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Book Musings – April 2019

April was a reasonable reading month, managed to get through 17 books in total, helped by the long weekend at Easter. Still have a massive backlog of books to read, not helped by buying more!

 

The AA sent me The Woman Who Rode A Shark. Primarily aimed at children, this book by Ailsa Ross & art by Amy Blackwell tells the stories of 50 women adventurers who have made a difference.

I actually read quite a lot of fiction this month too, South of the Border, West of the Sun was one that I found for a friend and before posting it off to her, read it. I think that it has been my favourite Murakami so far. I read Grief is a thing with Feathers when staying with my wife’s aunt one weekend. I liked it but didn’t love it like some people. Managed to get a copy of Lanny by Max Porter from the library. This story of a boy called Lanny and his place in the natural world has a dark undercurrent of folk horror. I really liked it.

 

I also read most of the shortlist from the Wellcome prize, including these two fiction offerings, Murmur by Will Eaves and My Year Of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Murmur was the winner of the prize, in the end, but of these two I preferred the other!

 

The remainder of the shortlist were The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein, Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning which is about his descent and recovery from mental illness and Heart by Sandeep Jauhar which is fairly self-explanatory. All were worthy inclusions to the shortlist but my favourite of these, and our Shadow Panel winner was The Trauma Cleaner. Not one to read when you are eating your lunch though.

 

Gabriel Hemery’s new book, Green Gold is a fictionalised account of the of a Victorian Plant Hunter called John Jeffrey. He has based the story of actual correspondence from the Association that sent him to the west of America in the search of plants and conifers. I thought it was really good.

I had read David Bramwell & Jo Keeling’s book called The Mysterium and realised that the library had The Odysseum. This is about Strange Journeys and things that have happened to people. Not bad overall.

Out of the Woods is a blend of memoir and natural history as seems to be the fashion these days. This by Luke Turner is also an exploration of his bi-sexuality and how he spends time in the forest to get some comfort amongst the trees.

This month poetry book was Sincerity by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. I have only read a couple of her works before but thought this was really good too.

Chris Mullin has written some of the best political diaries of recent years seen from the perspective of the back benches and a brief spell as a Junior Minister. This is a step back and a look at his time as a journalist, his first political stirrings, his marriage and now retirement from political life. Not as good as the diaries, but still worth reading.

Kassia St. Clair’s book, The Secret life of Colour, was really good, so I was looking forward to her next book. I managed to get hold of a copy of The Golden Thread. This wasn’t too bad in the end, but it did have some flaws that showed that it might have been rushed to publication. Fantastic cover though

I have actually met Dan Richards and interviewed him for his previous book, Climbing Days. In fact, the cover of that book adorns the wall of my office with the striking image by Stanley Donwood. I was really pleased to be sent a proof of his new book, Outpost by Canongate. In this, he heads out to visit as many bothys as possible. These small shelters are for walkers and explorers to shelter in overnight before heading onward on their travels. An excellent book that shows how he is maturing as a writer too. Looking forward to hearing his next project.

Monisha Rajesh’s first book was about taking 80 Trains around the colourful country of India. Her next book, was the logical next step up from there, Around the World in 80 Trains.  She is an author that engages with the people around her as she travels and this makes it a far more interesting book to read. Well worth reading.

I first came across David Seabrook last year when I read, All the Devils are Here. In that, he mentioned a series of killings in London and it turns out there was another book that he wrote about those murders called, Jack Of Jumps. It makes for grim reading, but this is still an unsolved murder case even though there has been plenty of speculation as to who the perpetrator was, including Seabrook’s own idea in here. Fascinating, if grim, reading.

Not a bad month overall. My book of the month was Outpost, which I would urge you to read if you can. Are there any here that you have read? Or want to read?

A few other questions for you too:

1. Do you like the summing up posts?

2. Would you like to see a monthly TBR Post of what I am planning to read?

3. Would you like to see blog posts with a more general book centred theme rather than just reviews?

Earth From Space

5 out of 5 stars

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

In December 1972 the astronauts about the Apollo 17 took a photo of the Earth. They were around 18,000 miles away at the time on their way to the moon. This image titled the Blue marble has become one of the most reproduced images in the world. It shows just how magnificent our tiny planet is and also just how fragile it is too.

