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Fat Dogs and French Estates 4 by Beth Haslam

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This is another delightful offering in Beth Haslam’s Fat Dogs and French Estates series. Following on from book 3, I really enjoyed reading about Beth and Jack’s efforts to renovate their rambling French home. Although it’s almost impossible to gain a clear idea of the layout of their property, it doesn’t really matter as the couple’s enthusiasm for renovation and integration in their French life make up for any lack of visual images of the lovely but run down property they bought.

There were some vivid descriptions that I especially enjoyed, such as the night and day of the storm that decimated their woodlands. I admired their courage in setting out to find fuel with the world in apocalyptic disarray all around them. Then there were the gorgeous accounts of their wildlife viewing, the meetings they had with various eccentric locals at the auberge  and the charming characters who help them with their renovations, not forgetting their champion Polish forest clearance team.

I laughed at the animals’ antics and Beth’s ability to persuade Jack into collecting ever more pets. Later, I cried with Beth when she loses two of them and felt her sorrow deeply.

Altogether, this was a wonderful read with some evocative description, great dialogue and plenty of giggles too. And to add to the pleasure, I am getting to like grumpy Jack more with each book. He’s beginning to feel like an old friend now!

 

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The Reluctant Hotel Keeper by John Searancke

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I really enjoyed this book very much indeed. It’s a fascinating read about the the author’s life as a hotel owner and manager, a career he was somewhat landed with by his parents and for which he was completely unprepared. How he kept going against huge odds makes a remarkable story of resourcefulness and, yes, courage.

The fact that the hotel ended up hosting the rich, the shameless and the glamorous was all down to his hard work and determination and I developed great admiration for the author while I was reading the book. However, what made it entertaining were all the background stories and anecdotes about the various guests they entertained. From obnoxious rock stars to a prison inmate and his wife booking a room for a quick couple of hours, there seemed to be no end to the potential for scandal and gossip at this ostensibly genteel hotel.

I loved it and I loved John Searancke’s story telling style. Well-written with gentle humour, the author’s affection for his staff, his dogs and his mother shine through. It’s a lovely book to read at the end of the day and altogether delightful. I now want to read the his first book about his dog!

The link to the book on Amazon.com is here

A Pocket Full of Days by Mike Cavanagh

 

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I’ve just finished reading this first part of what I hope will be a two or maybe even three part memoir. I was lucky enough to win it in a draw so I will admit I had no idea what to expect. Unlike other reviewers, I hadn’t read the author’s first book, so this one was a real upside downer for me. I found it quite riveting, but also shocking, funny, nostalgic, poignant and everything else that arouses emotions when I’m reading. It was also something of a rollercoaster ride.

I have to say it is not a happy story, but conversely, I have the feeling Mike Cavanagh is essentially a cheerful soul who is inclined to be happy rather than miserable. A contradiction in many ways. The blurb explains that he has written his memoirs since discovering he has Asperges Syndrome and that these books are his way of making sense of how he felt he was different as a child and young man in 60s and 70s Australia.

I know little about Asperges, but his behaviour seemed quite normal to me. Being of a similar age, I remember full well what the 70s were like and having lived the hippie life too, I didn’t find anything unusual about his introspection or actions. It seems to me that’s how we all were then, especially when influenced by ‘recreational’ substances. The fact that he stood by Jo, his girlfriend, for so long while she tragically self destructed suggests an empathy beyond the call of friendship or love so I couldn’t quite see what his communication problems were other than might be expected in the situation. In fact, hats off to Mike for his support and love in the face of such a challenge. But perhaps I’m missing something simply because I don’t know enough about Asperges.

Altogether, however, this was a riveting, evocative, and visual read. It could have been a film and maybe one day it will be. It deserves to be. Mike Cavanagh has a gift for description, especially of emotional conundrums, and his writing is often quite lyrical and very beautiful. That said, his exploration of his emotional and psychological responses to the situations in which he finds himself is surprisingly conversational and he draws the reader in as if he is chatting to them about his issues.

All in all, I found this a deeply moving book with some powerful imagery and I shall look forward to reading the next one.

The link to the book is here

Review: Working for Wildness by Colin Souness

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This book’s full name includes the sub-title ‘A naturalist’s travels in the Arctic, Antarctica,  Africa, India, Russia, New Zealand and Scotland’ and it really covers all these astonishing regions.

The author, Colin Souness, writes in an academically anecdotal way, if I can put it like that. The book is divided into chapters that cover his different experiences in the countries and regions mentioned and poses questions that challenge our perception of conservation like no other. I was intrigued, fascinated, horrified and saddened in equal measure. However, I also felt the author’s love for what he does, his respect for the natural world and his overriding passion with the wilderness, whether it be Antarctica or Africa. I particularly enjoyed the parts about Africa, but that’s probably no surprise with my background.

One aspect struck me with some force, however. Colin Souness writes about his work in the efforts to protect, conserve and develop the Kiwi population in New Zealand where these special birds are a national symbol and yet frighteningly close to extinction. Sadly, they are prey to a number of other ‘imported’ animals, such as possums and domestic cats, so much of his labour was to trap and despatch these predators. The author says with some (I believe) sadness that to protect one animal, he has to kill an awful lot of others, and that is the paradox of this type of vocation. It is a tough call, and not an easy one to make.

What the book also made me realise is that the life of a naturalist is not for the faint-hearted or lily-livered. I know I would not be fit for the job. Many animal species live on other animals; nature is tough. The author also shows how many interests have to be considered in conservation (not least, the needs of humanity), and above all, the factor of relevance must be examined, in all its different contexts.

