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.

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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.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “Arctic summer” by Damon Galgut

Although this is a fictional book, it’s almost a biography of the writer, E M Forster (perhaps most famous for his novel ‘A passage to India’).

Drawing on Forster’s own writing, including his personal diaries, as well as biographies written by other authors, Damon Galgut has produced a beautifully written story of Forster’s triumphs and tragedies.

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‘Arctic summer’ by Damon Galgut (2014)

Novels fall into various categories, one of which is literary fiction. It’s not always easy to know what does and doesn’t count as literary fiction, but it struck me as I read this book that it fitted easily into this genre. There was something refined and stately about the writing style, and the precision with which the book had been crafted.

Edward Morgan Forster was born in 1879 and grew up in London, later attending Cambridge University. During most of his life, homosexuality was illegal in Britain. From an early age Forster knew he wasn’t attracted to women, but he found it impossible to establish a fulfilling relationship with a man. Damon Galgut’s book introduces this issue in the first chapter and much of the story relates to this aspect of Forster’s character.

Having read ‘A passage to India’ many years ago, and enjoyed film versions of ‘Howard’s End’ and ‘A room with a view’ (based on novels by E M Forster), I was interested to learn more about the writer behind the tales. I had no idea his life had been so varied, or so challenging from a personal perspective. Damon Galgut tells Forster’s story sympathetically but without sentimentalising the facts. The writing is fluid and finely honed, and gave me a vivid sense of the complicated person E M Forster must have been.

Finishing this book left me feeling I would like to re-read ‘A passage to India’, which I suspect will take on a new dimension now that I know how Forster struggled to complete the story. It was the last, and most celebrated, novel he published, although he went on to write plays, short stories and non-fiction. I would also be interested to read some of Damon Galgut’s other novels, two of which were shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “Pole to pole” by Michael Palin.

I remember watching and very much enjoying the travel documentary series, ‘Pole to Pole’, on television many years ago. While browsing in a second-hand shop recently I found a copy of the book that accompanied the series, for the remarkable price of 25 new pence. I was more than happy to hand over my pennies for this gem of a publication.

pole to pole
“Pole to pole” by Michael Palin (1992)

As with other books accompanying Michael Palin’s television travel documentaries, this one is laid out in a diary format, detailed by day number rather than date.

The original idea for the programme was to travel from the north pole to the south pole, along the 30 degree East line of longitude. Using this line as a guide meant the journey would cover the largest amount of land possible between the two poles. In fact, although the journey did weave west and east of the 30 degree East meridian, it rarely stuck to the line, owing to geography and transport restrictions.

The full journey would take an exhausting 141 days, and began on a Saturday afternoon in the high Arctic. The only feasible way to get to the north pole was by small plane, and filming time was very limited after landing. Unlike the landmass of Antarctica which is thousands of feet thick in places, the Arctic is an ocean covered with only a feet feet of ice. By Michael’s account, landing near the north pole was a fairly nerve-wracking experience, the first of many throughout the trip.

From the north pole he flew to Greenland and on to the Svalbard Islands, before boarding a supply ship for Norway. I particularly enjoyed the section on Svalbard, although I don’t know how I would cope with sleeping on the floor of a wooden hut in the middle of an icy wasteland with nothing but the snow outside to wash in. This is the joy of armchair travel: imagining the horrors of different environments without actually having to endure them.

South of northern Europe, the journey took him through the old USSR which, in the early 1990s was going through a period of enormous political changes. I remember the Gorbachev era (I was in my late teens then) and was interested to read Michael Palin’s notes and thoughts on how Russia was changing.

After leaving the USSR, and travelling south through Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, Michael and his film crew arrived – on day 52 – in Africa. His first port of call was Egypt, another section of the book that particularly captured my imagination. His descriptions of Luxor and Aswan transported me to the heat and mystery of the Nile valley, an area I felt perfectly content to experience from the the comfort of my own home.

Africa produced some of the most challenging and memorable parts of the whole journey, from some seriously unsanitary conditions to the incredible wildlife, beautiful scenery and diverse peoples and cultures he encountered. While travelling through Africa, as he’d done in the USSR, Michael kept abreast of local politics. Some of the names of political leaders he mentioned rang bells with me, but others I had never heard of and it struck me how little I know about many of the African countries.

