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Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

4 out of 5 stars

Our character and is made up from the things that have shaped our life; family, culture, friends, place, education and our sexuality all contribute to our multifaceted personality. These factors can be strained further when you do not fit within a conventional box in the society that you live in.

For Mary Jean Chan growing up in Hong Kong the strains of moving away from her deeply traditional culture and language and telling the world and her mother she was queer was a moment that wrenched their relationship in so many different ways. This collection written in and eight-part poetic sequence is her response.

The words Flèche and flesh are key to the themes running through this book. The first is a fencing term and is her offence against a world that often seeks to attack differences; the second term represents the vulnerabilities of being open to that world.

 

all the metaphors

Have failed the sea

Is infinitely breakable

My mother is raging

the way waves do

 

I thought that these were beautifully written poems that play with the poetic form on the page. What is very evident thought is her vulnerability as she stands against the tide of her culture, she resists the pressure to conform, she grows in inner strength. I was fortunate to have won this with the others on the Costa shortlist from 2019 and I must say that they have all been good so far.

 

Three Favourite Poems

Magnolias

At The Castro

beauty

So You Think You’ve Got Problems? by Alex Bellos

4 out of 5 stars

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

I like puzzles of all sorts and Bellos seems to have these sorts of books off to a T. This is the third of his that is have read, though that probably is the wrong word for this type of book. The puzzles in here are pitched about right too, not too easy, but you don’t need a handful of PhD’s to be able to even understand the questions. It has a good selection of classic conundrums, infuriating brainteasers and baffling geometry puzzles that you can dip into as often or as little as you want. They often involve a linguistic or logical sleight of hand that makes you think of something entirely different before you realise that you have been sent down the wrong path to the solution.

I was quite pleased that I could get some (not many, mind you) of them straight away, and some took a little time to mull over. There were other puzzles that eluded me until I looked at the answers that are thankfully provided at the end of the book. Mathematically they are not hard, rather they are fiendishly difficult logical and sometimes illogical puzzles designed to stretch and exercise your brains. Good companion volumes to The Puzzle Ninja and Can You Solve my Problems?

Tall Trees, Short Stories by Gabriel Hemery

4 out of 5 stars

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

Mankind has been far more reliant on trees that we would care to admit now days. They have been a source of food, shelter, warmth, tools and many other things besides. That relationship is under threat as we clear vast swathes of virgin rainforest, grub up ancient woodlands to build a train line that no one needs or cut the trees down in streets just because some official decides they can.

Hemery isn’t writing about any of those real-life events, though they do worry and concern him deeply, however, what he wants to do in this book is pushing the very limits of your imagination way beyond the boundaries of the copse. He has written twenty-five stories that will challenge everything you thought was possible about nature writing.

He has stories about a whole forest being taken overnight leaving only the leaf mould and some very confused police. He takes us into the mind of a bonsai that is half a millennium old that has seen things it can never tell anyone. There is a very short story of a politician passing legislation to make the UK a country without trees and the last moments that a son spends with his father. There is a story about a secret mission to collect seedlings. Scatter amongst these stories are flash fiction and poems.

Can we love a forest, yet fell a tree?
The forester sees beyond herself
Harvesting one, breathes life into more
More trees, more life, a future for you and me

I have read a fair number of books on trees and all things arboreal and one of my favourite places to walk is a woodland at pretty much any time of the year. I have read one other book by Hemery, Green Gold which was an enjoyable and fascinating book about the Victorian Plant Hunter John Jeffrey, hence why I was looking forward to this. Of all of the things that I was expecting though, a heady blend of dystopian science fiction combined with nature writing wasn’t one of them. I really enjoyed it, there are some excellent stories in here full of imagination with his ideas, but most importantly there is a warning in here about our neglect and complacency with regards to the natural world. As always with a collection, there was the odd one or two that I couldn’t completely gel with. There is something in here for everyone, he has mixed up stories with poetry and songs for a bit of variety.

