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Sunny And The Wicked Lady by Alison Moore

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Sunny has a knack for seeing and hearing ghosts, he even has three living in his Mum’s shop; Herbert who lives in a blanket box, Violet who resides in the stationery cupboard and Walter who is lightly haunting the wardrobe.

They tell him one day that they want to visit a local castle where there is supposed to be a notoriously scary ghost called the Wicked Lady. She was rumoured to ride in a coach made of human bones. They have a lovely day at the castle but see no other ghosts at all. They climb back into the van and head home. Herbert happens to glance out the back window and sees a ghost staring at him and alongside her is a spectral black dog.

Strange things are afoot; the following day a lady turns up at the shop, wanders about for a short time before buying the blanket box. Herbert is not in there at the time, but he has nowhere to sleep that night so joins one of the other ghosts. The same lady is back the following day with a young man and buys another item for her museum. Inside is one of the ghosts from the shop. The two ghosts that are left are convinced that it is the Wicked lady that has taken their companion. He doesn’t expect her to turn up in her coach of bones driven by the headless coachman and walk through the door though!

I don’t read that many children’s books now, partly because I have a massive stack of other books to read and my children all being teenagers read themselves, some with much more encouragement than others… (Any tips for getting a teen boy to read are appreciated). Salt sent a small pile of books to me and this was in with them so I thought I might as well give it a go. It is a charming little story about a boy and his friendly ghosts. It has a simple plotline that children will be able to follow easily. These are not scary ghosts, rather they share some of the foibles and flaws of normal human beings and there are even parts that made me laugh, so I can imagine that children will love it too.

One Way by S.J. Morden

4 out of 5 stars

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

Frank had been inside for a while as he was serving a life sentence for murdering his son’s drug dealer. It wasn’t much of a life, so he was surprised when he was told that there was someone who wanted to see him. He is chained to the chair and table before this unknown visitor is escorted in. A guy in a sharp suit is allowed in through the door, he sits placing his briefcase on the table between them and opens it up. He takes a folder out with Frank’s name on it. The guy, he is calling himself, Mark is there to make Frank an offer. Not to commute his sentence, but to serve it in another location, Mars.

He would be there with seven other ex-cons to build and maintain the first permanent base on the red planet. It is not something that Frank is expecting and it takes him a while to think it through. Die in prison on Earth or live a little on Mars. As choices go, it wasn’t much of one, but it was one more than he had yesterday. He signed.

The journey to the desert training ground was unpleasant but uneventful; It was there he realised just what he had got himself into, the company owned him completely. He made the decision to get on with it if the training didn’t kill him first though. He must have passed the initial training as he was asked to report to Building Six through the implant in his head. He headed up to the first floor and pressed his finger against the glass and the door clicked open. Inside were six others wearing the same uniform as him; they came across as ex-cons by the way that they held themselves; this must be his new team.

The training is intense, they have to learn how to assemble the fab that will be living accommodation for them and then the astronauts when they arrive sometime later on Mars. Frank with his experience of building starts to become the natural leader. The guy running the show, Brack, is a nasty piece of work, and whilst the team begins to work together well after a few teething issues, none of the others seems to like him. Their short six month training period is up and then they are heading to Mars with being in suspended animation for eight months.

Their journey is long and uneventful and the first thing that Frank feels on waking, is pain. It soon passes and he finds out that their supply cylinders are scattered far and wide. When he is with it enough it will be up to him and Marcy to walk out to where the buggies are and return with them. That way they will able to get to the other drops for the remainder of the supplies. They suit and set off knowing that they only really have enough air to just make it there and back.  It is tight, but they just make it back.

