Monday, 29 May 2017

Review: Pedal Power: Inspirational Stories from the World of Cycling

Pedal Power: Inspirational Stories from the World of Cycling Pedal Power: Inspirational Stories from the World of Cycling by Anna Hughes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Since the bike was invented it has provided people with opportunity. It provided people who could not afford expensive methods of transport with a means of travelling further than they previously were able, it gave women freedom and has provided an energy efficient method of transport all over the world. The simple two wheeled machine has given us a plethora of bike types now. You can buy a cheap steel bike for a small amount of money or you can spend a large fortune on the latest carbon framed road bike that is almost light enough to float. We have mountain bikes, tourers, BMX, recumbents, folding bikes and the saddleless trials type. All of these bikes have their owners who have taken them to all of the continents, to some of the highest points on the globe and there are those who have gone to the furthest point from the ocean. Many have taken them around our planet, partly to break records, sometimes just for the hell of it. We have one of the world greatest sporting spectacles in the Tour de France, there is the insanity of the rampage downhill event and the metronomic velodrome.

Hughes has pulled together lots of stories on cycling heroes into this book. You can read about stars of the cycling world such as Froome, Wiggo and MacAskill as well of those who are not as well known, like Sunny Chuah and CK Flash. We hear about one guy who rode up Mont Ventoux on a Boris bike and tries to return it to London before he is penalised, another who attempts to cycle to Hawaii and tales of some of the fastest on two wheels. Most importantly we learn how the simple gift of a bicycle can give people so much opportunity through the work of World Bicycle Relief. This book is full of inspiring people who have seen their lives changed by the simple act of turning a pedal, or used it to change other lives. It is a great book for the bike nut in your life.

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Review: The Nature of Autumn

The Nature of Autumn The Nature of Autumn by Jim Crumley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Each season offers its own basket of delights, in winter we have the skeletal trees set against the grey skies, spring brings an outpouring of life and acid greens. Summer, such that it is, is a time of balmy days and abundant food. Before you know it, autumn is upon us once again and nature starts its most dramatic change of all. As the light ebbs, leaves start the process of leaching chlorophyll back into the tree and changing to a fantastic range of colours, the warm days are tempered by sharper mornings and the mists soften the countryside.

Autumn is one of Jim Crumley’s favourite seasons, an emotion triggered after seeing geese flying overhead when he was young. He takes us on a journey around his home country of Scotland travelling from the lowlands up into the Highlands and across to the islands to see the Autumn unfold. His travels take him to see the vast whooper swan flocks that have headed down from the Arctic, the ancient brocks that only exist in this part of the world and he seeks out the Redwoods that grow there. His keen eyes see the golden eagles that float over the mountains, the traces of otters and beavers that live in the rivers, the fleeting glimpses of deer in the woods the blur of a stoat and watching an owl float silently over a field.

There is nothing particularly profound in here, just the stories of a man who takes the time to head out as often as he can to sit and watch the world inexorably grind through the first flush of autumn to the arrival of the snows. He is great at finding the words that fill in the picture of the place that he is visiting; so much so that you feel that you are sitting alongside him at certain points as he takes in the views. As well as being a eulogy to autumn, it is a reflective book too, he takes a moment to celebrate his late father and grandfather and their achievements. It did take a little away from the main point of the book though, but it is still worth reading for his gentle, lyrical language.

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Friday, 26 May 2017

Review: Where Poppies Blow

Where Poppies Blow Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There has been awful lot of history written about the horrors of the First World War, we have first-hand accounts from those that fought and suffered, writers who composed some of the most poignant poems and a raft of historical documents and archaeological reports that build a picture of the time. Even though the war dragged on for four years, not all of it was spent fighting. The soldiers had time away from the front lines and the misery of the trenches and when they did they found they could draw comfort from the similarities in the north French landscape to the countryside that they had left behind and that some would never see again.

For it is for the sake of the wolds and the wealds
That we die

Whenever the troops had a spare moment they would take time in between the bombs to observe the birds that were trying to eke out an existence in the war too. It was one of the most popular hobbies of soldiers. Flowers played a large part in soldier’s lives too, some had time to plant and tend gardens, but the image of poppies and cornflowers blooming after the devastation of war is one of the enduring images that remained with the shattered soldiers leaving the battlefields. Some of the officers also hunted, spending hours chasing what little wildlife was left in the fields, some made rods to fish, other took the easier option of dropping bombs in the rivers. Not only did the British Army empty the fields of the workers, they took the horses too, and when they had almost all gone, they shipped them over from Canada. The soldier’s relationship with their equine friends was made closer by the perils of war. In total eight million horses, donkeys and mules died during the conflict, a horrendous number. There were also a huge number of other animals at the front too, the battalions had their mascots which varied from the fairly common dogs, to the less common goats to the frankly unusual orang-utan and cows. Rats and lice were endemic in the trenches causing yet further misery to those knee deep in mud.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row

