Kathleen Winter

Boundless is Kathleen Winter's account of a voyage through the famous Northwest passage in the Canadian Arctic. This is much more than a simple travelogue, however, as the author successfully joins narrative of the Inuit societies, which her own, more personal, journey. The result, although at times fascinating, is one which ultimately left me disappointed.

Throughout the book, the author keeps returning to the erosion of the Inuit culture, and their displacement from their homelands as a consequence of the intense struggle for dominance in the Arctic. Although I share her concerns, especially when the battle for control of the Arctic is being fought in the name of oil extraction, it was disappointing not to find more discussion of the tension between the benefits and costs of globalisation. The author's other main theme is that of 'listening to the earth'. While she is doubtless sincere in this, it seems that this is too much of a personal process to be entirely convincing.

A further reservation I have is the author's dismissive attitude towards the birdwatchers and geologists on the voyage. While these groups may, perhaps, resemble cliques, they are harmless pursuits, and would doubtless have contributed to the author's understanding of the environment she was passing through. Although her attitude toward the geologists does soften towards the end, I feel this deprives her, and her readers, of some interesting insights.

Although the author is aware of some of the tensions between, for example, their desire for adventure and for a safe passage, these themes are often mentioned only in passing. Kathleen Winter's account is interesting as far as it goes, but ultimately tries to do too much and fails to convey much about the natural history of this remarkable and fragile environment.

The fugitives
Panos Karnezis

Fugitives is the first novel by Panos Karnezis in five years, and it certainly gives the impression of being well worth the wait. Similarly, on this basis, I can justifiably say that the author deserves to be better known.

At the begining of the book, a wounded soldier, lost in a South American rainforest, is taken in by the Catholic priest of a remote village. However, The indigenous population is wary of the newcomer, as they see their traditional way of life under threat. The author has done an excellent job of showing how, all too aften, political compromises serve only to hinder people as they try to do their best for their families and communities.

Beyond this, I was struck that the real loser, whatever happens, was the rainforest itself. Given the importance of these forests, that can only make the planet, and therefore all of us, the poorer. Likewise I was touched by the priest's sincere struggle to reconcile his own faith with that of the indigenous population and with the natural world.

Overall, this is a deceptively simple story, which is told succinctly, and which gives ample scope for discussion or contemplation.

Three men and a Bradshaw
John George Freeman

Three men and a Bradshaw is a previously unpublished Victorian travel journal. Written by one John George Freeman it recounts his holidays during the years 1873 to 1877 in the company of his brothers.

What really sets this apart is the narrator's humour, and keen observations on subjects as diverse as social history and the British climate. Much more than a travelogue, this book is a remarkable study on the way that the railway enabled modern tourism. On reading this, it is certainly interesting to reflect how much British infrastructure owes to the Victorians.

Although I found this a slow read at times, it is well worth persevereing with. The editor has supplied ample footnotes to help explain some of the less familiar references. The text is also accompanied by a number of the author's delightful ink drawings, and extracts from Bradshaw's guide (a reminder that the Brawshaw was much more than a railway timetable).

Many of the buildings mentioned in the text still stand today, raising the prospect of a modern version. In some respects this would open up new possibilities, such as the use of photography instead of the author's own drawings. In other respects 150 years of progress have not served us as well: since the Beeching cuts, any sequel would presumably have to be called Three men, a Bradshaw, and a bicycle!

Lie of the land
Michael F. Russell

Michael Russell's debut novel is best described as dystopian fantasy, in which a journalist, Carl, is trapped in a remote highland village. Like many examples of that genre, it is seemingly plausable enough to offer a warning about what our present society could become if we're not careful.

Although, apparently set in the near future, the author has included some aspects which appear to be pure science fiction, which, I feel, limit the overall plausability of the novel. Similarly, I have reservations about the main characters in the book, and the rather weak storyline. The overall effect is that I found it difficult to identify with any of the characters, giving a depressing feel to the book as a whole.