It takes time to head to the various places to get to the supply drops and they find various things are damaged. They make a plan to make do and mend and assemble as habitable a Mars base as they can. But their very short training is causing accidents, and that soon turns into casualties. It is a tough environment, but the attrition rate seems far higher than Frank would expect; then it dawns on him that there might be someone on the team that is doing this deliberately…

As space-based thrillers go, I thought this was pretty good. It is fast-paced, the systems and stuff that they were making the base out of seemed plausible and it is full of strong and flawed characters. I liked the way that the beginning of each chapter had some of the internal emails and transcripts that add to the back story of the book. The strong plot builds in intensity as the end of the books approaches and I zipped through the final chapters in the rush to find out what happens. I thought that it was much better than The Martian and will be getting the sequel to read at some point.

January 2021 Review

That was the longest January that I think I have ever experienced. It seemed to go on forever. Even though it went on for ages I didn’t read as much as I thought that I was going to either (story of my life). However, I did manage to read seventeen books and still have a lot to review (!!) and here they are:

This was shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Memoir Book prize and I actually met Peter at the prize ceremony. Footnotes is his book about travelling around the UK in the company of some of his favourite writers. I really liked it and it made me think of which writers I would like to follow if I were to make a similar journey.

We are reaching various crises at the moment. Covid is the most immediate, but just because we are not looking at others at the moment, doesn’t mean that they haven’t gone away. One which hasn’t is climate change and in Enough, Cassandra Coburn explains the principles behind the Planetary Health Diet and how but making significant changes, we can help climate change. It is a very interesting book.

Rotherweird is the story about a part of England that was established back in Elizabethan times to hold Twelve children, gifted far beyond their years. 450 years on it is still bound by its unique set of laws. Learning about its history is banned, but there is a new guy in town who is there to uncover it for his own personal gain. It is a richly imagined story.

I read two fiction books this month, both set in different parts of our world. On Borrowed Time is set in Hong Kong and is set at the time of the handover from the UK back to China. Various storylines converge in this medium-paced thriller. A very different and when it was released controversial book is American Dirt. This is about a mother and son story of fleeing from a Mexican drug cartel and hoping that they can get to America.

    

Growing up in Northern Ireland in Derry during the worst of the troubles, Kerri had seen a lot of violence. She left there and vowed never to return again, but witnessing that had left a lot of baggage to lug around. It reached a point where it was almost too much. Thankfully it didn’t and her route back to where she is mentally today is the story in the beautifully written memoir.

Saving the World – Women by Paola Diana is a short and tautly written book about improving gender equality. She strongly argues the case for breaking the glass ceiling and having more women at the top of society

My two poetry books this month were The Martian Regress – J.O. Morgan and Postcolonial Love Poem – Natalie Dia. Both very different as the first is about a lone martian returning to Earth and the second is a richly imagined collection see from the perspective of an indigenous American.

   

I read two, yes two, science fiction books in January! Use of weapons is one of the few in the culture series that I hadn’t read until now. It is not my favourite in the series, but it is still enjoyable as Banks is true to form all the way through. The second is more of a thriller set on Mars, but unlike that other one, this felt much more plausible.

   

We are a long time dead and the way that we commemorate those that we have lost is the subject of Tomb With A View. Ross travels all over the UK find the stories on the stones. Highly recommended.

Two of the four travel book that I read this month came from the wonderful people at Eland. Time Among the Maya is about Ronald Wright’s time spent wandering the Yucatan peninsular looking for the magnificent structures that they left behind, but it is as much about the people that still inhabit those countries. The second was the reportage/travel book from Martha Gellhorn and the strong opinions that she has of the places she visits. Lastly is Gavin Young’s book, In Search of Conrad. In here he spends lots of time on boats chasing the shadows of Joseph Conrad by sea, land and river, visiting ports and islands, from Singapore to the Straits of Makassar.

       

I had two five star books in January. The first is Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez. This concerns how badly skewed almost everything is towards the male; be it car safety, phone sizes and computer algorithms. She writes clearly and with some passion about her subject. The second was the latest travel book by John Gimlette. In The Gardens of Mars, he takes us all around the fascinating island of Madagascar and back through its short and turbulent history.

   

Anyone read any of these? Or do you now want to read any of these now you’ve seen them? Let me know in the comments below.

