Thursday 29 December 2016

Review: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The world is full of wonderful and magnificent things, from spectacular beaches, to amazing vistas, beautiful creatures and breath-taking waterfalls. But look a little harder and you can find a whole lot of other remarkable, wonderful and weird thing to amuse and entertain. If you are looking for those sorts of things, then this is the book for you.

Split into regions, the authors have brought together the most strange collection of naturally created objects, places and human artefacts. And there is everything that you could imagine in here; diamond encrusted skeletons, museums of strange things, buildings, boats, caves full of glow-worms, scrap sculptures and even car henge. It is filled full of photos of these weird and strange places, with a little background on each and a description on how to get there. It is well researched, and regardless of what page you open, you will find that there is always something to fascinate and marvel at.

Oh, and the website is fascinating too

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Review: The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present

The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present by Nicholas Crane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Britain is a unique country, not only does our little island have some of the planets oldest rocks in the Hebrides, but it is still being formed by waves in the present day. Starting way back in the Mesolithic, Nick Crane takes us back to the time when the glaciers were retreating and the first Britons made their way across the land bridge from the continent and made their home here as the land surrendered to the waves. When we became an island, our resources and place on the gulf stream made it attractive for all sorts of visitors. The Romans were the first to try, but succeeded on the second attempt. And have been followed by a whole variety of others, including Saxons, Vikings, Normans and the Dutch. Each wave of people shaped and moulded the land to their needs leaving us with the landscape and cities that we had today. These ages were punctuated with significant events; wars, plagues, the land grabs of the enclosures and the industrial revolution; adding their own to what we have today.

For a small island we have so much history that is both deeply fascinating and complex. Nick Crane has had a good stab at distilling all of that into a single book, but it cannot be anymore that an overview. It is fairly well written, the narrative is full of detail and fascinating anecdotes, but I’m not completely sure why he has ended up writing a history book, though there is some overlap in what he has done with Coast. Overall, it is not bad. I have read most of his books so far, and I must say that I prefer his travel books to this.

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Tuesday 27 December 2016

Favourite Books Covers of the Year

These are, in no particular order, some of my favourite covers of the books that I have read this year.






Monday 26 December 2016

My Books of the Year

Where do I start? Bar the odd exception, I have enjoyed what I have read this year. The misses have either been books that have been languishing on my shelves at home for way too long or have been monthly reads for my book club. So what was the best of 2016.

I really hadn’t read much fiction this year, it was around 25% of my total.  My favourite though had to be Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams First read this decades ago, and picked it up again and fwll in love with the humour, wry observations and the geek references that have permeated themselves into the culture. Other fiction that really made an impression was my first book by the talented V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic. Dark imaginative and really good. Will be reading her others in 2017. Finished the latest in the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by the larger than life Ben Aaronovitch. Peter Grant is back in London, and still in trouble, another good solid read and can’t wait (but I’ll no doubt have to) for the next one in the series. One that was also very good was The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Will read the second at some point though I understand that we might have to wait a while longer for the third…

Those of you that know me will know that I read a lot of natural history books. Three that I read this year and thought were excellent were The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel, The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks and Arboreal: A Collection of Words from the Woods edited by Adrian Cooper. All of these should have a place on your bookshelf at home. They are all beautifully written, poignant and relevant to our point in time. Other notable natural history include Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons edited by Melissa Harrison a wonderful seasonal collection and The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy is really good too; and is a reminder of how much we have lost with the advent of modern farming.

Travel writing is one of my passions, there is a whole world out there that we can discover in between the covers of a book. Some really good ones that I have been fortunate enough to read are An Octopus in My Ouzo by Jennifer Barclay, a moving account of the trials and tribulations of life and following on from Falling in Honey. Another worth of note is Climbing Days by Dan Richards, it is a tribute to his great aunt Dorothy Pilley who was a female climber in the 1920’s. He undertakes some of her famous climbs in Europe including ascending the mighty Dent Blanche in the Alps. Really enjoyable book, and I actually had the privilege to meet him in October this year. The publisher Summersdale specialise in quirky travel books, and one of them was It's on the Meter by Paul Archer & Johno Ellison which describe the slightly (ok very) mad journey that they took around the world in a London taxi. Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker is very readable too, as he describes his stratospheric job piloting the huge 747’s round the world.