The new book, Earth From Space, aims to show how our planet looks now using the latest high-resolution camera fitted to satellites. Split into four sections, Movement, colour, pattern and change, these images are just jaw-dropping. There are images from all over our planet on some of the most spectacular sights, both man-made and natural that they have found, from river deltas, to brand new islands created by volcanoes, a network of rice paddies to the latest technology in finding whales. There is an image showing the tidal range around Mont Saint Michel and even more spectacular the flow of current from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

This is an amazing coffee table book with a solid five stars. I’m all out of superlatives for the images which really work in this large-format book. The text that accompanies them is useful but is primarily there as a foil for the photographs really. Some of the colours of the places that they take are amazing, not sure how much enhancement they have had though. It is also a timely reminder that we live on an amazing planet and we are as much as a part of the ecosystem as the microbes that permeate all levels of the world. There is no plan(et) B; if we ruin this one, we are all doomed.

Green Gold by Gabriel Hemery

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Green Gold by Gabriel Hemery and published by Unbound.

 

About the Book

 

In 1850, young Scottish plant hunter John Jeffrey was despatched by an elite group of Victorian subscribers to seek highly prized exotic trees in North America. An early letter home told of a 1,200-mile transcontinental journey by small boat and on foot.  Later, tantalising collections of seeds and plants arrived from British Columbia, Oregon and California, yet early promise soon withered. Four years after setting out, John Jeffrey, and his journals, disappeared without a trace.  Was he lost to love, violence or the Gold Rush? Green Gold combines meticulous research with the fictional narrative of Jeffrey’s lost journals, revealing an extraordinary adventure. 

 

About the Author

 

 

Gabriel Hemery is a tree-hunter, forest scientist and published author. As a young researcher he led a seed-collecting expedition to the walnut-fruit forests of Kyrgyzstan, and in his career as a hands-on scientist has planted tens of thousands of trees in plantations and experiments across Britain. Gabriel played a lead role alongside other prominent environmentalists in halting the sell-off of England’s public forests. After leading the Botanical Society of the British Isles as its first Director of Development, he co-founded the environmental charity Sylva Foundation, since leading it as Chief Executive. His first book The New Sylva was published to wide acclaim in 2014. He lives near Oxford in England.

 

My Review

In the middle of the 19th century, the fervour amongst the great and the good was reaching fever pitch for the plants that were yet to be discovered. A committee was formed, the Oregon Association, with the intention of sending someone out to North America where the riches pickings were available, and potentially the wealthiest return. A gardener from Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden called John Jeffery was interviewed and appointed and charged with the collection of seeds and cones and to be returned to the subscribers of the Association. He was asked to keep two journals and to send regular correspondence and packages back to the UK.

Jeffery left the UK in mid-1850 and headed northwards. After a stop in Orkney, he arrived on the North America Continent in August. He wrote to the Association saying that he had arrived and then the toughest part of his journey was about to begin as he was to travel 1200 miles across snow, mountains and harsh landscape towards the Columbia River where he could begin his great commission. Over the next four years, carefully curated packages of seeds along with notes of the plants and their locations would arrive back in Scotland for the subscribers to the Association to share amongst themselves. Apart from the odd letter though, he never kept his promise to supply the journals of his travels. Eventually, the Association, who thought they were going to get untold botanical riches from their collector were disappointed with the packages sent back. They set about dismissing him from his post. Before anyone representing the Association could find Jefferies to inform him of this decision, he had vanished off the face of the earth when travelling from  San Diego across the Colorado Desert.

I have never been a huge fan of docu-dramas, so when I first realised that this was a fictionalised account of John Jeffrey my heart sunk a little. However, Hemery has worked wonders here. Relying on extensive research combined with reproductions of the correspondence between all the interested parties his has written a compelling story of what Jeffrey’s might have been in the lost journals about his travels across the very much Wild West in the search of plants for his employers. At the time of his collections, the disappointment of the Association was very evident, though they did not cover themselves in glory with the organisation of the trip, it turns out that his discoveries were more significant they realised. An unexpected good 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

Gabriel has an absolutely fascinating website: GabrielHemery.com or you can follow him on Twitter here @GabrielHemer

My thanks to Unbound for the copy of the book to read and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for arranging everything for this blog tour.

Under the Rock by Ben Myers

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers and published by Elliott and Thompson.

 

About the Book

In Under the Rock, Benjamin Myers, the novelist perhaps best known for The Gallows Pole, winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2018, returns to the rugged landscape of the Calder Valley in a bold and original exploration of nature and literature.

