Wednesday 28 February 2018

Review: Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People

Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People by Julia Boyd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

There are countless books on World War 2, from serious and weighty tomes, stories of daring do and detailed explanations of pivotal moments that changed the course of a continent. Whilst there has been lots of analysis about the failings of the post-World War 1 reparations and oppression by the victors led to the problems that Germany found itself in, there has been very little written about the way it was rapidly changing from the perceptive of holidaymakers and visitors to the country.

In Travellers in the Third Reich, Julia Boyd has documented the turmoil that Germany was in as seen through the eyes of the people that visited the country in the interwar period. Collecting together their stories and accounts we learn how the particular set of circumstances led to the political rise of an obscure Austrian, who had once been tried for treason. As Hitler gained in popularity, the twisted message that he was broadcasting became a cult movement. This fervent following he had at the huge rallies to hear his vitriolic speeches, scared some visitors and yet others from the British establishment were embracing this dystopia.

After gaining political power, it didn't take long for him to seize total control and begin to roll out the nationalist policies across the country. The people that were drawn to Germany at this time came from all walks of life and saw the way that it was changing, but there were glimpses of the persecution that was starting to happen across the country as the vision of the Aryan ideal was implemented. The Olympics were the point where the Third Reich could showcase itself on the world stage and athletes and visitors where shown a sanitised country. Those that managed to peer behind the scenes though, were startled and horrified by what they saw.

This book has stories from a diverse range of people, schoolchildren, musicians, tourist and the political classes that were in and travelling through Germany in the 1930's. At the time there was a certain amount of complacency as to what was happening there, but with hindsight it is easy to see the way things were going, the secret war preparations, buses that could be converted into armed troop carriers, arrests and the terrifying events that were unfolding if they had taken a few moments to look beyond the veneer. It is the human angle that makes this such a fascinating book, the family from Bournemouth on holiday who bump into Hitler whilst on a walk and take a snap, the couple who are moved to take the disabled child of a Jewish mother out of the country to give her a chance of life and two lads realising that they were cycling very close to the concentration camp of Dachau by accident. It is a fascinating book, full of detail on a country that stepped into the abyss and almost took the whole of Europe with it. There are echoes in here that have a resonance today and we would be wise to remember.

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Review: The Genius Within: Smart pills, brain hacks and adventures in intelligence

The Genius Within: Smart pills, brain hacks and adventures in intelligence The Genius Within: Smart pills, brain hacks and adventures in intelligence by David Adam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Science has discovered almost uncountable things since the beginning of the 20th century. We have found elements and compounds that have almost magical properties, seen the vastness of the solar system and untangled the very strands of life. There are still things that we have yet to discover, secrets that the universe is yet to relinquish and one the most mysterious is what lies in the 6-inch gap between your ears.

Neuroscience is slowly revealing how the mind works and just what it is actually capable of, but what if you could supercharge your grey matter without having to go through the effort of hard work, revision and practice and just pop a pill? David Adam is up for a challenge, so to benchmark his own capability prior to trying out the latest science and technologies available for mind enhancement he decides to have a go at the Mensa examination. Scores achieved, it is time to begin his journey into the inner recesses of his own mind and to see what enhancements will help improve his score when he comes to take it again.

There have been many methods that people have tried to enhance the mind, and some of the discussed in the book include the spectres of eugenics and the way that intelligence tests have been used for all manner of nefarious ends. Adam selects two methods to try enhancements, the first is the drug modafinil to see the effects. As it is normally a prescription drug then he has to acquire his tablets, through other means, shall we say, before trying various before and after experiments. As electrical stimulation has been shown to have some effects a system with electrodes is acquired to run a similar set of experiments. It comes with instructions, but no details on where to place the electrodes as they might be liable for incorrect placements so the manual suggests just googling it…

His self-experiments make for amusing reading, but it is the questions that Adam poses that go some way to addressing the question of what is intelligence, how it affects us as an individual, and how societies treat those at the top and bottom of the scale, but his book can only provide answers to some of these questions. The more we find out about the capacity of our minds the more we realise just how little we know, we may all have untapped intelligence that is normally attributed to savants and whilst the IQ test can give a gauge of one factor of intelligence there are others that it doesn't account for. If you want a well written popular science book on the possibilities and limits of intelligence, then you can't go wrong reading this.

