Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review – Riding in the Zone Rouge

Riding in the Zone Rouge

Zone Rouge cover

Author: Tom Isitt

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: W&N (21 Mar. 2019)

ISBN-10: 1409171140

ISBN-13: 978-1409171140

 

In May 1919 they had a cycle race in France and Belgium, taking in the battlefields and severely testing the endurance of the participants, many of whom had only just returned from the army.

This book describes the race and sets it against a modern cycling tour following the route, along with a travelogue based on the two wars fought in the area – the Franco-Prussian War and the Great War.

I haven’t been on a bike for forty years, but I like travel books and I’m very interested in history, particularly the events of 1919, so it was an obvious choice.

Cycle racing is tough these days. A hundred years ago it was tougher, with longer stages, rudimentary equipment and a ban on accepting outside help, whether from blacksmiths, teams or competitors. With the added hazards of war-ravaged roads and unseasonably bad weather it became less of a sporting event and more an endurance test. Despite many of the seemingly petty rules, there was no law against the use of performance-enhancing drugs (strychnine and cocaine in those days). This must have been a great comfort to the racers, particularly when weather conditions meant that several of them had to use battlefield ruins for a few hours sleep and shelter.

Most of the references to modern cycling went right over my head, though the contrast between the bikes and clothing of 1919 and 2019 is an eye-opener.

The Zone Rouge covered 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) in 1919. Even today it still covers 100 square kilometres (about the area of Paris). To be honest, I didn’t even know it still existed, or how the French and Belgians went about reconstructing their country. I am now better-informed about this, and a number of other subjects.

It’s a well written book by an experienced journalist and as such it has flow and pace and is a genuine page turner.

My least favourite parts of the book are the made up conversations between the racers. I’m sure they are accurate reflections of the conversations that would have been held, but they do blur the line between fact and fiction. As a device it works well and moves the narrative along, but I’m never happy with it in a history book. This is, however, a minor quibble and if this was the sort of review that gave stars I would give it five out of five.

This is the second post of the day, as it has been in preparation for the last few days. Unfortunately, politics intruded and although it gave me material for posts about judgement and a Fifty Foot Johnson I thought I’d go ahead anyway, rather than let it get lost in the unused drafts.

Book Review – My Alphabet: A Life from A to Z by Nick Hewer

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK (6 Sept. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1471167062
  • ISBN-13: 978-1471167065

If you are aware of Nick Hewer you probably know him from either The Apprentice or Countdown. If you aren’t from the UK you probably don’t know him at all.

I saw the book last Thursday when browsing in “The Works” whilst waiting to meet my sister for lunch. It was a perfect combination of interesting and cheap.

Cut into 26 chapters, each one themed around a letter of the alphabet (to emphasise his work on Countdown, I suppose), it builds into an interesting story of his life, though always with the feeling that he was holding quite a lot back. This isn’t really a problem if you are reading for entertainment, but could be a problem if you were expecting a detailed and structured autobiography.

He’s been to a Jesuit boarding school, run a successful PR business, been on TV, lived in France and driven from France to Mongolia in a Renault 4. In answer to your questions – for charity, and no, I don’t know why he used a Renault 4 either.

So, as an entertaining read, for £3, it can’t be beaten. If you want an insightful biography, or it’s full price (£20), I would advise saving your money.

Book Review – Library Lost – Laurie Graves

Library Lost (The Great Library Series Book 2) by [Graves, Laurie]

 

Just before Christmas I bought the Kindle version of Library Lost by Laurie Graves.  I then, as I often do, mislaid the Kindle, and didn’t actually start reading it until the New Year.

They say the second one of anything is difficult. You have second season syndrome in sport, difficult second albums and, in this case, the difficult second book. The main problem, as I see it, with Library Lost, is that you have to reintroduce the basics of the previous book as the story leads on from that.

This is important to people who are starting with the second book, and for people like me who have poor memories. The trap awaiting the unwary author is the temptation to drop in slabs of boring explanation. Mrs Graves avoids this trap. (Did you see what I did there? I’m pretending not to know her so I seem more professional).

If I have any criticism, it would be that the action could have started a few pages sooner. When it did start it was excellent.

