Category: Review (Page 2 of 102)

The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West

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 Belfast in 1914, there is an added interest in spiritualism again. More people than ever are attending seances again, with the hope of getting back in contact with loved ones who have since departed. William Crawford Jackson’s wife, Elizabeth, is one of those from high society who has a particular interest in this, hoping to get back into contact with her brother who was lost on the Titanic two years before.

He had discovered this by accident when he found a letter from the maid who has just left and he decides to follow Elizabeth to see where she is going. He sees her disappear into a house and notices a figure in the upstairs window looking down on him. It turns out that this is the famed medium, Kathleen Goligher. Jackson who is a Professor of Engineering is not particularly happy about this. He is very sceptical that it is real and dissuades Elizabeth from going to them again.

Money is tight in the house and his new textbook that the publisher thought would do well has sold poorly. He meets with a man at a party who persuades him to undertake some scientific research into mediums. His investigations become famous and he becomes known as the Spirit Engineer. However, will he prove one way or the other if these are genuine contacts with those now dead or just fraud…

I am not a great reader of Gothic melodramas, there is nothing wrong with them per se, it is just not my sort of thing, but I quite liked this. It is based on real events and people that West has used to create this story, adding to and embellishing the facts with a narrative that flows really well. The main character, William Crawford Jackson, is not particularly likeable, suffering as much from his own internal demons and vanity as he does from external pressure from society at that time. I don’t mind unlikeable characters in books as it makes for a more interesting story and it works in this book as the plot builds towards the end.

The Wheel by Jennifer Lane

4 out of 5 stars

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

Jennifer Lane had lots of opportunities ahead of her. She was an award-winning writer who had been published in many prestigious periodicals, but with this success came the many pressures of modern life. The relentless deadlines, long days and sometimes unbearable pressure. She thought she was coping, but one winter she reached a breaking point with the stress of everything.

She knew what she had to do though and that was to take charge of her destiny once again. The day was the 21st of December, I know it as the winter solstice but for a witch, this was Yule; the fire season. Her current life needed to go. Into the cauldron went the lists of things to do, notes for projects and other papers and she lit it. As they burnt, the white paper turning to black ash, a weight was lifted from her.

This was only the start though, she was going to rediscover the solace and purpose that witchcraft had given her as a teenager. She would follow the ritual from the Wheel of the Year that divides the regular calendar year into eight and is focused around the solstices and equinoxes. It is a system that seeks to find balance and harmony with the natural world and her body was yearning for it.

Her particular version of witchcraft is rooted in Wicca and she has adapted it to suit her particular needs, using Reiki and crystals at specific moments. Her journey was painful at times, as she moves away from the stresses and anxieties that nearly pushes her over the edge. But in here too, are moments of joy love, laughter and most of all healing as she rediscovers a path that she thought was once lost.

Lane is an engaging and thoughtful writer. She has a way of explaining the key elements of witchcraft that make it feel like a normal process that is as ancient as it is intrinsically linked to the world we inhabit. It doesn’t feel evil or weird occult practice. Her connection to this way of life has been rocky because of the pressures of modern life, but the journey that she takes us on around the wheel of the year shows how this works for her and gives her the tools to cope with the stresses of modern life.

Hag by Daisy Johnson

3.5 out of 5 stars

One of the things that set us apart from the other creatures of the planet is our ability to tell stories and to imagine ourselves in the place of others. The stories that we tell are sometimes true and at other times the truth is buried in the legends of the land. Those legends often have a fantastical element that is frequently dark.

To bring these stories to a new modern audience is quite a feat by all these authors. They have all taken the essence of the original and moulded and shaped it to a contemporary context. There was the odd outstanding one, in particular, I liked both the Panther’s Tale and Holloway.

I am going, to be honest and say that I really liked the re-telling and imagining of these old folklore tales compared to the originals. I think it was because the context feels more relevant. That said, the old tales do reach deeper into the darker and creepier shadows that inhabit our landscapes and all the authors of these stories have managed to convey that feeling of dread that you can sometimes get with the old stories both.

The Kindness Of Strangers Ed. By Fearghal O’Nuallain

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Travel is supposed to be challenging, you are out of your comfort zone, you are in unfamiliar places, often surrounded by people who don’t speak the same language as you and have a very different culture. It can pay rich dividends and give you an insight into how people live and how different it is to your way of life. These places that you see, the sunsets that you watch and the interactions that you have with other people, shape who you are.