Footnotes by Peter Fiennes

4 out of 5 stars

We have a rich and long literary history in this country and whichever part of the country that you start in you can find an author and a little bit of history behind them to explain the context. In Footnotes, Peter Fiennes has chosen a dozen of his favourite authors to write about and travel to the places that they are best known in.

Starting in my home county of Dorset with the famous children’s writer Enid Blyton. Standing on the seafront in Swanage in a brutally cold wind, he imagines her in one of her books describing the weather as ‘lovely’. She was a complicated character and some of her books could be described as controversial in our more enlightened times. It was a place that she fell in love with after a day trip there from Bournemouth, and when you read some of her books you can sense the presence of the Purbecks.

His next author is Wilkie Collins and this part of Fiennes grand tour takes him to Cornwall. Collins was there to write a travel book set in Cornwall and he had got as far as Plymouth on the new-fangled railway, he would then have to rely on coaches after the boat across the Tamar. He stays with Colins in the next chapter and journey from Lamorna Cove to Launceston and is joined by Ithell Colquhoun, author of The Living Stones. There are no blue plaques celebrating her, unlike a lot of the other artists who were based here, but they do find where her hut was. It is very different from the corrugated iron shack she lived in though. Wending his way up the North cast he tops at Tintagel and has a heart-stopping moment crossing the slender bridge to get to the island.

He then heads on to Hereford, this time accompanied by Celia Fiennes, who is a distant relation of his. But as he points out you don’t have to go very far back up the family tree to see that we are much more interrelated than people think. She was moving around the West Country in 1698 where they had long miles and it was a time when very few people knew how far they were travelling and when they could expect to arrive. From Hereford, it is easy to cross the border into Wales and the earliest author in this book, Gerald of Wales. Gerald was part Welsh and in one of his books he spends half of it praising the people of the country and the later half denouncing the people. Heading to North Wales he is following Edith Somerville and Violet ‘Martin’ Ross and joins them struggling up Snowdon. They had discovered a demand for travel journalism and this was a Welsh jaunt to write and make some money.

Next Fiennes heads to the Midlands and is tracing the routes of J.B Priestly and Beryl Bainbridge from Birmingham to Liverpool. They had taken similar routes, but five decades apart and had both written books called, English Journey. He has a trip around the Cadbury factory whilst feeling slightly delicate after a night in a pub. Wilkie Collins is back again, but this time accompanying Dickens on a train journey to Cumberland and they undertake an almost disastrous climb of Carrock Fell. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell are the two authors that he has chosen for a brief visit to Scotland. Johnson had been invited by Boswell to visit for ages and was always too busy, but he relented and suddenly decided he wanted to see one of the last wildernesses in the UK. Heading south, Fiennes joins J.B Priestly and Beryl Bainbridge again in Newcastle. He bumps briefly into Celia Fiennes before heading to London and finally Kent to meet with Dickens again.

This book feels like a homage to his formative years as a reader rediscovering his favourite authors. But it is more than that, at its heart, it is a travel book as he moves around the country in the virtual company of his chosen writers and intertwined with this is history and a snapshot of modern Britain. It is a gentle and relaxed form of travel too; he is not in a rush to get to the next place and it gives him time to mull things over and discover those nuggets of information about the places he is staying and his virtual companions. Well worth reading.

February 2021 TBR

Well, that was possibly the longest January on record. But we made it through. No sign of lockdown easing at the moment, and I still have an enormous pile of books to read. So without further ado, here is my slightly ambitious TBR for February:

 

Finishing Off (Still!)

