Category: Review (Page 2 of 110)

Umbria by Patricia Clough

4 out of 5 stars

The first book I read about someone buying and doing up a house in another country was A Year in Provence. I thought it was a wonderful book and I fell in love with travel writing at that moment. It has been repeated in many different ways by authors in many different countries with often predictable results. Patricia Clough, a former foreign correspondent, wanted to buy a house in Umbria, but this book is not about the delights and pitfalls of doing that, rather it is the story of the place that she has chosen to make her home.

I remember Antonio Carluccio calling it the belly button of Italy on one of his tv food programmes and it is one of those places that has recently been in the shadow of Tuscany. However, in this book, Clough wants to set the record straight about the region. She has chapters on the people the food and how sometime sit is shaken to it very core as it sits on a fault line. We are led by her through the history of the place and how the poor were ruled by the elite and church, but also how they have begun to flourish under the more liberal modern governments.

It is a place that I have been fortunate to visit and I really liked this gentle introduction to Umbria. Her writing is precise and measured as I’d expect from a journalist. But in that sparse prose, she gives a full account of living in this wonderful part of Italy. I was kind of expecting a Grand Designs with olives, but this is not a blow by blow account of her buying a house and doing it up, though it is mentioned at the end as she imparts her advice of what to look for and do should this be a burning desire. Rather this is an evocative meander through the history and people of Umbria and it bought back happy memories of visiting there.

Secret Bristol by James Macveigh

2.5 out of 5 stars

I have never lived in a city, just small to medium towns, but the thing that I like about them is they have layers and layers of history provided you know where to look. Brito is one of those that can trace its roots back to prehistory and the opening chapter in this book starts with the traces that the people of that time left behind.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t a city back then, but when the Romans arrived they saw the strategic advantage of the place and left remnants of their villas for use to find a couple of thousand years later. There was probably a lot happening in the dark ages, but as very few people wrote it down, not much is known about it. But with the Normans arrival, the historical record gets a lot better.

It is known as a trading city and parts of the book explore the things that were imported in and exported from the docks. The money that was made by the merchants of the city was not always from ethical sources, hence the rightful removal of that statue a little while back. There were some things in here that I knew, but there was a number that I didn’t. One was finding out that the third largest set of standing stones in the UK is in Bristol!

I haven’t been to Bristol that often, but a couple of years ago a relative moved there and we thought we would be visiting more often. The pandemic put paid to that… But this is a useful little guide to some of the places in Bristol that are worth a look next time I am there.

Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard

4 out of 5 stars

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

Her family have always worked with the forest originally by logging parts of it and sending the vast trunks downriver. She joined the forest service and it was there that she first noticed that some trees that had been planned were really not doing well at all. She checked them and they had been planted to the specification laid out, these had been drawn up to ensure even growth of the trees, but they were dying. Yet nearby were trees in a patch of ground that was in rude health. What was going on?

In other parts of the forest, she would find seedlings growing happily under larger trees that seemed to be existing on almost no water, and yet elsewhere on new plantations, small trees were not getting the water and nutrients that they needed. She did not know how this was happening and working out why they were dying would consume her completely.

This book is the journey of that discovery, how she used radioactive carbon isotopes to see how water and nutrients were passed between trees in a healthy forest and what place the networks of mycelium played in the process.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir

I thought that this was very good indeed. She is a brilliant scientist and a good communicator. The work that she has done in investigating the way that mycelium connects between the same species of trees and very different species helps them both to live better. But tangled in this book is the story of her life and her battle with cancer and the fight she had with the forestry establishment and vested interests to get her research taken seriously. It is a seriously good read.

Hope And Fear by Ronald H. Fritze

4 out of 5 stars

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

I have always had an interest in conspiracy theories, not because I believe any of them are true, just a curiosity about where they have originated from and if there were any grains of truth in the stories. A read a number of books in my teenage years, including the thoroughly debunked, Chariots of The Gods by Erich von Däniken, and whilst they tell a convincing story, it is just that, a story.

Is there a New World Order and a secret and corrupt Illuminati controlling the world? Probably not, but I do believe that 21st-century billionaires have too much power to ensure their income streams…

Where populations are stressed and unsettled they look for reasons behind the disruption, mostly to try and make sense of what is happening. In this book, Ronald H. Fritze takes us through several of the most well-known conspiracy theories in four fairly substantial chapters on The Templars, Roswell The Lost Tribes of Israel and another on the Nazis.

I thought elements of this book looking into why conspiracy theories gain so much traction in modern society were fascinating. I thought that the writing was well researched and clearly and concisely presented. I did feel that occasionally it does venture into a lot of detail, in particular the chapter on the Nazis.

