Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness – Being with birds and experiencing a new hope

Mental health, mindfulness and bird watching – a combination that forms the theme of this book. It is not a self help guide, more of a record of one person’s discovery of how he found help for his mental health issues in watching birds. He does, however, add at the end of each chapter a list of recommendations for people who feel inspired to try similar actions. He is eager to point out that his particular type of birdwatching is not the obsessive twitching which sees people hurtling around the countryside on the rumour of a rare bird to view. His brand of birdwatching is more “Taking notice of birds” than obsessing about rare sightings, although the text notes whenever they appear often in surprising circumstances. Starting with a strong Foreword by Chris Packham, this book details a gradual discovery of a new way of life which is based on regular and repeated visits to places where birds are to be found. Harkness is also quick to point out that it not only “official” nature reserves and bird sanctuaries which offer sightings and indeed the pleasure of being with birds, but also town centres and built up areas are occasionally scenes where they can be experienced. This is an important book as it stresses that experiencing birds in their natural habitat is transforming and can make so much difference to a life. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book for the tour for the book.

 

The beginning of the book echoes Packham’s Foreword in that it reveals how close Harkness came to suicide. His work as a teacher of special needs young people calls on reserves not only of time and effort, but emotional reserves which affect him on many levels. He discovers that finding birds and learning to identify them gives him pleasure and enjoyment which he experiences as an easing of pressure which he feels intensely. He does not find it easy to become involved initially; more established birdwatchers do not welcome him at sites, he struggles to find a local group, and his first forays into social media are criticised. It takes him a while to gain confidence, to begin to establish how, when and where is best for him to experience birds. He has a chapter about listing sightings, the ticking off of species, the obsessive noting of when and where he has seen them. While he has obviously kept records of dates and places, he decides not to be obsessive about it. He decides that he will take part in surveys and projects that look at bird populations, that revel in the presence of birds in unexpected places. He realises that getting a “patch” where he can regularly visit and explore all the possibilities is necessary for his well being as well as do the research. He finds examples of people being helped by enjoying nature, the variety of habitats, other creatures apart from birds. He writes eloquently of his experiences finding birds, and how it improves his mood.

 

It is only at the end of the book that he acknowledges that  not everyone is able to access the best areas for bird watching, as they often involve long walks on uneven ground. He applauds the moves towards boarding walkways so wheelchairs can pass.  He also argues the case for attracting birds to gardens with food and other provision. He is also so confident of his discoveries that he hopes “influencers” and medical practitioners will take note. This is a significant book which I hope will be read and found useful by many people. Even if there is little interest in birds themselves, there is much encouragement to experience nature, discover the importance of one’s own company, gain a new perspective on life in this refreshing book.    

Diary of an Ordinary Woman – a novel by Margaret Forster – An authentic view of the twentieth century

Image result for diary of an ordinary woman margaret forster

This is a book which spans most of the twentieth century through the eyes of one woman; an ordinary woman by her own admission. Millicent King is a superb creation, a realistic witness to the great events of two World Wars, a relative of some who have died, a participant in some great social upheavals. The clever thing that Forster achieves through this book is to leave gaps, the sort of spaces that someone who kept a diary for most of their lives would probably naturally leave. Thus the run of the mill, routine months and years do not slow down the pace of the book, and the reader is left convinced that this is indeed the life story of a woman who has experienced so much. This is a well written book, full of the challenges of real life, as observed by one person first hand. Lack of communication between family members, unfinished business and the disappointment of other people’s choices are themes that run throughout the book. There is hope, resilience and real affection in this woman as she does her best, does the unpredictable, and records it all. This is an effective book, revealing so much about life in Britain between 1914 and 1995.

 

The book begins with Millicient as a middle child, aghast that her parents keep having children, annoyed that she has to help look after them. She is not desperately excited by school, but becomes keen on doing a course in teaching as an effort towards independence. With an older brother at the Front, she begins to appreciate the real nature of the War. She meets Tom, but as her family’s fortunes fail tragically she has to work in a shop. When eventually she begins another job, she is suddenly given the opportunity to travel. On her return, she meets other men and she makes the dramatic decision to sleep with one of them, making a conscious and responsible provision. In the background her family develops, changes and sometimes make demands on her, but at all times she tries to keep in touch out of a touching mixture of affection and duty. She meets a man, Robert, through her work, but there are many barriers to their relationship and when she has to assume enormous responsibilities her life dramatically changes. As another war ends she begins to think about the bigger issues and discovers that even an ordinary woman can make a stand.

 

I think I can recall that some readers made a fuss when they realised that Millicient was a character rather than a woman they could have actually met. Such is the effectiveness of the writing that I could feel the frustration when there was a gap in the diaries, that it was not possible to discover more about this contradictory but impressive woman. Having read several real diaries of women written during the twentieth century, this book is an incredible success in imitation and homage to women who lived through this period with all its challenges. This is sometimes a painful read, but always honest and consistent with the main character. This is a second read for me, and I recommend it as an example of historical fiction at its best.

