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Gone by Michael Blencowe

4 out of 5 stars

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

At the moment scientists think that we are in the midst of the sixth extinction. The attrition rate of what used to be common species is just shocking and whilst we know some of the headline species that are at a critical level, such as Javan rhinoceros and Snow Leopards, there are bound to be a lot of other species that we have no idea about that are at a similar critical level.

As morbid as it sounds, Michael Blencowe has had a fascination with extinct creatures since childhood. That fascination has fully developed into an obsession, the result of which is this book. He travels around the world in search of the remnants of some of his favourite long-gone creatures with the hope of seeing or maybe even getting to touch some of these animals that are sadly no longer with us.

There are eleven animals in this book that he is looking for and he will head to San Francisco, Finland and New Zealand to search for the last traces of these magnificent animals. His first creature, though is more local, the Great Auk. These used to live in the UK and could be found on the various tiny islands scattered across the North Atlantic seaboard, but he was heading to Lundy to see where a vicar had been given an enormous egg by an islander. These huge birds were not able to fly, rather they were more like the penguins in the Southern Hemisphere and almost exclusively aquatic creature, By 1830 there was just one island left with these magnificent birds on and ironically their rarity made them more valuable. Soon they were all gone. And we had killed every last one.

There are still remains though, these are tucked away in museums where he heads to see the last example of this species. Another bird that suffered at the hands of greedy collectors was the Spectacled Cormorant. This was gone by 1852, and it was only after this that it was discovered that it had a much wider range than just the Bearing Sea. Not quite as beautiful is the Steller’s Sea Cow which is a dugong with skin as furrowed as oak bark and weighing ten tonnes. These huge animals were first spotted after the naturalist, Stellar has spotted them in the sea on the island they were shipwrecked on. It wouldn’t be long before they were no more too.

Even though it is a grim subject, I thought that Blencowe has written a really nice book. He is a lyrical writer and at times his prose is quite funny. This is a well-researched book. On top of that, he is passionate about his long-gone subjects, deftly mixing in his current travels with the historical context of how these animals disappeared. It is a warning shot across the bows too, a reminder that we are responsible for a lot of these extinctions at the moment and it will only get better if we change our habits and practices and see that the entire biosphere is interlinked and that our actions will have dramatic consequences. I thought that the artworks in the book by artist, Jade They are just beautiful. Definitely worth reading too.

May 2021 TBR

Another month passes and I suddenly realised that I haven’t decided what I am going to read for next month! Quickly shuffled around the spreadsheets and now have a list for May. Totally ambitious as ever, but I did read a fair amount in April. So here we go:

Finishing Off

Lotharingia – Simon Winder

Behind the Enigma – John Ferris



To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre – Victoria Bennett

Empire Of Ants – Suzanne Foitzik & Olaf Fritsche


Review Copies

Wyntertide – Andrew Caldecot

Astral Travel – Elizabeth Baines

The Germans and Europe – Peter Millar

Reset – Ronald J. Deibert

Britain Alone – Philip Stephens

The Future of You – Tracey Follows

We Own This City – Justin Fenton

Born Digital – Robert Wigley

Fox Fires – Wyl Menmuir

Invisible Work – John Howkins

The Power of Geography – Tim Marshall

Finding True North – Linda Gask

Elites – Douglas Board

Trimming England – M.J. Nicholls

The Fugitives – Jamal Mahjoub

Spaceworlds: Stories of Life in the Void – Ed. Mike Ashley

Slow Trains Around Spain – Tom Chesshyre

Westering – Laurence Mitchell

Much Ado About Mothing – James Lowen

Earthed A Memoir – Rebecca Schiller

Phosphorescence – Julia Baird

The Others – Raül Garrigasait

Burning The Books – Richard Ovenden

The Four Horsemen – Emily Mayhew



Everybody Lies – Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

On the Plain of Snakes – Paul Theroux

Notes From Deep Time – Helen Gordon

Sea People – Christina Thompson

Summer In The Islands – Matthew Fort

The Electricity Of Every Living Thing – Katherine May


Books to Clear

Battle of the Titans – Fred Vogelstein

Where My Heart Used to Beat – Sebastian Faulks

Prisioners of Geography – Tim Marshall



Three this month as I only read one in April

Watery Through the Gaps – Emma Blas

To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre – Victoria Bennett

Door Into The Dark – Seamus Heaney


Challenge Books

From Rome to San Marino – Oliver Knox


Stanford Award

Without Ever Reaching the Summit – Paolo Cognetti

The Border – Erika Fatland Tr. Kari Dickson

Shadow City – Taran Khan

Travelling While Black – Nanjala Nyabola

Owls of the Eastern Ice – Jonathan C. Slaght


Science Fiction

Planetfall – Emma Newman

After Atlas – Emma Newman

I know it is quite a lot, but I am hoping to get to at least 18 – 20 of them

The Spirit of the River by Declan Murphy

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

I have been fortunate to see a few glimpses of kingfishers, they are super fast and you have to learn where they will be perched to see them feeding. That iridescent blue flash is captivating for many others too, one of whom is Declan Murphy. He first spotted one of these birds as a young lad and he never forgot it.

Nature becomes more than his crutch; it was his comfort and became his way of coping with the world around him. He had spent time watching a family of woodpeckers in the past and realise that even though he had seen a lot of kingfishers, he knew nothing about their habits and lives. He decided that it would be an opportunity to find a pair and spend a spring and summer watching them. It would also mean that he was immersed in the natural world once again. But first, he had to find them.

He stood on the bridge on his first trip to the river watching the mass of water rush underneath that Storm Daniel had unleashed on the land. It didn’t bode well. However, over the noise of the water, he could hear birdsong. It took a little while, but he then spotted the bird creating the song; a Dipper. These are amazing little birds who forage for food in rivers picking invertebrates out from the river beds. They would be a perfect bird to watch as he tried to locate where the kingfishers were nesting.

Then one day he spots the flash of blue on his way to see the dippers. They were back and now he had to try and find where they were going to be nesting, it would be a bit of a challenge given the landscape. But a chance spot of a pair helped him to locate the unusual spot where they were nesting. Now he knew their spot, he would spend as long as he could there watching them.

Overall I liked this book, though there were a couple of parts that I didn’t think fitted with the rest of the book, though I understand why they were included. Murphy has a keen eye and is able to describe the things that he is seeing on the river in enough detail so you feel that you are participating in watching the dippers or kingfishers alongside him. The writing style is conversational, he has put in long hours watching the kingfishers raising their brood into a pretty good book. I can imagine him telling you of his day’s exploits a watching these birds over a pint in the pub. I am not sure which part I liked the most, the chapters about the kingfishers or the chapters on the dippers.

How To Be Sad by Helen Russell

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

In this perfect Instagrammable life that we are supposed to be leading, there is no space for boredom or sadness. These things do not fit in the busy lives of influencers and celebrities and they expect us to follow their lead. Not only are we not allowed to be sad now, but people are scared of this emotion and seem to want to do every to protect themselves and their loved ones from experiencing it. Only the visible outpouring of grief for celebrities that we have never met seems to be acceptable forms of emotion.

But being sad is just a normal emotion it shouldn’t be something that we push to one side in the hope that it will go away and we can carry on as before. In this book, Russell thinks that we should fully embrace it, learn what is happening to us when we are sad and the best ways of getting through it and out the other side. She has had plenty of time to be sad in her life, details of which she expands on in the book. Sometimes her sadness leads onto moments of depression and other illnesses.

There are lots of things out there to help us when we are suffering from moments of sadness the music to choose, the places to go, apps that can help when you are at your lowest ebb and the buddy system so you can have a person to lean on as and when you need it. There is even a recommendation for reading fiction when sad, and if you can’t bring yourself to pick up a book then an audiobook can have the same effect. Getting out of the home can be a big help too, either for a walk or if feeling particularly brave cold water swimming.

I thought that was a really well-considered and researched book that Russell has written about the subject of sadness. I feel that she is spot on with her conclusion that the pursuit of happiness and the perfect ‘Instagram’ life is causing so many problems, especially when people have those times in their lives that don’t conform to their expectations. Even though she has written this book to help you, it doesn’t feel like a self-help book. She is not preachy but guides with humour her experiences about how to be sad and how to get through it in a positive way. The advice is sensible and more importantly achievable and she details how that will help us to appreciate the happier times much more. Well worth reading.

Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

4 out of 5 stars

This is not a comfortable read by any means. Gleeson has had a tough life, having had to have hip replacements, treatment for Leukaemia and what seems like reading this a raft of other ailments. On top of that with she and other women are on the receiving end of the strong catholic patriarchy in modern-day Ireland. It is a culture that sees women purely for their baby-carrying duties and still has to ‘cleanse’ them after they have given birth as they think it is unclean.

This is a memoir of suffering, but also of life. Gleeson has never been a person to dwell on the life that she has been gifted, rather she sees it as a way of understanding more about herself and more importantly helping and giving hope to other women in similar positions with long term and chronic illnesses. It is not all about her though, there is an essay on her Aunt Terry whose mind is beginning to fade away from the terrible disease that is Alzheimer’s and the story of Beryl Markham who flew across the Atlantic from East to West and took a sandwich and a flask of tea.

She is spirited enough to see through all of this, persuading relatives who are against abortion to change their mind and vote for it, educating her children that these things are about choices that you make about your body and these things should not be dictated by someone who has no interest in your welfare. She can be quite graphic in her description of medical treatments and also critical of some of the doctors that she has been treated by, who have shown very little empathy about her various conditions. This lyrical and book is her way of shining a light on the manifestly unfair system in her home and should be essential reading for everyone who wishes to gain an insight into improving the ways of treating women in particular.

Stroke by Ricky Monahan Brown

3 out of 5 stars

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

Losing his job as a financial lawyer was pretty grim that day, but he was trying to make the best of it. They had taken his daughter from a previous relationship to the New York Hall of Science where they had participated in some of the high school’s projects that were on display. Beth and he dropped her off home and went for a couple of beers and a few games of pool, before grabbing a pizza and heading home. It was while in bed that he began to feel a little weird down his left-hand side. He decided to lie quietly for a little while, saying, ‘Don’t worry, Everything is going to be fine.’

That was the last thing he said before losing consciousness.

Beth called him an ambulance and he was rushed to Brooklyn’s New York Methodist Hospital. It took eight minutes to get him there. He was swiftly diagnosed with a haemorrhagic stroke, an intracerebral bleed that only lasts 10 seconds or less. The surgeon reckoned that he had a 5% chance of having a ‘good outcome’ and that would be surviving in a non-vegetative state and free from paralysis. When tested he had a grade five on the Hunt and Hess scale and it really didn’t look good. Beth was worrying herself to death and refused to go home. She curled up in a chair in the waiting room and tried to get some sleep. She didn’t know if she would see Ricky alive again.

Ricky did survive and began the long slow and occasionally traumatic process of recovery. This book is that story.

There is no such thing as life, yet it can blink out in an instant.

The first thing to say about this book is it is a miracle that he is even here at all to have been able to write the book in the first place, let alone having staged a good enough recovery to get back to something resembling a normal life now in Scotland. It is a book very much about him and all the trials and tribulations of his medical attention as well as his partner, Beth and her commitment to seeing his recovery through to the end. It is not too badly written either and doesn’t get too bogged down in lots of medical jargon, though that is present to a certain extent. But that might be too much for some people.

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson

3.5 out of 5 stars

Spring in Japan is all about the cherry blossom. It is a national obsession and like with their thing about wacky games shows, they take it very seriously indeed. The season sweeps from Okinawa in the most southerly island up across the two main islands of Shikokuan and Honshu and onto the most northerly island of Hokkaido. It is called the Sakura Zensen and its progress is tracked daily on the news with elaborate maps and statistics on the amount of blossom available in any particular area on a given day.

Ferguson had been teaching in Japan for two years. He liked the job and the substantial salary that came with it and got along really well with the other teachers. One of the highlights of their year was the cherry blossom viewing that they did. They would admire the blossom and drink fairly large quantities of beer. The hangover and realising just how much he had spent the following day were less welcome though.

One year after possibly one too many sake’s he announced that he would like to follow the Cherry Blossom Front from Cape Sata rich up to the northern island. The following morning he couldn’t remember it at all, it was only when people, reminded him of what he has said that it dawned on him that they expected him to actually do it. His supervisor thought it was a good idea and suggested a rail pass. Ferguson thought about it and decided that he would hitchhike there. It would be another three years before he would start his journey.

