The Border by Erika Fatland – Book Review

I saw this book recommended last year in a book blog featuring recommended non-fiction reads. Sadly, I can’t remember who wrote the post but whoever it was, I’m grateful for finding a great read.

The Border by Erika Fatland

This was a fascinating read, part History book and part travel memoir. For a period of two years, the author travelled the length of the Russian border,  a distance of over 20,000 km. This took her through the North-west Passage with very random mix of elderly travelling companions, to Korea, the Causcaus and eventually Europe finishing off in her homeland of Norway. The final leg of her journey was the sea voyage through the North-west passage but she actually begins the book with this before starting her journey along Russia’s land border.

For each country we get a brief account of its history and then an account of her visit and the people that she meets in each place. It’s a relatively easy book to read and congratulations are definitely due to the translator Kari Dickson who has created such a readable translation. The book was completed in 2017 although not published in the UK until 2020 which means that it has been overtaken by recent events in the Ukraine. She does discuss the 2014 takeover of the Crimean and the Ukranian chapters definitely foreshadow last year’s invasion.

The main premise of this book was to try to discover what the impact of having Russia as a neighbour has been. However, at times this seemed to get lost in the narrative and it just became an account of a country’s history. As the author herself states, there are as many answers to this question as there are neighbouring countries but there did seem to be a common theme of uneasiness. The fluidity of the border was a surprise. Many of the countries haven’t been independent for that long and borders are still changing. Living in the UK with a fixed coastal border, her accounts of interviews with people who had lived in two countries without ever moving were fascinating and at times really sad.

“And none of the countries I had travelled through were without wounds or scars left by their neighbour, Russia. For centuries, the smaller countries and peoples in particular, had been ground between the millstones of power, torn by wars between the major players and pulled here and there.”

I found the opening chapters to be the most compelling particularly those about Korea and Mongolia. This was probably because I knew so little about them before reading this but maybe just because they were the first countries visited and so had the benefit of novelty. At just under 600 pages, the book is very long and at times I did find that the accounts of each country’s history were beginning to blur together. I read it over a period of two weeks but I wonder if I might have been better leaving longer gaps between the different sections to allow my brain to absorb the information better.

Some of the stories that she heard along her journey were heartbreaking especially from those who had survived the second world war and the mass movements of the Soviet population carried out by Stalin. Over and over again, I was reminded of Robert Burns words:

Man’s inhumanity to man,
Makes countless thousands mourn.

This was an incredible journey undertaken by a young woman travelling alone and gave me a bit of an insight into what it must be like to live in a politically unstable part of the world.

“Nations have no collective memory: nations have no healed wounds. It is the individuals, millions of them , who carry the scars”.

This is the second book this year in the Non-Fiction reader challenge which is hosted by Shelleyrae at Book’d Out and details can be found here

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The Sinister Booksellers of Bath – A review

This is a brilliant follow up to Garth Nix’s previous book set in this slightly alternative version of the 1980s, The Left Handed Book Sellers of London.

In this book, the action is set mainly in Bath and the West Country as Susan tries to live a normal life despite her newly discovered powers and relationship to the Old Man of Coniston. However, she is drawn into Book Seller affairs when they need her help to rescue Merlin who has become trapped in a garden by an ancient map. I love Garth Nix’s version of this world with the old gods still powerful in certain places. It reminds me a bit of the Rivers of London series as both authors use old mythology to underpin their version of real life.

I loved the characters of Susan and Merlin and their ongoing relationship. Merlin remains as quirky as ever with an incredible wardrobe including actual items from the BBC series of Pride and Prejudice. Susan is struggling with her magical heritage as she just wants to lead a normal life and complete her Art Studies although she comes to realise that this is going to be difficult if not impossible.  I enjoyed the moments of tension between her and the booksellers as she begins to understand just how powerful she is and that some of the booksellers don’t necessarily view her as an ally but more of a threat.

Besides the main characters, there are a whole host of minor characters, some from the previous book and many new ones who give the book real life. There are some great comic scenes involving cake as well as a very grumpy door man in the Admiralty Building in Bath. The comic scenes are a welcome and effective pause in the action which is very fast paced and involves a lot of travelling at high speed.

I loved this second episode in Garth Nix’s alternate 1983 and hope that this is not the last time we meet the Booksellers. I liked the play on words in the title, the booksellers are slightly sinister but the word also means left handed too.

