Author: Paul (Page 2 of 127)

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.

Tall Trees Short Stories: Volume 21 by Gabriel Hemery

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

This is Hemery’s second collection of stories that have trees in the story in some way or other. His imagination is broad, mixing stories about ecology with science fiction, a court case following a murder and a magical story about how oxford got its name. There are poems in here too, as well as a disturbing story about a man falling for a girl in the opposite flat. The Coopers Tale is a story about a cooper who been asked by a woman wearing a hooded cloak to make a barrel that would be used to hold a most unusual item.

Everyone of us should be a forester

I really liked the Oxbridge Environmental Dictionary, it is a fast-paced story about one of the last books in the world that had been stolen and one man’s drive to reclaim it. As with every collection that I read, there are stories that I prefer over others and this was not an exception. There is lots of variety in the stories that Hemrey has penned here, there is more sex in them too, which might not be for everyone.

Three Favourite Stories
Tree Angel

Symbols by Joseph Piercy

3 out of 5 stars

Symbols are ubiquitous now, Almost like a modern-day hieroglyph, they are universal and it doesn’t matter what language that you speak they are easily understood.

They have been used for thousands of years too, Piercy begins his book looking at the Palaeolithic art that has been found in caves all over the world. The artworks mentioned in the book were found in a cave in Ardeche, France and were behind a rockfall. These show depictions of various animals and are around 30,000 years old. The Rosetta Stone is his next subject and he explains how this tablet was the key to understanding the hieroglyphs.

Symbols are very important in religion and there are short essays about the symbols used in the three Abrahamic religions, the Cross, the star and crescent and the Star of David. In this second section, he includes the swastika and details how this originally was a symbol of good luck and how it was appropriated by the Nazis and is now rightly much-reviled. Two much nicer symbols are the Smiley and the classic I 🖤 NY and I learnt a little about their history.

Money may not make the world go around, that is physics, but it is an invention that we cannot do without in the modern world. There are short pieces on the £, $ and € and a brief mention of the ¥. There is a brief sojourn into the mathematical world and a little about symbols used to define ownership, © and TM. There are also modern symbols, Bluetooth and WiFi and a little on their creations

There is an interesting essay about how the UK road signs went from being a jumbled mess of all sorts of different fonts and sizes to a super clear and organised system. He also mentions the Tube Map, not really a symbol in my opinion though. I did like the bit on the signs that the hobo’s used in America.

Not a bad little book overall, Piercy has uncovered all sorts of details about the origins of the symbols that he has included. It has a much wider scope than Hyphens and Hashtags which I read recently, but in any book like this it is only ever going to be an overview of the subject rather than an in-depth analysis.

Hyphens & Hashtags by Claire Cock-Starkey

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Letters are combined to make words and sentences are the lifeblood of our language, but to make sense of things that we write we need those symbols that are scattered or frame the edges of our sentences. But there are far more than the full stops, commas and question marks that we currently use.

In this delightful little book, Cock-Starkey is on the search of the origins of thirty-eight different symbols in our language, mathematics and online world. There are essays on brackets, the copyright symbol, the equals sign and then even on some of those that are now falling out of use now.

I love the fantastically named interrobang, a symbol that is a combination of the exclamation and question marks and could frankly be often used when commenting on social media posts. Most people are aware of the hashtag # now (which as I am writing this on a Mac is always a pain to find). On Twitter and other social media sites is acts as a mini search engine that put you in contact with other thinking along the same lines. One tip I learnt recently is that for multi-word hashtags always capitalise #EachWord as some hashtags can look very rude out of context!

One of my favourite punctuation marks is the little-used semi-colon; I think that they’re great and add in that extra pause in the prose. The ampersand or & is a funny character, it looks like a number 8 that someone didn’t finish properly, but its origins can be traced back to the city of Pompei where an early example was discovered on a wall. Pi is one of those mathematical symbols that is literally infinite it goes on forever without any form of repetition forever and ever and ever… Another thing that I learnt was that I have been looking at the pilcrow for years in word documents and did not know what it was let alone what it is called.

If you are fascinated by languages then this book is a good sideways step to take to learn about some of the symbols that we use in our daily conversations. The essays are light and fun to read, they don’t go overboard with reams of information, but have enough detail to make them interesting.

How The Hell Are You? By Glyn Maxwell

4 out of 5 stars

Wandering through the library just before they shut for the latest lockdown after Christmas, I spotted this on the display table and thought I would grab a copy. I had a vague recollection that it was on my TBR and it turned out that it was.

It is a strange collection in some ways, there are poems he imagines an abandoned AI would write, poems on bluebirds and foxes, a poem about a conversation with time and another on waking. The form of each poem changes from short stanzas to long more immersive writing, some of them flow like water over rocks, in others, he has chosen words that deliberately jar against each other.


sunbeams at your fingers

are all the words you wish on me

the patterns of your dust


with nowhere to land,

no page or port or platform, no

whiteness to be seen


nor silence to be heard by,

no form on earth to catch them

as they fall, they still fall


I first read this a little while ago and have only got around to reviewing it recently. I looked a the scant notes that I had made and went back through looking at the poems that I liked and found others that when I first read it, hadn’t had an impact on me that they did the second time of dipping into the book. It is probably a sign of a good collection that each time you venture within the covers something different is revealed. I didn’t really notice it at the time, but the cover in itself is quite shocking, I find the image of a scarecrow with a gas mask has an element of folk horror; having the dog there diffuses it a little. I think that I might have to get my own copy of this.


Three Favourite Poems

The Forecast


Blank Pages Dream

Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler by Stephen Moss

4 out of 5 stars

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

As I am sitting here early in the morning writing this review I am watching a couple of blue tits feeding themselves from the coconut that is hanging outside my office window. They are fascinating little birds to watch, especially their acrobatics on the feeders. But where did their name come from? I can understand the blue part and the top plumage is a lovely sky blue However, there are also yellow and green feathers. What about the tit part? (Stop sniggering at the back). It turns out it means small.

Long time birder, Stephen Moss has been fascinated with the origins of birds manes since he first came across a bird from Africa called Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, a bird that he first came across in a weekly magazine called Birds of the World. It would drop onto his doormat early on a Saturday morning and he would spend the rest of the day engrossed in its contents. There was a clue in its Latin name, Scepomycter winifredae, it was named after someone called Winifred Moreau. But who was she? And how did she come to have a bird named after her? It was a story that he would keep returning to and it was also a bird that he hoped to travel all the way to Tanzania to see one day.

There are some birds where the common name that they have ended up with seems obvious, blackbird for example. But other birds are black, like ravens and crows, why are they not blackbirds too? It turns out that the explanation behind this is not much to do with the actual birds rather it comes from language and more specifically the melding of two languages, Germanic English and Norman French and how the meanings changed over time.

It is a natural thing for humans to want to label the things that they see around them each day. Because of this, bird names have not just come from language but have been named after people and places as well as their habits and how birds have also named other things, like a once-popular football game.

Moss’s writing is as good as ever. He mixes well-researched facts with personal stories and interesting anecdotes tracing the origins of the names of the birds that we see every day. Whilst it is not a comprehensive guide to every single one of the 10,000 or so species there is enough in here for the reader to begin their own searches for the bird names that fascinate them.

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