He did feel slightly daft sticking his thumb out to grab a lift and did wonder if he would have anyone stop to pick him up. He had shaved off his beard and even had gone as far as putting on a tie to try and make himself look a presentable westerner. It is not long before a car pulls over. As he was expecting, it was a white Honda Civic. The passenger door swings open and a young Japanese woman looks out smiling. American she says. He knows it is not a question…

She cannot take him all the way to Cape Sata but drops him in the middle of a town before carrying on. After his first journey, he is already lost. He wandered around hopelessly before managing to grab a second lift. It is a big black saloon car and full of children, one who cannot hide her astonishment about the new passenger in their car. The driver advises him that he was going in the wrong direction and said he would drop him on the coast highway. He pulls over makes a call from a payphone (remember them?). He has told his wife he is going to be late and is going to take him all the way to Cape Sata.

This is just the start of his journey heading northwest across Japan. All the way along the roads he is hitchhiking from he finds drivers who are prepared to go that little bit further for him. Turns out the Japanese people are as warm as they are strange. He is the recipient of countless generous moments from buying drinks to one guy paying for a meal and then the hotel room. He has lots of conversations with the people in what they normally consider part of their private space, their cars.

Each of these transitory meetings with the people of each island of Japan are full of warmth. He has a slightly embarrassing visit to a sex museum and winces at the main object of the Taga shrine. Not all of his travelling in cars, he sometimes has to take a streetcar and mises the odd ferry occasionally, gets spectacularly wet even whilst wearing a plastic poncho and squeezes into a capsule hotel.

I quite liked this book. Ferguson is not a bad writer overall. He doesn’t spend much time in the cities that he passes through so you get more of a flavour about the Japan that most people never see, the rural and coastal places that still support a way of life that has changed very little in some ways. There are some funny parts with some genuine laugh out loud moments, but I felt that the humour felt a bit forced at times. It might not be for everyone, but I have found that reading four books on one country from very different perspectives has given me a range of insights and perspectives on the place and I would love to visit it one day.

The Bells Of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman

5 out of 5 stars

Until 1854 Japan was a close society. Outsiders were not permitted to land and the residents of the country were not allowed to travel to other places. Whilst this introspection for most countries would be unhealthy, in Japan, it helped form a culture unlike any other in the world. The shoguns had tight control over the city of Edo’s inhabitants and they kept daily time using bells. The city was to become Tokyo and Sherman is in the country to search for those great bells.

When it was Edo, there were only three bells in the city, One was in Nihonbashi, the prison at the heart of the city, one near the north-eastern temple and the third in Ueno near the Demon Gate. As the city grew a further eight bells were needed. The bells define when to rise, when to eat, when to work and the time to sleep.

Besides the metal plaque was a map showing the sound range of each bell, a series of circles overlapping each other like raindrops in a still pool. Raindrops frozen at the moment they strike water.

The composer Yoshimura Hiroshi had written a book called Edo’s Bells of Time, in this he travelled far and wide across the city listening for the sounds that would have been present 500 years ago. Mostly they are now swamped by the noises of our modern world, but they are still there if you know where to go and how to listen. Inspired by this Sherman decides that she wants to see these places where the bells once tolled.

Her hotel room is opposite a huge glass building, so she asks to move to another room. That room is overlooking the Hibiya and the canals that ring the imperial palace, the city had vanished. She heads to where the first Bell of Time used to be. Now not a prison, it is a sterile playground now but the bell still hangs in a tower, guarded by a dragon and is now silent apart for once a year when it is rung. The groundsman shows her where the prisoners used to be executed and then goes back to brushing the ground.

This is the first of her steps back in time to discover more about these bells, and she does get to see and hear some of them too, including one bell that was first cast in 698. She sees all these things as an outsider, someone who has not had a Japanese upbringing and therefore is not aware of the subtle customs that form part of the fairly rigid society in the past and the nuances that still are present in the modern city of Tokyo.

One constant is her travels around the city is the coffee bar of Diabo Katsuji. It was not a place that you would discover by accident, you had to know it was at the top of the narrow stairs. In a city that was constantly changing minute by minute, this was a place of statis. He was a legendary coffee maker who roasted his coffee each morning while reading a paperback. She didn’t realise just how famous he was until later on.

One Tokyo was going to sleep while the other was waking up. The two cities share the same space, but never meet.