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Monday 26 February 2018

Publisher Profile - Salt

For me, independent publishers are the people in the industry who are prepared to take risks on new authors and books where the larger players either don't wish to venture, or they can't see there being a return on. Each month in 2018 I am aiming to highlight some of my favourite independent publishers, along with some of their books that I have loved and also to have someone from the publisher answer a few questions.

The publisher for months Profile is Salt Publishing. Based in Cromer, Norfolk, Salt have been been in business for 19 years this year and are committed to the publication of contemporary British literature, poetry and short stories. The first books published were poetry and they soon became a force to be reckoned with as the awards piled up. From 2011 they branched out into fiction and have critical aclaim there too with shortlisting and winners in the Polari First Book Prize, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award , the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Book Awards. They are good at finding the authors who most mainstream publishers would never consider, and bringing the stories to life that you wouldn't get to read otherwise. For example The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times, not only has a stunning cover, a disturbing and unerving novel set in Epping Forest or the unreilable narrator in The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased). I have just finished The many this weekend which was longlisted for the Man Booker. It is a haunting novel of a seaside village that is full of suspense as an outsider moves into a house and disturbs the fragile equilibium.

Christopher Hamilton-Emery was kind enough to answer some of my questions below on behalf of Salt Publishing:

Can you tell me a little about the history of Salt?

Well we started things back in 1999, in Cambridge. In the early days, it was mainly poetry, and mainly experimental poetry, often with a transatlantic flavour. We published a lot of Australians, too. We quickly diversified into literary criticism and literary companions, poetry, memoir, novels and short stories. There was this rapid expansion in the Noughties, at one point we were publishing around eighty titles a year. Like any publishing business we began with some narrow editorial imperative; if you are lucky enough to survive, you broaden those out – I’d say we were a small independent trade publisher now. We started developing our fiction list about seven years ago and at the same time, began plans to draw the list back. In the main, we publish British novels, about fifteen books a year, but we’re redeveloping our non-fiction and poetry lists, too.

How is the company organised today and how many people work for you?

There are three directors: Linda Bennett, Jen Hamilton-Emery and me. Nicholas Royle is a commissioning editor. Emma Dowson is our publicist. As in all independents, we all double up in roles – Jen commissions fiction, Linda commissions crime, I commission poetry. But this is the core team of five people.

What is the company philosophy when it comes to selecting for your catalogue?

I suspect each of us would provide a slightly different set of concerns in answering that question. There are perhaps three questions: Is it good? Can we sell it? Will readers love it? Each of us might attend to those questions in a different order and with different priorities, and we may add things in, loyalties and prejudices, hopes and dreams. Wearing my director’s hat, you don’t have a business if you don’t address paying readers – so I tend to start and end with this in strongly mind. Yet it’s not all about sales. A great book can be persuasive in several ways.

How do you go about choosing the titles to be included in your portfolio?

Each editor is free to choose what they most passionately believe in. We are great advocates of editorial judgement. There are cases when we might debate whether we can make a title as successful as it deserves to be. And I’d be wrong to imply that there aren’t financial constraints. But each editor is part of the Salt family and understands what we are trying to do and what resources we have. There’s pragmatism to match the passion.