Lotharingia – Simon Winder

American Dirt – Jeanie Cummins

 

Blog Tour

Botanical Curses and Poisons – Fez Inkwright

 

Review Copies

How Britain Ends – Gavin Esler

The Mahogany Pod – Jill Hopper

The Actuality – Paul Braddon

Like Fado – Graham Mort

Behind the Enigma – John Ferris

The Germans and Europe – Peter Millar

Wyntertide – Andrew Caldecot

Mrs Moreau’s Warbler – Stephen Moss

Sunny And The Wicked Lady – Alison Moore

 

Library Books

The Wild Laughter – Caoilinn Huges

A Beginner’s Guide To Japan – Pico Iyer

Constellations – Sinéad Gleeson

The Accidental Countryside – Stephen Moss

Red Sands – Caroline Eden

Spying on Whales – Nicholas Pyenson

The Bells of Old Tokyo – Anna Sherman

Everybody Lies – Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The Lost Orchard – Raymond Blanc

On the Plain of Snakes – Paul Theroux

 

Challenge Books

Mirrors of the Unseen – Jason Elliot

The Marsh Arabs – Wilfred Theisger

Eating For England – Nigel Slater

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

From Rome to San Marino – Oliver Knox

Hokkaido Highway Blues – Will Ferguson

 

Poetry

How The Hell Are You? – Glyn Maxwell

Black Country – Liz Berry

 

Science Fiction

None this month as I read two (yes two!!) in January

Britain by the Book by Oliver Tearle

3.5 out of 5 stars

We have a rich and deep literary history in this country, there are poets, playwrights and authors who have been inspired by the places that they have lived and created works that still resonate today.

Tearle’s journey around begins in Scotland with William Topaz McGonnal, sometimes known as the Bard of Dundee. He is widely considered to be the worst poet in the English language. He applied for patronage from Queen Victoria, who politely declined, but he took to be an expression of interest. He agreed to read some of his works, in a circus, on the condition that the audience could pelt his with rotten vegetables and eggs. He agreed as the money was handy.

Moving on from this auspicious start, Tearle takes us past Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott and how a break in Whitby gave the creator of Dracula, Stoker, plenty of material to work with. In York, he tells us the favourite poem of the middle ages and it isn’t what you think it is before recounting stories about Bradford’s favourite literary son, Priestly. Further south in Nottingham, DH Lawrence is in trouble again with his book, The White Peacock.

There are stories about books and poems that have been written in jail, authors who stayed in towns that no longer exist, one about the oldest bookshop in Britain and why Thomas is buried in two locations. Even, Terry Pratchett does get a mention twice.

It is not too bad overall. There are various stories in here that were new to me, though I was aware of a few of them. It can’t have been easy choosing from the vast number of writers to make this a complete country tour. Glad it wasn’t London Centric too. If there was one flaw, I would have liked a few more contemporary authors to get a mention, but that is only a small thing.

Thin Places by Kerri Ní Dochartaigh

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Growing in up in Northern Ireland was tough in the time of the Troubles for all sorts of people. For Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s it was even harder. One parent was Protestant and the other Catholic and the area that they lived was part of a Protestant estate. Not fitting in with any of the divided communities really didn’t help, but she was witness to all sorts of traumatic events including witnessing the murder of a soldier as a small child, It got much harder to live there after her home was firebombed, but it was a place that felt that you could never escape from.

Moving to a new area of Ireland gave her a glimpse of what could be possible in her life, no one cared what her nominated religion was nor of her background. But still, the troubles impinged on her life; a friend was taken only an hour after seeing his and found later in a shallow grave. She somehow made it through school and university though and decided that Ireland was not for her anymore and headed to the UK. It was here that all the trauma of the past slowly caught up with her. She started drinking heavily, sunk into depression and gave up any hope that things might get better. She walked to the very edge of the abyss and waited her time.

There are places that speak of that unwritten language of letting go, of giving in, of being held like a hand in silent universal prayer

As heavy as this emotional baggage was there were points in her life that started the healing process long before she knows there was anything that could be fixed. Staying at Treshnish on the Isle of Mull, there was a day when the harr, a dense sea fog, had lifted and she was swimming in the dark waters in the intense blackness and silence of the place held her safe. She would sob beneath oak trees, her tears wetting the ground, the roots absorbing her sorrows. She would gather objects like a magpie, piling them up on her windowsills as fragments of memories of places and time spent alone. Her flatmate found her weeping uncontrollably under the stairs. She helped her to bed and then waited until she finally slept. Then came the moment on a beach in January when she felt held in a place other than this world; she had found a thin place. It was time to return to Ireland