I’m a little torn on the treatment of death. I know it’s YA fiction, but death (and there are a few deaths as the plot develops), seems to be glossed over,and this does tend to trivialise it.

Apart from that, the book is simply too short. I was completely engrossed in the story when I noticed that the percentages were whizzing by and suddenly, mid-story…

…I’m now waiting for Book 3.

Having said that, I’d rather to books stayed short and to the point instead of becoming bloated monsters like the Harry Potter books. But then, as I have said before, Laurie Graves is better than J K Rowling. The fact that she isn’t as rich or famous simply highlights the fact that life is unfair.

Excellent book, well written, gripping, plenty of character and action. I enjoyed it.

It’s possible I might have enjoyed it more if it had talking badgers, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

 

 

 

Book Review – Sharing Our Horizon

 

Sharing our Horizon: A Journey Through the Scottish Highlands with Two Adopted Whippets by [Tran, Xenia]

(Cover photo taken from Amazon)

Paperback: 84 pages

Publisher: Holistic Linguistics (30 Sept. 2018)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1916470424

ISBN-13: 978-1916470422

Paperback: £9.99    Kindle: £5.99

Written by Xenia Tran, who may be better known to users of WordPress as the author of Whippet Wisdom.

First, a disclaimer – my Kindle only does black and white so I can’t tell you what the pictures look like in colour. They are good, dynamic shots in monochrome, so I expect they will be as good or better in colour.

There are 59 poems in this book, which makes it a proper collection, with an identity and a life of its own. A lot of the books I’ve bought recently have been a bit sparse to say the least and have failed to pass this test.

My initial reaction on reading the book was that the haibun and longer poems were the best parts and the haiku were, surprisingly, trailing behind. I’ve re-read the book twice and revised my opinion slightly – I still think the haibun and the longer poems (up to 44 words) are the best of the book but the haiku are looking a lot better now.

I think this was probably a case of it being easy to overlook haiku when there are more substantial pieces to read, and when you are keen to read it to the end and see what it contains. A slower re-reading gives the haiku more chance to work on the reader. To be fair the real point is that I should read more slowly, rather than that the haiku are at fault.

So there you go, a good read and much better than the average offering. I’m looking forward to the next book now.

There is more information here if you want it.

Book Review – “Pier Review”

Pier Review: A Road Trip in Search of the Great British Seaside by [Bounds, Jon, Smith,Danny]

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Summersdale (11 Feb. 2016)
  • ISBN-10: 1849538115
  • ISBN-13: 978-1849538114

Again, with this being a Kindle book I’ve taken the book cover art from the Amazon website, so thank you Amazon.

It’s a good book, though one with quite a few rough edges. You can tell this before you pick the book up because the less enthusiastic reviews, and even some of the more favourable ones, refer to grammar, blokiness, bad language and beer. I’m not that bothered about grammar, as you can probably tell from reading the blog, and, in truth, I didn’t notice any bad language. That probably results from me being desensitised by having two sons and a background of working on farms and markets. Like so many of my contemporaries that year at Finishing School eluded me.

It’s a tale of two immature mates and their driver, Midge. The narrative is based on them travelling round 55 piers in two weeks. It is, unsurprisingly, a badly organised and under-funded trip. It’s a familiar model and it felt like I’d read books by this pair before. After looking at their previous books I discovered that I hadn’t. I’ve merely read other gimmicky travel books by similarly immature, badly organised blokes.

This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. It was interesting to spend time learning about different lives and their relationships with the seaside, each other, their laundry and their past. There’s even a bit about piers in places, though not a lot.

One of the things they discuss early on is a quote from someone – J G Ballard, I think – that travel books never mention the parking. I take this badly, as my post on Cromer, our first attempted pier visit, does feature parking quite heavily. Now it’s going to look like I’m copying them.

Apart from that, I have a sneaking feeling that they planned the book better than it looks on the surface. They meet people, they stay in various places (a B&B, camp sites, floors of friends) and they space out the reminiscences. It could be an accident, but it could, under all the casual chaos, be quite a well-planned book.

It can be a bit tedious reading about people drinking (even more tedious than actually having to listen to them whilst they are drunk) and about their constant bad planning, but they are likeable idiots and the time passes quite easily as you read.