This might not work as a stand -alone as there are a lot of references to the previous adventures of Susan and Merlin so I think that you probably need to read the earlier book before this one to enjoy it properly.

Thank you to Net Galley and the publishers for allowing me to read this ARC in exchange for my honest review.

The Sinister Booksellers of Bath is due to be published in the UK by Gollancz on March 23rd 2023.

This is what it sounds like – A Review

This is what it sounds like by Susan Rogers and Ogi Ogas

I love music of all types. I’ve never learned a musical instrument other than the recorder but I have always sung in choirs and operatic/musical societies. I generally have music on in the house and it might be the local pop station or it might be a classical symphony. My tastes are quite wide-ranging  so when I saw this book in the library it seemed like an obvious pick.

The author, Susan Rodgers, is a musical engineer who worked with Prince on Purple Rain as well as a range of other artists and then moved into Neuro-Science. In the book she explores how people react differently to music and some of the reasons for this.

A lot of the book is about her personal experience and that of her friends and the students that she has taught and I found much of it fascinating. It’s not a difficult read and the sections where she moves into the Scientific basis for why things happen are perfectly understandable to a non-Scientist such as myself. I loved the personal anecdotes as well as the nuggets of information such as how Frank Sinatra turned himself into the amazing singer that he was.

The book is divided into chapters that focus on one element of music such as melody, lyrics etc which makes it easy to read. I particularly enjoyed those two chapters as I think that it’s the melody and lyrics that attract most of us to any particular piece of music. I know in  my case, nearly all of the pieces I love, whether classical or popular have a melody line that I can easily sing along too.

In each of the chapters, she discusses various tracks of music that illustrate the points that she is making and one of the things that I loved is that all of the tracks are available on a website. It was really helpful to be able to click on each of the songs and see how it fitted into the point that she was making. The songbook can be found at https://www.thisiswhatitsoundslike.com/songs

I’m not sure that the book actually gave me very many insights into why I like the music that I do or what it says about me, but it was certainly an enjoyable and fascinating read. As a non-specialist, I did learn a lot about how popular songs are created, how records are produced and how pop music in particular changes over time.

I would definitely recommend this for any one who enjoys popular music of any type and is interested in the hows and whys behind its creation.

This is the my second non-fiction book of 2023 and so it keeps me on track with my target of at least 6 non fiction books for the 2023 Non Fiction Reader Challenge

No Life for a Lady – Book Review

No Life for a Lady by Hannah Dolby

This book was such a treat to read. It was heart-warming, romantic and funny in equal measure and a brilliant debut from author Hannah Dolby.

Violet Hamilton is an unmarried woman still living at home with her father in late Victorian Hastings. She seems surprisingly naïve for a twenty-eight woman and this jarred at first but as I read on, the reasons for this became apparent and I just fell in love with her character.

The only real role for a woman in her father’s eyes is to marry and he introduces Violet to possible suitors. However, she doesn’t want to marry although, she doesn’t actually know what she does want. Her mother mysteriously disappeared ten years ago and Violet decides that she needs to find out what happened so she engages a private detective. She doesn’t entirely trust him and so tries to engage another only to find that he has died and his son has absolutely no interest in carrying on his father’s profession.

Violet is nothing if not determined and won’t let Benjamin Blackthorn give up detecting so easily. She is also determined to find out more about life itself as well as her mother’s disappearance and this leads her into various situations, none of which end up as she expects them to.

I absolutely loved Violet. Her naivety is touching as well as amusing and her frustration with the social requirements of being ‘a lady’ feel very real. The author did a good job of showing Violet’s frustration with society’s rules for well brought up young women but without making her seen too anachronistic. Her frustration with the church gossips and awareness of the fact that by being alone with a man, she was breaking those rules were well portrayed. I loved the situations that she found herself in, many of which were hilarious and her character development is brilliant.

I loved Benjamin too as he gradually becomes involved with Violet’s mystery despite his misgivings. The supporting characters are also brilliantly written  especially Maria Monk who is a woman of wide experience. I also enjoyed the character of Violet’s father who is a typical Victorian man and comes across as completely unfeeling. However, he has depths which we begin to see as he pursues his new relationship with the vivacious Mrs Beeton.

The mystery is well thought out and I loved the ending. The mixture of Violet’s character, the mystery and humour combine to make this a fantastic read.

