Friday 31 March 2017

Review: Falling Awake

Falling Awake Falling Awake by Alice Oswald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t read much poetry, but I had heard very good things about Falling Awake by Alice Oswald and as I had really enjoyed Dart by her I’d though that I’d give it a go. This collection is split into two parts, the first is individual poems, and the second half is titled Tithonus. Like Dart, this is deeply embedded in the natural world, and has the same haunting beauty.

This is one of those wordy days

There are a few poems and lines that stood out:
A Short Story of Falling: “It is the secret of a summer shower / to steal the light and hide it in a flower”
Fox: “My life / is laid beneath my children / like gold leaf”
Shadow: It is faint / it has been falling for a long time
Sunday Ballard: As they dressed the dust / flew white and silent through the house”

I really liked the collection in the first half of the book, but couldn’t get on with the poem that took up the second. Will still read more of her work though.

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Review: Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain

Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain by Lucy Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not sure just how many foxes there are where I am living, but I see them darting across the roads at night, caught by the headlights of the car. There was even one brazen fox walking up the middle of the road at midnight once. These fleeting glimpses of our largest predator left in the UK are for me quite special, but for others, this animal is considered a nasty pest and is something to be vilified.

In this interesting account of our tempestuous relationship with the fox. Consider and cunning and crafty animal by most, Lucy Jones has delved into the folklore, fiction and her own family history and met with those that love and hate these intelligent creatures. This bang up to date account of foxes goes some way to demonstrating our complex relationship with the natural world too. To get a better understanding of the different perspectives, she joins a hunt and a later with the saboteurs of a following a hunt to get a better perspective as to how people feel about this animal and explores the issues that polarised people on the heated public debate on this subject.

Jones has written this book about vulpes vulpes with a considered and measured approach. You know whose side she is on, but she is prepared to talk about with people from each perspective and hear their views as well as taking the time to look at the evidence based on the facts and not the scaremongering from the press. Worth reading for anyone interested in the most recognisable of our wild creatures.

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Thursday 30 March 2017

Review: Walking the Americas

Walking the Americas Walking the Americas by Levison Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

On an atlas, the small chain of countries that link the great continents of North and South America look tiny. It is a beautiful and varied part of our planet, but their size on the map belies just how tough a part of the world it is. Not only is it hot and humid, but you will have to contend with swamps, malaria, spiders and jaguars and the jungle and the remnants of ancient cities. Not forgetting the armed gangs of drug smugglers and military types with itchy trigger fingers, this is not the place for your tourists. Thankfully Levison Wood is not your regular tourist.

His chosen 1,800-mile route along this slender piece of land would take in eight countries. He was starting with Mexico, where he had persuaded his friend Alberto to come along for the trip. He readily agreed, remembering the time he spent in Africa with him travelling by truck; then Levison dropped the bombshell, saying that they would be walking it… Alberto still agreed to go with him every step of the way.

Levison Wood is one of the few adventurers left in the world who is capable and mad enough to undertake these sorts of long treks across parts of the world that people would not normally venture to. At times it is an unbelievably tough journey, as they deal with hacking their way through the understory, encountering migrants heading for a new life in America and the relentless task of putting one foot in front of the other. He is one tough guy to even attempt a challenge of this order, let alone complete it. Alberto and Wood have even joined the exclusive club of those that have managed to pass the impenetrable jungle at the Darien Gap. This is such a wild area that even the Pan-American highway stops in its two continent run. It is a reasonably well-written account of his trip, if you are expecting literary excellence then this is not necessarily going to be the author for you. What you do get though is an honest account of a unique hike with all the highs and lows from a genuine tough guy.

Great stuff. Now to watch the TV series.

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Wednesday 29 March 2017

Review: Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist

Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Paul Kingsnorth was a passionate environmentalist, taking the time to be involved in activities and protests against the creep of corporate and governmental interests that threatened the climate and places with ill thought out developments. His view started to change as the business world embraced green ideals, and those opposing them watered down their vociferous defence of our wild places and cosied up to sustainability instead. He saw it as a betrayal of the movement as they chose to ignore the challenges and sacrifices that need to be made to avert the consequences of climate change.

