Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: ‘The ascent of Everest’ by John Hunt

‘The ascent of Everest’ is a first-hand account of the 1953 expedition to Mount Everest, when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first men to set foot on the highest point on Earth.

Written in engaging style by the expedition’s leader, I found it difficult to put down (despite it being rather a heavy hardback for bedtime reading), and enjoyed it immensely.

the ascent of everest
‘The ascent of Everest’ by John Hunt (1953)

This weighty tome, which explains how the mountaineering project came about and how two remarkable climbers eventually reached the summit on 29 May 1953, was completed in just four months following the successful expedition.

The author, John Hunt, was a Colonel in the British army when he was chosen by the Joint Himalayan Committee to lead and organise the trek, and by all accounts he was an excellent choice. His warmth, humour, and appreciation of his fellow men comes across clearly in his writing, alongside his exceptional mountaineering knowledge and outstanding organisational abilities.

Although there were technical aspects of the story I didn’t fully comprehend, the sense of adventure carried me along from beginning to end. I think I especially appreciated reading it while tucked up and cosy in bed, imagining those brave chaps shivering in wind- and snow-battered tents on a hazardous mountainside. Incidentally, the chapter dealing with the final ascent was written by Edmund Hillary, one of only two men who could have written it from personal experience.

I’ve read a couple of other books about Everest, but this was one I had wanted to read for a long time and I was delighted when I found it in a second-hand bookshop recently. I would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in tales of adventure and exploration.

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Book review · Fiction

Book review: ‘Rooted in evil’ by Ann Granger

Ann Granger has written over 30 detective novels and this is one of her most recent, published in 2017 and featuring the sleuthing duo, Campbell and Carter .

Rooted in evil
‘Rooted in evil’ by Ann Granger (2017)

When Carl Finch is found dead in a forest, it initially looks as if he’s committed suicide. A gun lies over his body, but something about the way he’s lying suggests the body has been moved since he was killed.

Superintendent Ian Carter and Inspector Jess Campbell start investigating the likely suspects, starting with Carl’s sister and brother-in-law, both of whom seem to be holding something back in their interviews with the police.

What I liked best about this book was the setting. Events unfold in the Cotswolds, an attractive rural part of southern England and a popular location for crime novels. There’s a nice feel of old England about it, with a close-knit community, country pubs and pleasant pastoral scenery.

This is the first Campbell and Carter mystery I’ve read and I didn’t get a particularly strong impression of the two main characters.  Perhaps if I read another in the series I’ll get a better idea of their personalities.

I was slightly bemused by the very end of the story, although pleased that Ann Granger didn’t allow herself to be tempted into an obvious ending. On the whole, I enjoyed this book, found it hard to put down, and am looking forward to trying another in the series.

* * * * *

In January I made a resolution to post at least 12 book reviews on this blog, and read 100 books this year. I’m more or less on course with the reviews (I’ve done 6 to date), but I’m a long way off the reading total, which would ideally be over 50 by now, but is in fact only 33. I’m going to have to make a big effort if I’m to reach 100 by the end of December.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: ‘Rainbow’s end’ by Ellis Peters

Ellis Peters is probably best known for her series of murder mystery novels featuring 12th Century Welsh monk, Brother Cadfael.

‘Rainbow’s end’ isn’t a Cadfael book but the story does involve the solving of a murder in an ecclesiastical setting.

Rainbow's end
‘Rainbow’s end’ by Ellis Peters (1978)

Arthur Rainbow is an antiques dealer and recent incomer to the rural English neighbourhood of Middlehope. Keen to get involved in community life, he joins various clubs and societies and frequently hosts parties for the great and the good at his impressive house. Despite his attempts to mingle and impress, he’s not well liked by the locals, who don’t think much of his apparent desire to become lord of the manor.

When his broken body is found lying in the graveyard, having obviously fallen from the bell tower of the church, Superintendent George Felse quickly comes to the conclusion that this is a case of murder.

Shortly before Rainbow’s death, precocious schoolboy James Boswell Jarvis, known to all as ‘Bossie’, gets hold of a genuinely old piece of parchment and uses it to manufacture a faked ancient manuscript. One evening after choir practise he shows it to Rainbow. The antiques dealer is obviously interested and takes the parchment from Bossie but claims the item is worthless. He asks Bossie where he found it and Bossie tells him it was in a chest in the bell tower.