The original plan for the trip involved joining a survey vessel sailing out of Cape Town to the Antarctic, but some time before arriving in South Africa the team learned there were no spaces available for them on the ship. There being very few ways of getting to Antarctica, and no alternative ships they could join, they had to rethink their plans. They had two options: go way off the 30 degree meridian by flying to South America and into Antarctica from there, or fail to complete their epic journey to the south pole. The latter was unthinkable after the 130 days of travel they’d already undergone since leaving the north pole, so South America it had to be. Even when they reached Santiago in Chile, they were still at 33 degrees South, the same latitude as Cape Town in South Africa. It was, to coin a phrase, a long way round for a short cut.

On day 138, they finally arrived in Antarctica. Two days later, they flew into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, run by the United States National Science Foundation and housed under a 150-foot wide geodesic dome. It must have been a bizarre experience, to have travelled all that way through so many different countries and climates and arrive at the south pole to find a little bit of America built into the ice. It was made clear to the team that although they were welcome at the base, the US National Science Foundation were unable to supply material assistance to visitors. The poor travellers were invited in for coffee, but taunted with the smell of hamburgers and chips from the canteen. It was perhaps understandable not to have been offered food, given how difficult and costly it must be to get supplies into such a remote place, but I felt sorry for Michael and his crew having to resist such temptations after such a long and enervating journey.

The book ends with Michael and his team standing together at the geographic south pole, the position marked by a small bronze post stuck into the ice. I was left wondering what it must have felt like to stand there at the pole after completing such a mammoth trip, travelling all the way from the frozen north to the frozen south, through some of the hottest countries on Earth. Thanks to Michael Palin’s vivid descriptions, I felt I’d been through some remarkable experiences while reading this book. I take my hat off to him.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “A capital union” by Victoria Hendry

“A capital union” takes place in Edinburgh in the 1940s, and for that reason alone (as one born and bred there) it was of interest to me. Although the colours and design of the cover didn’t initially appeal to me, the Edinburgh landmarks were familiar and I was intrigued to know what might lie inside.

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The story follows the challenges faced by Agnes Thorne, 17 years old and newly married to Jeff McCaffrey. As part of his work on a new Scots dictionary, Jeff has been interviewing native speakers from across Scotland. When he comes across Agnes at her home in Ayrshire, he falls for her dialect and beauty and persuades her to marry him and set up home with him in Edinburgh.

Agnes’s troubles begin shortly after her arrival in the city, when she discovers the pitfalls of being married to a man who refuses to sign up for military service during the Second World War. As well as being a conscientious objector, Jeff is a staunch supporter of the Scottish independence movement and believes the British government has no right to enforce conscription on Scottish nationals.

As Jeff becomes more involved with nationalist politics and his views on independence become more extreme, Agnes feels a chasm growing between them. While this is going on, a German airman called Hannes, who has survived being shot down over Edinburgh, finds sanctuary in the empty flat above them. Initially, he’s helped by Mrs MacDougall, a cantankerous neighbour of Agnes’s, but Mrs MacDougall is keen to get Agnes to take over the responsibility of looking after Hannes. Agnes does her best to look after him, without admitting to her husband that she’s aiding the enemy.

The secret of Hannes is revealed, however, when he bursts into the McCaffreys’ flat after hearing Agnes scream. Jeff has been attempting to rape his wife and only Hannes’s timely intervention saves her. For Agnes, this behaviour by her husband is the final nail in the coffin of their marriage, but it isn’t until Jeff is jailed for refusing to sign up for military service that husband and wife are physically separated. Left alone, Agnes has to find a new life for herself, and vows to do whatever she can to help Hannes escape.

After all the foregoing drama, the novel could easily have fallen flat at this point in the story, but Victoria Hendry did a top notch job of keeping my attention and gripping me to the final page. She made me care about what happened to Agnes, and I found her characterisations strong throughout the book.

An unusual feature of this novel, and something I initially thought might irritate me, was the number of Scots words included in the dialogue. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the mixture of English and Scots, and interested that some of the Scots words were words I’ve only ever heard spoken, never seen written down. There are also quite a few German words and phrases, and I would have understood more of the conversations involving Hannes if I’d realised at the beginning that every Scots and German word used is translated at the back of the book. The German translations were helpful for me and I daresay the Scots translations would be much appreciated by non-Scottish readers.

Rating this book in my 4Ps rating system, I gave it 18/20, with extra credit for what I call ‘poetry‘.