In this great collection of essays, Kingsnorth passionately argues how the green movement has failed, and as he has seen it fail, how his thinking on what we need to do has changed. His new hypothesis he calls 'dark ecology’, a vision where we do not have to rely on complicated technology to save us, but rather one where we need to once again seek the balance that we had with the natural world. It is a challenging read, not in the sense of his prose, which fizzles with raw energy, but in the way that he is prepared to challenge everything that he has every stood for, and ask the question: Where next?

Thought provoking stuff.

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Tuesday 28 March 2017

Review: The Stars Are Legion

The Stars Are Legion The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

The Legion is a part of a vast number of world-ships that are travelling in the seams between the stars right on the outer edge of the universe. A war has been raging for millennia in the decaying worlds. It is as yet unresolved and not likely to be anytime soon, so a last ditch plan is formed…

Zan wakes with no recollection of who she is, what she was, or who the people are who say that they are her family. She cannot quite believe that she is capable of the things that they are saying; she is the only one who can offer them a chance to leave the Legion, the only one who can gain entry to the ship called Mokshi. There are others though who want to use her skill for the same ends. She must descend with her small team of no-hopers into the very bowels of the Legion to wrestle control and confront the horrors that face them there.

This is the first of Hurley’s books that I have read, and it is a pretty tough book to start with. She must have an amazing imagination to create a world like this one, it is unlike anything that I have ever come across before with its organic world, where everything is recycled, even body parts. This is a life at its most swamp like. There is an immense amount of detail in here, sometimes almost too much, that it felt that the plot was occasionally superfluous to the intricate detail of the world ships, Zan was travelling through. I liked the female culture that she has invented too, it gives you a completely different take on the usual sci-fi space opera, with the characters. Good, but maybe not one for the squeamish!

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Todays #Bookpost

Monday 27 March 2017

Review: On Trails: From Anthills to the Alps, How Trails Make Sense of a Chaotic World

On Trails: From Anthills to the Alps, How Trails Make Sense of a Chaotic World On Trails: From Anthills to the Alps, How Trails Make Sense of a Chaotic World by Robert Moor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Moor is a long distance walker, he took five months completing the Appalachian Trail, but rather than just the exhilaration in completing this 2190 mile journey he realised that he now had questions about just why we create trails. In exploring this phenomena he is shown some of the oldest fossil trails, he learns how and why animals do the same thing, from ants that use pheromones to guide others from the nest to sources of food. He has a go a shepherding to see how sheep make trails, and manages to mislay a complete flock in his first attempt. He joins Native Americans to see the trails in their culture and perches in a tree with Larry Benoit to gain an insight into the mind of a hunter following deer trails in a forest.

He finds out how a new trail is created when he joins a renowned trail builder in Tennessee making pathways with a quad-bike. He is asked to join the International Appalachian Trail, what will be the world’s longest footpath, spanning from Alabama to Morocco, and spends some time walking some of what could be the Moroccan section. In the final part of the book, he catches up with the Nimblewill Nomad, M.J. Eberhart. He is somewhat of a legend, as he has walked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail; around 34,000 miles in total. He could be described as eccentric too, having had all his toenails removed and passed on most of his possessions bar a truck and a couple of boxes of sentimental stuff. Moor joins him for a few days and walks with him from Winnie along the roads of Texas.

Walking creates trails. Trails, in turn, shape landscapes

Moor has tremendous potential as an author but I am not entirely sure if this is a travel book, a walking book, a book on the natural world or book on the deeper philosophy on the process of placing one foot in front of another. That said, it is an eloquent set of essays and stories about the pleasures of walking along the great trails of the world. Liked the piece about technology too, it makes a change to have someone say that it can have its place, rather than being one of those who considers the mix of technology and nature to be abhorrent. It is quite American-centric, though he does venture overseas at times, but its wide-ranging scope means that it is not quite as focused as it could be hence I have only given it three stars. However, I really liked this, as he has been bold enough to take a step off the well-trodden path for the wider view. For those with and interest in walking, this should be on your to-read list.