That night, Bossie hides in the churchyard to see if Rainbow will go looking for more pieces of manuscript. Rainbow is indeed in the bell tower, but someone else comes out of the church, shortly after which there’s the sound of a tremendous crash. Thinking a piece of parapet must have fallen off the building, Bossie goes to investigate. As he’s approaching the scene he stops when he sees a man appear from amongst the tombstones. The man has a torch and switches it on briefly, just long enough to light up Rainbow’s dead body, before hastily disappearing. Bossie can’t make out who the torch-bearer is, but believes the man might have seen him.

Not long after Rainbow’s demise, Bossie gets knocked down in a hit and run incident. The car strikes him while he’s making his way home from choir practice one evening, on a quiet country road leading to his house. Bossie is convinced it was a deliberate attempt to murder him. The piece of parchment he gave to Rainbow has disappeared, and the hunt is on to find both the killer and the valuable old paper Rainbow is presumed to have been killed for.

I particularly liked the setting of this story: a quiet part of rural England containing old churches and a real sense of history.  I also enjoyed the character of Bossie, and the way in which his prodigious intellect and curiosity arouses the respect of both peers and elders. I haven’t reach much Ellis Peters, and none of her Cadfael series, but I think ‘Rainbow’s End’ will encourage me to delve further into her impressive back catalogue. She died in 1995, having published more than 70 books.

 

Book review · Garden · Non-fiction

Book review: ‘Peaceful gardens’ by Stephanie Donaldson

When I finished reading ‘Peaceful gardens’ I felt a sense of disappointment. I turned the page thinking there was more to come, only to find I had reached the end. I got this book out of the library, but have enjoyed it so much I’d like to buy a copy to read again.

‘Peaceful gardens’ is what might be described as a coffee table book, full of lovely photos with detailed captions, interspersed with more general text about gardening. Although the front cover is not terribly appealing, the illustrations inside are quite the reverse.

peaceful gardens
“Peaceful gardens” by Stephanie Donaldson (2003)

The author, Stephanie Donaldson, was Gardens Editor for Country Living magazine for many years, and has written a number of other gardening books. Although clearly a knowledgeable gardener, her writing style is easily accessible to novice gardeners like myself. I’ve often been put off gardening books by too much jargon and technical detail; ‘Peaceful gardens’, by contrast, introduces ideas and tips about gardening almost without the reader noticing they’re being instructed. That’s my sort of gardening lesson.

The book is divided into three main sections: ‘peaceful shapes and spaces’, ‘tranquillity for the senses’ and ‘scent and sound’, all beautifully illustrated with photographs giving clear examples of what’s being described in the text. There are ideas and suggestions for rural and urban gardens, although the book struck me as being more heavily weighted towards rural or semi-rural gardens that might have space for a variety of features in versatile areas. The text is well worth reading, and nicely written, but even if all you did was look at the pictures you could easily find inspiration and joy in its contents.

Each year, at the start of spring, I have an urge to do something in the garden. I want to see things growing after the long winter months, but my enthusiasm often wanes rather quickly when tasks seem too daunting or the weather’s not conducive to pottering around outside. Perhaps this year ‘Peaceful gardens’ will provide the impetus I need to fulfil some of my gardening dreams in the months to come.

Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: ‘Flight MH370: the mystery’ by Nigel Cawthorne

Four years go, on 8 March 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport bound for Beijing. Fifty minutes into the flight, the aeroplane lost contact with air traffic control. After another 40 minutes, the plane was spotted by Malaysian military radar flying over the island of Penang, a good deal west of its scheduled route. The plane was still out of contact with the ground.

Several hours later, in Beijing, relatives and friends of those onboard were waiting in the airport for the flight to land when an announcement was made that the plane had been delayed. An hour later, a message appeared on the Malaysia Airlines Facebook page, stating that the plane was missing. This was the beginning of a long and tortuous wait for the family and friends, as the fate of Flight MH370 became headline news across the world.

