Britain by the Book – Oliver Tearle

Footnotes – Peter Fiennes

 

Challenge Books & Own Books

From Rome to San Marino – Oliver Knox

Hokkaido Highway Blues – Will Ferguson

A Dragon Apparent – Norman Lewis

In Search of Conrad – Gavin Young

Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger – Nigel Slater

 

Poetry

Ended up reading two other poetry books last month so these will be definitely read this month

Rapture – Carol Ann Duffy

Mancunian Ways – Isabelle Kenyon (Editor)

 

Science Fiction

Read Attack Surface, which is excellent by the way, so this is still on the list:

One Way – S.J. Morden

 

Any take your fancy?

Mirror To Damascus by Colin Thubron

4 out of 5 stars

Damascus has a lot of history. There are traces of settlements dating back to 6300bc and earlier in certain areas. By the time of the 11th-century bc, there was a city there, formed by the Aramaeans who stopped being nomads and formed larger tribes. It is possible to find the city mentioned in all the major historical periods, Greek, Roman, early Islam and all the way through to the Ottomans. It could rightly justify calling itself the oldest city in the world.

It is this city with its layers and layers of history that Thubron arrives at in the mid-1960s. The book opens with him climbing Mount Kaassioun, it afforded a good view of the city. He could see the streets that are contorted and crushed against each other, each betraying their age if you knew what to look for. He had been joined on the climb by a local who had many questions. Mostly he wanted to know where he was going after he had passed through the city. Thubron replies saying that he intends to stay several months and the man looks on in disbelief.

Sitting at a café planning where he wants to go he gets talking to two brothers. The local busses won’t take him to the orchard that he wants to see, so he suggests a horse to them, they recommend a bike which he tends to think is a better idea and they head off to a street with the strange name of Straight. With their help, he hires a bike for a tiny amount of money for a month. It is not a bad bike provided that you don’t worry about the brakes. Cycling around the city was going to be a frequently life-changing event.

He spends days moving around the city, passing along twisting passageways that he can touch both sides of. The ancient city is around fifteen feet below the surface, but if you know what you are looking for Roman pillars can be spotted as they have been absorbed into the modern city. The walls twist around places that are no longer there, just hints of what once was. It was an easy place to get lost in. Standing on a corner with various folded pages and maps of where to go would draw people to him to help. Everyone had an opinion on which direction the place he was looking for, was and he sometimes found it easier to slip away down the labyrinthine back streets.

This is not so much of a travel book, he, after all, stays in Damascus for an extended period of time. Rather this is a full immersion into the city. He reads stories and its histories, and there is a lot about the history of this ancient city and then heads out onto the streets to find where it happened to unpick the history from the myths. He grows to love the city, flaws and all and knows that it will continue to change as it has done over the past thousands of years. Thubron is one of my favourite travel writers who has a wonderful and evocative way of writing. Worth reading for a vivid image of a city that will never be this way again.

Slow Train to Guantanamo Peter Millar

3.5 out of 5 stars

This Caribbean sun-soaked island is one of two full Communist states that are left in the world today. The other is North Korea. Unlike that closed state, Cuba is open to tourists who want to visit, though most rarely venture out of their holiday resorts to see how life is like there. I have never been but would like to visit one day. I have seen lots of photos of the place, the iconic images of the slight tired baroque architecture with 1950s American cars are quite evocative and the music as we discovered from the Bueno Vista Social Club Is quite exquisite.

Cuba has had a difficult relationship with its neighbour, America, who really didn’t like the fact that they had a full-blown communist state in its immediate vicinity. Their blockade of the island had been going on for decades and has meant that the standards of living have been driven down. The railway there was once the pride of Latin America, but now it is run down, but somehow, just still working. For little more than the price of a can of beer, a Cuban resident can travel the entire 1200 km length from Havana to Guantanamo. It is this railway that Peter Millar wants to travel along and discover the real Cuba.

He begins his journey in the capital, Havana, but first, he has to find the station. Wandering through the city, he finds the parts of it that haven’t received UNESCO money for renovation and have pretty much crumbled into rubble. It is the same with the Cadillac’s, there are less driving around now, but many more on bricks succumbing to rust. He was expecting it, but it is still a bit of a shock nonetheless. Locating the station he heads in to buy a ticket and finds that the train to Santiago leaves at eight. He asks about trains to Matanzas but is told that there is only one train and it leaves at eight. He is also informed that to get a train on a particular day he would need to buy the ticket a few days before. This is going to be much more complicated than he thought.

Seeing the train is a bit of a shock though, he has not seen that much rust on anything moving ever. It is not exactly reassuring, but he pays his fare using a CUCs, a special tourist rate that is much more than the locals have to pay. He climbs aboard and it is not long before they are moving with a worrying series of clanks and creeks. Ten seconds later they stop. This sequence repeats itself a few times and eventually, they are moving at the heady speed of 20 miles an hour. Millar is sure that it can’t safely go any faster than that. When the train stops at the platforms, people climb aboard to try and sell the passengers food, drink and anything else that they think they might need.