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Friday 24 March 2017

Review: The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The music industry is a strange beast. Not only is it fickle and flighty, but it has changed dramatically from even twenty years ago. Gone are the A&R men finding that individual with the perfect voice that they can sign and promote with the hope of getting the hits. Now we have a machine that can almost produce hits to order, almost being the key word… There are producers out there who have the ability to write songs that have what they describe as ‘hooks’, those little parts of a track that are so catchy, so addictive, that they stick in your head. These men, and it still is almost exclusively men, are still rare, but that ability to turn a song from one that would have only sold thousands to one that sells millions makes them worth a fortune.

Earworm: a catchy song or tune that runs continually through someone's mind.

Seabrook has written an interesting book, smearing away some of the gloss and glamour from the music industry, to reveal details of its inner workings. He describes just how these talented individuals pull together a song, finding those hook’s that make people want to listen more and the bridge moment when they divert from the original melody and rhythm and slot something else in. I have known that they manufactured music in the same way that they create groups, for ages, but I didn’t realise quite how strong the Swedish influence was in the global music industry. There were some interesting chapters on how Napster wreaked havoc with the business model of the music industry, how streaming has changed how they operate, how they use topliners and that the only way that a star can now make any money is to be continually touring because of the grip that the music industry has on them. It was an interesting book overall on a global industry that has as many secrets as glitterballs.

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Thursday 23 March 2017

Review: Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters by Annie Dillard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this collection of fourteen essays Dillard brings her almost forensic observation of natural world as well as a keen perception of the smallest detail to a wide variety of subjects. Starting with her thoughts on a solar eclipse that she travels to see in Yakima, we accompany her on her a journey to the Appalachian Mountains and all the way to the Galapagos Islands. With her we see the world through the eyes of a weasel and take a walk from her home. We also meet the man who inspired the title of the book, who is Teaching a stone to speak; most will think this a futile gesture, but as Dillard explains, it is his way of communing with the natural world at the pace he desires.

The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega.

There is a strong spiritual dimension to her sparse but eloquent prose. It is beyond me how she manages to pack so much meaning into so few words. Her childlike fascination with the world around is evident in the book and she manages to deftly entwine this with themes of exploration and discovery and how we can use it to watch and observe the things that happen around us. I particularly liked the essay on lenses, how it is something that you have to master before you can use it to see the far away and the near. Until now I have never read any of her books before, now will be working my way through her non-fiction back catalogue.

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Wednesday 22 March 2017

Review: Behind Her Eyes

Behind Her Eyes Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

David and Adele are the perfect couple. He is the level-headed psychiatrist; she is the beautiful and glamorous wife who loves him deeply. But behind this perfect fragile marriage there are secrets; dark disturbing secrets. David’s new secretary, Louise, is drawn into their surreal, controlling world, though neither are aware that she knows both of them. Little by little she discovers their secrets and it slowly dawns on her that there is something in this relationship that is very, very wrong. Louise doesn’t know what it is, nor just how far that the person will go to keep that secret safe.

I loved the pace of the story, it was enough to keep me turning the pages fairly rapidly. The build up through the book with the narrative coming from first Louise and then Adele with flashbacks to an earlier time and events was done really well. As for the ending; I won’t tell you… It is a very different ending to what I thought was going to happen, I was expecting something much more dramatic.

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Exquisite Book Post today

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Wellcome Book Prize 2017 Shadow Panel

I am delighted to announce that I have been asked by Rebecca at Bookish Beck to be a member of the shadow panel of readers who will make our way through the six titles shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize. We will be choosing our own winner shortly before the official prize announcement on Monday, April 24th. We are also joined on the panel by Amy Pirt who blogs at This Little Bag of Dreams.

The shortlist is below:

So far I have read the four non-fiction on the list:

When Breath Becomes Air

The Gene: An Intimate History

I Contain Multitudes

How To Survive A Plague

I have just reserved the two fiction from the library and I'm looking forward to them arriving.