It is no coincidence that kindness starts with ‘kin’

There are moments though where you are at your lowest ebb or something has happened where you need help and this book is full of those moments where travel writers needed that little bit of compassion from the people around them. There are stories from the well known, such as Benedict Allen and Ed Stafford and other stories from writers that I have not come across, such as Faraz Shibli and Tina Brocklebank.

The stories are as varies as the people who have written them; one writer tries to outrun a blizzard on her bicycle, an out of work forestry worker who would join Ed Stafford on the longest walk of his life and two men who wanted to do the Lands End to John O Groats route starting only in their underwear and who were utterly reliant on the generosity of strangers to clothe and feed them.

I am a part of all that I have met – Tennyson, Ulysses

This is a heartwarming collection of stories from travel writers who have experienced human kindness that was given selflessly by people who were are often in pretty dire straits themselves. That those people who showed compassion and empathy to others in their greatest need shows that as a species we are capable of doing these things.

A Spotter’s Guide to Countryside Mysteries by John Wright

4 out of 5 stars

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

If you have ever been out for a walk in the countryside and wonder what those lumps and bumps in the field are, or curious as to what that pile of sticks is in a tree, then A Spotter’s Guide to Countryside Mysteries is a good a place as any on your journey of discovery.

Split into three sections, the Field, The Wood and the Seashore, Wright leads us on a journey of discovery through the natural and man-made worlds. If you want to know the difference between a tussock, a piddock and a pollard, or what animal actually makes cuckoo spit or where and when you would find hair ice or if cramp balls are as painful as it sounds…

The book is packed full of information about the features that Wright has chosen to include in the book, along with pictures of typical examples to help you find them when you are out and about. I have come across some of the features that he mentions, such as holloways, pollards and water meadows. There were lots of subjects that I hadn’t come across, tussocks, pillow mounds, spalted wood and the honeycomb worm.

I really liked this book. Wright takes what you would think is a complex subject matter and makes it simple to understand and more importantly easy to spot the things that he talks about in this book. He has a way with words, making this an easy and entertaining read with the occasional part that made me chuckle. If you want to find out more about the lumps and bumps in the countryside around you when you are walking then this is a good place to start.


The Con Artist by Fred Van Lette

4 out of 5 stars

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

Comic book artist Mike Mason arrives at San Diego Comic-Con expecting the usual things, fan contact, meeting up with other creators and spending time in the bars with the odd hangover.

What he is not expecting though is his main rival, Danny Lieber, to stagger through a load of cosplayers and drop down dead from two gunshot wounds. Nor is he expecting to be the prime suspect of murder because Danny had been having an affair with his wife.

He knows he didn’t do it, however, persuading the police that he is innocent is going to take a lot of work. First, he has to find the girl who took him on her rickshaw to the Unconditional Surrender statue to prove that he wasn’t there when it took place. Finding her would take him into some of the darker and weirder places of counter culture and be a bit of an eye-opener for him.

I don’t want to say too much more as it would give stuff away, but I thought that this was a bit of a romp. It is full of things that you would expect to find at a con, loads of comic book references and dropped unsubtly in the middle is a murder mystery. I liked the fast pace of it too and thought that the plot was fairly well constructed all things considered.

Light Of The Stars by Adam Frank

2.5 out of 5 stars

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

Is there life out there? It is a question that has taxed some of the finest minds and we are not really any closer to answering it. We can speculate about how many stars have planets that might have the particular and specific factors that allow life to arise. Even though we can now see those stars that have planets orbiting, we are still no closer to proving that they carry a form of life that we can detect.

What we have learnt through the pioneering work of scientists such as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, Jack James, Vladimir Vernadsky and James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis is much more about is how life has formed and was created on this planet. Their pioneering work is explored in this book as Frank writes about their discoveries and the way that they changed our understanding of how a planet changes and evolves over millennia.

Overall I thought this was ok. He is a reasonable writer and the prose was engaging without being too dry and academic. That said I felt that it seemed to lack a little focus as to what he was trying to achieve from a popular science book and it felt too speculative at times throughout the book.

My Cyprus by Joachim Sartorius Tr. Stephen Brown

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

The island of Cyprus holds a strategic position in the Mediterranean and it has been invaded by various powers from the Phoenicians right up to the Turkish who invaded in 1974, they split the island in two and their portion is only recognised by Turkey. There is a lot of history on this tiny island.

When Joachim Sartorius arrived there in 1984, s decade after the invasion, he was there in an official capacity as the German Ambassador to the island. This meant that he could do something that most of the residents couldn’t do, which was to freely travel from the north to the south. What he did on these journeys over three summers was to make a record of what life was like in each partitioned part of the island.