I especially liked the chapter on the Roswell incident and the way that the Air Force had kept changing its story, which fired the imagination of the people who believed they were covering up more than surveillance balloons. It does now seem to have become an industry in its own right in the town. Sadly, there is very little on the rise on QAnon, the most recent set of unhinged conspiracy theories to race their way around the world, just a few pages in the final chapter. It would have been good to have a little more about that and the speculation on the origins of Covid. A good introduction to the way that people can become all-consumed by these theories and suspend all rational thought.

Shalimar by Davina Quinlivan

4 out of 5 stars

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

I don’t think that who we are can never be absolutely defined, we are people who ebb and flow like the tides. Our character is made up from our successes and failures, our DNA and our sense of belonging in the places we choose to live. That fluidity can be pushed to its limits for those that have had to leave their country of birth to move elsewhere. A detail even more poignant at the moment with the flood of people leaving Ukraine for their own safety.

Davina Quinlivan’s family originate from Burma and her father arrived in the UK at the age of 18 in the mid-1950s. They are not just Burmese though, tracing her family back she finds a rich and diverse cultural heritage from Germany, Ireland, India and China. She considered that her identity was rooted in the place where she was born, London, but the threads linking her to Burma were stronger than she thought.

Her childhood was strongly influenced by her wider family trying to replicate the life they had had back in Burma, cooking the same food and following the same rituals. It gave her memories of a place that she never knew in the same way as they did. This entangled mesh of memory and family is sometimes rooted in reality and often in that liminal zone of the mind, she calls Shalimar. This is her story of that place.

Over time, this colonisation of the body, engendered through DNA, comes to represent a more tender geography and our lineal likeness, as it finds its way to the surface of the present, is a map of the power we hold inside ourselves.

I thought that this was a wonderfully written book. Quinlivan’s prose is just beautiful, it feels sparse and yet it is loaded with feeling and emotion. Whilst it feels like she is deconstructing her past and family history, she isn’t, she is sifting through it and using it to build a new narrative that defines her and her place in this country. She can hear the echoes of her late father’s voice sometimes when her son speaks. He never met his grandfather and it makes her wonder how he knows how to speak that way, but when she listens there are echoes that she can sometimes hear in her own voice. She knows that all of these threads are how she will make a new map of their lives

Who Are We Now? By Jason Cowley

4 out of 5 stars

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

When I think back to the 1997 election when the inept Tory government was thrown out by the voters and the future seemed bright under the new Labour government we have come a long way. Since then we have had all manner of things to contend with; domestic terrorism, the Olympics, unnecessary wars, the financial crash of 2008, Brexit and most recently the pandemic.

How has this changed us as a country though?

This is the question that Jason Cowley is hoping to answer in this book. He starts though with his aunt who has lived in the same house in Harlow for fifty years. They talk about various things, but he is there to hear about her protest of the closure of a doctor’s surgery. It was a shock announcement and there was no consultation or explanation given, other than it was no longer financially viable. This had been decided by an American Insurance and healthcare provider and no one in the area knew that this company was running an essential medical service. She became a bit of a media star in her protest against the closure.

Brexit is a big theme throughout the book. It was sold to the electorate on the grounds that we would be taking back control. I am not sure we have, but this polarization of our country has not been helped by the lurch to the political right and how we have become much less tolerant of other people and their views. But in amongst this conflict, he shows that people are still working to make our society a much better place.

He visits the Finsbury Park mosque where Imam Mohammed Mahmoud, protected a white terrorist from an angry crowd of worshippers. His quick thinking saved a man’s life that night and more than that diffused a situation that was getting more and more heated. There are stories of hope in here too, people came together to support the vulnerable during the first phase of the pandemic and he notes how the England football team under Gareth Southgate show how a diverse Britain could work if we wanted it to.

I thought this was a well-written book. Cowley is not setting an agenda in this book, rather he is holding a mirror up to the various elements of our society and reporting on them. There are moments of doom and gloom in here as some of what he shows is where society is fracturing, but there are happier stories too. Stories where people are making sure that this diverse and multicultural country that we live in works for them and everyone else. Well worth reading for a view on where our country is at this moment

Elites by Douglas Board

3 out of 5 stars

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

Douglas Board was fortunate. From an early age, he had been coached and schooled to be one of those that are selected to run large organisations and companies. His achievements are the chair of a household-name charity, treasurer of another, and deputy chair of a board-level consultancy. He was fully one of the elite.

Not only did he achieve these lofty positions, but he helped others reach those lucrative senior roles in his position as a head-hunter and mentor to those that wanted to reach the top of the greasy pole. This book is about helping others reach that level should they wish to do so. He takes us through ten lessons, from Reality is Simple, to Take Responsibility and Learn stuff that he says will help people of all levels reach the top, should they wish too.

Wizards who leave top jobs don’t automatically stop becoming wizards, because wizardry is about personal connection and a shared mindset.