Tell me about your process after selecting a book for publication

We start work on a book anything from fifteen months to nine months in advance – sometimes earlier, working with the author in developing a text. Then there’s contracting, editing and revision. Copyedits and line edits. Lining up your contacts and fans, working out the marketing plan, the publicity plan. Cover design and cover reveals. There’s a lot of administration sorting the bibliographic data, loading the buyers and suppliers with information. There’s a lot of talking to people: finding endorsers and supporters. There’s the typesetting and proofing cycle once editorial is finished. Prize planning and getting proofs out. Publicity copies to reviewers, bloggers, vloggers and booksellers – some on long lead times, some short. Pre-sales: planning titles in to key selling cycles and briefing the sales teams. Catalogue production. International sales. Rights sales. The book fair and festival planning. Author events. Excerpts, features and interviews. Social media campaigns. More prize planning. Networking. Drawing upon the author’s own publicity through their websites, online presence, friends and colleagues. Looking at influencer marketing – who will love this book. Seeding reviews with readers. Giveaways. Competitions. Tie-ins. Radio and TV. Point of sale materials. Bookshop marketing. Special sales. Then, in a kind of crescendo, we publish. 80% of the sales and marketing effort happens before the book hits the shops.

How much effort goes into the design of the book, for example the cover design, font selection and so on?

A great deal. You can’t formally announce a book without a cover, so it has to happen as early as possible and there’s a team involved in getting the right solution. Yet I’d say that the author is a key player – no book will succeed without the author, and the author needs to believe in the cover. It might not be the one they had chosen, but it must be the one they settle for. If you publish a book with a cover the author hates, its biggest advocate won’t support it. It’s both an emotional and commercial matrix. We think we get it right most of the time. Never underestimate its importance. Try to avoid bringing too much compromise. Don’t illustrate the book but create a powerful metaphor if you can.

Are there any up and coming books that you are publishing soon that we need to look out for?

All of them! However, if you want a glimpse of our range I’d say Samuel Fisher’s The Chameleon, Bee Lewis’s Liminal, Alison Moore’s Missing and Philip Whitaker’s You would give you a flavour of 2018 – but I am quite serious, they’re all worth seeking out.

What debut authors are you publishing this year?

Mark Carew, James Clarke, Samuel Fisher, Bee Lewis and Martin Nathan.

How did you come across them?

In each case, our editors went out and found them –through teaching, workshops and lectures.

What title of yours has been an unexpected success?

Success is always unexpected, I know that sounds arch but it’s true. You have a sense of which titles have the largest sales opportunities, and you have evidence for those insights, but prizes can swing things dramatically and we have had considerable success with literary prizes – a key part of our business strategy, you may say. No one can know the full effect of prizes. There are always dark horses, something that readers respond to in a way you hadn’t foreseen. In fact, I’d say that every year, there are some real surprises. That’s part of the pleasure of publishing.

What would you say were the undiscovered gems in your catalogue?

Each of us would answer this differently: Pinckney Benedict, Gerri Brightwell, Charles Yu.

How do you use social media for promoting books and authors?

We talk about what we do, about how and why we do it, which books we’re working on. We share our passion and hopefully our humour. We try to be honest, relentlessly honest. We try to be inclusive and open – let people into our working lives. We’re certainly not precious. We try to be visual. We try to be informative. We try to be, er, interesting, sometimes perhaps controversial. Social media is the coffee machine natter with folks. There are some more formal components, creating memes around releases and events. A change in register and tone makes for a more interesting voice. We start early and keep going. Social media is also a kind of afterlife for books. Never stop talking about them.

Is working with book bloggers becoming a larger part of that process now?

Yes, a blogger can break a book in ways traditional media largely controlled ten years ago. Like all media, some bloggers have a larger presence and impact than others. Some bloggers have become vloggers and changes in how we use new media have seen changes in how blogs work. Once upon a time, people would leave the world of social media to visit a blog – now the blog has to appear within social media. The discussions move to where the audience is. Presently, this lies within Facebook (for depth) and Twitter (for transient moments). It’s interesting to see vloggers increasingly collaborate and we’re seeing the emergence of a form of coherent broadcasting. We may yet see the emergence of channels of combined book reviewers creating an effective schedule of programmes.

What book do you wish you had published?

After Me Comes the Flood. What an author to have in your stable.

What does the future hold for Salt?