Places only hold us close enough that we can finally see ourselves reflected back

At times this is a really hard book to read. Ní Dochartaigh has been through a lot in her life and she tells us about it in a way that is open, honest and unflinching in its intensity. She knows that her life story may well have been very different if she had made other choices. Thankfully she didn’t and this is why we have this book. She draws energy deeply from being in the wild outdoors, feeling the power of wind and water and understanding that we are mere moments in geological time. What she draws from the natural world is mirrored in her prose, which particularly in the second half of the book is just beautiful. This book might not be for everyone, but it comes highly recommended from me.

Vickery’s Folk Flora by Roy Vickery

5 out of 5 stars

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

The convention of naming species was invented by the Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist, and physician Carl Linnaeus. He developed the formalised binomial nomenclature, the modern system of naming organisms. The system called plant taxonomy is a way of identifying and classifying the plants of the world. You need to have a good grasp of Latin, but the advantage is that you can tell someone else that exact plant that you saw on your walk.

It is a little bit elitist, having this knowledge sets apart those who have an almost academic way of finding species from those that just want to know the name of a particular plant that caught their eye. Thankfully people have been making their own names up to describe the plants that they see on a day to day basis. These common names have been known to the people of this country for hundreds of years in some cases. Thankfully this habit has not stopped. Vickery’s Folk Flora tells us what people have called these plants in the past, but more importantly, it shows that people are still naming the plants in their locality. Plant folklore in the British Isles is flourishing and adapting today.

The book is arranged in alphabetical order by their common names, and each entry has the Latin name (no getting away from it, sorry) a brief description of the plant concerned, details on the folklore, beliefs and traditional uses of the plant and how people have used them and other anecdotal details that Vickery thinks might be of interest. Also are included are all the local names for that particular plant that he could find. Some of these lists are fascinating, for example, the plant goosegrass, or as my wife called it, cleavers is a sticky stemmed plant. I remember I used to attach to the back of other children when they weren’t looking. This has around 90 other very local names, from sticky balls in Somerset to cleggers in Yorkshire and goose-cleaver in Lanarkshire

Looking through these common names is endlessly fascinating. I like the way that similar common names do not respect country boundaries. You can see the way that the name changes subtly as you move across the landscape and also when it has a very specific name used nowhere else in certain areas. It is startling how many different names there are in a single county for example Bull’s eyes, Crazy betty and Livers are all the same common name for the same plant, Marsh Marigold, in the county of Dorset and there are countless other examples of this.

It is quite the reference book that Vickery has compiled here. It is a good companion volume to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica. It took me ages to read it all, so daunting is its size and I read it the wrong way, ploughing through from front to back. This is a book to be dipped into and savoured rather than devoured in vast gulps. But I am glad I did get through it in the end as it is magnificent and should be on any natural history bookshelf.

Enough by Dr Cassandra Coburn

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Enough by Dr Cassandra Coburn and published by Octopus Books.

About the Book 

WE PRODUCE AND EAT UNHEALTHY FOOD, KILLING OURSELVES AND THE PLANET IN THE PROCESS
Food production systems are the single biggest cause of environmental change to the planet. And the food we are producing is killing us – more than a quarter of the world’s population is overweight or obese, and deaths from stroke, heart attack, cancer, diabetes etc are at epidemic levels. It is easy to feel helpless.
But there are things we can do to positively impact our own health, as well as that of the world around us.

About the Author

Dr Cassandra Coburn is a scientist, writer and editor. She obtained her PhD in Genetics from the Institute of Healthy Ageing at University College London, UK. She joined The Lancet in 2013 and is now Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet Healthy Longevity. Cassandra has given talks on health in China, Japan, the USA and across Europe, and has led multiple specialist commissions to address inequities in healthcare provision. A career highlight was launching a research programme for cancer care at the United Nations, alongside US President-Elect Joe Biden.