 

I really enjoyed rereading this book, despite the fact that I have so many new books to read. It is a really well researched book in every sense.

Meanwhile some deadlines for the conference that I was speaking at have come and gone. Now one of Northernvicar’s two churches has its Bicentenary over the next few weeks, so either I will get a lot of reading done as I sit around in the background, or there will be jobs to be done! Still, a Bicentenary doesn’t happen that often!

The Serpent’s Mark by S.W.Perry – Treason and more in Elizabethan London – with so much to offer

In Elizabethan times, treason was easy to commit, or at least be accused of with little provocation. In this second book featuring Nicholas Shelby, a physician with a past, the suspicion of Catholics and their potential as assassins is still rife. Bianca Merton, apothecary and tavern owner, is a woman with a talent for dangerous situations, already condemned by some as a sorceress and more. Perry takes these two characters and more who will be familiar to Perry’s first book, “The Angel’s Mark”  and gives them new situations to deal with both in the claustrophobia of London and the estates of the rich. He also includes some real characters of the time, such as the charismatic and notorious Kit Marlowe. The combination of brilliantly drawn characters and a terrifically described setting in the streets of London make for a read that is fascinating in detail and touches on some huge subjects. The research that is behind this novel is obviously immense, as Perry manages to get into the speech, the obsessions and the sheer variety of people who would have lived in this part of London at this dynamic time. Well paced, with a keen sense of the dangers faced by every character, as well as the emotions felt, this is a vastly enjoyable book which is very difficult to put down. I was extremely pleased to be given the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

The book opens with Nicholas and his father, at last revealing the nature of the tragedy which has overwhelmed him. In the process Yeoman Shelby talks about he changes in religious practice that had affected the country during the previous reigns, and the effects that uncertainty has had on everyone. Meanwhile in London Bianca is pleased to have attained the opportunity to pass on her healing knowledge, working with Ned and Rose to run the Jackdaw, determined to attract more patrons. She is keen to visit a ship that has just arrived which has come from her home city of Venice, and pleased to meet a relative who turns out to be a very attractive character. She soon realises that Bruno is involved in more than just trading in rice, and fears for the implications. When Nicholas returns to the tavern she greets him with mixed emotions, as despite his attraction for her, she knows that he is still suffering. He has been asked to look into the case of the son of an old comrade in arms, who is shown to be an imaginative boy who is searching for help. Moreover, the council of physicians has demanded his presence at a hearing that could block his hard won career. He is conflicted by memories as he returns to London, and is painfully aware that his life needs to be reordered. He is summoned to meet an old adversary, and as a result he must undertake a journey to discover what a sinister character is really working towards. Bianca plunges into danger out of concern for Bruno, and has to take quick action to survive.

 

This is a novel which combines so many elements, and manages to reveal the humanity of individuals as well as convey a sense of the forces which are affecting everyone. I found the book full of small incidents and fascinating detail, impressive research into real people and consistent characters. Perry manages to shift from humourous dialogue to frightening threats, watchfulness to huge issues. I can heartily recommend this book to all fans of historical fiction as it is essentially easy to read, well written and totally involving. This is Tudor Britain with a realistic spin, and achieves so much in building a picture of real people in a genuinely fascinating settling.  

 

 

The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott – an atmospheric novel of a house with a disturbing past?

Can a house watch you? In this novel a young woman is wondering about that question as she moves into the Manse, an old house which seems to be full of secrets. Featuring things that literally go bump in the night, this terrifically atmospheric novel is full of swirling mystery and menace as Alisa discovers that her old family home seems invested with the actions of those who have gone before her. Despite the fact she shares the house with her half sister, she feels the presence of others with malign intent. The brooding threat of violence manifests itself in small ways, dead animals, strange noises and the conviction that everyone is aware of the house, all the elements of a thriller without a manifest threat. The locals which she encounters are a mixed bunch, each with their own beliefs about the house and those who have lived in it. This is a sophisticated thriller in some senses, full of small hints and suggestions rather than dramatic action, which in a way is far more effective. I found that the novel was a great achievement in terms of being unsettling and suggesting much by its atmosphere. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this intriguing book.