Financial exasperation, commercial seizures, all the usual moans and groans – yet alongside this ‘publishing weather’, the old complete conviction that we can make a difference to readers’ lives. Homilies aside, we have an important collaboration as co-funders with Galley Beggar Press and the Writers’ Centre Norwich/National Writing Centre over the next three years. We’re excited about that. There’s the careful development of our non-fiction list. And hopefully the resurgence of our poetry publishing. As Blake says, ‘The most sublime act is to set another before you’.

Thank you to Chris for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer those questions for me. I really appreciate it. Salt's books are available from all good bookshops and their most recent catalogue can be seen here. I would urge you to buy them from an independent bookshop if you can as this support them, the publisher and of course the author with one purchase. 

Sunday 25 February 2018

Review: The Shining Levels

The Shining Levels The Shining Levels by John Wyatt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

People are affected by the grand vistas of the Lake District in many ways, many return year after year to climb the same hills, to bask in the tranquillity of the lakes or to just enjoy the peace away from the hubris of modern life. John Wyatt's first experience of this part of the country was when he visited in the cub scouts and it deeply affected him.

A few years later he was working for the Telegraph in Manchester, but the draw of the lakes still had him, so he applied for the job of forest worker at Cartmel Fell. He ended up in a simple hut that had a bed, a stove and very little else. The work was simple and hard, but he relished the task as he was living in the place that he loved the most. One day everything changed when two boys brought him a young fawn that they had found and thought was ill. He explained that it had probably been hidden by its mother who'd return later, but by then it was too late. Wyatt had gained a charge, that he came to call Buck.

If you are expecting wide panoramas of the beautiful landscapes of the lakes then this is probably not the book for you, there is a fair amount about the comradery of the people who he worked with and who he lived near but the majority of this book is about John caring for a young roe deer that was to become a great, semi-wild companion. The antics of Buck would regularly startle and surprise those who would not expect a wild animal to have such a close association with a human. Wyatt may not have had many possessions when he was a woodsman, but he had a life that had riches that no one else could buy.

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Saturday 24 February 2018

Books Acquired this week

Thanks to Eland for this
And these from the library today too

Review: The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd

The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd by Marie Gameson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Winifred Rigby drifts through life in a world of her own. She works translating Chinese into English for clients and practices her own version of Zen at home. Her conversion came after a spiritual experience on a mountain in Taiwan and it was in the Far East that she felt happiest. Dragged back to the UK by her family for a spurious reason, she longs to return to Taiwan as she doesn't feel at home here, her memories of her past and people are vague and she is regularly surprised by people who claim to know her from school or elsewhere. Her staunchly Catholic mother is appalled by her Buddhist religion and between her and Win's sister they are frequently round her housekeeping an eye on her. To keep certain things secret and private she writes herself notes in Chinese for even the most mundane of tasks.

The little equilibrium that she has at home is rudely disturbed one morning as she opens her front door to a man who she hasn't seen since school, Mr Fallowfield. He had taught her history at school and he thinks that the stories that she wrote as a teenager are the reason he is being haunted by his late father. After a lot of discussion, she agrees to undertake research about how the Chinese worship the dead and to see if she can find the links between Mr Gadd in the story she wrote and the spectres that burden him now. This means reacquainting herself with the echoes of her past life, friends now forgotten reappear and re-discovering who she once was. A chance meeting with a couple from school adds further complexity to her life but also focuses her mind as to what she wants to do.

The first couple of chapters felt almost dreamlike, as you peeked into the life of Win. It is a touching story of a very strange family written in an engaging way, but there is a greater depth to the story as Gameson addresses the issues that all parents face as children grow up and change into adults capable of independent thought and now aren't the person that you remembered. There are a variety of threads that start tangled and are brought together in unexpected ways. So very different to a lot of fiction that is out there and well worth reading.