Review: Adventures in Stationery: A Journey Through Your Pencil Case

Adventures in Stationery: A Journey Through Your Pencil Case Adventures in Stationery: A Journey Through Your Pencil Case by James Ward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some people see stationary as a necessary evil, as long as the pen works and the end of it has not been chewed too much, then all is good. Then there are those who covert the clean piece of paper, the curl of wood from a freshly sharpened pencil, the cellophane covering the new pack of Post-It’s or the possibilities that a pristine cover of a Moleskine holds. If you are in the latter group; this book is for you. Each and every one of us uses stationary in some form or other, though that has fallen with the advent of smart phones and devices.

Ward has an obsession with stationary bordering on the unnatural, but that obsession has driven him to ask the questions that no one else would ask, such as: What are the 1000’s of uses for blue tack? How many pencils do Ikea supply each year? Who pays $43 for a pencil? Is there a risk when licking a gummed envelope? And where has the sellotape gone again?

He tells us just how the highlighter came into being, the evolution of the pen from quill to gel, Why the staples never fit your stapler and why one bank stopped chaining its pens to the desk. Sadly we seem to be losing the art of writing, as tapping things out on your phone seems to have more appeal. I have always liked stationary; as I look around me I have two of the black and yellow waspish coloured Staedtler pencils, one un branded pen, a Uni-ball pen (my favourite), a plastic eraser and one of those double pencil sharpeners that have a standard and a large hole. In all my years I have never used the large hole to sharpen a pencil…

This is a brilliantly quirky book about those things that we never really consider in any depth. Ward has uncovered the history behind the most mundane of objects and tells the stories of some of the characters who made the brands that we know and love today. Great stuff.

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Review: Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons

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

Spring is that time of year where we shrug off the dark nights and sullen weather and celebrate the light and the warmth of the sun as it floods through the gothic formwork of trees. Plants are waking up too, buds swell and then burst with fresh green leaves, the wanderers return from afar and there is the frantic race to find a mate. Those that have spent the winter gestating, are born, bring new life into the world. It is the season where change is most noticeable and for a lot of people most welcomed.

Harrison has once again drawn together some of the finest new writing from established authors and exciting new ones and scoured the classic texts to gather them in this book. She has selected a good mix of prose and poetry too, each with the essence of the season distilled within. Most exciting are the new authors that are here for the first time in print, people like Jo Sinclair, Alice Hunter, Vijay Medtia, Elliot Dowding and Chris Foster. All have the potential to add to the natural history lexicography.

It is full of the wonders of nature, acute observation of the landscape around and writers celebrating the joy of the season. It is a lovely book too, the stunning foil blocked cover by Lynn Hatzius captures the energy and zest of spring perfectly. For those of you that love your nature writing, this collection is a perfect distillation of the moment.

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Monday 20 March 2017

Review: Death's Mistress

Death's Mistress Death's Mistress by Terry Goodkind
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

She has been called Sister of the Light, and even Sister of the Dark; Nicci has been the lieutenant of a tyrant and pledged to destroy a man who she then fell in love with. But that was in the past. It is a new and safer world out there, and Nicci’s new role is telling the people of how Lord Rahl’s rule will bring peace and prosperity to their world. But the first job is keeping the wizard and prophet Nathan out of trouble… Nathan wants to visit the witch called Red, whom he wishes to get to tell him his life story.

She does, but issues a cryptic message to him; He must seek the place Kol Adair, where the answers and solution to his fading magic will be answered. It is a place that no one has heard of, and its name appears on no chart. They make haste their preparations to travel south and whilst getting provisions, Nicci saves the life of a traveller called Bannon who is being robbed. He is so grateful that he recommends the ship he is sailing south on and pledges his services to her. So begins their perilous journey south to find this mystery place. They will face threats from the sea, the land, bargain with dragons and face the greatest threats to the world that they know.

I do read some fantasy every now and again. It is a genre that can either be excellent, full of intrigue and political shenanigans or can fall a bit flat as it is broadly similar to other stuff that you have come across. This is the first of Terry Goodkind’s books that I have read, and overall it wasn’t too bad. There was plenty of pace to the story, with a mix of dramatic events and the standard tropes from the fantasy genre. It did suffer from being a bit formulaic, though, but that is the problem that I have with a lot of the quest style fantasy. Not bad, though, might even read the sequel!

