Sunday, 20 August 2017

Review: Limestone Country

Limestone Country Limestone Country by Fiona Sampson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For millennia mankind has been shaping the landscapes that we have lived in, we have torn down trees to make fields, changed watercourses to better suit our needs and expends vast amounts of energy hauling rocks from the ground. The very land that we live on has provides all that we need. What people lose by living in a city is that contact with the soil and rocks that rural living affords, the way that the landscape changes as the seasons roll by and more importantly the roots that we put down as we settle in a particular area.

Fiona Sampson has lived in a variety of places, but the places that have made a deep and lasting impression on her have all had limestone as the bedrock. In this book she explores just what has made these places so unique and important to her and the people that she lives near. Beginning in Autumn, we are in Chambon in southern France where people still farm the land and produce the most wonderful foods. More challenging is the soupy French dialect as she struggles to translate as the strong aperitif clouds her mind. It is a place that she feels at home in.

Stepping back a season to summer we arrive in Slovenia in Ć kocjan in the Karst region. Sampson recalls time spent with a Macedonian lover, the slivovitz plum brandy, the walks through the woods that are full of boars and deer and the caves that permeate the area containing finds from humans who lived there 3000 years ago. We find ourselves in the village of Coleshill in spring, a place that they have lived in for seventeen years and are just about to leave. It is a place with a long history and parts that you’d immediately recognise as quintessential rural scenes. The limestone there has been shaped by the rivers that flow through it and water still plays a huge part today in the landscape particularly in the spring.

Winter takes us to a place that needs no introduction really, Jerusalem. Getting to this ancient city that sits on the sedimentary rocks that were once even older sea beds, is demanding enough with all the required security checks. When you arrive under the stark sunlight and blue skies the limestone feels like it has been bleached to a pure white. The colour of the limestone changes with the light and the area you are in, ranging from softer pinks to purples. In some ways it reflects the city, with its triparty of religions and the hotchpotch of streets adding to the atmosphere.

There is lots to like about this book. It has a certain intimacy as Sampson talks about the places that have meant so much to her where she has lived and the people that inhabit them. The final chapter was the one I liked the least, can’t quite put my finger on why, but I think that it might have been because it was a city, which tend to larger and more impersonal and it didn’t have the warmth of the other chapters. Even though it is disconcerting heading backwards through the seasons, it suits the character of the book perfectly. As I have come to expect from poets who write non-fiction, the prose is quite special. It is a fine addition to the contemporary works that Little Toller have in their Monograph range that I seem to be inadvertently collecting now.

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Book Haul & Library Reservations

Friday, 18 August 2017

Review: Walking Home from Mongolia: Ten Million Steps Through China, from the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea

Walking Home from Mongolia: Ten Million Steps Through China, from the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea Walking Home from Mongolia: Ten Million Steps Through China, from the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea by Rob Lilwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is only when you look at an atlas that you get an idea just how large China actually is. It manages to be the second largest state by land area and is home to around 1.3 billion people. It is not unknown for journeys to take a long time even by road, so to contemplate walking across the country is madness; or takes a special kind of adventurer.

Rob Lilwall is that man.

Joining him is Leon McCarron, an adventurer in his own right, but he will be there to film the journey for a documentary. The 3000-mile journey will take them from the Mongolian Steppe all the way to Hong Kong. Their 10,000,000 steps will take them across the Gobi in the depths of winter, over the Great Wall, past the terracotta army, through valleys and over rivers. The people they meet are almost all friendly and welcoming, even the police and authorities who naturally take a great interest in their journey seem to be remarkably relaxed. It is a tough walk, as well as the physical issues involved in an endurance adventure, they have moments when tempers fray and misunderstandings abound.

It is quite an astonishing walk through a country undergoing rapid changes. Lilwall is not the most eloquent of writers and he is honest about the bad parts of the walk as well as those moments that will stay with him forever, but this is a book written from the heart and that is what makes this worth reading. 3.5 stars

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Review: Touch

Touch Touch by Claire North
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time that Kepler discovered that he could jump from one body to another was when he was first murdered. As he was viciously beaten by the killer, he reached out and grabbed him and was suddenly looking at his own broken body in the dark alleyway. Kepler has not died, instead, he has become a ghost with the ability to flit between people at the slightest touch. There he lives their lives, experiences their feelings, sometimes for a few moments, sometimes for a whole lifetime. He values them as hosts and ensures that his experiences from others are shared with them to leave them something after he moves on.