These criticisms apart, however, the author has done a good job in showing how a crisis can bring out everyone's worst, as the desire for power, and survival instincts trump any sense of community. It is also shows how easy it is for the state to misuse power, and gives an insightful comment on the 'surveillance society', both of which have relevance for us all.

In summary, this is a perfectly reasonable dystopian fantasy novel, and one which is occasionally thought provoking. Unfortunately, however, it is spoiled by the simplistic plot and characters. Ultimately therefore, the book's reputation will rest upon how convincing you find the author's scenario, which will be a very personal matter.

Corners of the globe
Robert Goddard

Having read and enjoyed the first two parts of Robert Goddard's Wide world trilogy, I was especially pleased to be able to review the concluding part. The good news is that The ends of the earth is every bit as good as the two previous boks in the trilogy.

For those as yet unfamiliar with this series, James Maxsted, seeking to uncover the truth behind his father's murder, uncovers a web of secrets, which leads him, in this final part, to Japan. James' search finally concludes when he must free a mysterious prisoner from Count Tomura's castle, and finally learn the truth of what happened years previously.

This book is exceptionally well written and very much in the style of Robert Goddard's other books. The plot is intricately constructed with plenty of twists to keep the reader guessing right up until the end. Ultimately this creates a book which seems to be an entirely realistic story of espionage and counter espionage. It is packed with intrigue and adventure, and when combined with good writing, this draws the reader in and makes them want to continue reading.

Although the first part in the trilogy could have been read on its own, the abrupt ending of the second part really commits you to read this final part too. Similarly, before approaching this book, the previous parts should have been read in sequence to fully appreciate the plot. Although not a criticism this certainly keeps the reader hooked.

If you've already read the first two parts, then this is the conclusion you've been waiting for; if not, then I can highly recommend the series, starting with Ways of the world.

Philip Ball

In Invisible, Philip Ball has presented an account of our fascination with unseen forces attempts to achieve invisibility. The book is absolubtely packed with abstruse information and is clearly the result of extensive research. More crucially, the author has been able to successfully combine science with psychology and history to achieve a result which is genuinely witty and thought provoking book.

Starting with the earliest occult invocations (many of which were quite bizarre, requiring such elaborate preparation so as to protect them from the criticism of ineffectiveness), the author explains our simultaneous fascination and fear of the unseen. Continuing with diversions into stage magic and psychology, we learn how easily people can be fooled.

Ultimately, however, for me it is the science which is most interesting, and is the greatest strength of the book. Even when discussing science fiction, the author is able to explain in an engaging way how most schemes for invisibility would be impossible or impractical. Ultimately, as it turns out, modern science has been able to achieve near invisibility under some very limited circumstances.

Ball has made much of the interaction between 'natural magic' and science, drawing parallels between the 19th century concept of the ether, and modern ideas invoking unseen entities like dark matter. Although he has a point in this, I was disappointed that he failed to mention what seems a crucial difference: ultimately the science seeks to explain, whereas spriritual mediums and magicians seek to confuse or trick us.

That minor criticism apart, this is an engaging and thought provoking book, which I am sure many would enjoy. Although the realm of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak has not yet arrived, the science of what can be done shows one of nature's more intriguing sides.

Girl runner
Carrie Snyder

Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder is the story of Aggie Smart who possesses a real skill for running; a talent which takes her to the 1928 Olympic games as part of the successful Canadian Women’s team. The story opens when Aggie, now 104, is taken on a trip by two young strangers, causing her to reflect on her life and struggles.

In many respects I found the book disappointing, as what I thought would be the two major themes remained undeveloped, namely: the demands of Olympic training, and women’s struggle for equality in sport (which remains incomplete to this day). In addition to this, there are other cases where I believe the author has missed an opportunity: Aggie’s steadfast enjoyment of running (quite independent of any race), and the theme of competition in sport, are examples which are similarly underdeveloped.

As it stands, it is a reasonable enough storyline, although one which is told in rather disjointed sections. Although this gives a realistic enough impression of a 104 year old narrator, it can make for a confusing read. Similarly, although I found myself relating to Aggie in some ways, I thought she remained an enigmatic character who tells her story reluctantly. Also, while the book does have some more uplifting moments, these are all too brief. For example I was moved by the scene where Glad taught Aggie to swim, and later when the two were running together casually some years after the Olympics.