This book caught my eye in the library, because I remembered very well watching the news coverage in the days and weeks following the plane’s disappearance. Curious to know how someone could write an entire book about a missing plane, I picked up the book and took it home with me.

flight mh370
‘Flight MH370: the mystery’ by Nigel Cawthorne (2014)

Somewhat to my surprise (I was half expecting a catalogue of detailed and outlandish conspiracy theories) it proved to be a well-researched history of what went on in the days following the plane’s disappearance, interspersed with numerous alarming examples of other flights that have crashed over the years. (I wouldn’t recommend it as reading material for a long-haul flight.)

The Malaysian government was heavily criticised at the time for withholding facts, and for giving out misleading and often contradictory information. They frequently denied this during press conferences, but watching the news it seemed obvious that the investigation was being conducted in a decidedly chaotic manner. As the days ticked by, with relatives waiting desperately for news, several sightings of possible debris were spotted by planes, ships and satellites, only to be discounted when investigated further.

One of the major problems with the investigation was that it seemed nobody knew exactly where to search. Although it was common knowledge that the plane had changed direction during the flight, it wasn’t known how long it may have continued to fly for and where it might have ended up. At one point, the search area extended over land and sea to cover an area one tenth of the Earth’s surface, an area so vast that an effective search seemed an almost impossibly challenging task.

Despite the daunting prospect of trying to find what was often deemed a needle in a haystack, more and more countries gradually joined the search. Towards the end of March 2014, 26 countries were involved in trying to locate signs of the missing plane.

During the weeks following the disappearance new information kept coming to light, but there were so many dead ends and false leads that the relatives became angry and disillusioned. Nearly three weeks after the plane disappeared, the Chinese government allowed a public protest – a very rare event in the country – when families were permitted to march on the Malaysian Embassy, displaying banners and demanding the truth from the Malaysian government.

The book concludes with the author’s own chilling proposition that the plane may have been shot down by accident during joint military manoeuvres in the South China Sea, a long distance away from the search area being targeted. If one of the participating nations (which included both Malaysia and China) had indeed accidentally shot down the plane, there would be good reason for keeping it quiet and misdirecting the search to focus on the South Indian Ocean, a region of deep water and rough seas so hostile as to make any discovery extremely difficult.

Towards the end of the book, which contains details of the underwater search using AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles), I was reminded of just how difficult it can be to obtain and correctly identify objects in deep water. Looking on Wikipeida, I found several articles related to the missing plane, including one dedicated to the search operation (which ran into hundreds of millions of dollars and became the most expensive search ever undertaken for a missing plane). I was interested to see that one of the ships involved in the search was one I had been on in my seagoing days. I was never involved in searching for a missing plane, but I do remember seeing sonar images of aeroplane debris lying on the sea floor during my training, and feeling a shiver of horror at the thought of such a watery grave.

The official search was suspended on 17 January 2017, but a year later private company Ocean Infinity resumed it. They are currently surveying a narrowed search area of 25,000km2, believed to be the most likely crash site, and expect to finish their work at the end of April this year. So far, they have found nothing of significance and the mystery of what happened to flight MH370 appears as perplexing as ever.

 

Book review · Non-fiction · Scotland

Book review: ‘The great horizon’ by Jo Woolf

Fellow blogger and editor of The Hazel Tree, Jo Woolf is also Writer in Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS). During her investigations into the society’s archives, she came across a wealth of fascinating material relating to explorers and adventurers, some of which has ended up in her wonderful book, ‘The great horizon’.

The Great Horizon by Jo Woolf
‘The great horizon’ by Jo Woolf (2017)

The book, meticulously researched and extremely well written, contains 50 biographies of remarkable people associated in some way with the RSGS, dating from the society’s inception in 1884 to the present day. Many of those featured received medals from the society for outstanding contributions to geography, and all of them have inspirational stories to tell.

The 50 individuals are organised under five category headings: Ice, Voyagers, Heaven and Earth, Missionaries and Mavericks and Visions for Change. Each category contains ten personalities, a mixture of the well known and not so widely recognised. Famous names such as Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong, David Livingstone, Thor Heyerdahl, Ranulph Fiennes and David Attenborough sit comfortably alongside people I hadn’t heard of such as Børge Ousland, Sven Hedin, Robert Ballard, Joseph Thomson and Marion Newbigin.