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Sunday 19 March 2017

Review: The Roanoke Girls

The Roanoke Girls The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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

The Roanoke Girls are all mysterious. They are rich and all have a certain captivating beauty. Everyone wants to be a Roanoke girl; but if they knew the truth, they might just change their mind.
Lane’s mother killed herself in their New York flat when she was just fifteen. Not really knowing that she had anyone or any family she is surprised to hear that her grandparents are still alive and would be more than happy to look after her at their Kansas home. Arriving at the startling looking house, she is welcomed by her folks and her cousin Allegra. They hit it off right away and she starts to discover the wilder side of life in the town. She settles into life and enjoys being doted on by her grandfather, but Lane starts to hear rumours and snippets about the family, and slowly she begins to understand the truth.

To be a Roanoke Girl; you run, or you die.

This is a dark and very disturbing family saga with a subtle twist at the end. It is one of those car crash type books that is compelling enough to keep you reading until the end. I liked the way it skipped back and forwards in time, each secret from the Lane’s story in the past became a clue revealed in the modern day story. But it did have its faults… There was a fairly unsubtle hint about the nature of the secret given away far too early in the book for my liking. Almost all the characters were flawed in one way or another, not necessarily a problem, as the flaws that we have make us human, but these characters seem to not help themselves in any way. 2.5 stars.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy

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Saturday 18 March 2017

London Book Fair 2017

After last year's successful trip to the fair, I had the opportunity to go up again to Olympia to visit the London Book Fair.

The conference centre is full to bursting with publishers large and small, as well as associated book related industries like printing, distribution and all things digital to do with books. Most of the fair is centred around the rights sales so British publishers offerings can be sold to many countries around the world.

Even though you are not able to get onto the big four publishers stands there is still so much to see for the reviewer thankfully. I got to visit some of the publishers who produce the sort of books that I like reading and meet up with some of the people that I have been corresponding with over the past 12 months or so. Even met the Queen of Twitter, Sam Missingham.

The place is huge as it covers the Grand Hall, the National Hall and all the upper galleries. It felt like I had walked for miles, and in all honest I probably did. I managed to collect an enormous pile of catalogues to scour over the coming weeks for interesting titles in the autumn releases, and secured some lovely review copies from a few publishers too:

So thank you to SummersdaleHead of ZeusAngry RobotProfile BooksGranta and Duckworth Overlook for the books. The lovley people at Literature Ireland gave me two poetry books and a pile of other goodies. When I arrived home I found two more from Mel at Nudge!

Great day out. Will definitely be attending next year too.

Friday 17 March 2017

Review: The January Man: A Year of Walking Britain

The January Man: A Year of Walking Britain The January Man: A Year of Walking Britain by Christopher Somerville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Late in 2015, Christopher Somerville lost his father after a short battle with cancer. He had had a tempestuous relationship with him as a teenager, partly because of the teenage angst, but also because of his father’s job. They tried to bond by undertaking longer walks through the countryside, but it didn’t always work. As they both grew older and a little wiser the relationship strengthened and the walks that they undertook brought them back together.

Undertaking a walk in a different part of the country for each month, Somerville weaves together a mix of personal recollection of his father, the countryside he is wandering through, and the natural wonders he sees around him. He walks in the floods in the West country, the tiny Isle of Foula near Shetland, round Sherwood Forest and along the Lancashire coast and heads to Lyme Regis for a family gathering. He uses these walks to look at the man his father was and to try to comprehend him. He worked at GCHQ, and could not say a word about his work to anyone and that led to many frustrating moments in their relationship.

This is no fair weather walking book, he is not scared to venture out in the rain to follow his route. It is quite readable and at certain points he shows his class as a writer. He can be quite reflective as he muses about his father and the things that will forever remain secret. I really liked the verses from the song ‘The January man’ by Dave Goulder that accompany a beautiful sketch at the beginning of each chapter, they added a nice touch to the book. Worth reading I think, but it didn’t quite soar for me.