I have managed this year to read the longlist for the Wainwright Prize, as well as the shortlists for the Royal Society and Ballie Gifford prizes. I find these prizes a great ways of discovering new books and new authors, the only problem is my TBR gets ever longer. Three of note from those prizes include Weatherland, a beautiful book by Alexandra Harris on the artistic response to our ever changing weather. The Most Perfect Thing by Tim Birkhead is a fascinating scientific account of just what makes a egg and how they turn into our feathered friends. For more general non-fiction, East West Street was a person journey to the city of Lviv, the birth place of Philippe Sands grandfather as well as the men who created the phrases ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’, two statement that sadly we still have to use in this modern world.

Almost there. One of my favourite artists is Andy Goldsworthy who creates the most amazing transient natural art. Managed to get hold of a copy of his book Wood from the library; it is fantastic. If you haven’t seen his work; spend some time on the interweb looking for it. Another that I found a little gem is Snow by Marcus Sedgwick. It is about his favourite winter substance with a carefully woven narrative on experience and folklore. Finally any book by Neil Gaiman is a treat, none more so than The View from the Cheap Seats, a collection of essays, speeches and other non-fiction. A brilliant collection and possibly the best way of having an insight into the mind of the master storyteller.

Can I pick just one? No. All of what I have read this year has added a rich seam to my reading journey so far. Bring on 2017.

Review: Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O'Neil
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the funniest bits of Little Britain was where David Walliams as Carol Beer would type a request into the computer, before turning to the customer and saying ‘Computer says no’… Whilst it is funny, it is not so funny when it happens to you. In this book, O’Neil, a former Wall Street quant raises alarm bells on the way that these mathematical models have infiltrated our lives. We don’t see them, but these algorithms that help us with our searches online and finding books, films and other items on online sites are now being used to determine just how much of a risk you are. Next time you want a loan, to renew insurance or just need to get another job O’Neil thinks that some of us may have a problem.

She calls them ‘Weapons of Maths Destruction’; these are incontestable, unregulated and opaque algorithms. They are being used by companies to decide the tiniest details. They are used because they make larger profits for corporations and most worryingly for us is that they are frequently conclude the wrong thing having made incorrect assumptions about individuals. As the saying goes ‘crap in; crap out’…

Having worried the life out of the reader, O’Neil goes onto suggest a variety of things that could help; more regulation, better design of the code and us being aware of their use. The writing is clear, if a little dry and technical at times. The examples are a little American centric, but you can see the way that it is going in the UK. Even though the title mentions the dreaded word maths, it really isn’t that mathematical. Worthwhile reading.

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Review: Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons

Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons by Melissa Harrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The turn of the seasons is steady and relentless. Winter is a time to batten down the hatches, and retreat inside from the weather and darkness. It is also a reboot for the natural world, the cold forces animals and plants to pause, reset and hold with the anticipation of longer days coming soon. But there is life out there if you know where to look, the promise of fresh green to come contained within sticky buds, birds eking out an existence as they flit from branch to branch in search of food. It is a time when you can be faced with biting cold, sparkling light and cloudy breath one day, followed by gale force winds soon after. The sun sits low in the sky, barely warming the earth; the horizontal rays make the stark skeletons of trees stand out against the skyline.

Melissa Harrison in this quite lovely collection of essays, poetry and extracts has drawn together some of our finest writers collective thoughts about this darkest of seasons. There are well known, comforting passages from some of my favourite writers like Kathleen Jamie and Robert Macfarlane, new words from Patrick Barkham and a raft of other authors that I now need to go and find out more about. It is a perfect little book for the season, something to read whilst sat in a comfortable armchair up with a glass or two of mulled wine to hand. 4.5 stars

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Friday 23 December 2016

Review: Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life

Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For some people, science can baffle them, they see it as confusing and the domain of experts and specialists. In some cases, they are right; there are some hideously complicated theories out there that are seeking to explain the finest detail about quarks, string theory and genetics. But it needn’t be that way, science can explain just how the things that we interact with on a daily basis, work. In this, her first book, Czerski takes some well-known items, like eggs, popcorn, ducks, Wi-Fi, magnetism and of course teacups and describes how they work and how they show the inner workings of the physics laws.