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Thursday 22 February 2018

Review: Elysium Fire

Elysium Fire Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

The authorities in the Glitter Band are starting to worry; there one was death a couple of weeks ago that they have not be able to explain. Last week there were two more. This week there have been four. No one has been able to explain why, and the information that they have tried to elicit from the corpses themselves hasn't given any leads. The implants that link each citizen to each other and the state in a fluid form of democracy where citizens are consulted and vote on matters small and large, have gone rogue and killed their hosts. Are these just random failings of the implants, which is unheard of, or is there someone out there causing them to fail? Panoply realises that they have a problem on their hands, one that seems to be growing exponentially and they have no idea who will be next to die.

The secrecy surrounding the deaths is high as they cannot risk society finding out that there is a killer on the loose. Inspector Dreyfus is brought urgently up to speed on the cases so far and those that are happening as the investigation tries to develop leads. To add to their woes, Devon Garlin, a member of the elite from Chasm City, is raising the political game by questioning the authority of the prefects and society with the aim of driving wedges between the habitats; somehow he seems to know about the mysterious deaths of the people too. What was a worrying situation is fast getting out of control...

Set in the Revelation Space universe this is a fast-paced sci-fi detective thriller is full of twists and turns and Dreyfus and his team try to work out who is doing the killing. The tech in the futuristic world is quite spectacular and Reynolds still manages to make it sound completely plausible. The secrets are revealed a little bit at a time as the story races to its fairly dramatic conclusion. However, it did feel like the ending unravelled a little too much rather than being neatly terminated, but that might be because there is more to come in a subsequent book; I hope so. Another stunning book from one of the masters of science fiction.

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Wednesday 21 February 2018

Review: 21st-Century Yokel

21st-Century Yokel 21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The facets that make up our character are drawn from many sources; our DNA, our family, our culture, our history and as Tom Cox argues in this book, the places where you grow up that can define you as much as these other things. The way that Cox recommends that immerse yourself in the local landscape is to walk through the lanes and paths, climb the hills and the stiles, take in the views and soak up the natural world at walking pace.

The blurb on the cover says: It’s not quite a nature book, not quite a humour book, not quite a family memoir, not quite folklore, not quite social history, not quite a collection of essays, but a bit of all six. But there is a lot more in this book than that; crammed into the covers of the book. He is captivated by all sorts of things that he encounters on his strolls, from bees to beavers, scarecrows to owls and even his cats make an appearance a few times. Keeping his sanity by taking longs walks in the country around his Devon home gives him plenty of time to consider the world. All of the subjects he tackles begin with a narrow focus, before becoming wider ranging and for me, much more interesting.

He is fascinated equally by the ghosts of the past as he concerned by the future of the countryside, but what makes 21st Century such a really good book is that it defies categorisation. Part of this reason behind this is because Cox writes about what he wants to without following any set agenda, and partly this is because this reflects modern life and all its distractions where you start on one project, get distracted by something else, wander off to get an item and arrive back four hours later wondering why you were starting that in the first place. Because of this, the book feels fresh and interesting, it has its poignant moments, the chapter on scarecrows is really quite creepy and is a great example of modern folklore, His VERY LOUD DAD makes me laugh every time he appears in the narrative too. This rich and varied book is not quite many things, but one thing it is, is fantastic.

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Tuesday 20 February 2018

Review: Woods: A Celebration

Woods: A Celebration Woods: A Celebration by Robert Penn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you think of the National Trust what comes to mind is the fine mansions houses and grand estates or the swathes of coastline that they are now custodians for. Under their protection is a wide variety of landscapes, from moor to heathland, farmland to mountains, ancient sites and what is the focus of this book, woodlands. In fact 60,000 acres in total on the land that they are responsible for, from ancient woodlands that contain some of the oldest living things in our country to forests that were the playgrounds of royalty.

Sadly woodland cover at just over 12% in the UK is the lowest it has ever been and we have one of the lowest in Europe too with both France and Germany being around 30%, but most are trailing in the wake of Finland as that has over 70% cover. That said, we have some of the oldest lived trees in Europe and the National Trust among others is custodian to some of our finest woodlands.