 

As the book opens the first paragraph appears concerning Ailsa’s father, a theory about where he is, what he is doing. This strange revelation appears just before Ailsa sees the house for the first time since she was a child, copes with fleeting memories and tries not to disagree with her half sister, who is also coping with the death of their mother. It soon emerges that at the time of the death, Ailsa was with a news team and could not get a flight home owing to the explosion of a volcano in Iceland. The eerie silence of empty skies was memorable, and adds to the atmosphere. From the start there seems to be the real threat of incursion despite locks and bolts, just enough to unsettle any sense of peace. Ailsa considers her relationship with an older star news reporter, how she has sought the unattainable. She meets some locals who are all more aware of the history of her house, and her father’s disappearance. While making efforts to socialise, she discovers that not everyone is pleased to see her, and indeed hold onto past grudges. There are various layers of tensions, of threat, and the author skillfully holds all the threads together as Ailsa begins to fight back. As time is discussed in all its complications, the reader is left to consider exactly who or what may be trying to drive Ailsa away.

 

I found this a complex and tense read, full of the subtle hints of threat which seek to unsettle the characters and indeed the reader. I found Ailsa a convincing character, full of doubts but with a core of strength. As revelations about her parents emerge, and her own past and choices are recalled, the combined effect is of characters with sufficient depth to seem real. Elliott is a clever and careful writer, using all the small details to create a setting and events that convince the reader of a reality. I would recommend this as a good read, well paced, cleverly written and raising a real sense of tension.

Monopoli Blues by Tim Clark & Nick Cook – Love in a time of War – A truthful account

A book of war, danger and courage, this is a non- fiction book which makes a real impact by the power of its truth. It shows how a son and his supporters can track down the record of a man whose experiences in war are complex and awe inspiring, with the help of the woman who worked behind the scenes in the same theatre of war. These two people are remarkable in every way, in their bravery and commitment to each other during so many courageous acts, and ultimately their modesty in revealing the story to those who came afterwards. As Tim Clark, their son, seeks to discover the truth from the people who remember and the limited paperwork that survives, he visits some of the places where his parents spent the most significant part of their war, and experience the events that may well have shaped the battle for Italy. This is a book of almost unbelievable bravery, ability and missions that would challenge the most experienced warrior, undertaken by a twenty year old agent.  Meanwhile, a young woman who received so many notes of his feelings was fighting in her own way, maintaining the communications that saved lives, living in a disputed territory. At stake was not only the immediate battle but the fate of a country teetering on the edge of civil war. This book is a well timed reminder that when so much was at stake, the fate of many lives was in the hands of young people like this couple. I was pleased to be asked to read and review this cogently written book.

 

This book begins with the gradual revelation of a story. As objects and documents are discovered, including weapons, the author realises that his father, Bob Clark, has far more to tell about his wartime experiences. It is not a straightforward process to gather the truth; as with many of his parents’ generation, comments and episodes slip out, people are mentioned, contexts hinted at rather than a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. Attendance at Special Forces reunions, close friends of the same age who know some things, and the occasional session of openness for a specific event give tantalising glimpses of a story of battles and missions. While the family are told a little, at the time of his father’s death Tim is left with only five pages of notes of actual facts , and it is from this he must track down more details to flesh out the bare bones of an incredible truth. While he is indefatigable in his hunting through the National Archives and following slim leads, it is only when his mother’s memories and collection of notes and letters appear that he can begin to plot the whereabouts of his parents as the British forces invaded and made good their progress in Italy. As the Germans pulled back they still committed outrages against civilians, and fought to keep their influence in the country.

 

As the letters between his parents emerge, the quick events of life and death in the area are emphasised. Bob wrote “Everything in the world goes right when I am with you. I have never felt so happy as when I was with you.” In the dozens of names in this book, in the sometimes confusing descriptions of times and places, the love of these two young people shines through. I must admit there were times that I wished for more words between the facts, as I was left in no doubt that every name, place, piece of equipment was researched and verified. However, this book represents a tireless search by Tim Clark for the story of his parents first meeting, getting together, and loyal support even when there was some doubt. Together with Cook, Clark’s exhaustive search, visits to the sites and meeting with those who survive have contributed to an incredible record in this book of lives lived in the heat of war. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the work of the Special Operations Executive in Italy, as it is a source of much information and interest.

 

I am really honoured to be kicking off this tour for this special book. Last Thursday Northernvicar and I went to the local theatre to see a special evening commemorating the D Day landings, with two authors speaking about their books, some wartime songs, and a dance specially devised for the occasion. Together with the coverage from France I found it all very moving, and reminded me of my father who was involved in the event. Northernvicar bought me one of the books, so watch this space for a review of that – eventually!

Ungentlemanly Warfare by Howard Linskey – A secret war carried out by gentlemen?