The world of exploration was dominated by men in the Victorian era, but there were notable women whose adventures were just as astonishing; women such as Isabella Bird, who was born in 1831 and became the first female Fellow of the RSGS. Having trekked through remote mountain ranges and travelled through hostile foreign territory, at a time when such behaviour must have seemed scandalous for a well-bred western woman, her story particularly stood out for me. Having said that, each of the biographies is unique and noteworthy and I would find it impossible to pick a favourite.

Although many of the explorers detailed in the book displayed amazing feats of endurance, determination and courage while conducting their daredevil adventures, they must have been quite difficult to live with at home. As Jo describes, it’s easy to imagine them struggling to accept a mundane daily existence that failed to provide sufficient challenges for their restless spirits. This side of the adventurer’s character came to mind quite a few times as I read through the book.

Every generation needs its mavericks and heroes, and despite the lack of ‘big firsts’ left to achieve on terra firma, there are plenty of modern day adventurers desperate to push the limits of what’s achievable. In some ways the world has become a smaller place since the 1880s, but there’s still a great deal to discover, both on Earth and beyond. I like to think the Royal Scottish Geographical Society will still be here in another 130 years, encouraging new generations of geographers, and providing inspiring and uplifting tales of adventure to fill future editions of ‘The great horizon’.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: ‘And then there were none’ by Agatha Christie

Even by Agatha Christie’s extremely high standards, this novel contains a truly ingenious plot. By her own admission, the book took an enormous amount of planning, and it’s only in an epilogue that the brilliant solution to the problem is revealed.

And then there were none
‘And then there were none’ by Agatha Christie (1939)

The mystery begins when ten people from a variety of backgrounds are invited to Soldier Island. The island, which lies off the Devon coast, has recently been sold to an unknown buyer and there has been much discussion in the newspapers about who may have bought it.

Each of the ten invited to the island have been lured there on different pretexts, including a young woman who believes she has been engaged as a secretary, a doctor who has been sent no details about his invitation but has received a large fee for attending, and an elderly General who expects to be meeting up with old army chums.

A local boatman takes the guests to the island, where they find a married couple acting as butler and housekeeper. The butler and his wife are two of the ten who have come to the island at the request of the owner, a Mr Owen.

When word arrives that Mr Owen has been held up and will not be joining the party immediately, the guests begin to discuss who this mysterious man might be. None of them have met him or have any idea who he is. Even the butler and housekeeper are in the dark, having taken up their positions on the island just days before the guests arrived.

In each of the bedrooms there is a printed nursery rhyme about ten little soldier boys. The rhyme begins ‘Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were Nine.’ As the verses go on, a soldier boy dies in each one, until the poem concludes with the words ‘And then there were none.’ In the dining room the guests notice ten small china soldier figures, which appear to represent the soldiers in the poem.

As the guests sit enjoying coffee after dinner on their first evening on the island, a disembodied voice suddenly fills the dining room. The voice details the names of each of the ten people staying in the house along with an accusation of murder committed on a certain date. The guests listen in astonishment as each of them is accused of a dreadful crime.

Not long after that, one of the guests chokes to death, and that night the housekeeper dies in her sleep. The butler is disturbed when he notices two of the little china figures have disappeared from the dining room. When the General is murdered by an unknown hand the following day and another china soldier disappears, it’s obvious that something decidedly sinister is going on. A search of the island reveals no possible hiding place for an eleventh person, and no sign of there being anyone else present.

The story carries on with rising tension as each of the original ten people meet their end by one means or another. When they are all dead the mystery remains: who killed them?

I quite often read Agatha Christie at bedtime, but I would recommend keeping this particular novel for daytime pleasure. From a reasonably innocuous beginning, a sense of menace increases as the book goes on. The tension builds once the killings start, and from then on there’s no let up until the culmination of the book.

There’s an author’s note at the beginning of the edition I have, taken from Agatha Christie’s autobiography, in which she explains that she wrote the story because it was so difficult to do that the idea fascinated her. ‘The murder of Roger Ackroyd’ is often hailed her most brilliant novel, and it is indeed a superb creation, but this one is a real class act and has one of the cleverest plots of any novel I’ve read.