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Tuesday 14 March 2017

Review: Kapp To Cape: Never Look Back: Race to the End of the Earth

Kapp To Cape: Never Look Back: Race to the End of the Earth Kapp To Cape: Never Look Back: Race to the End of the Earth by Reza Pakravan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Reza Pakravan was settled in his comfortable life in London working as a financial analyst, but he wasn’t happy. He had started to work with the Azafady charity to raise money for those in most need in Madagascar. After cycling across the Sahara, and setting a world record in the process, he wanted something to get his teeth into. A plan was conceived and in August 2013, he embarked with his cycling buddy Steven Pawley on an 18,000 kilometre journey from Nordkapp to Cape Town with two aims in mind; To set a world record and to raise money to build two schools in Madagascar.

Arriving at Nordkapp, they turn almost immediately, grasp hands and cycle away together on their epic journey. 100 days later they were hoping to arrive in Cape Town, so they were going to have to set a fairly punishing schedule. Their chosen route would take in 21 different countries from the relaxed Finland to the potentially dangerous situation in Egypt and the troubled Republic of Dagestan. They had a film team at the beginning of the journey, but most of their route they were doing this unsupported, finding places to stay or camp on the way, relying on the generosity of strangers and friends from the past.

It was a tough journey too. Not only did they have to make a minimum mileage each day to stand any chance of claiming the record, but they had to do it over a variety of road surfaces and across punishing landscapes. It is a refreshingly honest and personal travel book; not only does Pakravan wear his heart on his sleeve, he shares all the emotions of the journey. From the elation as they reach significant milestones but the low moments of illness and differing opinions that they suffered on their race to the very south of Africa. Well worth reading for a travel book that pulls no punches.

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Review: Sealskin

Sealskin Sealskin by Su Bristow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The life of a crofter is tough and relentless. One night he sees something that he thought was only a rumour. He makes a snap decision, commits a terrible act and begins of a chain of events that will change him and the close-knit community where he lives.

His mother, Bridie, is quite shocked when he comes home with a girl. When she understands just what he has done and the implications behind it, she conceives a story to tell their friends and neighbours, and Donald becomes betrothed to Mairhi. But this stranger in the village is an unknown quantity, she cannot speak and she looks scared half to death most of the time. Bridie discovers when she takes her out to meet others in the village that she has a power that can bring calm and healing; but as some learn, threatening her can bring dread and fear like they have never known. Some call her a witch, but only Donald and Bridie know what she really is. Gradually tensions in the village disperse and people come to accept Mairhi and her two children.

This is a good reworking of an ancient legend, written with sensitivity and aplomb. Bristow has kept the key elements whilst adding depth and plausible characters. It is full of love and anger, joy and sadness with a strong moral thread woven through the narrative. The writing is eloquent with evocative descriptions of the land and seascape. The main character, Donald has some depth, and even Mairhi develops well, neatly done as she does not utter a word. The remainder of the characters are there as a foil to these main ones. I know it ties it closer to the legend; however, there are a couple of unsavoury moments in the book. 3.5 stars.

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Friday 10 March 2017

Review: Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A crowd is gathering in the Dew Drop Inn. A car pulls into Crime Alley and Selina Kyle gets out and heads into the pub, she is directed to a room in the back. People are gathering for a wake and taking their seats in front of an open casket. Inside is the Caped Crusader himself. As more people arrive they tell their stories of their encounters with Batman, each one recounting how he died, but what is the truth? Can this really be the end? Why does he die a different way each time?

I have read almost all the Gaiman Sandman series, probably the graphic novel series that he is best known for, I had enjoyed them, so when I found this on the shelf in the library, thought I’d give it a go. Gaiman always manages to take what has gone before and give it those couple of extra twists that lift it from the original storyline. This is no different. I really liked the section where they show the way that the cartoon progresses from a rough pencil outline, to a detailed pencil sketch, before it is drawn and coloured for the final strip. Not a bad book overall.