The focus of his attention is Scout Rock, a steep crag overlooking Mytholmroyd, where the poet Ted Hughes grew up. In solitude, Ben Myers has been exploring this wooded ten acre site for over a decade and his Field Notes, scribbled in situ are threaded between sections entitled Wood, Earth, Water and Rock. Taking the form of poetry, these Field Notes are “lines and lists lifted from the landscape, narrative screen-grabs of a microcosmic world that are correspondent to places or themes explored elsewhere, or fleeting flash-thoughts divined through the process of movement”.

 

About the Author

BENJAMIN MYERS was born in Durham in 1976. He is a prize-winning author, journalist and poet. His recent novels are each set in a different county of northern England and are heavily inspired by rural landscapes, mythology, marginalised characters, morality, class, nature, dialect and post- industrialisation. They include The Gallows Pole, winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and recipient of the Roger Deakin Award; Turning Blue, 2016; Beastings,2014 (Portico Prize For Literature & Northern Writers’ Award winner),Pig Iron, 2012 (Gordon Burn Prize winner & Guardian Not The Booker Prize runner-up); and Richard, a Sunday Times Book of the Year 2010. Bloomsbury will publish his new novel, The Offing, in August 2019.

As a journalist, he has written widely about music, arts and nature. He lives in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, the inspiration for Under the Rock.

 

My Review

For a lot of people landscape is something they travel through or past, barely acknowledging it in the maelstrom of modern life, unless it is something spectacular. Hathershelf Scout above the Yorkshire town of Mytholmroyd is one of those places that most would consider unremarkable. It lacks some of the photogenic qualities of the dales, has been a place where criminals and coin clippers hid in the 18th Century, has a drawn for those with suicidal thoughts was once a tip and hides a lethal secret.

However, Benjamin Myers would disagree. Not only is it his home patch of landscape, but he can walk through tangled woods that lead up onto a crag that has its own stark beauty, its brooding gritstone seeping into his psyche as he uncovers the geological and personal histories of the place that run deep into the bedrock. Entwined with the landscape that he walks every day he can, he starts to discover that the remarkable exists in the mundane and ordinary, the imperceptible daily changes that slowly build to make the seasons feel like they have arrived in a rush.

His writing is split into the four elements that make up the view he can from his window, wood, water, earth and rock and he uses these to explore all manner of other subjects as he walks with his dog, Heathcliff. Nothing escapes his gaze or thought process, he considers the invasive species alongside the natural, acknowledges the life of the animals that cross his path as much as their deaths. History is as important to him as the modern political issues of the day. He swims regularly in the wild and shockingly cold waters in the local pools and plays a part in helping in the community with the floods in 2015 when Mytholmroyd partially disappeared beneath the brown waters of the River Calder after days of rain and watches as a landslide takes a sizable chunk of the hillside away. It doesn’t stop him exploring though as he snags his coat on the keep out sign as he climbs over the fence.

It is a difficult book to characterise as it encompasses so much within its pages. It is as much about the natural world and the landscape of that part of Yorkshire and Myers covers subjects as diverse as political discourse to folklore, industrial music to slugs, asbestos to ravens. Most of all it, this book is about place; that small part of our small country that he has grown to love since moving out of London. I have read two of his other books, Beastings and The Gallows Pole, just before I got to this one and I found his writing in those captivating. This is no different, his mastery of the language means that you feel you are alongside him as he looks out over the valley, or clambering up the same path behind him as the water runs down through the rock. I really liked the Field Notes at the end of each section, these are short and elemental poems as well as a small number of black and white photos that add so much to the rest of the book. If you have read Strange Labyrinth or 21st Century Yokel then this should be added to your reading list. Brilliant book and highly recommended.

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  Alison and Elliott and Thompson for the copy of the book to read.

Out of the Woods by Luke Turner

4 out of 5 stars

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

He was beginning to think that his relationship with Alice was the one but all too soon it unravelled. Left alone, the thoughts in his head that had affected him since childhood began to return. Depression, guilt, religious confusion, abuse and the conflicts of his bi-sexuality, they were back again. This time he had a place of refuge where he could go to, Epping Forest. It was a place that would draw him back time after time.

It didn’t provide all the solace and comfort he needed though, some of that he would find in the arms of men and women after his relationship finished. Epping Forest is a place of secrets, there is obviously something about it that attracts a darker personality and it has a reputation for a place that men could go to find partners, especially when homosexuality was illegal. However, rather than finding demons in the woods, Turner used that time spent in the natural world to excise his own and it gives him the inspiration to begin to investigate a family secret from a few generations ago.