This is a fascinating, absorbing book that has given me completely new insights on conservation, preservation and environmentalism. It is both thought-provoking in content and entertaining in style. I would say that in today’s complicated world, it is a must-read if we are to begin to understand the concept of conservation and what it means to us as individuals.

A link to the book is here

 

Review: From Australia to Germany: An adventurous journey in a 4 wheel drive by Gus Pegel

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An immensely enjoyable read written from the perspective of the author when he was just 16. It’s an overland adventure that probably couldn’t be done these day given the political tensions in the world, so it was great to live through Gus and his friends’ journey vicariously from Australia, across Asia and into Europe. Their adventures and scrapes are many and the country they traversed was often harsh, terrifying and stunning.

I really enjoyed it so much and I take my hat off to Helmut, the ‘adult’ on the journey, and to Gus for the ingenuity they showed when their marvellous old truck broke down, lost parts, and had other problems. To get stuck in and make repairs when you are miles from civilisation and weld bits back together, well, hats off for their pluck and courage.

I gobbled up the book and appreciated the author’s closing words where he points out that whatever we are led to believe by politicians, people are good, kind and welcoming everywhere.

As an author myself, I would recommend that the text is professionally proofread; it would gain so much from this. Gus Pegel wrote the book for his own enjoyment and to share his story with others, but his adventures are now such an important record I think it would be worth the extra polish.  However, I will also say none of the errors affected my enjoyment of the story. A terrific read!

The book is available for a snip at 99p/c on Amazon here.

Review: The Rhine by Ben Coates

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It’s almost impossible to overstate how much I enjoyed this phenomenal book. It has hooked me from the day I started reading it until this evening, when ignoring all sorts of other commitments, I sat and read until I reached the last page.

I use the word phenomenal without exaggeration as Ben Coates must have undertaken a staggering amount of research in his aim to tell the reader about the history, geography, art and human interest stories behind the hundreds of miles of Rhineland he covered in a personal adventure of cycling, hiking and boating along the length of the Rhine.

However, this is far from being a dry reference book. Ben’s humour had me chuckling frequently and laughing out loud often enough to have my partner asking to be read the offending (as in relevant) sections. His observations are astute, his self-mockery is well refined and his sense of the absurd is right up my street. Some particularly precious gems include the sections where his dog joins him on his adventures and when he (Ben, not the dog) goes cow riding. I cannot remember a book that has simultaneously taught me so much and been so entertaining. Ever.

The story begins in Amsterdam, but the journey has its real beginnings in my own home town, Rotterdam. I recognise so well that ‘I wonder where this goes’ curiosity that inspired him to start following the Rhine from its many-tentacled mouth to its source. I love this river, I live on it, and yet I feel as if I formerly knew nothing about it that couldn’t be scratched on a postcard. Now I’ve learnt about the significance of Dorestad, or Wijk bij Duurstede, as it is now known; these days a relatively modest satellite of Utrecht of which I’d barely heard, but historically the trading equivalent of the Port of Rotterdam. I’ve learnt what really happened at Arnhem in Operation Market Garden, why Bonn never felt comfortable with its capital of Germany mantle and how poor Strasbourg and the people of the Alsace have been passed from pillar to post as European leaders squabbled over whether the border really ran along the Rhine or not. I’ve read about characters I recognise, about customs I don’t, and about places I want to visit, such as Lichtenstein and Lake Toma (Tomasee) the beautiful source of the Rhine.

Altogether, this is a fascinating, funny, informative, wise and compelling book. Ben Coates writes beautifully with marvellous imagery and a great gift for witty metaphor, so it’s a pleasure to read as well. As a political speech writer, lobbyist, journalist and aid worker, Ben has a great facility for presenting a comprehensible overview of political events and change that makes the book thought-provoking too. I cannot recommend The Rhine highly enough for anyone who is interested in both personal travelogue and history and, well, just about everything. In fact I don’t just recommend it; I would urge everyone with a smidgin of interest in both Europe’s past and its future to read it. It is a wonderful book about the river, its life and its towns, but it’s much much more than that. I’ve learnt so much, I’m now wondering what Ben’s next adventures will teach me.

A link to the book is here

Journey to a Dream by Craig Briggs

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I’ve had this book for quite some time but since I’ve been thinking more about going to Galicia myself, it moved up my horribly huge reading pile. I’m very glad I read it because Craig Briggs confirmed my idea that the north west of Spain is my kind of place. His descriptions are vivid and it sounds very beautiful. The scenery is stunning; I would guess it is much more varied than southern Spain but maybe that’s because it rains more. In fact, it seems to rain quite a lot, but the summers are lovely and the author and his wife clearly had wonderful weather between the downpours.

Most of the book concerns Craig and his wife’s frequently frustrating experiences in buying a home and having building work done to improve it. So many things went wrong: their brand new pool popped out of the ground after days of rain, walls were inadvertently smashed, their car broke down. It seemed impossible that anything more could happen, but it did. Added to that, learning both Spanish and the Spanish culture often proved depressing and challenging. The reader really feels how bursting with frustration and annoyance Craig Briggs was, but in the end, patience prevailed and the couple learnt much about the Spanish ‘mañana’ way of life.

I liked reading about the locals they met, the wine cellars they visited and the type of bureaucracy they had to deal with. It’s very detailed with a wealth of information, so it isn’t a quick read but I enjoyed it and it’s really made me want to see the country for myself. The book is well written and I’m sure I’ll be reading the author’s sequel before too long as I’d really like to know what happened next.

The link to the book is here

(A shorter version of this review is on the product page)