Three Favourite Stories:
Memoirs of a Bonsai
DED Zone
The Man Who Harvested Trees

The Story of Codes by Stephen Pincock & Mark Frary

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

One of my favourite books when I was (much) younger was the Spy’s Guidebook that was published by Usborne. It was hardly subtle for those wanting to be a spy with its bright red cover, but it was in here that I first learnt about the discipline of codes and the stick scrambler. I want to be a spy when I grew up; inevitably I didn’t…

The need to pass on information to another person without it becoming public knowledge has been important over history, in fact, they can trace the first codes back to the Egyptians where the scribes would change the hieroglyphs to convey a different meaning to anyone reading them. The Romans were also known to use them and it is said that Caesar always used a cipher anything confidential. The Greeks used cryptography too, but they used the technique of steganography for getting messages to the desired recipient. The principle behind this is to disguise the fact that there even is a message, and one of the way that they did it was to tattoo the message onto the head of a slave, let their hair grow back and send them on their way. This, as you can imagine, had several disadvantages… The primary one being the speed of the message reaching its destination and secondly that they could only be used to do this once or possibly twice.

Being able to make and deliver coded messages was one thing, but being able to break them was another step up. The first explanation of cryptoanalysis was in the 9th century by the Arabic scholar Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Sabbah Al-Kindi. Where he mentions frequency analysis for the first time. The simple substitution and transposition ciphers which changed one letter for another didn’t take much effort to crack, but others, such as the were harder to do so, but these new tools meant that it became much easier to do.

It is this mathematical arms race between the latest code and cipher techniques and methods of cracking them that was one of the key factors in World War 2. The Nazis were using a machine called Enigma that could have up to 158 million million different ways of setting up the machine. The Germans thought that it was unbreakable. It wasn’t thanks to a trio of Polish mathematicians who constructed a device they called a cyclometer using parts from an enigma machine to generate all 100,00 permutations of the rotors. They succeeded. Then the Nazi’s changed the way they set up the rotors and so the Poles devised a machine called a bomba that could automatically search for the rotor settings. It worked for a time and the Nazi’s changed their methods again. The Poles passed their machines and knowledge onto the French and the English and they ended up at Bletchley Park. It was here that the mathematical and mechanical geniuses of Turning and Flowers set about building a mechanical computer that could rapidly check the letters over the 18,000 possible rotor combinations. They broke their first code on 20th January 1940 and ultimately changed the course of the war.

The American had their own cipher system, SIGABA, which was much better than Enigma, but was little use in the field as it could take hours to code and decode messages. A man called Philip Johnson had the bright idea of using native Navajo to send messages with coded words in their own language. Virtually no one outside of their community could speak this language and it was ideal for passing highly detailed messages onto units in combat quickly.

A lot of the techniques that were developed in the war were used after for encryption and breaking during the cold war, but it was the advent of the internet that modern encryption came of age. The last time that you used some form of encryption was moments ago when you looked at a website or bought something from it. The tools that are used at the moment are factorials of large prime numbers that keep your data and financial transactions safe are very sophisticated and can only be broken using huge super-computers, of which a number of intelligence agencies across the world handily own… The is a brief chapter on the wonders of quantum computers and the uncrackable codes that this technology promises.

This is a fascinating book full of clearly written explanations of the various codes and cipher that have been used over history. There is a little bit on modern encryption, bitcoins and so on, but not much on contemporary codes as ciphers, but that is to be expected. I thought that the page layouts were really clear with extensive use of colour photos and diagrams to go with the text. If there was one flaw, I did feel that the narrative was sometimes broken up by the explanatory sections. I would often read to the end of the chapter and then go back and read those parts after. It gives a good overview, but for more detail then The Code Book by Simon Singh is probably your next point of call.

The Many Lives of Carbon by Dag Olav Hessen

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Most people know that carbon is the element that can be found in all manner of products, from the humble pencil to the rare and expensive diamond. It is also found on a number of other items too, bike frames, tennis rackets and F1 cars where it has been used for many years. Whenever I think of carbon, I think of the phrase that Arthur C Clarke used to describe the human race: carbon-based bi-peds.