As an introduction to physics and science it is a great little book. Czerski has a chatty style of writing as she tell us about the various subjects, whilst unobtrusively slipping the science in under the radar. For me it is a bit too general in scope, I tend to prefer more specific books, but by making science interesting, and more importantly accessible, this book will appeal even to those that rarely venture into the world of science. 3.5 Stars

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Thursday 22 December 2016

Review: The Exiled Blade

The Exiled Blade The Exiled Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Venice has always been the gateway between the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. It is feeling strong too as it has held these two powers back, and the regent, Duchess Alexa holds a strong position. As she ages she is lining up Lady Giulietta to take over as regent, or maybe even Duchess. But they are still threatened, this time by the exiled regent and traitor Prince Alonzo. His plotting and anger over what is really a Millioni family dispute, will bring Alexa’s empire the closest it has ever come to destruction. To add to their problems, Venice is gripped by the coldest winter in living memory, wolves have returned across the ice. As they teeter on the edge of the abyss, the future of Venice is in the hands of Lord Tycho, former slave, kreighund and Assassini.

It is atmospheric, brutal and fast paced with great twists and turns. I am a fan of Grimwood’s writing anyway, but I do like the way that he has deeply embedded a fantasy story into a historical setting. Characterisation is not strong, but good enough to carry the story along. It is a fitting conclusion to the series, but does suffer the similar problem that more series have in that it is a tad predictable. Good though; just need him to get back to writing more sci fi!

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Review: Light Music

Light Music Light Music by Kathleen Ann Goonan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If an author has gone to the effort to sit down and write a book, probably involving some or all of the following: blood, sweat tears and probably some alcohol, and produced a piece of work that they are proud of it doesn’t seem fair to slate a book because you don’t like it. This is why I not a fan of snarky reviews. In the case of this book, Light Music, I really couldn’t get along with it. It might have been me, but reading the few reviews that are out there makes me think I am not alone.

There were a few things wrong with it, the plot was barely visible in the writing the very disparate threads that didn’t seem to tie together at all and it really could have done with editing to within an inch of its life. It wasn’t totally dire, there are a few good ideas hiding amongst the voluminous writing; but neither was it good. That is a few hours of my life that I won’t get back. 1.5 Stars

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Tuesday 20 December 2016

Review: A Spy by Nature

A Spy by Nature A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Milius is stuck in a dead end job. He had been hoping for better things having graduated from the London School of Economics, but is getting bored in a dead end job. When a family friend offers him the opportunity to work for MI6 he jumps at the chance and starts the arduous selection process. He is not quite up to the standard, so does not make it through, so the same family friend finds him another position with a British oil company who have extensive interests in the Caspian. It is suggested, that whilst he is there, perhaps he can make friends with two people, Fortner Grice and Katharine Simmat, who work at a rival oil firm called Andromeda. The implication is that if he succeeds at this spot of industrial espionage, then he might have a second chance at SIS. This cut throat business is where Milius finds himself a pawn in the smoke and mirrored world of spies as the so called friendly powers play for strategic interests in the region, and even lives are considered worthless.

This is the second of Cumming’s books that I have read. It is a gripping thriller, with a plausible plot and several twists. Milius, the main character, has some major character flaws, to add to the plot, and his vanity means that he likes the allure of spying but fails to excel at it. It was quite enjoyable overall, the writing is fast paced and he successfully manages to make you not have any affinity with the main character. However, it wasn’t quite as good as Trinity Six, which was superb. It does make you think about who is your enemy though.

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Monday 19 December 2016

Review: Arboreal: A Collection of Words from the Woods

Arboreal: A Collection of Words from the Woods Arboreal: A Collection of Words from the Woods by Adrian Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Woodlands have always been essential to humans; for millennia we have used them as a source of food, shelter, medicine and warmth. This all changed with the arrival of cheaper fuels and imported lumber and sadly the historic use of our woodlands steadily declined. However, the forest is still deeply rooted in our psyche. This was proven when back in 2010 the government announced that it intended to privatise the forestry commission, including many ancient woodlands and royal forests. This led to such a public outcry that the classic political U-turn was executed, and thankfully they remain in public ownership.

That woods and forests still matter to us is the fundamental point of this pivotal collection of essays, poems, meditations and art. They have been drawn together from 38 different writers, poets and artists and thinkers as a literary memorial to the late Oliver Rackham. Woods are the roots of a lot of our folk tales, myths and legends, but this book does not dwell in the past; the collection of voices brings a range of fresh views, contemporary perspectives and a serious look at the future. As well as the thought provoking essays, poems and thoughts on coppices, the book includes stunning images by Ellie Davies, photos of my favourite artists work, Andy Goldsworthy, and the collection of postcards sent by David Nash after the storm of 1987 to inform people that a fallen tree has as much to offer the woodland as a living tree.