Ultimately I found this to be an immensely sad book, and the overriding theme seems to be one of loneliness. Although this is realistic enough, it makes for a challenging read. Similarly, although I can admire Aggie’s courage or obstinacy, I confess that this was sufficient, at times, to move a grown man to tears! Whether that makes for a good book I’ll leave you to judge.

A God in ruins
Kate Atkinson

A god in ruins by Kate Atkinson follows on from her much acclaimed novel Life after life. Although it is not a formal sequel, it does share many of the characters, and covers some of the same period, although it is narrated from a different perspective. It is not necessary to have read Life after life in order to enjoy her present novel, but anyone who has will benefit by being aware of much of the background.

Whereas Life after life followed Ursula Todd as she was condemmed to live her life over and over, A god in ruins centres on her younger brother Teddy and his experiences as an RAF pilot during the war. Although this is seemingly a much more straightforward book, it still succeeds in juxtaposing scenes from different periods in time. The author has cleverly used this to create the mystery at the centre of the book, and making the final revelation all the more surprising.

Of course, Teddy's time in the RAF is the central theme in the book, and this together with his struggle to adapt to a civilian life, will ensure that it appeals to a wide audience. On this, Atkinson's research has been extensive, although this has not been at the expense of dramatic storytelling. Interestingly, the Special Operations Executive also gets a brief mention.

However, this is much more than the story of how one RAF pilot beat the odds. Ultimately it is a thoroughly thought provoking book which explores the shadow which the war still casts over us, while also exploring the role of literature in helping us to make sense of our past.

Although lacking some of the originality of Life after life, this is nevertheless a well constructed book with plenty to enjoy. I can certainly agree that it is worthy to be shortlisted for the 2015 Costa book award.

Between enemies
Andrea Molesini

Between enemies is a partially true story of an aristocratic family in occupied Italy during the First World war. In the original Italian it has won considerable acclaim, and a number of prizes for Italian literature. In summary, the Spada family find their estate requisitioned by the enemy when Austrian forces advance into Northern Italy in 1917. Following a cruel act of violence against a group of girls from the village, the family sets out to seek revenge.

In comparison to the many novels set in the First World war, Between enemies is able to distinguish itself by being set in Northern Italy, and by focusing on a single family in their small acts of resistance behind enemy lines. This alone is enough to make for interesting reading, with the author's humour being an added bonus. The story story is straightforward, and well told, suggesting the translators have also done a good job of rendering Andrea Molesini's book into reasonably natural English.

This, however, is fine as far as it goes, but it leaves me with reservations about the book. The family's various acts of resistance seem to be reduced to some minor espionage, and signalling to aircraft. Similarly, although the family naturally disagree over how safe or effective this really is, the tensions and disagreements within the family seem relatively minor.

Similarly, the family seems too ecclectic a collection of characters to be taken seriously. An aristocratic lady with a passion for mathematics must have been unusual enough in 1917, to combine this with her husband perportedly writing a novel on a typewriter named Beelzebub, while harbouring an admiration for the Buddha, stretches the bounds of probability slightly. That said, "truth is sometimes stranger than fiction!"

In summary, this is an interesting and perfectly readable novel, but one which I believe is disappointing. Ultimately the plot is perfectly straightforward, while the family is a little too eccentric, and ironically, under the circumstances, too united. The book does have its moments, and is occasionally thought provoking, but ultimately the Baron's insistance that "it's the rule of war" closes down discussion all too easily.

The Damage done
James Oswald

The Damage done is the sixth novel in James Oswald's Inspector McLean series. The basic plot in this book is that, following an embarrassing raid on a suspected brothel Inspector McClean is haunted by a similarity to his first case. He refuses to drop the case, even as he struggles to find the connection between a series of bizarre deaths; a refusal which could put his career, and even his life, in danger.