It cost me £3.99 on Kindle, which is more than I normally pay for a Kindle book, but I was happy with it. However, it’s a book about mates on a road trip: if you want to learn about piers buy a different book. I’ll review that later.

 

A Day for Small Jobs

I started off by delivering Julia into servitude at 8.30 this morning. She’s not fond of Thursdays as she has to rush across town at 4pm to get from one job to another before finally being allowed home at 8pm.

Then I went to Newark. It was cold, business was non-existent and the tale of the last two weeks was one of cold, snow and poverty. After an exchange of cards, a cup of tea and a laugh about old times (there’s nothing to laugh about at the moment) I went browsing in W H Smiths looking for writing paper. I didn’t find any. The notes in my Christmas cards will, as a result, be written on paper torn from a spiral-bound notebook. To be fair, this is a more accurate reflection of me than smart writing paper.

A trip round Wilkos netted a tin of Vaseline lip-care products for Julia, a bucket of fat balls for the birds for £4 and a chicken and stuffing sandwich for £1. Yes, I know, I’m not supposed to be eating bread. However, as I’d already treated my self to a sausage and onion cob for breakfast I didn’t think a chicken sandwich was going to do too much extra damage, either to my waistline or my digestion.

From there it was a quick trip to the doctor to put in some prescription requests and on to TESCO for healthy veg and new gloves.

Resisting the urge to go home I visited the shop to drop off Christmas cards to my new colleagues (I’m such a creep) and helped with the delivery of two new cabinets for the new shop. It’s starting to take shape.

I then went home, supposedly to post on the blog but actually to engage in a variety of displacement activities, including sleeping in front of the TV, watching TV, checking ebay, picking Julia up from work, browsing the internet, writing notes to go in Christmas cards and warming up soup. I was tempted to say “cooking” but I’m pretty sure preparing soup and a sandwich isn’t cooking. We normally have something more substantial but after a day that saw us both deviating from our diets we thought we’d cut back a bit.

I even managed to do a bit of reading, having bought the Kindle edition of Maya and the Book of Everything by Laurie Graves. It’s going quite well so far. We’re right into the action and moving along nicely and there’s no boring stuff about chivalry or whales. She is therefore already ahead of Cervantes and Melville in my estimation. On the minus side there’s a definite lack of talking animals, though Sir John Oldcastle is about to make an appearance. I like Sir John.

 

 

Book Review: Fer-De-Lance

Fer-De-Lance by Rex Stout

Mass Market Paperback: 285 pages

Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group; Bantam Crime Line ed edition (1 Mar. 2005)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0553278193

ISBN-13: 978-0553278194

It’s the first book in the Nero Wolfe series and the Amazon price was low, so it seemed a good one for me to start with.

Nero Wolfe is rather Holmesian in his range of knowledge and detective abilities, though his disinclination to leave his home aligns him more closely with Mycroft than with Sherlock.

Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s assistant, and the narrator of the stories, is somewhat more with it than Dr John Watson, and is more active as a detective, though he does share Watson’s eye for the ladies. In fact, in some ways Goodwin is the main character of the novel.

The pacing is good, and the plot is complex enough to be satisfactory. However, it is a bit dated in the choice of murder weapon. I always think of Edgar Wallace when it comes to complex gadgets. I’ll say no more for now, see what you think.

To sum up – characters, pacing and puzzle are all good. Look on the murder weapon as a period curiosity and don’t let it get in the way of your enjoyment.

Book Review – Eggs or Anarchy

Eggs or Anarchy by William Sitwell

Paperback: 368 pages

Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK (9 Feb. 2017)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1471151077

ISBN-13: 978-1471151071

Between the wars the government took the view that we should produce what we were good at and import the rest. This meant we were importing about 60% of our food, as we had been doing in 1914. The problem was that the Germans had more efficient aircraft and submarines in 1939.

Fter a successful retail career, Lord Woolton took on the job of sourcing the millions of uniforms needed to equip a new army. He was surprised to find that having ordered the trousers he had to order the fly buttons via another government department.

He managed to sort it all out, and then took on the task of organising food supplies, including issuing millions of ration books and developing a system that was fair to all.