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Review: The Art of Neil Gaiman: The Visual Story of One of the World's Most Vital Creative Forces

The Art of Neil Gaiman: The Visual Story of One of the World's Most Vital Creative Forces The Art of Neil Gaiman: The Visual Story of One of the World's Most Vital Creative Forces by Hayley Campbell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Neil Gaiman seems to exist in a binary state. You either know him and all the things that he has created over the years, or you don’t. But when you talk to those that have gone ‘Who?’ it doesn’t take long for them to realise that they have come across him in one form or other, they just weren’t aware of it. He is a prolific and original tour de force who has given us some amazing creations.

So far he has written novels, non-fictions books, comics, graphic novels, articles and speeches. On top of that he has then created scripts for radio, film and TV shows and theatre, collaborated with all manner of people on all sorts of subjects and projects, sung on stage despite "no kind of singing voice", dabbled with art and is not afraid to be political for issues that he is passionate about. Somehow he manages to fit in a professorship and tours publicising his own material and with his current wife Amanda Palmer.

Hayley is the daughter of Eddie Campbell, a graphic novelist and long-time friends of Neil Gaiman. This friendship allowed her almost unrestricted access to the archives, notebooks, random scribblings and most importantly the mind of Gaiman to show just how he creates the things he does best. It is a lavishly illustrated book, full of scanned images of the drafts and germs of ideas, that over time became the books and graphic novels that he is best known for. There are loads of photos of him from early years when growing up and some equally dodgy ones from when he was a journalist as well. I knew he had a boundless imagination, but what came across is just how long some of his most successful books took from the initial spark of an idea to the final offering. It is not that he is a slow, jut some of these things need time and thought invested to make them as good as they are.

Campbell has given us such a good book, it is not quite a biography, but reading this feels like you are privy to the places where the magic happened. One minor flaw is that there could have been a little more on Neil, but I guess that will come one day in another book. A stunning book and one that I am going to be buying.

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Thursday 9 March 2017

Review: Sleeping Giants

Sleeping Giants Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rose cannot wait to ride her new bike, the one with the tassels on the end, so she sneaks out the house and cycles off. Something distracts her and she leaves her bike at the edge of the trail and climbs down to see what was making the light… Some time later she comes to, finding herself in a perfectly square hole with her father looking down at her. After they had got her out and back home, one of the firemen asked if she would like to see some photos, she was at the bottom of a hole lying in the centre of a giant metal hand surrounded by glowing symbols.

Skip forward a few year and that girl is now Dr Rose Franklin and the world’s leading expert of the item that she inadvertently discovered. The hand defies all logic. It is made of iridium, normally a super rare metal and the weight of the object does not tally with its volume. Everything about it is strange. The research into it is now higher than top secret after they realised that there are other parts of the body scattered around the world after accidently discovering one in Turkey. The race is on to find them all before other countries work out what the Americans are looking for, and then they might, just might be able to understand the significance of their discoveries. But will they get the significance, and just who is this guy who keeps asking the most probing questions.

Overall this is quite a good book, I liked its innovative plot and concept of this artefact having been left by a race utterly unknown to us that we could only begin to find when we had reached a certain point in our technological development. I like some of the ‘interview style’ prose, it added drama and a sinister edge, but after a while it did get a bit much as it slowed down the narrative at times. Worth reading though as It as the sci-fi addition gives us a completely different take on the world domination political thriller genre. 3.5 Stars

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Tuesday 7 March 2017

Review: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In Yuval Noah Harari’s previous book, Sapiens, he considered how humanity got to where we are today from a hunter-gatherer culture to a modern industrial farming systems that can support millions. In this latest volume, Home Deus, he contemplates the future; our future, and the events that will shape us in the twenty-first century.

We have reached the apex of our abilities with current technology. Going back only a hundred years our lives were frequently cut short by famine, war and illness. Today, in the Western world at least, we have mostly conquered disease and extended our lifespan, but now we are as likely to suffer from obesity or contemplate suicide, total different challenges for the coming decades. He suggests that these will be met as we embrace the modern age of data, pervasive networks and genetic modification. That is assuming that we have a place to live as our world too is under threat because of our relentless pursuit of extracting the maximum resources for the cheapest price.

So, what does the future hold for humanity?