This book, therefore has all the makings of a good 'police procedural': intrigue, murder, and an independently minded detective who won't toe the party line. All in all, there is plenty in this novel to appeal to devotees of crime fiction. Beyond that, the plot is well developed, if occasionally a little complex; and the book well written, although the detective work sometimes comes across as a series of lucky guesses.

What makes this book really stand out in a crowded genre is the way in which the author has exposed the vested interests and political compromises which serve only to silence dissenting voices and perpetuate an established 'elite'. This theme is ultimately behind the confused, and slightly far-fetched, closing chapters (perhaps an echo of the author's epic fantasy series). Although this won't win any converts from readers who like crime fiction where cases are neatly resolved, and justice prevails, it does however add to the sense of mystery.

On the more positive side, however, it does serve to highlight why so many of fiction's most successful detectives are independent characters, and perhaps even lonely. All too often, this is the price we pay for maintaining our integrity, and for refusing to be part of the 'in' group.

The Glass cage
Nicholas Carr

Recently a computer program beat the world champion for the first time at the board game Go, prompting a range of predictions that the 'intelligence' of computers would soon exceed our own. Such warnings are alarmist, but nevertheless it would be wrong to entirely dismiss people's fears.

It is a similar motivation which lies behind Nicholas Carr's book The glass cage. His basic thesis is that as we cede ever more tasks to the computer, we risk losing our own skill. In support of this he makes some good points, and his case studies are wide ranging. However, like the popular response to Google's AlphaGo, I believe his fears are exaggerated.

Firstly, the book has a strongly American bias, and I am not convinced that all of the examples are equally applicable in Europe. For example, I doubt that technology is driving unemployment here, as to judge by government policy, the British economy seems all too reliant on cheap labour. Secondly, while highlighting the dangers of automation, the author has less to say about the potential advantages, giving an unbalanced argument.

To be fair, Carr is not anti technology, but I suspect that the real problem is that, all too often, automation is motivated by economics, and not by people. While we may be justifiably worried about losing our jobs to a machine, we do still have a choice about whether to adopt new technologies in our personal lives.

In summary, although the author makes some good points, the book seems to lack the balance to make the argument truly convincing. By all means read it for information, but don't treat it as the last word on the subject. More positively, however, it could provoke much discussion in a good reading group which enjoys tackling accessible non-fiction.

The Invisible mile
David Coventry

David Coventry's debut novel, The Invisible mile, is based on the true story of the New Zealand team in the 1928 Tour de France, the first English speaking team to enter this gruelling race. Underprepared and under-resourced, they are scarcely expected to finish, but as they cycle through a France still marred by the ravages of the War, the narrator is forced to confront his own past.

Although this is a well conceived addition to the comparatively small genre of sporting literature, and this alone is sufficient to recommend the book, I found the overall result to be disappointing. I found the story difficult to follow and confusing, not helped by the 'stream of consciousness' writing. Similarly, the short sentences seemed to make the narrative more disjointed.

This seems particularly true of the ending. Although this can, perhaps, be justified on the grounds that it reflects the riders' own state of incoherence, it appears to leave the book unfinished. Ultimately, If I understand it correctly, then the narrator paid a very high price.

At times, the writing does become more lyrical; starting to reflect the cadence of the cyclists themselves. Although there is no denying the suffering of the riders, it is perhaps unfortunate that the author's best writing comes across as an encomium to pain. Similarly, although the narrator's own recollections are confused, I found the similarities in human cost between the War and "Le Tour" striking.

Ultimately I find this novel disappointing, although in its defence, it does convey the hardships endured by the cyclists well. The inaugurator of the Tour de France once commented that the ideal cycle race would only have one finisher. The fact that, despite improved bicycle engineering, the race remains so challenging today suggests that his vision has been fulfilled.

The Girl on the landing
Paul Torday

The Girl on the landing is Paul Torday's third novel, and despite following two widely acclaimed novels, it still confirms Torday's reputation as an incisive author of great range. Although significantly different from his preceeding books, it still shows several characteristics which are distinctive of the author.

