Saturday, 21 April 2018

Review: Bel Canto

Bel Canto Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was supposed to be an important gathering, a Japanese businessman has joined the great and the good in the vice-presidents home in a small Latin American country to be persuaded to invest in a factory in their country. The president has called off, preferring to sit at home and watch his favourite soap opera. Mr Hosokawa was wary about attending, but when he heard that his favourite opera singer, Roxanne Coss, had been booked to sing to the private gathering, he decided to attend.

After she had finished singing, there is a pause and the house is suddenly full of men with guns, who were there to kidnap the president. When they find he is missing there are incredulous and angry, almost not believing them and thinking he is hidden amongst the people there. As the tension mounts, a hostage dies and the partygoers realise that it is not a game anymore. A day or so later there is a knock at the front door, the soldiers open it and on the other side is a Swiss guy who was supposed to be on holiday, is there on behalf of the Red Cross to begin negotiations. A list of demands is drawn up and he is sent off with them.

The government is not wanting to negotiate unless some of the hostages are released, and the women and children a few others are let out, but they soldiers decide to keep the opera singer, and life in the house settles down into an awkward routine. A chess board if found and Coss decides that she needs to practice her singing to keep her voice in check and it turns out one of the guests is an accomplished piano player; slowly the authority of the Generals and their soldiers begins to ebb away.

This is an interesting take on the usual action-packed hostage trope, Patchett has let the sluggish responses of a government feed into the characters in the home as people on opposite sides start to talk, develop relationships and try to act like this is actually normal life. It isn't but even then, love manages to flourish even under the most trying of circumstances. If I had one quibble, I thought that the epilogue was a little unnecessary as a way of tying things up, otherwise a really enjoyable read.

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Friday, 20 April 2018

Review: Gavin Maxwell: A Life

Gavin Maxwell: A Life Gavin Maxwell: A Life by Douglas Botting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

Gavin Maxwell was born on the 15th July 1914 the youngest son of Lieutenant-Colonel Aymer Maxwell and Lady Mary Percy, fifth daughter of the seventh Duke of Northumberland. As the fourth child he had a sheltered upbringing in the small village of Elrig, in Wigtownshire. He was late being sent off to boarding school and struggled to mix with other children, preferring animals which he always had a natural affinity with. He attended Oxford, leaving with a 3rd class degree shortly before World War II. He managed to get a commission with the Scots Guards, the regiment that his family were associated with and moved down to Pirbright for training. His fitness was suspect though and he was moved sideways into the newly created SOE. He was an ideal instructor after the years spent roaming the wilds of Scotland and his keen eye as a shooter meant he was a crack shot. In the end his fitness meant that he couldn't stay and left the army.

After the war, he borrowed £11,000 from his mother, technically an early inheritance, and bought himself an island. He set up a business to catch and process basking sharks, but it failed and he ended up selling it. He dabbled in car racing, having always had a love of speed, but wasn't hugely successful at that either. He tried various activities to occupy him, including painting, something he loved but wasn't particularly proficient at, but it did lead him to find a place that was to be a part of his life for a long while to come; Sandaig. This idyllic house was located on the coast with pure white sand, springy green turf and with the nearest neighbour two miles away it was to become his refuge, his Avalon. Whilst he was there he put down his brush, picked up his pen, and wrote the story of his attempt at shark fishing, Harpoon at a Venture.

This book was critically acclaimed and was to be the first of many books that he would write. The desire to travel would take him to Iraq with Wilfred Thesiger and Gavin Young and more books would be forthcoming, including the renowned A Reed Shaken By The Wind of his travels around the marshes of southern Iraq with the Arabs that called it their home. It was here he was to encounter the animal that would define the next stage of his life, the otter. He managed to acquire a small cub called Chahala, but it died shortly after receiving it. He asked if another could be found and soon after an another otter was brought to him; this he called Mijbil. This was the otter that he returned to Sandaig with. This animal was to bring him immense joy and a certain amount of chaos and distracted him in his writing. Mijbil was tragically killed, supposedly in an accident, but many knew it was a deliberate act of cruelty.

More otters were sought and it was these that were to inspire his to write his masterpiece Ring of Bright Water, a title taken from a poem by Kathleen Raine called "The Marriage of Psyche". The book about the wilds of Scotland and the otters became an instant bestseller and made Maxwell famous overnight. The income from the book meant that he could clear of some of the debts that he had got from his extravagant spending and it meant that he could fund a series of travels to Morocco for material for the next book he was planning.