Thank you to Net Galley and the publishers, Aria and Aries for my ARC in exchange for my honest review.

No Life for a Lady is published in the UK on March 2nd, 2023.

The Weather Woman – Book Review

The Weather Woman by Sally Gardner

This was a random pick off the library shelf last week and I’m so glad that I chose it as it was an engrossing historical novel.

I loved the way that the novel started with an actual historical event, the frost fair in London 1789 when the Thames froze over. We are introduced to our main character, Neva when she is just three years old. She is orphaned in a freak accident when a ship anchors itself to a pub in Rotherhithe and as the ice melts, the ship moves and drags the pub down with it. This also was an actual historical event although it seems almost too strange to be true.

Neva is taken in by Victor, a fellow Russian who is a clockmaker and as she grows up, she finds that she can always tell what the weather will do. It actually comes as a surprise to her when she realises that other people don’t see the world as she does. This sounds a little as though the story is going to be a historical fantasy but apart from Neva’s strange gift, it is firmly rooted in the Scientific ideas of Regency England.

Victor creates an automaton, the Weather Woman, and using this, Neva is able to display her gift as if is the machine that is doing the predictions. Due to her Scientific interests and character, Neva struggles to fit into polite society and so, her family help her to create another character, a young man who goes by the name of Eugene Jonas. Using this persona, Neva is able to enter society and debate with the Scientists of the day. This works brilliantly until Neva meets Henri Denou and falls in love with him.

The story moves through London Society and we see the gambling for which Regency London was famous and see the effects that this can have on the wealthiest of families. There is also a brilliant plot involving Victor’s supposed son who tries to gain Neva’s inheritance. The novel comes to a dramatic conclusion at the frost fair that too place in 1814 and was actually the last time that the Thames froze over.

I loved this novel for so many reasons. The character of Neva was unusual but not so unusual that I didn’t feel that she could be real. I loved her confusion as she struggled to understand the people around her and how she found refuge in an imaginary friend who then inspired her to create another persona for herself. Her journey through the book is brilliantly described. Her family and the other supporting characters are vividly written, especially Lord Wardell, who although the villain of the piece, still managed to inspire some sympathy in me.

The historical setting is atmospheric with the river and the sea, constant elements that run through the novel. We see all aspects of London life from society soirees to gambling dens and each scene is full of life.  I have only come across Sally Gardner as a children’s author prior to this and it’s great to see that she writes equally as well for adults.  I love novels that make me want to go and find out more about the events they describe and this was certainly the case with this one.

The Weather Woman was published by Head of Zeus in November 2022.

The Shadow Casket – Book Review

The Shadow Casket by Chris Wooding

The Shadow Casket is a brilliant epic fantasy read. It has everything that I want in a fantasy novel; a brilliant world to explore, characters that I both love and hate and a plot that twists and turns.  It is the second book in the Darkwater Legacy Trilogy and it’s always hard to review a sequel without giving away spoilers for the first book so I’m really sorry if I give away too much.

The Shadow Casket takes place three years after the events in the first novel The Ember Blade and the hoped for revolution has not happened. In fact, life in Ossia has got worse as the Krondons have clamped down hard on the country that they have occupied.

We see the new Dawnwardens struggle against the Krondons as well as deal with treachery from their own side. There are also journeys aplenty and some soul searching as Aren tries to live with his new destiny as Champion of the Blade. There is a lot of action as well as a couple of scenes that felt pretty horrific before the book ends with an action-packed conclusion.

The world building is great but for me, the strongest point of the book are the characters that Wooding has created. They all feel very real as they try to fight against the Krondon Empire. Aren really struggles with trying to be the person that he is expected to be and Vika is convinced that she can find all of the answers. However, my favourite character is still Grub. I love his nicknames for the other members of the group and the way that, although he is always looking out for himself,  he always ends up doing the right thing.

A character that I ended up feeling a lot more sympathy for than I expected was the Krondon Watchman, Klyssen. At one point I really felt sorry for him and seeing his side to the story gave more depth to the Ossian struggle against the empire.

There are a lot of different points of view in the story and not all of them survive until the end. Wooding is not afraid to sacrifice his characters when their story has run its course. There are a couple of very grey characters too whose motives are not clear and provide a couple of dramatic plot twists.