He didn’t just have U-Boats to worry about, he had Churchill and his attempts to use shipping for moving troops. Then he had to organise storage for food in places where it wouldn’t be bombed, make sure our suppliers didn’t overcharge us and iron out inefficiencies in distribution at home. The title refers to the fears that order and morale would break down if he was unable to get the rations out.

One of my favourite moments was when he told visiting American politicians that he would prefer their ships to their good wishes. He was not a conventional politician, having come to it late in life.

As for the famous Woolton Pie… Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out his thoughts on that.

It’s an interesting subject, though the writing doesn’t always reflect this, and poses a few questions about food security, which we are going to have to answer in the coming years.

Book Review – Now All Roads Lead to France

Now All Roads Lead to France – Matthew Hollis

Paperback: 432 pages

Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (5 Jan. 2012)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 057124599

ISBN-13: 978-0571245994

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:

Roads – Edward Thomas

 

It’s a book about the final years of Edward Thomas, covering the rise of Georgian Poetry, modernism, war poetry, Dymock and Robert Frost.

It also covers the question of his punctuation. I don’t know about you but in some of Thomas’s verse, like the quote at the top of the page, the punctuation seems at variance with the natural rhythymn of speech. This is intentional, though my personal feeling is that it doesn’t improve the piece.

The “Georgian” refers to George V and was meant to show the modernity of the new poetry as it emerged from the time of Victoria. It may have done at the time, but it always makes me think of George III. The fact that the modernists took over after the war also tends to make the Georgians look old-fashioned, despite their intentions.

You’ll need to read the book to get the full details – Matthew Hollis is much better at explaining than I am.

To summarise, as the war came, Thomas was a well-known (and over-worked) literary critic and a difficult husband. He moved to Dymock to be amongst the poets who had congregated there and under the influence of Frost (who had come to England to advance his poetry career) started writing poetry. After much soul-searching, he joined the army, bacame an instructor and, instead of staying in the UK instructing, applied for a commision and went to France . I don’t think I’m giving too much away if I say it didn’t end well.

Hollis covers a lot of ground in this book, and does so in depth. Despite this it’s almost always interesting and moves along at a decent pace.

The exception to this is several of the passages dealing with the theory of poetry. However, they aren’t long and don’t hold things up too much. That’s what happens when you have a book about poets written by a poet – the style is good, the information is well handled and you get all the passion you could ask for. But you do get a bit too much discussion of poetry.

It’s an excellent book, with an interesting in-depth view of Thomas’s poetry career and family life set within the literary life of the UK in the lead up to the Great War.  You can read it as history or biography or literary criticism.

If you get a chance do read it. I mean, how often do you hear me being this enthusiastic about a book?

Of course, if you aren’t interested in the Great War or poetry, it might not be the book for you.

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Photo of books – it fills a space. 

 

Book Review – Lives of the Improbable Saints

Lives of the Improbable Saints – Richard Coles

Paperback: 192 pages

Publisher: Darton, Longman & Todd; UK ed. edition (17 Oct. 2012)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0232529558

ISBN-13: 978-0232529555

I’ve always quite liked Richard Coles, and I find the lives of the early saints very interesting, so this should be exactly the book I’m looking for.

It’s not bad (and the Amazon price, as with most of my purchases, was considerably less than the postage so it was good value). However, there’s a lot of white space on the page and some of the illustrations are very large.

Given the choice I’d browse the net. I’ve always found this site to be sound on saints, though short on humour.

Richard Coles is a bit short on humour too, but when you’re a vicar and your target market is Christians I suppose you have to keep yourself under control. I could probably write a funnier book but the Church would might burn it and excommunicate me. Or, even worse, burn me and excommunicate the book.

It’s been one of my stand-by books for NHS waiting rooms, and despite (or possibly because of) the gentle nature of the humour, was enough to pass the time and keep my mind off things.

Could be a lot worse, and it has the advantage that you can put it in your pocket, which isn’t the case with a website.

It’s good to change gear now and again, as life can’t be all Blandings and Wooster. Sometimes gentle humour and a simple story is all you need.

There’s a second volume, and one day I’ll probably read it, but I’m not going to rush out and buy it right now as I have other things to read.

Call it qualified approval – I wouldn’t turn down a Wodehouse to read Volume 2 of this.

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