Maxwell suffered from bipolar disorder who had massive highs and lows, he was a closet homosexual, something that was illegal at the time and it made him an immensely complex character. He had turbulent relationships with the few women in his life and was even married briefly to Lavinia Renton for a short period. The most intense relationship was with Kathleen Raine who cursed him and the house after a particularly stormy row. He had come from a wealthy family and he could spend money like water, buying cars and properties with no consideration as to the way of securing an income from them. Even though he was a writer of rare talent, he was considered to be very difficult to deal with, asking for large advances, early payments against royalties and frequently very late for submissions. He drank heavily and smoked a great deal, probably a contributory factor to the cancer that he succumbed to at the end of his life.

Botting's superb republished biography of Maxwell is timely given the rise of interest in nature and landscape writing. He was a friend of Maxwell, and this shows in the book as he has been able to write about details that someone who never knew him would not have been able to discover. Maxwell lived life to the full and Botting is honest with his profile of him too writing about the good and the bad, the successes and the failures with a critical but not unkind eye. This superb biography reminded me of the one by Artemis Cooper of Patrick Leigh Fermor, another writer who redefined a genre. This book has been given the Eland treatment with their distinctive branding and is a worthy addition to their collection of classic books.

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Thursday, 19 April 2018

Review: Stay with Me

Stay with Me Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As the wife of Akin, Yejide's primary role is to provide a child. It is what her mother in law, Moomi wants too, as well as the wider family and it is the miracle that Yejide wants too. It has driven her to seek answers from God, drag a goat to the top of Mountain of Jaw Dropping Miracles, undertake a pilgrimage and even consult the western medicine that some Nigerians are adopting. Akin's relatives insist that he has to take a new wife to uphold the family honour, this is a step too far for Yejide and she will fight it with all her strength. She has a phantom pregnancy and sails past the usual nine months, but still no baby.

Akin's brother, Dotun, marriage has just imploded, and he has moved in with them. He has a reputation as a womaniser and Yejide begins to consider that this may be the way that she can get the child that she and in particular her husband's family crave.

Is a story full of love, life, death, tragedy with uplifting moments, all with the politics of the country as a turbulent backdrop. Yejide is in between cultures as the old Nigerian ways clash with the new world and Western medicine and there is plenty of deceit and lies as the plot twist and turns and the truths are laid bare for each person in the family to see. I thought it almost had too much going on with the subplots but it was neatly executed. The characters are flawed and believable and occasionally funny and shows the pressure that a can placed on one individual to perform what is expected of her. Adebayo has conveyed the way the county works through this small family is a style that is definitely her own. If you like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie then you should give this a go.

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Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Review: Mayhem: A Memoir

Mayhem: A Memoir Mayhem: A Memoir by Sigrid Rausing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It read like a storyline from the latest thriller. In a £70 million pound mansion in the plushest part of London, in a drug den sealed with duct tape, human remains were found covered by a tarpaulin and a couple of flat screen TVs. The staff were told not to enter the room and with the discretion that the ultra-rich demand, none thought to question the reason why, nor disobey. This wasn't a bestseller though; it was real life. The remains were the body of Eva Rausing, wife of Hans Kristian Rausing, heir to the multi-billion Tetra Pak fortune. The couple had long been addicted to Class A drugs and had often been in the newspapers with the journeys in and out of rehab. Her death of a heart problem had not been ignored by Hans, but his drug-addled state caused him to take actions that a person in normal circumstances would not have done.

Watching Hans and his Eva's lives implode was Han's sister, the editor and publisher Sigrid Rausing. She hadn't really paid attention when he first had become addicted to drugs in his twenties but saw them both relapse after being married for seven happy years. As the drug use spiralled out of control again they drifted in and out of rehab, she took to writing persuasive letters and emails trying to help them with the predicaments. This supportive help failed, but after taking advice she became the legal custodian of their four children, something that Eva strongly objected to claiming that Sigrid wanted the extra children for herself, something that she rebuts in the book.