The element is crucial to life on this planet. Its ability to attract and connect to other elements makes it extremely versatile and it plays its part in biological mechanisms as diverse as photosynthesis and cell respiration, it could be considered the key element for life and death. Our very being is made up from 18% carbon, less than oxygen and more than hydrogen.

All carbon is formed in stars by elemental fusion and to take us through the story of carbon, Dag Olav Hessen begins with the makeup of the protons, neutrons and electrons and just how and why carbon is so versatile and readily forms bonds with other elements. So much so that there are currently 10 million different compounds recorded. From this, he takes us on the three unique structures that it can form, as he describes them, soft, hard and round. As carbon can for single, double and triple bonds it is and goes into some detail about the way it bonds to other elements and that its ideal structure is a ring.

Most people are aware of carbon these days with the role that it is playing in the growing climate change crisis and the second section of the book is full of the science behind this. One of the key scientists who started to measure CO2 in the 1950s was a man called Charles Keeling. One of the instruments that he made was first turned on in 1958 on the top of Mauna Loa and was only turned off in 2006. There is lots of detail on how the carbon cycle works and how many different cyclic events can amplify some of the effects. The final part of the book is about the almost certain catastrophic effects that we will have from the exponential growth in CO2 levels as well as some of the measures that some countries are taking to try and combat it. It makes for pretty grim reading

You would think that a book about a single element would be so interesting, but thankfully this one is. This is a clearly written (and translated) science book that thankfully did not read like a scientific paper or textbook as some of these can have the habit of doing. Worth reading overall I thought.

 

(The translator was Kerri Pierce)

Among Muslims by Kathleen Jamie

4.5 out of 5 stars

It begins with Jamie meeting some Pakistani men in her town of Fife. They were seated just outside the Coop all wearing brightly coloured cloth and anoraks to keep out the Scottish cold. It bought back memories of her visit to the northern town of Gilgit a decade before. She says hello and they explain what they are doing and the next thing is that they are being welcomed into her home. They are on a peace walk and Jamie tries to find them accommodation for the night before they move onto the next town; it is sorted in an unexpected way. They spend some time with them the following morning and she passes her book on to them of her account of staying Pakistan. It had been out of print for a while and as they walk back into their house the phone is ringing. It is another publisher asking if she would like to see it reprinted and more importantly would she like to return there?

Ten years before, to get to Gilgit she had to travel along the ironically named ‘Friendship Highway’ a road built between China and Pakistan who shared little love. Passing through customs took hours as the Chinese scrutinised their passports in detail. After a long time had passed they were herded back on and continued their journey onward.

Eventually arriving in Gilgit, she heads to the Golden Peak Hotel. It used to be a palace for the Mir in its heyday but it has no elegance or beauty that you’d expect from a palace. After resting she heads out to the bazaar to get a feel for the town. She sees no women out and about, apart from one begging by the post office. It is a cacophony of noise from people, animals and vehicles along the long main street. It becomes a daily habit and Jamie becomes to get a feel for the town dynamic. This part of Kasmir is a tense place too, there had been massacres there before and she would hear the sound of mortar fire in the distance on occasion.

She gets to know the people a little and then she has an invite to stay in the home of a local family. She accepts the invitation but is nervous about being there, but slowly her fears were allayed as she became accepted by the women there. Her presence in the town though attracts attention, she is watched by someone from the security services, it offends her host tremendously and he sets about sorting it out.

The place had got under her skin and when home in Scotland, a whiff of spice would take her back there immediately. A year later she is back again. It is still an assault on the senses, crowds of people thronging as she headed to the bus station. Climbing aboard the de-luxe service bus she realises that the luxury level is determined by the gaudy paintwork and the amount of decoration. Being a lone Western woman she is allowed to sit at the front. Well away from the wandering hands. The journey was terrifying and delayed but eventually, they closed in on Gilgit. She couldn’t wait to see her friend, Rashida and settle back into life there once again.

A decade later, Jamie has changed, married now and with children too and she is wondering how all the friends that she made on those original trip have changed too. The journey there is not without its drama, but she cannot wait to be there once again. It is still the centre of Intrigue and she, according to her host, is the only Westerner in the region. The reunion with Rashida is charged with emotion and joy. It was good to be back.