Cooper had the unenviable task of pulling together all the contributions to this tome, and in all honesty he has done a fantastic job. Not every essay works for me, but that is not unexpected as each writers point of view is different. What we do have though is a collection of some of the best natural history writers currently writing including Jim Crumley, Sara Maitland, Philip Marsden, Kathleen Jamie, Tim Dee, Richard Mabey and Paul Evans, but the inclusion of others like William Boyd, Simon Armitage and Richard Skelton make this so much richer. It is a fitting tribute to Oliver Rackham and a fine collection of thoughts on just how vital woodlands and the natural world are to our well-being and balance, and how they resonate with us still today.

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Saturday 17 December 2016

Review: The Secret Lives of Colour

The Secret Lives of Colour The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We take colour for granted these days; where ever you look you have garish clothing and brightly painted items competing for attention. But it was never like that, go back several hundred years ago, and lost people wore grey or brown cloth that had been dyed with the ochres and earth colours. Those that had some colour in their lives were the rich; they could afford the purples and reds that adorned their clothes and the rare blues and yellows that graced their artworks.

In this fascinating book, St Clair has uncovered the history behind 75 different colour shades and hues and tell their individual story. We find out where in the world these colours originated from, who made them popular, just how expensive a vivid blue like ultramarine was and the chemistry behind turning ground rock into artist’s paint and dyes for cloth. Modern colours are fairly robust, but it is a reminder just how lethal some colours were. The historical account of colour is enlightening too, as we find out which have come into fashion, why some prefer blondes, which colour was behind a notorious seduction and which have remained popular and those that currently don’t fit the bill.

Not only is it a nicely written and fascinating book, but it is a beautifully produced book too; each colour group is split into sections and the margins on each page are coloured to match the shade being written about. As you read though each page changes subtly in colour and tone. Just rippling through the pages you transcend from white to yellow to the reds, blues greens and end up at the black, it is a nice effect. The dots on the front are embossed making touching the cover a tactile experience. It was worth reading and would make a good companion volume to Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour by Philip Ball and Colour: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay if you already have those.

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Books Acquired today!

Friday 16 December 2016

Just won a copy of this

Review: The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I

The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Elizabeth I reigned for a total of 45 years in England, and the stability she gave as head of state gave us the Golden Age of wealth and greater self-assurance as a nation. The final Tudor monarch saw a cultural advances too, this being the time of Shakespeare and military confidence on the high seas. However, the Europeans saw her very differently; as daughter of Anne Boylen, Henry VIII's second wife, she was considered a bastard and Protestant heretic by catholic Europe. Following her denouncement by the Pope various European rulers prepared plans to dispose her, replacing her with Mary. The event that most people are aware of is the almost invasion by The Spanish Armada, but throughout her reign she was protected by a team of loyal subjects.

These men were a motley bunch of ambassadors, codebreakers, and confidence-men and spies who used all sort of covert and overt methods to counter the catholic threat. Infiltrators were sent to the continent to ingratiate themselves with the church, uncovering conspiracies both real and imagined, identified and followed gentlemen who were plotting the overthrow of their Queen. The network tracked priests entering the country under cover, intercepted and deciphered almost all correspondence between suspects in England and their contacts in France, Spain and Italy and neutered the threat that hung over the crown.

Drawing on documents from archive and collections, Alford shines a light into this dark and shadowy time of history. The narrative details tense searches across the countryside looking for specific people who were perceived to be a threat to the crown. Traitors who were convicted, sometimes only on hearsay and confessions uttered under torture on the rack, were condemned in horrific ways to die. It is an interesting account of those involved in keeping their monarch safe from all the assassination attempts and plots, but at times was fairly complicated as he details all the people involved in these plots. Worth reading though for those that like their Tudor history.

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Tuesday 13 December 2016

Review: The Hanging Tree

The Hanging Tree The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marble Arch has a ghoulish history, it was home to the Tyburn gallows, a place where the condemned would end up after their final trip along Oxford Street. It’s bloody legacy has returned with a vengeance with the death of a girl at an exclusive party of one of the Mayfair mansions that are normally empty. The residents of the Folly don’t normally bother with routine inquires about suspicious deaths, but it turns out that Lady Ty’s daughter was at the party, and as Peter Grant owes her a favour he is called in to assist. Plunging straight into the world of the super-rich, with their enormous homes expensive cars, Grant is about to discover that at the point where privilege, blood and magic mix, he has a first class opportunity to make new enemies and it might have a serious impact on his life span.