It is a very personal and open memoir, with stories of her childhood growing up in Sweden and the small pleasures of life that she recalls in snippets. The core theme of the book though is addiction, and how an individual can become so absorbed that the neglect friends, family and themselves. She asks the question how do you help someone with an addiction? Especially if they really don't want to be helped at all, how the twelve step process does work, but after someone has relapsed and entered rehab again, it is easy to repeat the things that those running the centres want to hear, with no real commitment to their meaning or purpose. There are deeper questions too about where the line is where someone is knowing what they are doing and the point where that stops because of the addiction and mental capacity.

It is not an easy read subject wise, thankfully Rausing's sparse but beautiful writing helps makes this an essential read. She is brutally honest about her own life and the failures in helping Hans and Eva, but also now understands the limits of what she could actually do at the time. She doesn't and cannot provide the answers of where to go to get the help that people need, but does highlight how little is understood about addiction and how society can tackle the pain and anguish it causes.

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Sunday, 15 April 2018

Review: Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ask people to describe what they imagine artificial intelligence and a number of their reference points would no doubt be rooted in film and literature. There is the brutal robot from the Terminator films, the benign but deadly HAL9000 from 2001 A Space Odyssey, and the contemplative Deep Thought that Douglas Adams gave us. AI has a long way to go, but it is becoming something that people are beginning to use on a daily basis when they talk to Siri or Alexa.

The potential benefits of AI for humanity could be enormous, it could be used to run all sorts of systems, search for crimes and maybe be part of the justice process, monitor our health, assist with our jobs, and have the potential to actually do some of the most menial. People are considering using them for warfare too, one step on from what the drone does under human control at the moment.

Whilst AI excites some people who can only see the positives, after all the potential of it is huge; there are others who are very concerned that about the downsides so much so that there are AI systems that are not connected to the world wide web. Using AI for war could backfire spectacularly, bye bye human race; and what happens if the AI managing your house is hacked? Or the one in your car fails at speed. Images of those pods in the matrix come to mind…

The subjects Tegmark covers In Life 3.0 goes some way to addressing these and a lot more issues that are concerning people about the implications of AI. Some of the subjects he writes about were what you'd expect in a book like this, consciousness, intelligence, life and the implications of an AI totalitarian state, would it be a utopia or worse. There were some chapters that I didn't think were totally relevant to the subject; for example, he wanders off into the realms of space-time and goals. Was a little disappointing overall as this is a subject that needs urgent discussion right now.

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Monthly Muse - March

Apologies for being a bit late with this and being very quiet on the blog recently, almost immediately into April we went on holiday, so now have a pile of reviews to catch up with, but here is what I read in March. I managed 17 books in the end. Not as many as I had hoped for, other stuff kept getting in the way! 

There is a total mix of books this month, hopefully, something for everyone so here we go: 

I have been a huge fan of David Crystal for years, he has a knack of teasing out those etymology gems from our rich and varied language. What he has also done is to teach himself and other the best way of speaking to others, be it a small group in an office to a packed lecture theatre. This was one of the books and authors that was involved with Jewish Book Week and they were kind enough to send me a copy to review

Eland have been my publisher of the month in the profiles that I have been doing and you can read all about them here. Warrior Herdmen is one of the books that they have kindly sent me to review. This is the stories that Elizabeth marshall collected from her time spent with the Dodoth people who inhabited the northern fringe of Uganda. More anthropology than travel but fascinating none the less. 


Another one of the books and authors that was involved with Jewish Book Week and they were kind enough to send me a copy of this to review too. At the young age of fourteen, Laura Freeman was diagnosed with anorexia.While she let very little pass her lips in the form of nourishment, she still devoured books, and it was literature that was to hold the key to her recovery. Laura and her list of childhood favourite books has played a crucial role in her accepting that food is not something to avoid and can be enjoyed.

The final Jewish Book Week book that I was sent was The Ascent of Gravity by Marcus Chown. Gravity affects everything on this planet, but it was first understood only 400 years ago by Newton. Other have since broadened and deepened our understanding of this tiny, but significant force and Choswn takes us through the history and the most recent discoveries.

Undercover Muslim is about the troubled country of Yemen.  takes us into the coffee shops and backstreets where disillusioned young muslim men of the west seek some sort of spiritual aspiration in this society. One for my #WorldFromMyArmchair challenge too.

Surfing is a tough sport, so attempting it when you've had a hip replaced is beyond most people's comprehension. Iain Gately is one surfer who has never ridden a tube, and it is one thing that he wants to do before he can't surf any more. I really enjoyed this and it was nice to have a book written by a local Dorset author too.