The ancient timbers of Greensted know no hypocrisy or bigotry, but are prayers carved from nature, as sacred as hymns.

The blurb describes this as an original book, and throughout a lot of the book, I’d be tempted to agree. Turner writes with a wonderful eye for detail and even though this is a very raw, honest and open memoir you do have to be broadminded for this. He asks searching questions of himself about his sexuality and how society treats those that do not fit conventional stereotypes. But the understorey of his memoir is the forest, how it lifts his mood when he visits, so much so that he ends up volunteering there. It is a great companion to Strange Labyrinth which is Will Ashon’s take on the same place and shows how people can have a deep attachment in a very different way to a place.

2019 Wellcome Prize Shadow Panel Winner

This is the second year that I have been on the Shadow Panel for the Wellcome Book Prize and for a list of books that vary in content style and subject you can’t really get any better. It is their tenth anniversary too, so if you want to find a book that is worth reading that had some aspect of health as its core theme, then trawling their backlist of long and shortlisted titles is a great place to start.

The shortlisted books were:

Amateur by Thomas Page McBee

Heart: A history by Sandeep Jauhar

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning

Murmur by Will Eaves

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

All five of us read all of the shortlisted books and at the end score them from 6 down to 1. This year it wasn’t as clear cut as last year, as each of us had our favourite books, but with the scored totted up our winner this year was:

And it won by just a single point! It is well worth reading, but not when you are having your tea.

Congratulations to Sarah Krasnostein. Looking forward to hearing who is the official winner on Wednesday too, and I am hoping I can get the time off work to go up and hear it live.

Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning

4 out of 5 stars

 

After his mother died when he was fairly young, Arnold Thomas Fanning had his first experience of depression. It didn’t last for long, but the seeds were sown. Fast forward to a decade later and Fanning was an up and coming playwright with lots of opportunities opening up. But at the same time, he was starting to suffer from delusions about his abilities and this rapidly became mania.

He had just given up a good job to give himself the time to write full time, but things weren’t going well. He was back living with his father who he had a difficult relationship with and he had just left an artist residency in disgrace. Very soon after that he had a total mental breakdown and was admitted into a secure unit where they began to treat him. After release he, went home with a bag of drugs, but there was to be much worse to come.

From there he descended further and further into his mental maelstrom. This book is his raw and brutally honest account of someone going through depression and all sorts of mental anguish. When it was happening he managed to alienate almost all his friends and family, ended up in several institutes and was prescribed a cocktail of drugs that they hoped would help him recover. It did reach the point where he stared into the abyss as he came very close to suicide, but he didn’t quite have the courage to do it that day. Might have been cowardice, but it saved his life that day.

The account is compiled from records and from what others have recounted to him, some of the episodes he has not been able to remember because of the illness. It doesn’t make for any less terrifying reading though. The fact that he has been able to get through his mental illness with a lot of help and write this book is a testament to his strength of character.

Mental health is important, if you are feeling depressed or anxious, then speak to someone who can help. This may be a family member, or you might be better speaking to an independent expert who will be able to help you. Do not ignore it.

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein and published by Text Publishing.

 

About the Book

Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife. Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner is a love letter to an extraordinary ordinary life. In Sandra Pankhurst she discovered a woman capable of taking a lifetime of hostility and transphobic abuse and using it to care for some of society’s most in-need people. 

Sandra Pankhurst founded her trauma cleaning business to help people whose emotional scars are written on their houses. From the forgotten flat of a drug addict to the infested home of a hoarder, Sandra enters properties and lives at the same time. But few of the people she looks after know anything of the complexity of Sandra’s own life. Raised in an uncaring home, Sandra’s miraculous gift for warmth and humour in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy mark her out as a one-off.

This is a truly unique book, taking the humanity of S-Town, the beauty of H Is for Hawk and the sensitivity of When Breath Becomes Air to create something of startling originality. 

 

About the Author

Photo: Gina Milicia

Sarah Krasnostein is a writer and a lawyer with a doctorate in criminal law. A fourth generation American and a third generation Australian, she has lived and worked in both countries. She lives in Melbourne and spends part of the year working in New York City. The Trauma Cleaner is her first book.

 

My Review

 

Peter was adopted by his parents after Bill and Ailsa lost a child. When she conceived again and had two more boys, they moved Peter from the family home to a shed in the garden. He was rarely fed and expected to be a slave to the family and beaten by his father regularly for no reason at all. The torment and abuse continue until he is seventeen and then he is thrown out. Two years later he has met and is married to Linda and shortly after they have two boys themselves.