The plot is complex and I was never quite sure what was going to happen next. The last third of the book had enough thrills to fill any normal sized book before ending with a quiet pause where the remaining characters take stock of where they are. I can’t wait to read the next book to find out what Wooding has in store for the Dawnwardens and the bearer of the Ember Blade.

I definitely recommend both this and the first book, The Ember Blade, to anyone who loves epic fantasy with a great set of characters and detailed plot. I received this ARC in exchange for my honest review.

The Shadow Casket is published by Gollancz on February 16th 2023

Exiles by Jane Harper #BookReview

A new Jane Harper is always an exciting event and Exiles definitely lived up to my expectations. I have read all of her novels and loved each one of them. Her first book, The Dry, introduced the detective Aaron Falk and he makes his third appearance in this book.

In this latest book, I really enjoyed seeing him in totally new surroundings. This story takes place in a small Australian town in wine growing country and as always with Jane Harper, the sense of place is incredible. The landscape is vividly described and although it is very lush and green, we soon see how threats can lie hidden.

A year before the story begins, a young mother, Kim, had gone missing and she has never been traced. As Falk spends time with his friends who include Kim’s ex-partner and daughter, he gets drawn into the investigation of her disappearance and begins to realise that things are not necessarily as they seem.

I loved the gradual untangling of this mystery and the way we were drawn into the life of this small town where everyone knows one another. It’s quite a slow burn read and the sense of urgency in some mysteries is not present here as it’s effectively a cold case. Instead, the events of the past are slowly revealed through the different character’s viewpoints. As we get to know the characters and begin to see how their relationships are all tangled up together, we also get their memories of events of the previous year. Eventually that builds up to a complete picture although the final revelation still came as a shock to me.  

The cast of characters were all likeable which made the mystery even more puzzling as it was hard to see how any of them could have been involved.  I really liked the focus on the teenagers, especially Kim’s teenage daughter. Aaron Falk is one of my favourite detectives and I really enjoyed his story arc in this book. We see him at the beginning where he is finding that the pressures and workload of his job are getting in the way of any possible relationships and by the end of the novel, he has reached a decision that enables him to have a chance of finding happiness.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am really grateful to Net Galley and the publishers for providing this ARC in exchange for my honest review. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who loves mystery stories with a strong sense of place and atmosphere.

Exiles is published by Pan MacMillan on February 2nd 2023

The Three Dahlias #BookReview

One thing that I love about visiting the library is just spotting books on the shelves and picking them at random. I spotted The Three Dahlias on Friday and was attracted by the cover and then intrigued by the blurb. It seemed like the ideal book for a lazy Saturday evening and I’m very glad that I picked it up.

Dahlia Lively is a fictional detective who has featured in a long running series of books and the three Dahlias are the three actresses who have played her on screen. We have Rosalind who played her in two films on the big screen, Caro who played her in a long running TV series that covered all the books (think David Suchet and Poirot) and then we have Posy, a young ex-child star who has come out of rehab and is hoping that the new Dahlia film will kick start her adult acting career.

All three women find themselves at Aldermere, the stately home that was the home of Lettice, the author of the Dahlia books and where some of the books were set. They are there to attend the Dahlia festival, organised by the president of the Dahlia fan club. The producers of the new film are hoping to use the festival to promote the film and also get the family’s approval of the new script. As can be expected, there are tensions between the three women when they meet as the older two feel that they have rights to the character and Posy feels that she has something to prove.

The festival is underway but things are not running smoothly. A valuable item that belonged to the author and featured in the films is stolen and the three actresses discover that someone is trying to blackmail them. Then a murder occurs and the three women have to work together to solve the crime.

I really enjoyed this mystery. Dahlia, although fictional, is a real character who probably has more in common with Phrynne Fisher than Miss Marple and each chapter begins with a quotation from one of the books which gives us an idea of her personality. The three actresses who have played her are all very different but they complement each other and I enjoyed the way they gradually came to trust each other. I liked all of them but I think I was rooting most for Posy who was fighting for her career

The setting of Aldermere House is a very traditional English setting familiar to readers of Agatha Christie or viewers of Midsomer Murders and works perfectly as a setting for a murder mystery which has its roots in past events. The descriptions are detailed enabling the reader to get a clear picture and I especially liked the details about the China Room

I loved the idea of a fictional detective within a book and the way that the books were constantly being referenced made them feel as though they had actually been written. Having the three different women investigate the crime as if they actually were Dahlia gave the story an unusual twist. The mystery was cleverly plotted and I liked the resolution which I didn’t see coming at all. This is a great spin on a classic country house mystery and I would definitely recommend it.