Lewis-Stempels book is a very different take on the usual histories of the First World War. It is full of personal stories of the way that the soldiers saw nature and how it gave them the motivation for them to carry on in the darkest of times. The prose is almost secondary in this book, as there are so many poems and anecdotes about the natural world around them that he has collected together. It is not all grim reading, there are some really positive parts to the book, but I thought the list of those scientists and naturalists that had fallen in action was most moving as it showed how much experience and knowledge that we lost just from one small sliver of society. The war that had taken so many of the fit and able men showed that they still had their humanity.

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Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Review: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir by Chris Packham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Chris Packham is a well known presence on our TV screens, presenting The Really Wild Show from 1986 to 1995 and most recently Springwatch. He is passionate about all things wildlife and conservation, an interest that stemmed from early in his childhood where he developed a fascination with all creatures great, small, dead and alive. His introverted personality meant that he was a boy who didn’t fit in with anyone else at school; he was bullied, beaten up and suffered in some way every day. He was an indifferent pupil, but with the subjects he loved, he excelled at them.

Where Packham felt most alive though was when he was interacting with the natural world. He felt a connection to every creature that was living and had a fascination with those long departed like dinosaurs. His bedroom was a cross between a zoo and a museum with jam jars full of frog spawn, snakes in fish tanks and drawers full of skulls, eggs and deceased insects. He would spend hours outside looking for specimens, poring over his collections and boiling carcases to get to the bones. But the creature he most coveted was a kestrel, a real live kestrel, and one day he was to realise that dream. Every magical moment that he spent with the bird learning how to train it and observing it in the tiniest detail was to be the time he finally felt at peace with the world around him.

This moving memoir is written with an intensity that is so very different to anything that I have read before. Packham is eloquent with an attention to detail that is quite astonishing, you could say that obsession is his middle name, but it is not surprising when you learn he suffers from Asperger’s. His parents were gracious and tolerant with the way that he saw the world and the way that it saw him, but the way people failed to understand him did intensify the internal conflicts he suffered from. Woven in are accounts of his meetings with a phycologist, where he takes the tentative, painful steps of opening up to a stranger and it is where we learn of his greatest fears and those moments where he has stood at the abyss. If there was one flaw for me, it was the way it was written in the third person. It felt like he was detached from the events going on, and to a certain extent he probably was, but overall it is a really good read.

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Review: An Estate Car Named Desire: A Life on the Road

An Estate Car Named Desire: A Life on the Road An Estate Car Named Desire: A Life on the Road by Martin Gurdon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unless you are really unfortunate, your car today will almost certainly start first time, be warm, dry and traffic allowing, you will make it to your destination with no dramas. However, motoring in the 1960’s when Martin Gurdon was growing up, was an adventure in itself. Cars could frequently be seen by the side of the road with the bonnets raised and steam coming out; it was not uncommon to take a full toolset and a spare gearbox, just in case… Gurdon’s fascination with all things with wheels was borderline obsession, he could tell the just from the note of the exhaust, what car was passing, by reading every detail in magazines he could glance at a car and tell just how rare it was. This just seemed normal, surely everyone was like this; weren’t they?

Then his happy childhood broke down; his mother’s illness caused a family crisis and he was dispatched to her sister in Lancashire. His new school tolerated him, but his father made the decision to bring him down closer to home and placed him in a vegetarian boarding school. So begins the final five years of his flawed education, an experience that he tolerated because of his continued obsession with cars, and the thrill of acquiring a Triumph Herald for illicit trips out. Stumbling out of school with no idea what he wanted to do, he ends up in a couple of dead end jobs, frequently visiting the job centre before slowly realising that writing might be something he could do, and if he could write about cars, that would be just about perfect.

Gurdon is his capacity as a motoring journalist has had the privilege of driving some of the world fastest cars, but he served his motoring apprenticeship in the appalling cars that were produced in the seventies, Reliant Robins, Morris Marinas, 2CVs; he is lucky to be alive after reading about some of the scrapes that he got into. Nostalgia seeps from this book like oil from a leaking head gasket and whilst Gurdon acknowledges that some of the cars he owned were dreadful, we see others through the rose-tinted windscreen, in particular his fond memories of his father’s Bristol 401, a car he loved so much, he bought one of his own. There are several laugh out loud parts in this book and a few of what my eldest would call ‘facepalm’ moments. Good stuff and an ideal book for your friendly petrol head.

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Tuesday, 23 May 2017


Received these from a fellow book blogger yesterday. Thanks, Jules!