On one level this is a historical thriller set in the Second World War, featuring the fight in France partly run by the Special Operations Executive. It is also a picture of a specific man, Harry Walsh, with a significant backstory of action at Dunkirk, a complicated love life, but especially lacking the acceptable background for being a gentleman.  Anyone with a basic knowledge of the undercover operations which were attempted by British agents will find much to interest them in this novel, but the additional layer of discrimination against people from a lower class makes it an unusual read. It also explains the title; while Winston Churchill called the SOE “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” in that the tactics used by the agents were against all the understood rules of warfare, Walsh himself is seen by certain officers as not the correct class to hold a higher rank or indeed be trusted. With some brutality which is necessary in a book on this topic, it never feels gratuitous. This is a book about feeling the fear and using that energy to defend and even attack. The realistic recognition that German retaliation was always to be considered when planning action is also present, adding to the complexity of the narrative. This is a deeply thoughtful book, which places a quotation relevant to each chapter in the text.  I was interested to read this fast paced and realistic fictional portrayal of the real secret army, and glad to have the opportunity to review it for the blog tour.

 

The Prologue features experiments for a new sort of aircraft which has everyone excited, which may well change the course of the war. Later in the novel the problems of testing and completing the plane for operational purposes become more detailed, but the possibilities of its use by the German air force to finally overcome the RAF is sufficient to make profound plans. Meanwhile, Harry Walsh slips away to expose a impostor who is part of a plan to expose several agents to the ultimate danger. Some success is not enough to impress Price, Harry’s immediate superior, who has his own twisted agenda and ambitions, especially where Harry is concerned. This is a book where the obvious enemy does not pose the only danger; the different departments of government guard their territories without much concern for individuals. Harry has had traumatic experiences and felt compelled to enter into marriage without love. At the point at which the novel begins he has an illicit relationship which will perhaps affect his judgement in the field. Still the training and the refinement of skills proceeds, as a plan evolves will test many people, and some to destruction.

 

This book is a pacy read, sometimes almost getting ahead of itself in its layers of plots and plans. The danger feels real, the power of the occupying forces overwhelming, the lack of concern for human life chilling. There is some light relief as one or two real people appear in passing in very clever ways.This a powerful read in many ways, one that does not waste words and linger over the drama. I recommend it as an exciting and fast moving read, with a real impact in terms of its descriptions of war themes, and some more unusual themes of class and gender discrimination.

 

Aurelia by Alison Morton – An Aurelia Mitela Roma Nova Thriller featuring a determined woman

Adventure, danger and crime, a historical and fantasy state, all led by a resourceful and determined woman make this a terrific read. Subtly creating a female led country set in a twentieth century Europe that has endured just one Great War, the details of daily life are fascinating and well thought though by the author. This book is part of a series set in Roma Nova, where the royal family and inheritance runs through the females, though it is completely standalone in terms of character and plot. Elements of the characters run through the novels, and the mature and confident way in which the plot, characters and setting are handled make it a wonderful read. Fast paced and with plenty of twists, this book tells the story of Aurelia Mitela, a young woman who has served in the military, who has a young daughter, and is suddenly thrust into a world of diplomacy and espionage. To add to the tension, a long term and cunning enemy is determined to attack Aurelia in any way possible. This is a thoroughly enjoyable novel and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book.

 

The book begins with a section called “Duty”, as Aurelia gets ready to go on a military manoeuvre on the borders of the independent state of Roma Nova. Despite or perhaps of her extreme closeness to the ruler of the state, Imperatrix Justina, she is horrified that her mother and daughter are in the company of Caius Tellus, a distant relative who has always been jealous of Aurelia as he has lived a life of a gambler and waster. Nevertheless she departs for the border, in bitter weather, with her unit, and almost immediately there is an attack. She is wounded, but fights on as some of her fellow soldiers are in danger. She is dramatically called back as there is a family crisis, and she soon finds herself immersed in the daily running of the family estate and business interests. As she collapses from her obsessive dedication to the work she is given orders to go the Germanic state, where she discovers that being a delegate with a royal connection gets her a lot of attention and not all of it pleasant. Her liberty is put in doubt, as she has to make every effort to survive on any terms. It is fortunate that she is skilled in self defence and extremely quick witted, as it seems that everything is against her returning home to her little girl. As she seizes the chance to find some affection or even love, she is placed in an impossible position. With a determined man targeting her, can she fight her way through?

 

This is definitely a novel for those who enjoy action and a fast paced read. Yet also admirable are the small details, the young men who are the typists, the realisation that in this historically based fantasy women are truly in control, without necessarily dismissing all men as worthless. Morton has again succeeded in creating a world that makes perfect sense, with rules and laws that are logical, that feature the frustrations and other emotions that are familiar, and gives a new perspective on the abilities of women. Aurelia is a wonderful character, tough and forthright, quick and realistic. I recommend this powerful novel which maintains a strong pace throughout and has so many twists and turns, surprises and incidents that I struggled to put it down.   

 

Today we attended several events at the Derby Book festival, all of which were very enjoyable, and in the case of the session on “Refugee Tales”from those who seek to support those detained at Gatwick airport, extremely moving. I hope to post more about these books soon,after I have completed my conference!