I did really like this book as Jamie is a wonderful writer. You can trace the foundations of her later works quite vividly at times, partly by the warmth of her character and her attention to detail to the things happening around her as she moves around the town. Her deep curiosity is very vivid too, and the prose is such that you feel that you are standing alongside her as she observes the ebb and flow of people in the market. She is intrigued and interested in the differences and similarities between her and their cultures. She is fortunate that in a lot of this she is considered an honorary man and can spend time with male and female without any of the usual discrimination that takes place. This book is a wonderful insight into a region beset by trouble, but with a population that is trying to live its life in some form of normality.

Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian

5 out of 5 stars

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

For some people, the idea of a nice afternoon out is to drive to a picturesque place and wind the car window down and enjoy the view. The thought of venturing out into the unsanitised countryside is just too much. There are some who are the other extreme, those that think nothing of taking a long weekend to hit the hills and sleep in a ditch. Parikian is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, wanting to go and see these things for himself, striding out to get there, but also taking the time to dawdle when he has arrived. But if you were to come across him in his semi-natural environment, you are as likely to find him spending a fair amount of time lounging about on the ground. He is sometimes looking for lichens and at other times trying to take a photo of a lizard; both instances gain him some strange looks…

He is inspired by some of the great nature writers that we have had in this country and takes a bit of a pilgrimage to see their natural habitats, including Darwin, Clare, Lemon and getting really annoyed by the campervans on Skye when he visits Maxwell’s house. Like them he tries to keep a notebook that is his nature diary, it is a woeful and incomplete mishmash of all manner of things, but it is still his way of trying to keep a record of the natural world as it happens.

His first book Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear was exclusively about birds, but in this, he considers all types of nature, from butterflies and moths, mammals and trees. He still likes spotting birds though, missing a hobby by moments, even after the person that was in the hide with, runs after him to tell him about it. He goes to see the beluga whale in the Thames and after milling around for a while, is told it is 200 yards further upstream.

I really like his conversational style of writing, accessible and informative without feeling that you are listening to someone who is going to reel of vast swathes of facts. This is another really funny book from Parikian. I am not sure that natural history books are supposed to be funny, but I am really glad this one is. He has some forthright opinions, that museums are full of too many dead things, and he much prefers the great and not so great outdoors. especially in the interlude where it becomes a proper rant! It is a reminder too, that you don’t need to head to the Galapagos Islands to get your fill of nature, it is all around us, just outside your back door, down that slightly overgrown path or when you find the eight-legged arachnid that is waiting in your bath for you. Mostly this is a personal story of a man who realises that he might have come to the natural world a bit later that he really wanted to and is trying his hardest to catch up on those missed years.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

4 out of 5 stars

I first came across George Orwell when we had to read Animal Farm at school for a set text in the mid-1980s. This was around the time of the cold war and the way he portrayed the takeover by the pigs on the farm and the way that they changed the agenda each time for their own ends was quite chilling. 1984 was the year that everyone was reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, except me; I didn’t read it until 2013… I have since read a few of his books and found him a fascinating author to read, but I knew very little about him.

Before becoming an author he spent some time working in Burma, now Myanmar. Whilst he was there he was working with the Indian Imperial Police as an Assistant District Superintendent. He chose Burma as his maternal grandmother lived there. He learnt the language very quickly, but his position meant that he was responsible for the security of a couple of hundred thousand people. The imperial regime there oppressed the people and he was a part of it. In 1927 he became ill and was granted leave back in the UK and it was that here he resigned from the police force and decided to become a writer.

His short time there was to give us the books, Burmese Days and Shooting An Elephant, but as Emma Larkin finds, it was also to provide inspiration for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Myanmar is a totalitarian state ruled with a heavy hand by the military with pervasive and constant monitoring and oppression of the populace. She spends a year in the country following his trail and talking overtly and often covertly to people who call him ‘the prophet’ and trying to see the parallels in his brief stay there and how his growing hatred of colonial rule was the fuel behind these two books.