Waiting to be given the opportunity to buy a ticket for a train that hasn’t arrived but should have been and gone hours ago.

It is the beginning of scenarios that repeat themself as he heads across the island. Late trains, barely palatable food and night spent in bars drinking the tourist approved rum whilst talking to the locals. However, he gets a feel for the island and the people and how they are managing under a communist state. The people there are literate and educated and enjoy free healthcare, but they are restricted in many ways and very tightly controlled economic freedoms. These have been loosened a little under Raúl Castro, but people are ingenious and find ways around the system.

I liked this book, Millar shows that there is much more to the island to discover if you are prepared to get out from the all-inclusive resorts. The better parts of the book are his interactions with the people and they are sometimes really funny as he gets frustrated with a system that cannot and will not bend to the demands of an individual. Whilst I think that he has to a certain extent got under the skin of the island, there were a couple of things that did grate a little with me. One of which was constantly comparing the country to his time living behind the Iron curtain and the other was his obsession with the short-skirted girls. They are only minor gripes, it did make me want to still visit the island, especially before the American’s arrive in force. Not quite a good as Cuba Diaries by Isadora Tattlin, but still worth reading though.

Material by Nick Kary

4 out of 5 stars

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

When I went to college and university I learn how to make things out of metal to greater and greater precision on a variety of tools. When I got to work we were taught how to use one of the very first CNC machines that were that old that they used punched cards to program the machine. Now days an engineer doesn’t even need to venture out onto the workshop floor to see a piece being made to very high precision.

Whilst we need high precision for some things, I can appreciate the care and attention that has gone into a hand made and beautiful object. There is something about the way that these items are crafted, that each is unique in its own special way and that there are still people with the skills to turn, wood, metal or ceramics into useful objects. Kary knows this process intimately, he began as a designer, manufacturer and supplier and now is a designer and maker of his own furniture from local hardwoods near to his home in Devon. His style has changed from what he learnt as an apprentice, rather than remove all the imperfections of the raw material he now works with the flaws to make them part of the finished piece.

His journey to find others who share his philosophy on making things with his hands will take him to basket makers, boat makers, a riddle maker, bodgers, ceramic specialists and foresters. With each of these people, he sees how they are taking the raw materials, working with those materials to transform them into something functional, useful and yet still beautiful.

Hard labour it would be, yet within it, to really make it work, there is something that transcends labour, a spirit which connects the human, the task and the transformation. There is magic here.

For a number of people the things that these artisans make, are not going to be affordable, which is why he has been involved with camps and teaching people who would not have had the opportunity to learn these crafts otherwise. Even though he is a master craftsman, he still finds techniques and skill that he has not yet come across. I really liked this book. Each chapter is preface with the beautiful illustrations of Lou Tonkin. Kary writes in a gentle and subtle way, teasing out the stories from the craftswomen and men that he meets on his journey around the country, whilst expanding on the principle, it is not what you are making, rather it is the process of making that we need. It is a similar philosophy to that of Peter Korn in his book, Why We Make Things and Why it Matter (which I can also recommend).

I Am An Island by Tamsin Calidas

3 out of 5 stars

After a burglary, Tamsin Calidas and her husband decided that they had had enough of London and headed north to a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides. They were turning their back on the city life and high paying careers their new home was to be a semi-derelict croft. They intended to renovate it whilst living in a small caravan.

It was idyllic at first, it is a beautiful part of the world up there. They bought some animals and made progress on the property. Their neighbours were fairly cool about them being there, implying that there had been someone else that the plot was reserved for, and rather than making friends they were having to defend their right to be there. It wasn’t the best place to be as she began to feel more and more isolated.

She longed for children and had reached to point where they needed to start the IVF treatments, quite a stressful process at the best of times, but this was enhanced given their remoteness from hospitals that could carry out those procedures. It was to be one of the things that did for her marriage too. Soon she is left alone on the island, with two broken hands after an accident and a separate incident.

All of this, as well as trying to run the croft on her own, was to push her to the very edge of the abyss.

In the current pandemic, moving to a Scottish Island well away from anyone else does have quite a lot of appeal. It is not your classic relocation book where the photogenic couple move to a beautiful part of the country, make lots of friends and reinvent their lives in a positive way and change the stresses of city life to a productive and creative life. This is very much darker, she is assaulted and subject to the overt and covert hostility of the locals to the croft that she is living in. The middle section of the book is emotionally quite raw and makes for pretty grim reading.

The final part of the book did rescue it a little, she looks to the more elemental parts of the natural world to sustain and nourish her mental health and at times her writing can be quite lyrical and poetic. However, the book has caused some controversy with the people that she shares the island with, who have a different take on the events mentioned, so I am not sure if she will be staying there much longer!

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