This is a wonderful book and I found her prose sublime. Sherman is fascinated by almost every part of the city and the people there, from the ritual of the coffee being made, the way that Tokyo felt almost like a living pulsating being at times and a few pages later she is away from the mass of humanity, visiting an island of old clocks, or observing the rituals to enter a sanctuary, a silent place in the centre of a city that never sleeps. But this is about the bells and the stories of the people that struck the bells thrice, twelve times a day. It might not be for everyone, but I have found that reading four books on one country from very different perspectives has given me a range of insights and perspectives on the place and I would love to visit it one day.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan by Pico Iyer

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Japanese have a unique culture that is unlike almost any other on this planet. It has been influencing the world since the end of the Second world war too, partly through the high quality and reliable cars and electronic products that they make and that have become household names, but also things like anime, Hello Kitty, the cherry blossom and their distinctive gardens to name but a few. Their tiny archipelago of islands is home to 120 million people. I have never yet been fortunate to visit, one day perhaps.

One man who has lived there for over 30 years is Pico Iyer. He is married to a Japanese lady who has taught him Japanese, even though he still considers himself a beginner when speaking. But that length of time that he has spent immersed in the culture means that he has a rich seam of information to draw on for this book.

‘Emotions’ writes the Zen philosopher, D. T. Suzuki, ‘are just the play of light and shadow on the sea’

Written in a series of small observations and vignettes, Iyer explores what makes the Japanese and their culture so very different from all that he has grown up with and experienced in the UK and America. In each of these sentences or paragraphs are nuggets of information or insight into the country he has chosen to make his home. There is no middle ground, he can either be or not be Japanese.

They are a people constrained by tradition, a people who prefer to be a player rather than be seen to be a leader. It is as he describes it, a land of hesitation. Even though tradition is important, they are constantly reinventing themselves. Partly because this is a land of earthquakes and things are never permanent, there is a shrine at Ise that is rebuilt around every 20 years. The trees used are 300 – 500 years old, so it is simultaneously new and ancient at the same time.

‘The contradictions that the mind comes up against,’ writes Simone Weil, ‘these are the only realities.’

This is not a travel book in the conventional sense. These shards of his observations of the country are bought together in the style of kintsugi, the technique that the Japanese repair broken ceramic with gold and resin to often make a more beautiful object. It might not be for everyone, but I have found that reading four books on one country from very different perspectives has given me a range of insights and perspectives on the place and I would love to visit it one day.

Touring The Land Of The Dead by Maki Kasimada

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

There are two short novellas in this book. The first is about a man called Taichi who was forced to cease work a number of years ago. They have somehow managed to survive on his wife, Natsuko’s wages from her part-time job. This is nothing unusual for her; she had a tough upbringing when her mother had almost no money and she and her brother live a hand to mouth existence.

She happens to see an advert for a spa and then realises that it is now based in a luxury hotel that her grandfather had taken her mother to when she was little. She rashly decides to treat her husband to a trip there even though she knows it is going to cost her a small fortune that she can ill afford. What she doesn’t expect is the waves of memories of her once comfortable life, that wash over her causing anguish and chasing lingering regrets.

She could hear the sound of the waves. Her tears, the waves of her emotions, had taken the form of a deep, soughing basso continuo. There was a sea in her heart, always undulating.

The second novella is about four sisters who are still living at home in their Tokyo apartment. Nanako is the youngest and still at college and they have all made a vow not to ever marry. All the sister have a close and intimate, relationship, almost bordering on obsession in Nanako’s case.

This changes when a man called S is new in the neighbourhood. The older sisters had first seen him at the Azalea Festival at the Nezu Shrine and from what Nanako could gather all three of her sisters had fallen in love with him. It goes from being a fairly harmonious and close family to one where they all want to be with this guy.

I have read a little Japanese fiction in the past, in particular, Murakami and Ishiguro. I always find that Japanese fiction has a slightly surreal way of looking at life. This book has that same otherworldly feeling too, because I get a slightly disconcerting feeling observing a very different culture to mine. I think that it is a good thing to have my perceptions broadened and challenged with regards to literature. I quite liked these stories and Kasimada has a way of getting these reflections of her society through her characters. The second story might not be for everyone though. It might not be for everyone, but I have found that reading four books on one country from very different perspectives has given me a range of insights and perspectives on the place and I would love to visit it one day.

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