The Darkness Manifesto – #bookreview

The Darkness Manifesto by Johan Eklof

The Darkness Manifesto is a well-researched book on the effects of our ever-increasing love of artificial light on our world. I was aware of the effect of light pollution on our night skies and have seen several studies on the need for humans to maintain their circadian rhythms but I had no idea about the implications for wildlife. Even basic information that bats and moths are important pollinators was new to me.

The author is a bat scientist and there is a heavy emphasis on bats during the book but also on birds and other creatures such as coral . I found the book to be extremely informative and it certainly made me aware of issues that I had not previously thought of. It was probably especially apt to read this over the Christmas and New Year period when our towns and homes are all illuminated even more than usual. I love seeing all the lights and enjoy seeing buildings such as old churches lit up without ever having thought of the wider implications before.

The facts and figures that he quotes are unbelievable. I had never really thought about moths as pollinators but they are as important as bees. The dangers of pesticides to bees and sudden colony deaths are quite widely known but this is the first time that I have read anything about the devastating effects of artificial light on moths and insects. The author tells us that the number of insect species is decreasing by 3% every year and so the disruptive effects of light on them becomes even more important.

He also looks at the effects on humans of the tendency to live in a world which is never dark and some of the figures that he quotes about hormone based cancers are quite scary.

The book is very research heavy and at times, I found it to be quite disjointed and lacking a strong narrative flow. There were several times when he cited a specific incident or piece of research and then just moved straight onto something else when I expected that he would discuss this further.

I did enjoy reading this and certainly learned a lot from it. It is obviously an important issue and  I especially liked the final part which is his Darkness Manifesto, a series of simple actions that anyone can do.

Thank you to Net Galley and the publishers for providing this ARC in exchange for my honest review. The Darkness Manifesto was published by Random House UK in November 2022.

This is my first read for the Non Fiction Reader Challenge 2023

Journeys to Impossible Places – a review

Humans have always needed to explore. Over the centuries our desire to travel has had profound consequences including innovation, brutal conquest, trade, settlement and love. Travel has helped to create our culture, civilisation and forge the modern world. Our endless adventures are evidence of something fundamental: going on a journey is the essence of our species. Our desire to travel and explore helps to make us human.

This book details some of Simon Reeve’s travels into the most remote parts and inaccessible parts of the world. He together with his camera crew travels through the Tropic of Cancer, trying to follow the equator and then around the Indian Ocean.

I loved his accounts of the places that he travelled through and the people he met. He feels very strongly that the purpose of his journeys is at least partly to give a voice to some of the most isolated people on our world, to tell their story to a wider audience.

It’s a really uplifting book in many ways as he meets so many people who risk their lives to help Simon and his crew visit these remote communities. It was really humbling to read how little some people manage to survive on and still lead fulfilling lives. He is able to show you the reader what he sees in such a way that you feel that you are there too. I loved the way that he acknowledged how lucky he was to be able to visit these parts of the world that are close to what we might imagine paradise to be like.

It was also an incredibly depressing book as he sets out very clearly the damage that we are doing to our planet. The details of the plastic nurdles that now form a large part of the beaches in Hawaii were horrifying together with other scenes such as huge rubbish dumps just around the corner from somewhere that looked like it was paradise on earth. But maybe worse than the damage we are inflicting on our planet, some of which is through ignorance, were the accounts of the damage and harm we cause to each other. Places such as Sudan, Burma and Colombia where it was dangerous (and in one case, completely illegal) to film really came alive for me.

It’s a memoir as well as a travel book and he gives full details about his mental health issues as well as the problems he and his wife had conceiving their son. These parts interested me less and I possibly didn’t need quite so much detail about sperm health but his openness was a feature of the whole book and would have been less without it.

This was a fascinating read and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in travel or just about the amazing world we live in.

This is my twelfth Non-Fiction book so far in 2022 which means that I have achieved my Non-Fiction Reader Challenge this year. I’ve really enjoyed pushing myself to read books that I wouldn’t normally have looked at and will certainly continue to read non fiction into 2023. I’ve already got my next book sorted –

The Non-Fiction Reader Challenge is hosted at Book’dout and you can find the details of the challenge here

How have your reading challenges gone this year?