Peter had always felt different from other boys, and being out of the pressure zone that was his previous home meant he managed to stop surviving and begin living. He began frequenting gay bars and wearing makeup. It had never even crossed his mind that he might be trans, but when he heard that you could take drugs to enable the transfer to a female, he began as soon as he could. One thing led to another, he split from Linda and ended up as a prostitute. As soon as he was able to he had the operation and became fully female, something that she thought she would never be able to do.

After a few years working nights in the oldest profession, Sandra was brutally raped with another prostitute and made the decision to get out of the trade before it killed her. She ended up in a funeral directors, then a hardware store with her new husband and then went onto a cleaning company before starting her own business. The story of Sandra’s life is told hand in hand with the stories of the homes and people that she helps out every week cleaning up after trauma victims and helping those whose homes and lives have become unmanageable. After a lifetime of being on the edge of society, she is now helping those who have not been able to help themselves.

It really is not a book to read when you’re eating your lunch as the descriptions that Krasnostein has of the home being cleaned after deaths and suicides can be pretty grim. But this is true life and these things do not fix themselves, but require people with courage and industrial cleaning chemicals to fix. Pankhurst is one remarkable lady, even after a horrendous childhood and working in the prostitution trade she has an amazing amount of empathy for all of her clients when she is asked to clean and clear homes, treating them with a firm attitude whilst respecting their dignity. This is not going to be for everyone, but if you want to have a no holds barred look at a part of society that almost everyone will be unaware of then this is a one 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 The Wellcome Prize and Midas PR for the copy of the book to read.

My Year Of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

4 out of 5 stars

During her final year at Columbia University, where she majored in art history, our unnamed protagonist lost both her parents. The inheritance that they left her means that she is financially stable, but she is utterly emotionally exhausted. She is in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and struggles to hold a job down for any length of time. She is not treated particularly nicely by her boyfriend and has a best friend who she has a difficult relationship with. To try and fill the enormous hole in her life she turns to a psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle to help. This doctor is hoping to help her with her insomnia and is more than happy to keep prescribing all manner of stronger and stronger sleeping and anti-anxiety medications. Having been fired from her latest job in a gallery she decides to ramp up the drugs and see if she can spend the next year mostly sleeping in her apartment.

Moshfegh has made this compelling read from what seems on the face of it a hollow premise of someone spending a year in a drug-filled sleep. Even though the two characters are not particularly likeable, I did feel that I had to admire the tenacity of the main character as she pursues the desire to alienate herself from the world rather than face the reality of her parent’s deaths and the swirl of modern life. Her friend, Reva, is as infuriating as she is funny, and she injects a necessary spark of humour into the plot. I liked this and I can’t really say why, but I think it is the writing that lifts this to a black comedic tragedy.

Lanny by Max Porter

4.5 out of 5 stars

It is a regular commuter village sixty odd miles from the capital. All sorts of mixed housing, a pub and a church and people trying to go about their lives as normally as possible. In this village is a young lad called Lanny, who is not quite the same as other children his age. He seems to have a close affinity to the natural world, spending most of his time outdoors. His mother thinks the world of his, seeing his funnies little ways as a charming thing whereas his father struggles to deal with him. Lanny’s creative side is channelled by a neighbour called Pete who is an artist who sees the potential that he has.

 

Then there is Dead Papa Toothwort. In this place, he is as old as time.

 

He is the very essence of the land that the village sits in, he feels it every time they cut the soil to build, and watches as the village celebrates him by dressing up and the pictures that they try to recreate. He has seen the death of thousands of living beings. He is known as the Green Man now, but there is nothing benign about him. He listens to the words the people say in the village, they wash over him like rain, but he has heard Lanny’s songs and it has awoken something in him.

 

Then one day, Lanny disappears…

 

And I am not going to say any more than that, as I think you all should read it and make your own minds up. The book is split into three parts, the first is a whimsical introduction to the main characters. The second is as fast-paced as anything that I have ever read and the final part is dramatic, surreal and shocking. It is a story deeply rooted in the folklore of the landscape as well as brushing the edges of folk horror. I liked Porter’s first, Grief is a Thing with Feathers, but in my mind, this book is better than that. It has a much stronger plot, vivid characters and a dark undercurrent that pulls it all together. Great stuff.

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