As with his first two books, Torday has taken one central theme (in this case schizophrenia, or more generally men's mental health) and produced a thoughtful account of some of the issues. The basic story is that Elizabeth's life with her husband, Michael, is predictable, if rather boring, until he starts acting out of character. As Elizabeth finally discovers the side of Michael she could really love, events in his past begin to threaten both of them.

Although this present novel is not as humorous as Salmon fishing in the Yemen, that is only to be expected with the subject matter. However, the scenes in the gentlemen's club add some more light-hearted moments to the story, making it eminently readable, while also enabling a discussion about Michael's own identity, and that of British society as a whole.

The novel is narrated alternately by Michael and his wife. While this is confusing at first, it gives two different points of view on the events. This effectively leaves the reader wondering whether Michael really was suffering from schizophrenia. Ultimately, therefore, this makes for a thought provoking and readable treatment of a difficult subject. Unfortunately, like many of the author's books, it seems that very few people benefit in the end. Arguably, however, this is true enough to life, where, given our poor understanding of mental health, it is only natural to ask "who benefits"?

Alexandra Harris

It is often said that talking about the weather is a national characteristic of the British. If this is so, then it would be surprising if the same theme weren't found in English literature. In Weatherland, Alexandra Harris has written a comprehensive account of how the British weather has been represented in art and literature.

The first striking feature of this account is its impressive range: from Roman mosaics and Anglo-Saxon poetry, to modern dystopian novels. Of course, the author must have made some selections to keep this account manageable, but I honestly can't think of any glaring omissions. Indeed, one of the few criticisms I would make is that the sheer wealth of material can make this book a slow read, although no less interesting.

Beyond that, I was favourably impressed that Harris is well enough informed of the science behind the weather to explain why it is so changeable, and why entirely accurate forecasts still elude us. While, this is not a meteorological treatise, it can satisfy the more scientifically minded while still remaining accessible.

Of particular interest is the way in which art and literature have responded to changing social conditions, as much as the climate itself. Of course, the physical changes should not be underestimated either, as notable changes like the medieval warm period, and 16th and 17th century 'frost fairs' can hardly pass unnoticed. Throughout Weatherland, we can simultaneously marvel at the prescience of some authors while also remaining sceptical of their tendency to see a hidden supernatural agency.

It is perhaps appropriate that Harris concludes her account with the modern era of undeniable, man-made changes in the climate. Although there has, as yet, been comparatively little literature tacking this theme, the science and meteorological data speak for themselves. In summary this is an excellent, well researched book which I can highly recommend to interested individuals. Almost everyone will learn something new, and possibly even look at literature in a new way.

Bradshaw's 1853 Continental railway guide
George Bradshaw

In August 2015 I reviewed Three men and a Bradshaw, and the present volume may be seen as complementary to that. This, however, is a facsimile of Bradshaw's Continental railway guide from 1853, and not a travel journal. Its other main claim to fame is being featured in Michael Portillo's television series Great Continental railway journeys.

In keeping with Bradshaw's better known guide to Britain's railways, this is far more than a timetable, containing additionally travel advice, descriptions of major towns, selected maps, and even advertisements. Perhaps, therefore, it is best described as the Lonely Planet guide of its time. As such, it offers a fascinating glimpse of Europe at the time of the "grand tour". Even the advertisements are amusing, although modern day readers will be more circumspect about some of the claims they make.

Having had some experience of European rail travel, my first reaction was to try to trace some of these journeys in Bradshaw's guide. This highlights some notable omissions, such as most of Scandinavia (relegated to a few pages along with Russia), and, on the opposite side of the continent, Spain. Of course, the railway network was in its infancy at the time, but the lack of explanatory text makes it difficult for the modern day reader to put this into context.

In other areas, however, the guide seems remarkably complete and recalls a different era when travel was an adventure in itself. The guide therefore offers outline routes such as London to Vienna, taking approximately 5 days. Before becoming too nostalgic, however, this clearly demonstrates that the modern railway network is faster, more comfortable, and arguably more practical.