It is a fascinating study of the man and the country as she traces the ghosts of his family past whilst trying to keep her nose clean with the authorities. Larkin is a very talented writer, managing to blend travel writing, as well as the biography of Orwell, alongside her take on this country as she tries to move around with the constraints they put on her. It is clear to see that the inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four was directly linked to the oppression that he was a part of when he was there. Very much worth reading for insight into Myanmar and Orwell.

Cove by Cynan Jones

3.5 out of 5 stars

He is far away from the coast for it to be a pale line on the horizon when he notices something when sitting in the kayak; the hairs on his arms all stand on end, before lying back down again, the is a movement in the water that rushes past and the birds that were floating in the sea suddenly lift and flee.

Not long after he sees a flash, but he only realises that it is lightning out to sea when the rumble of thunder catches up with him. Another flash and he counts the gap to the thunder, the wind rises and he gauges just how far it is to the shore before the next strike seems to rip the sky apart.

That was the last thing that he remembers before coming too still in the kayak. He is injured and he has no recollection of how he ended up there. He must use every ounce of strength that he has left to try to make it back to shore as he feels that he has someone there waiting for him.

A metallic sheen comes to the water, like cutlery. Like metal touched. The white clouds glow, go a sort of leaden at the edge.

This is a sparsely written novella about a man who is fighting for his very life having just survived a lightning strike. In this brevity, Jones manages to convey the menace of the sea that takes as much life as it gives. He also somehow manages to encompass in such few words the emotional and physical trauma of this man’s experience. I didn’t quite like this as much as Stilicide, but I am very impressed by how Jones can be so descriptive about the seascape and the trauma of the situation with so few words.

2020 Six Month Stats

These are my book stats so far for 2020 now we have got to six months through the year. I have read 97 books so far and 25402 pages. My monthly average of books is  16.2. This broke down into these monthly totals:

January – 17

February – 16

March – 16

April – 16

May – 16

June – 16

The split of books read

Male Authors – 66

Female Authors – 31 i.e. 32%

Review Copies  – 43

Library Books – 26

Own Books– 28 (This is already more than last year!)

 

Non-Fiction – 68 – 70%

Fiction – 17 – 17.5%

Poetry – 12 – 12.5%

 

Stars Awarded:

5 Stars – 5 Books
4.5 Stars – 11 Books
4 Stars – 38 Books
3.5 stars – 18 Books
3 stars – 18 Books
2.5 Stars – 4 Books
2 Stars – 2 Books
1.5 stars 0 Books
1 stars – 0 Books

 

Genre

I use a spreadsheet to keep a note of the types and genres of books that I read. There are detailed below:

Travel 23
Poetry 12
Natural History 10
Memoir 9
Fiction 8
Science 7
Fantasy 5
History 4
Science Fiction 4
Psychology 2
Politics 2
Language 2
Miscellaneous 2
Environmental 1
Sport 1
Craft 1
Britain 1
Cricket 1
Humour 1
Reportage 1

 

Publishers

These are the number of books read by each publisher so far:

Eland 6
John Murray 6
Penguin 5
Faber & Faber 5
Canongate 5
Little Toller 4
Granta 4
Jonathan Cape 4
Sandstone Press 3
Fly on the Wall Press 3
Corgi 3
Elliott & Thompson 3
Cinnamon Press 3
Haus Publishing 3
William Collins 3
Bloomsbury 3
Saraband 2
Picador 2
Icon Books 2
Bradt 2
Allen Lane 2
Dey Street 1
Michael Joseph 1
Salt 1
Profile Books 1
Wildings Press 1
Stella Maris 1
The Westbourne Press 1
Headline 1
Fitzcarraldo Editions 1
Headline 1
Little, Brown 1
Sphere 1
Duckworth 1
Hamish Hamilton 1
Seven Dials 1
Myriad Editions 1
The Bodley Head 1
Gollancz 1
Michael O’Mara Books 1
Tor 1
Allen & Unwin 1
4th Estate 1
Inkandescent 1
Influx Press 1
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