Sometimes it is who you know, rather than what you know, that opens doors and opportunities and Clare had a friend had a contact in the Finnish Embassy. A message came via this link asking: We are celebrating a hundred years since independence this year: how would you like to travel on a government icebreaker? Horatio Clare jumped at the chance to spend 10 days on a modern Icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean. I love the evocative way that he writes about the sharpness of the ice, the clarity of the light and the noise as the frozen sea succumbs to the power of the ship Another good read from Clare and can highly recommend.

There are an awful lot of wild swimming books out there now, and I have read a lot of them. The classic Waterlog is still the one to beat though, but I still like to pick the others up and see where their aquatic adventures take them. It has a personal side as do a lot of natural history books these days, but then we are as much of this planet as the wildlife is. Thers is a deep melancholy and eloquence to Peter's writing as even though he was better when he wrote the book, the spectre of depression is still a shadow in the background

In the urban sprawl, it is sometimes hard to see the natural world, but most people don't realise that after an hour or so in the car from their front door they'd be able to see some of best examples of wildlife, woodlands and our finest natural landscapes. There is something in here for everyone, moorlands, coastal and wetlands, woodlands and even derelict industrial areas. Keep one in the glovebox of the car.

Lewis -Stempel is described as one of the best nature-writers of his generation, and he is very good, though I would argue that there are others that can carry that bough too. This is another sublime book from Lewis-Stempel to add to his raft of award-winning books. I really liked the diary format and the way that it is interspersed with folklore, poems, history, recipes and personal thoughts. Read it and you will want to own your own wood too.

Nestling in the foothills of the Himalayas in Yunnan Province lies the capital city of the almost forgotten Nakhi Kingdom, Likiang. This city was the home of the Nakhi. It was here that Peter Goullart went to live and work as a Chinese Industrial Cooperatives representative just before the beginning of World War 2. He paints a fascinating portrait of the people there uncovering the details that make the stories that he tells so compelling to read. Superb book

In Ground Work, Tim Dee has collated the thoughts and observations of thirty-one of the finest landscape and natural history writers around. This poetic and literary collection is the response to the threat that is being posed by the 'soft-skinned, warm-blooded, short-lived, pedestrian species' that has turned our present day into a new epoch; the Anthropocene. This new era is already causing chaotic changes to our weather systems, there is the steady creep upwards in average temperature across the globe as well as significant and it some cases catastrophic changes to our environments.

The Gathering Tide is Karen Lloyd's journey around and across the dynamic sea and landscape of Morecombe Bay. Her evocative writing weaves together the physical journey on and around the sands, across the dunes and out to the islands and one kingdom, that poke their heads above the 10m tides. There are glimpses back into her past, fond memories of growing up in the area and meeting up with people whose livelihood depends on this coastline.

Where would you be without the internet? It is now one of life's essentials along with power and water, and if you have teenagers then you know for them it is their lifeblood. The book covers the men who started the websites that now rule our lives and have permeated our existence in so many ways and we now rely on them. It is an interesting read, but he really doesn't go anyway to address what needs to be done to curtail their power.

The first instance of the name Hamtunscir appeared in the 8th century, but there has been a human presence in the county of Hampshire since around 12,000 BC. People were communicating in a different way back then, but in this Langlands has scoured books and manuscripts to bring the very best of Hampshire writers and writing. There are the people that you'd expect, Jane Austen and Gilbert White as well as a raft of others including Wodehouse, Doyle and even Hardy who had ventured out of Dorset.  Nice collection of literature.

A Black Fox Running is a re-published edition with 
a stunning cover with a beautiful introduction by Melissa Harrison on how it inspired her to become a writer. It tells the story of Wulfgar, the dark-furred fox who roams far and wide over the wilds of Dartmoor and his battles with Scoble, an ex-veteran from the war with a drinking problem. It is not a children's book, there are no compromises on death in this book, rather the writing is firmly grounded in the granite bedrock of Dartmoor bringing the natural world alive to the reader.

Jules Pretty walked along the shoreline of East Anglia in southeastern England over the course of a year, exploring four hundred miles on foot and another hundred miles by boat. It is a coast and a culture that is about to be lost not yet, perhaps, but soon to rising tides and industrial sprawl. It is a part of the world that has my roots in, as my paternal grandmother's family come from Paglesham, though I have never visited it yet. I loved the photos in this book and the writing was considered without being too academic.