Overall this is quite a good read, he is a good writer and the prose is chatty without being too full of business acronyms. I liked parts of this book and there were other parts that I thought less of. I get why he has used the phrases muggles, muggle crust and wizards to denote the levels that people are working at in a business or organisation, but it did come across as slightly patronising. He does go to some effort to suggest the ways that the system can change, and perhaps the disruption that the pandemic has added to the system will help in that, but only time will tell. I don’t think that he has all the answers though, I think that some of the ways that top levels of organisations are structured need to be enforced through wholesale revision to business legislation and the principles by which they operate.

Bengal Lancer by Francis Yeats-Brown

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

In 1905, a young cavalryman arrives in Bengal to serve in the 17th Bengal Lancers on the Northwest Frontier of British India. The nineteen-year-old Francis Yeats-Brown did not know what to expect. On the morning of his arrival in Bareilly, one of the first things that he did was to buy a horse. He called her Judy.

He quickly settled into his privileged new life there, he only had to sign a chit to get anything that he needed. It was when he was out riding his horse though that he got a grasp of how different a life that the people of that vast continent had compared to his. He learnt the army way and was soon be on his way to the northwestern frontier. It was there he would meet the men who would be under his command.

He then had a seminal moment, when he went from doing all the military stuff to realising that there was a spiritual element to the country that he wanted to know about. He sought advice from the yogi, Sivanand Joshi, who advised him that the path he wanted to seek was not going to be easy. It would be a prediction that would prove correct as he is moved from India to Europe to be on active service in the First World War. It was an experience that changed him forever.

This is a very different perspective on the time of the British Raj, mostly because Yeats-Brown is passionately interested in the people that he was living alongside and in particular, their spiritual way of life. It is a book of its time though and some of his prejudices that he has are now out of date, I think that it is still worth reading for this unique inside view of life in that time.

Lotharingia by Simon Winder


The twin counterweights of Europe have always been France and Germany but way back in time, even before the Normans Invaded us, the three grandsons of the great emperor Charlemagne met at Verdun. They were there to settle a long running feud over who would inherit the lands. They finally decided to split the land three ways. One grandson inherited the land that we now know as France, the second grandson was granted the land that was to become Germany and the third grandson received the land that split these two.

It was called Lotharingia.

It stretched from the mouth of the Rhine to the alps, and as a place, it doesn’t exist now; unless you know where to look. In this book, Simon Winder will take us back to the beginning when it was handed to the third grandson and bring us an irreverent and personal history of the towns, cities and new countries that we know it by today.

It is a wide-ranging book and sometimes I felt there was too much emphasis on the history of the region. I had hoped for more travel, especially as it was shortlisted for a travel writing prize and whilst there is some in here it very much plays second fiddle to the history.

I didn’t love it, but I did like the book. There were some amusing parts and thankfully he is quite an engaging writer, however, he does indulge himself in researching these places and people that shaped this part of Europe. He does say many times throughout the book that he could have written much more about particular subjects or people, but I felt it should have had a much stricter editor who could have made the prose tighter and shorter. I also felt that it lacked a cohesive thread, but then I suppose that reflects the mess that the place was until recently. If you have read any of his other books in the trilogy, Germania and Danubia then this is probably worth reading too.

The Year the World Went Mad by Mark Woolhouse

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Remember 2019? Everything seemed normal back then but little did we know what was about to arrive. I can’t remember the first time that I had heard about this unusual SARS-like illness that had appeared in Wuhan in China, but I think that it was February. The last event that I went to with people was the Stanford Travel Writing Awards at the end of February. Ironic given that travel and many other things would be shut down a couple of weeks later.

I remember seeing what was happening in Italy and thinking that it might arrive here but really didn’t know what to make of it. Leading epidemiologist Professor Mark Woolhouse learned of a new virus that had appeared in China in early January. He wrote to the Chief Medical Officer of Scotland recommending that they should prepare and got a polite reply that basically said that everything was in hand.

It wasn’t…

In this book, he critiques the way that the UK government tackled the situation fairly, praising them for the things that they did well and rightly criticising them for the many things that they did poorly. He explains his reasoning for not having lockdowns and the immense damage that they cause society as a whole as the ongoing mental health issues that are going to take a long time to cure. He sets out what he considers the procedures and protocols that should have been used instead and how these could have protected people instead of ending up with the frankly horrendous death toll that we have in this country.

I thought that this was a well written and considered book about the UK response to the Covid 19 pandemic. Throughout the book, Woolhouse is very clear on his position on lockdowns and the damage that they cause and he makes a very strong case for his way of thinking. His writing is pragmatic but he occasionally ventures into fairly technical jargon, but thankfully it is not very often. He does say that next time and there will be a next time for this type of medical emergency, we need to do things much better and move much faster in our responses.

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