Of course, as a historical reference book this will have a limited readership, but it will doubtless appeal to those interested in the history of railways, or tourism. Anyone expecting a practical guide to European rail travel will be disappointed, but as a wonderful piece of nostalgia it is hard to beat.

Leap in
Alexandra Heminsley

Alexandra Heminsley really thought she could swim. Having only recently learnt myself I can sympathise, although in my case I knew that I couldn't. Leap in is, therefore, her account of her experiences of starting as an occasional recreational swimmer, and becoming an accomplished open water swimmer.

Ultimately, though, this is more than a mere account. Alexandra's honesty and engaging writing style really draw the reader in, and make for a quick read. By the end, her struggle to master the counter-intuitive art of breathing in front crawl sound almost humourous. Ultimately, the author's new found love of swimming shows, and in parts the book reads like an encomium to the activity. Nor is the author alone in this: many others have apparently thought likewise, from the 16th Century Everard Digby onwards.

Beyond this, the author's remarks on sport, and some of the factors discouraging women from participating, are refreshing. Although some of these are specific to ladies, I believe that, for example, concerns over the competitive ethos are equally applicable in men's sport.

The book ends with chapters on the history of swimming, answers to some common questions, and a buying guide to swimming equipment. These sections make a useful and interesting addition to the book, although the description of struggling into a wetsuit is probably the best recommendation against cold-water swimming.

In summary, this is an engaging book which does a good job of conveying the author's own enthusiasm for swimming. Although she very wisely cautions about jumping straight in to open water, reading this will probably make you think about swimming in a new way. On a personal level, although I have come to understand that swimming has much to recommend it, I remain unconvinced that I could follow in her wake; reading this has made me think I could try!

To the land of long lost friends
Alexander McCall Smith

This is the latest instalment from Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. To those already familiar with these novels it will need no introduction, while those approaching the series for the first time would be well advised to start with one of the earlier books where the, now familiar, characters are introduced. Similarly, the ‘detective’ element in these stories is relatively minor, so don’t be put off if you don’t normally enjoy crime fiction.

The present book opens with Precious Ramotswe attending a local wedding and musing on the nature of love and friendship. With few cases to solve at the agency, Precious is able to investigate a case for her long-lost friend who finds that her only daughter has turned away from her. Meanwhile, a former mechanic turned charismatic preacher seems to have attracted a following of several local ladies.

Although the books are humorously written, they often provide a gentle look at some broader philosophical issues. This is no exception, looking at the changing roles of men and women in marriage. Although set in Botswana, I feel that the insights are no less appropriate in Europe. As such, this is typical McCall Smith, well written, easily readable, with unobtrusive humour which helps the story. Those who normally enjoy McCall Smith’s books will enjoy this, but with nineteen previous books in the series some of the material does seem rather familiar. In summary, it’s very much in character for Mma Ramotswe and the author, but nevertheless, it is not the best instalment in the series.

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt
Sarah Armstrong

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect is a spy thriller set in Moscow with a difference. Instead of following a spy trained for espionage, the book centres on Martha, the wife of a British diplomat posted to Russia. Arguably a safe enough existence, but Martha falls in love with exploring the city, and won’t play by the rules.

The basic plot is that Martha has been sent down from Cambridge University for distributing left-wing pamphlets. To avoid her parents’ disapproval, she enters into a marriage of convenience with her friend Kit, who is gay. The marriage gives Kit the respectability he needs in the British Embassy in Moscow, while Martha is left with time on her hands to explore.

If you’re expecting a traditional, action packed, spy thriller, then you might find this disappointing, but nevertheless it is an eminently readable and interesting book. The idea of the Embassy wives gives an different perspective on 1970s Moscow, and I particularly liked the character of Martha. In many respects she has enjoyed a privileged position as the daughter of an upper middle class British family. However, she was young, idealistic and more than a little independent. She was also a little too naïve for life in a state where no-one can be trusted, and very little is what it seems. However, it is difficult to blame her for that, or for questioning whether Britain was any better. In short this is an eminently readable perspective on Moscow, which raises questions about politics which are still pertinent today.