In this sumptuous coffee table book, Robert Penn tells the history of the woods and forests that the National Trust cares for. The book follows season by season showing the transformation from the skeletal outlines of the trees in winter to the rich colours of autumn. Penn's prose is short and to the point, as he weaves history, folklore, natural history and the future of our woodlands as well as talking about some of our most famous forests in the country as well as the lesser-known ones. into very readable prose. What makes this book though is that it is full of the stunning photographs of woodlands and trees and the other creatures that inhabit some of our most treasured of places.

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Sunday 18 February 2018

#BlogTour for Library Miscellany

Welcome to my blog for the final stop on the blog tour for #ALibraryMiscellaney by Clare Cock-Starkey.

I have been a fan of libraries for longer than I care to remember. I visit my local one in Wimborne most weekends and normally have a book or two to collect or drop back and always look at the shelves to see if there is anything that catches my eye.

This is not the only library in Wimborne though, the other is one of England's very first public libraries, second only to Chetham. It is located in the beautiful 12th Century Minister at the top of a spiral staircase in the room that in the reformation housed the treasury; now it's treasure lies on the pages. First opened in 1686, the oldest book in the collection dates back to 1343 and explains how to avoid spiritual pitfalls. The 150 books in the library were open to all, but the major donor, Roger Gillingham, wanted them to be available to the 'better class of person in the town'. The books in the collection were seen as so valuable at the time that he insisted that they were chained up. It is the second largest chained library in the country. You can still visit it and there are more details on the website here:

Clare's book is a little book full of gems of information and details about libraries from around the world. 

But before my review here is an extract kindly provided by Clare.

My Review:

I have been a fan of libraries for longer than I care to remember. I visit my local one in most weekends and normally have a book or two to collect or drop back and always look at the shelves to see if there is anything that catches my eye.

This sister volume to The Book Lovers' Miscellany picks up the same baton as that book. It is one that will have you retiring to the closest comfortable chair to uncover the delights and secrets of the libraries of the world. In here we will learn who was the first librarian, which library in the UK loans the most books each year and just what a legal deposit library is. There is a potted history of the library from the earliest over 2500 years ago to the most recent digital libraries. There are the rules of some of the world's most famous libraries where you can discover which one states that you cannot carry a gun in (!!!)

It is shocking I know, but there are libraries out there that don't contain books, however, they do contain a variety of other objects from seeds to smells, art and there is even a library of magic. We learn who wanted the library stock for themselves and were caught stealing the maps and books from some of the most famous libraries in the world, and those who have borrowed the books then forgot to bring them back for quite a while. I'm quite excited by the Future Library that Katie Peterson has created, she is collecting 100 books by 100 different authors and these will not be published until 2114.

There is some overlap between this book and The Book Lovers' Miscellany, but this is still a cornucopia of snippets, facts and figures about libraries that bibliophiles will treasure.

There's more. Clare was kind enough to send me a copy of the Book Lovers Miscellany too. 

My Review:

In case you haven't worked it out yet, I love books. I even like reading books about books too, and when I was given an opportunity to read The Book Lovers’ Miscellany I jumped at the chance. This small volume is packed to the covers with details and facts and stories about books, authors and significant events from the world of literature.

If you want a list of publishers who declined the books that went onto break all the sales records, which parts of animals have graced the pages and the what the largest and smallest books ever made were about and the texts that have been translated the most, then this is a really good place to start. You can find out who are the youngest authors, who are the most prolific and who left unfinished manuscripts, as well as finding out what the colours of the original Penguin paperbacks were for. Not sure what colophon and incunabule mean? The answers are in here as well as finding out what books other than science fiction contains wormholes.

This is a delightfully written and produced book that is a treasure trove of information. Perfect for anyone who has the slightest interest in books, authors and reading, it is short so will take almost no time to read spend a few moments to learn a new fact every time you open it.

You can find Clare on the web here: 
On Twitter Here @nonfictioness
If you want to go and hear her speak about both books she will be at the Oxford Literary Festival on March 20th at 12pm:

Buy the book at your local bookshop; that way you will support the author, the bookseller and the publisher with one purchase. Thank you for stopping by.