He is not the only one who has this ability, as he discovers by accident one day as he tries to jump to another person. His own existence is threatened as his host is assassinated and it is only by jumping fast that he is able to save himself; once again he ends up seeing through the eyes of the person who has just killed him. This time though he is seeking vengeance for the murder, and his search for the answers will force him to find out who Aquila are and to once again face his nemesis, Galileo.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was a book that turned your concept of time travel inside out and with this North has done it again with the ghosts that travel the world in their hosts. On top of that, there is a reasonably plotted thriller with fast pacing and good twists. I particularly liked the way that she used the concept of amnesia to explain how the hosts couldn’t always explain what had happened when the presence departed. It can get a little confusing as they flit between each body so very quickly and I didn’t really get why there were parts of the story that took us back in time to past experiences, it was enough to keep up with the regular characters. Dramatic ending too. Looking forward to reading more of her books.

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Thursday, 17 August 2017

Review: Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie

Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie by Andrew P. Sykes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Europe is a place of great variety. There are all sorts of terrains and climates, as well as cultures, languages and a common history that stretches back millennia. On his third adventure across the continent, Andrew Sykes decides that travelling from its furthest southerly geographic point, Tarifa in Spain, all the way up to its most northerly, Nordkapp in Norway would be a good way to experience them. He is back on his faithful bike Reggie for the ride along the western side of Europe.

He rides through eight countries and thirty-five degrees of latitude including crossing the Arctic Circle. The 5000 odd miles takes him past the edge of Portugal, over the Pyrenees and along the Atlantic coast, before cutting inland past vineyards and the French countryside to reach Paris, where he foolishly takes his life in his hands and cycles along the Avenue des Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. Surviving that, he carries on to a whistle stop tour of Belgium and the Netherlands before reaching Germany, his final country before the final leg of the trip. Even though he reached Scandinavia in the summer, it was still going to be a challenge to reach his final destination.

Sykes is not trying to set any records, this is riding for the hell of it, to venture out, meet people, see places and for the pure pleasure of being on a bike. And enjoy it he does, even though he battles through rain, relentless headwinds and some near misses with very large trucks. He meets various friends in certain towns and cities on the route as well as cycling with random cyclists who were sharing some of the same journeys. Sykes writes with infectious enthusiasm and it is a really enjoyable read. Hopefully, this will inspire some to make their own journeys of discovery.

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Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Book Post

Thanks to Duckworth, Canongate, Reaktion Books. Elliot & Thompson and HEad of Zeus for these

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Review: Blackbird: The Untouchable Spy Plane

Blackbird: The Untouchable Spy Plane Blackbird: The Untouchable Spy Plane by James Hamilton-Paterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of all the aircraft ever developed the SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ is probably one of the most distinctive. Conceived by Clarence 'Kelly' Johnson along with a team of brilliant engineers at 'Skunk Works', Lockheed Martin's highly secret military development site, the design first saw the light of day in the late 1950’s. That is seventy years ago and it still looks futuristic now. Built to replace the U2 spy plane, it was designed to be the fastest and highest flying aircraft. When development finished in the mid-1960’s it was the pinnacle of aero and jet development, it could fly at 85,000 feet at a speed of Mach 3 (approximately 2000mph) for a range of 3200 miles. The various versions of the plane flew missions over the world from then until the end of the nineties and it was never shot down. It was only retired as the job it was designed to do could now be done better with satellites.

The Blackbird is an engineering marvel. The engineering team had to solve so many problems in using titanium, then an exotic material, even finding that the cadmium plating on their tools would affect it. The pilots had to be dressed as astronauts as the plane flew so high and the fuselage was mostly fuel tanks. They had a reputation for leaking fuel all over the place, but that was not entirely true. The plane holds various speed records including one for travelling from New York to London in just 1 hour 54 minutes, which is just staggering. It is a plane that looks fast even on the ground.

Hamilton-Paterson has managed to bring us a distilled history of an aircraft that is eminently readable and full of details and anecdotes on the development and challenges that the creation of this aircraft too. There is a limited amount of detail on the operations that the SR-71 undertook, probably because most are still classified. It is a good introduction to the aircraft, with some interesting photos as well, but if the book has one flaw, it was that it was too short.

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