My Review

We seem to be reaching crisis after crisis at the moment. There is the pandemic, just in case you haven’t noticed it, then the climate crisis that if it hasn’t already reached a tipping point, will probably be along any day soon. On top of that, we have a food crisis that is building and we are starting to run out of potable water in certain places. The vast factory farms and food production systems are designed to pump out low nutrition and heavily processed food that is at best unhealthy for us and at worst will kill us and the planet.

Great…

Thankfully some really clever people have been working on a system that should be able to help us and help draw the planet back from the abyss. It is called the Planetary Health Diet and was first published in 2019. It asked the question; can we provide a growing population with a healthy diet from sustainable food systems? The answer is yes. But to do it successfully we have to make lots of changes to the way we produce our food to give us a healthier lifestyle and to save the planet.

First, we have to understand where we are at the moment and how we got to this point. In her new book, Enough, Dr Cassandra Coburn takes us through the how we farm at the moment and the negative effects it is having on the planet. There are chapters on carbohydrates and sugars, fat, meat and fruit and vegetables. How we grow each of these food types is explained in a clear way along with how the present methods of producing them are harming ecosystems and us.

To produce 1kg of beef for a small family Sunday joint takes 326 square metres of land. That family that is going to be eating it, is living on 68 square meters of land. So that one joint need just under five times the amount of land to produce. Wheat needs about 4 square metres to produce a kilo, rice 3 square metres and potatoes 1 square metre. That is quite some difference.

Along with the details on what the is going wrong, there are lots of clear explanations on how we can change our eating habits, recommend diets and more importantly if lots of people start to make these changes to their diet how they will start to have a cumulative positive effect on our environment.

With Coburn’s academic credentials, this could have been a dry read. Thankfully it isn’t. It is full of clear and concise explanations of how and why the Planetary Health Diet will work in practice and being jargon-free is very accessible to readers of all levels. This is a very important book in lots of ways and I hope that it gets the attention it deserves.

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

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

My thanks to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for the copy of the book to read.

A Tomb With A View by Peter Ross

4 out of 5 stars

Some people are spooked by graveyards, but I have never found a graveyard spooky or creepy. They are places where time stands still for those at rest. Words and numbers inscribed into a stone tell so much history too, of people who left early to miss the rush and those that evaded the walk across the black sands for a long time.

Uncovering those histories has been something that has captivated Peter Ross and in A Tomb With a View, he finds the stories of the people who inhabit graveyards and the people that still care about them. His journey will take him from the natural burial site of Sharpham Meadow in Devon where he meets Bridgitt and the resting place of her late husband Wayne where she is picking leaves off the discreet stone with his name on.

In Dublin, he goes to the graveyard of Glasnevin to discover its history. It was first known as Prospect Cemetery and the tragic tale of Shane MacThomáis who once told the stories of the people within its walls and took his own life on a tree in the grounds. He is now with his late father in the same plot. Getting married in a graveyard would probably be too much for some people, but for Liz and Shawn, it was the perfect place for a Halloween wedding.

It is not always about the place, sometime it is about the ritual and respect that the dead deserves. Death has been banished to a certain extent, gone are the days when the children in villages would want to see the recently deceased and all trooping up to the bedroom to pay those last respects. Ritual is important to those with faith too, and Ross spends time with a Muslim funeral director who has to collect a prepare a body for burial the following day so the soul can move on.

“Name the different kinds of people,’ said Miss Lupescu. ‘Now.’
Bod thought for a moment. ‘The living,’ he said. ‘Er. The dead.’ He stopped. Then, ‘… Cats?’ he offered, uncertainly.” ― Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

I thought that this was a really good book about how we as a modern society are coping with death and how it differs to the way that we treated the dead in the past. It is not morbid or grim to read, rather it has a strong narrative and is sensitively written about those that have departed but not left us. I am slightly surprised that he didn’t go to Brookwood Cemetery, the enormous place of rest just outside Woking; it is quite awe-inspiring walking around there; it does get a mention though. Well worth reading.

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