Harari ponders the possibilities and pitfalls of our future self. He asks and goes some way to answer the questions that we will have to address in the coming years. He proposes that our obsession with information flow may almost become a religion, dataism. How will we deal with the dilemma of choosing between intelligence and consciousness and what is the possibility that we might become part of a wider algorithm or part of the internet of things. These are all interesting questions and whilst he goes some way to answering them, there is a fair amount that is pure speculation and conjecture, but that is what makes this actually quite an interesting book. 3.5 stars overall.

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Sunday 5 March 2017

Review: How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS

How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS by David France
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

AIDS was supposed to be the next pandemic, A disease that would take out 1 in 4 of the population. So far this virus has claimed around 40 million victims and it is thought that there are around 37 million still carrying the HIV or full blown AIDS virus at present. These are huge numbers. When it surfaced in the early 1980’s in America no one knew anything about it. It was passed from individual to individual through sexual contact and once it had entered into the gay community it spread rapidly. No one knew how to treat the symptoms or even if it was curable. Most people in America, in particular, those of a right wing persuasion could not be described as ‘sympathetic’ of the New York or any other gay community. This was even before men started to start to succumb to this unknown illness, initially thought to be some form of cancer, which was fast becoming an epidemic. It was a huge struggle for the gay community to even gain acceptance a lot of the time, this unknown virus was seen by some to be some sort of punishment. The problem was that this virus was decimating people.

David France brings us this insider’s view from the gay community on the characters that fought for recognition of their rights through the group ACT UP and for the fight that they had for resources for finding out just what this illness was and if it could be cured. This book is not the easiest to read, it is very dense, long and incredibly detailed. However, because of France’s perspective from within the community that suffered the most by reading this, you will gain an insider's perspective on the devastation that was wreaked on the gay community in the early 1980s. He lost partners and many close friends and associates to the virus and this made him do what he could do best, write. He describes the pretty despicable action by the American team of scientists undertaking research after the French team at the Institut Pasteur discovered the HIV-1 virus, and how Burroughs Wellcome developed AZT; supposedly the drug that would help those suffering. Problem was, it didn’t work. They made a fortune and still, people died. In their thousands.

Thankfully modern drugs mean that the disease is manageable, but this book is a reminder of a time that should not be forgotten.

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Friday 3 March 2017

Monthly Muse

Monthy Muse

I know February is a shorter month, but that went past in a flash! This is what I had managed to read:

Four were outstanding; Good Omens, The Apple Orchard A Tale of Trees and The Rule of the Land. All very different books that show how rich and varied our publishing industry is. Pete Brown writes with such wit and aplomb about these little parcels of land that have such an autumn bounty. Garret Carr teases out the stories from a troubled border, and Good Omens is an insane romp at the possible end of the world. I really enjoyed Hidden Histories too; it is a guide on the lumps and bumps that appear in fields all-around the country, and how to interpret what they mean.

Wellcome Prize
This is a prize that focuses on a common theme centred on medicine or health issues. But rather than just a non-fiction remit, it encompasses a wide range of fiction genres too, including science fiction. This year’s longlist was:

How to Survive a Plague by David France
Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal trans. Jessica Moore
The Golden Age by Joan London
Cure by Jo Marchant
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford
Miss Jane by Brad Watson
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

I had agreed to read and review for nb Magazine the seven non-fiction books on the list; thankfully I had already read two of them and had others at home. The library came up trumps once again, and I managed to get hold of the three missing books very quickly. So far they have all been good. I am halfway through the penultimate one, but so far my favourite is I Contain Multitudes.

World From My Armchair Challenge
So far I have read eight books towards this, helped by some of the books from the Stanford Dolman shortlists. Countries ‘visited’ so far are Bhutan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Iran, Ireland, Peru and the USA and I have crossed the Pacific Ocean in the company of Sarah Outen. It is good to see another people’s perspective. I am currently reading the new book by Reza Pakravan, Kapp to Cape which will add another country in this month. On target to do my 45 or so this year.

I have been trying to catch up on the review copies that publishers have kindly sent me, and failing mostly. So I am aiming to make serious roads into my backlog in March. Oh, and I am off to the London Book Fair on the 16th. Looking forward to it; it is going to be good to meet some people that I have corresponded with over the past year.