Aaronovitch is back with the next instalment in the highly entertaining and slick urban fantasy series, and very good it is too. He has upped the tension in this one too, and it is very fast paced, with twists and turns as you’d expect. Characters from the earlier books are back as well, adding to the intrigue. I’m glad they are back in London, as that is as much a part of the books as Grant, Nightingale and Molly. I almost gave five stars, as I though that this has been the best of the bunch so far; the characters are developing very well and the banter between Nightingale and Grant and the other officers is hilarious. Even though this had a really good plot, it felt like there was something being held back, that storylines were being drawn to set things up for the next in the series (please tell me that there are going to be more). Just needs Grant to crack his knuckles and get stuck in properly…

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Friday 9 December 2016

Review: The Accidental Dictionary: The remarkable twists and turns of English words

The Accidental Dictionary: The remarkable twists and turns of English words The Accidental Dictionary: The remarkable twists and turns of English words by Paul Anthony Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Words are chameleons, they start out meaning one thing, and being spelt in a particular way, and before you know it the spelling has changed and they now mean the total opposite to what you thought. In The Accidental Dictionary, Paul Anthony Jones has taken 100 words that almost everyone would know or be familiar with, and peel back the layers of history behind each word to revel the startlingly different meanings that they had originally.

In this strange and wonderful journey we will discover how alcohol once was eye shadow, a blockbuster was a bomb, hijinks was a drinking game and that a secretary could always keep a secret. The short witty essays on each chosen word are fascinating, you can see the evolution on some words, and other will surprise you in the way that they have flipped and twisted before settling in the form we know them these days. But they will no doubt change and evolve again.

The Accidental Dictionary is both fascinating and rigorous at the same time. Jones writes in an entertaining and informative way, and it is littered liberally with quotes and verse, making this an engaging book to read too. It is a great little book for the etymological nut; and for those that cherish the book this has a stunning gold leaf print on the cover.

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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Review: Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time

Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time by Simon Garfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Time is one of those entities that we cannot buy nor store; it just grinds inexorably on; tick, tock; second by second, and once gone can never be had again. And yet we still never have enough of it. In the days before clocks, we timed our lives by the rising and setting of the sun, working and resting as the light came and went. Even your cheapest wristwatch is incredibly accurate when compared to the timepieces 100 years ago. But in this modern age we now have access to the some of the most accurate and precise measurements of time available; an atomic clock will only lose one second every 15 billion years.

Drawing together all manner of subjects on the ticking clock he tells us why the CD is the length it is, how to make a watch, how the French messed up the calendar, how the trains changed time everywhere and tries to fathom out time management systems. He gazes at some frighteningly expensive watches in the home of time, Switzerland, and learns about taking your time to eat from the slow food movement.

Garfield has a knack of getting to the very essence of a subject and has written another fascinating book, and this is no exception. Being an engineer, I particularly liked the chapters on the technology used to make a timepiece these days, just the way that they assemble these tiny mechanical marvels is particularly special. The whole book is full of curious facts, amusing anecdotes and subtle observations on the passage of time. Written in his usual entertaining style, is a delight to read as were his other books. Great stuff.

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Sunday 4 December 2016

Review: Village Christmas And Other Notes on the English Year

Village Christmas And Other Notes on the English Year Village Christmas And Other Notes on the English Year by Laurie Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The slow unwrapping of Christmas in the winter dawn

Lee has always considered his home to be in the Cotswolds, even when he left to walk across Europe, his heart still remained there. Village Christmas is a collection of essays and other writing about his favourite moments at home in the valley of Slad, and of other times in his life. He has fond memories of time long past, of cold winters and frozen ponds, carol singing and warm breath causing clouds as they walked.

The germs of spring stand on the brink of stillness, life loaded but as yet unfired

It is split into four sections one for each season with some of the seasonal delights and other wide ranging subjects like living in wartime Chelsea, the Lakes, country rituals and those moments as the seasons turn slowly on. It is a beautifully written book, with warm lyrical prose, so much so that you don’t feel that you are reading it, rather that you are immersed in his world and place. The way that he captures times long past in intimate detail makes you capture your breath. This is the first Lee book that I have read, but I have recently been recommended The Cider with Rosie trilogy. On the strength of this, I will definitely be reading them next year.