This book is part of that record, and he took the time to return years after to fill in some of the gaps that he had in his notes. I really liked this book. Sartorius writes with an obvious affection for the island and the people who live there. His prose (or at least the translated version) is quite beautiful, I liked the way that he wove the troubled history of the island into the encounters that he had, without looking to judge why it had happened or who was to blame. I felt that he has completely captured the atmosphere of the islands, from the old rural side of the islands away from the tourist bustle, or watching donkeys trying to grab the little shade that they can find under a mulberry tree.

Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn

4 out of 5 stars

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

Sadly I must admit I have never seen a hummingbird except on the pages of a book or on a screen of some form. They are a bird that can only be found in the Americas and I haven’t been there! They are quite amazing little birds though. They have evolved exclusively to feed on the nectar of flowers and each species has found and exploited a particular niche that suits them.

They have an incredibly high metabolic rate and have to feed a lot during a day just to survive. They are tiny birds too, the largest is only nine inches long, but only weighs 24g! The smallest is the bee hummingbird and is a mere two inches long and only weighs 2g. Their name comes from the noise that the wings make as they hover in front of the flowers flapping them at up to 88 beats a second. There are well over 300 of these amazing little subspecies of birds.

As with a lot of creatures at the moment, they are poised on a knife-edge of survival, mostly caused by us again, with habitat destruction being one of the key reasons. The wildlife photographer, Jon Dun wanted to make sure that he could get to see them before they disappeared for good.

His travels around America will take him from the jungles of South America right up to Alaska, yes, there are even hummingbirds there. He goes looking for the Violet-crowned Hummingbird in Arizona, for the smallest hummingbird in Cuba and uncovers the link between these brightly colour birds and 007. He explores how the feather trade impacted them and chases Coquettes in Brazil and Bolivia.

I must say that I really liked this. Jon is a thoughtful and enthusiastic writer who is passionate about his tiny avian subjects. I liked the blend of travel, natural history as well as some of the historical stories of hummingbirds. Some of the places that he ends up in the pursuit of particular species are pretty dangerous! Dunn is a photographer after all, so the colour photos make this book too, so I wouldn’t expect anything less to be honest. Perhaps one day I will get to see one of the amazing and utterly beautiful creatures, but I can’t see that happening any time soon.

Aurochs and Auks by John Burnside

4 out of 5 stars

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

If you look back over the history of the earth, you would find that life ebbs and flows in cycles, life blooms and crashes depending on so many different factors that sometimes we can only see with the benefit of hindsight. In the Anthropocene though, we are the ones causing the most recent spate of extinction and it is not getting any better at the moment.

What prompted John Burnside to write about these morbid and depressing extinctions was his near-death experience of Covid. It was a severe case and he ended up in hospital. His wife was told to prepare for the worst. This very act of reaching the abyss and peering over the edge will remain with him forever, as will the taste of that tomato sandwich as his health improved. As he recovered it gave him time to think about the natural processes of death and extinction, renewal and continuity.

When a species becomes extinct, that form is gone: no echoes, no shadow, no living memory. More: it is gone, not only as itself, but as the part it played in the Overall

It is quite a disturbing book at times, he ventures back into history to discuss the Nazi attempts to regenerate the aurochs as they tried to recreate the history of the Song of the Nibelungs. This pursuit of recreating a creature for ideological purposes was doomed to failure, the original animals were driven to extinction in the late seventeenth century. One positive that came from it though is that the land that Goring had is now part of the Schorfheide-Chorin Biosphere Reserve which is now home to lots of endangered animals.

Similar ideologies are driving the elite billionaire class that we have in the world today. Their pursuit of money and power is pushing the planet to the ragged edge and it feels like when they have exhausted and polluted it completely, retired to their Bond-style lairs, we won’t have many pieces to pick up. He like many others are starting to do now looks at the politics and powers behind land ownership and how we need to start to reclaim it for all not the few.

Land that belongs to someone is no longer land where anyone can meaningfully belong

Six days after he was supposed to have died, he was collected from the hospital by his wife, he looked out the car windows on the way home realising that in the short time he was very ill, summer had arrived and his outlook on life had changed forever. It took me a little while to get into this collection of four essays. The subject matter is pretty heavy after all. But the book grew on me as I read through it. Burnside is equally concerned about why we are doing what we are, as much as what we are doing to our planet and he proposes ideas that could make a difference to our survival on this small blue dot.

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