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Friday 2 December 2016

Review: Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi

Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi by William Fotheringham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At his height, Fausto Angelo Coppi, was the best cyclist in the world. He shot to fame after he won the Giro d’Italia at the age of 20 in 1940, something that some though was impossible for someone so young. After war service he resumed his cycling career and in 1949 he was the first to win the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia in the same year. In 1952 he became the second person to win both again. These victories in the grand tours and the one day classics were riden on roads that would nowadays be suited to mountain bikes. He had an epic rivalry with the worlds other top cyclist, the Italian Gino Bartali, as they swapped places and titles. No wonder he was called campionissimo – champion of champions.

But there was another side to his life. In the mid 20th century adultery was illegal in Italy, a law controlled and enforced by the catholic church. His friendship with Giulia Occhini, sometimes known as The White Lady, became much more. As they were both married with children, the authorities took a dim view of this. They were both dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, excommunicated and imprisoned and were the focus of a huge legal battle at the time of huge social changes in Italian society.

Coppi had always been one of the legends of the sport, and Fotheringham has written a carefully considered biography of him. It is a celebration of his cycling achievements and a considered account of his failings and tragic early end of his life. One for the true cycling buff though.

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Review: The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland

The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland by Rory Stewart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We tend to think of the UK as one complete country, but there are separate countries here that have their own distinct identity and outlook. This loosely defined border between us and the Scottish has existed since Roman times. Their farthest outpost, it suffered from marauding Picts and Celts who took every opportunity to give the Romans a bloody nose, hence why they built Hadrian’s Wall. It was this 200 year old monument that Stewart chose to walk as his first journey in this book. Some of the time he walked with his elderly father, though not the whole route, choosing to walk a short way before meeting elsewhere. Sometime he walk with soldiers, not long returned from Afghanistan, a country that he knew from a walk described in The Places in Between.

The second part of the book is a walk that he takes from his home in Cumbria to his father’s house in Broich. This 380 mile route takes him through the border country, or has he calls it, the Middleland. Mixing sleeping out on mountains staying in other accommodation, he takes 21 days to complete it, but it is as much a discovery of the landscape, region and the people that inhabit it and learning about its fluid and torrid past. His third journey is a metaphorical one; it is a celebration and tribute to his father, someone who was very dear to him.

It is a difficult book to classify, it is a travel book in parts and a history book in others and a homage to his father at the end. Parts of the book are really well written, my favourite being the Middleland walk where he crosses the political, cultural and geological boundaries of this borderland. It didn’t seem quite as focused as it could have been though. It was enjoyable though, and will be reading The Places in Between as I picked up a copy recently.

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Been to the library again!

and got Bookshops curtesy of Quercus

Review: The Spy with 29 Names: The story of the Second World War’s most audacious double agent

The Spy with 29 Names: The story of the Second World War’s most audacious double agent The Spy with 29 Names: The story of the Second World War’s most audacious double agent by Jason Webster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Garbo, Alaric, Rags, Mrs Gerbers and Stanley have two things in common; they were all false, and they were all one man. However, he did have a real name, and a wife and children, and it is claimed that he is the one of the greatest double agents that we know of; but just who was Juan Pujol?

Pujol was a Spanish man, who disliked totalitarianism. He was involved in the Spanish civil war, avoiding serious action, but somehow managing to switch sides. With the rise of Germany in Europe, he slowly worked his way into the trust of the Nazi’s as a spy providing intelligence and information. His intelligent reports were eagerly received by them, and as the transcripts were read at Bletchley Park, they were equally worried by them. Pujol really wanted to work for MI5, and so he engineered a way of getting to the UK. Not long after he arrived, he was using all his powers of persuasion to convince them to take him on.

So began one on the most audacious double crosses yet known. Pujol’s fertile imagination led to the creation a fictional network of agents. These characters supposedly had some grudge against the state, and he placed them at specific ports and area of interest to the Germans. The Abwehr thought that they had a whole network of 29 spies in Britain; the reality was very different. With the assistance of the Double Cross team in MI5 he spoon fed a carefully concocted blend of truth and lies that misled the entire German high command, including Hitler himself.

This is another of those non-fiction books that read like a spy thriller. Truth and lies were blended in such a way that agents lives and movements were fabricated with all manner of details, and the Nazi’s swallowed the whole thing. The whole deception plan had genuine success too, even though it was touch and go at times; Operation Fortitude managed to keep the German Panzer Divisions near Calais where the next invasion was expected and away from Normandy after the D Day invasion, this allowed troops to establish themselves with much less resistance. This is still a fascinating story about an imaginative and audacious spy first revealed in Macintyre’s book, Double Cross. Macintyre has the edge on Webster as a writer, but this is still worth reading.

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