Nonfiction November #NonFicNov23 – Week Two, Choosing Nonfiction

I am excited to be hosting Week 2 of Nonfiction November this week.  The other hosts for Nonfiction November are fellow bloggers Liz (Adventures in reading, running and working from home), , Heather (Based on a True Story), and Lisa (Hopewell’s Public Library of Life), and Rebekah (She Seeks Nonfiction).

  • Week 2Dates: 11/6-11/10
    • Host: That would be me, Frances
    • Title: Choosing Nonfiction
    • Description: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Do you find yourself wandering around bookshops – that is if  you are lucky enough to have access to a real bookshop these days – thinking that you fancy reading something ‘different’ but you’ve no idea what it is?  I used to often feel this way.

We are peddled a relentless diet of best-sellers and known names, books which may or may not answer a need, and nowhere is that feeling stronger than in a high street bookstore.  Where is the opportunity for that quirky discovery with the battered binding?

Since I have discovered the blogosphere and all my bookish friends online, I don’t really have a problem in finding books to read any more, quite the opposite.  But I do miss just wandering around the shelves and picking up a book here or there just to see.

When browsing, I avoid footballers, celebrities and disgruntled royals.   I look for good biography, memoir, art, art history.  I mentioned in my post last week the occasional guilt complex at not reading more widely in other categories.  Probably in 2024 I will try and address that.

In terms of a favoured cover I’m pretty sold on this one which is from my current read, Jackie Wullschlager’s Biography, Monet: The Restless Vision:


I love colour.

I think human beings are attracted to bright colours.  Maybe Monet thought so too.  Here is some colour courtesy of the net.

Geordanna Cordero on Unsplash

I’m also a fan of the new nature writing, usually a blend of authoritative essay style writing on the natural world, combined with autobiographical details from the life of the author

Little Toller Books have an excellent if a somewhat pricey array of these books. Here are three that have caught my eye.

.  My

An allotment is a utopia. It is a green place where anyone can occupy a piece of land, and grow with freedom of expression.

I don’t know whether people that use allotments would agree with that idea, or how you grow with freedom of expression – or without freedom of expression unless you’re entering for Chelsea.  I’m not really a gardener in any way shape or form but my brother in law has worked an allotment plus a garden for decades.  I never quite understood how anyone manages all that work!  I suspect he may not wish to read about the history of them though, so passing swiftly on.

Richard Mabey was maybe one of the first writers to write about mental health and natural world issues combined in his book Nature Cure which I have read.  In my review I wrote:

Mabey’s book is an enlightening read, erudite without being dry, honest to the point of bleakness in parts, without being depressing. It was one of the first in the style which came to be known as the new nature writing, along with naturalist and friend Mark Cocker. These are books which entwine stories of the natural world with the writer’s own biographical tales.

Taking far longer than usual to move out of the house in which he grew up, and aided and abetted by a severe bout of depression, Mabey makes his belated escape to the Norfolk fens where he writes about sheets of water, the Wailing Wood, owls, birds, fens, the yellow star-of-bethlehem and orchids in an ‘ethereal shade of rose’. But his particular interest, like the poet John Clare

Mabey has written many, many books including a biography of the naturalist and author Gilbert White whom wiki credits with ‘shaping the modern attitude of respect for nature’ which seems a rather extraordinary claim.  I didn’t realise there was a modern attitude of respect for nature judging by the ecology crisis we have on our hands.  But I think I will put this one on my TBR.


Does anyone else find themselves drawn to a particular theme or topic?  Style of writing? Titles? Covers? They say you can’t tell a book by one, but hey, a good cover certainly helps.

If you are taking part in Nonfiction November Week 2,  don’t forget to add your link below.  I’ve been so happy to help host this challenge but the only thing I’ve been panicking about is the link party.  Despite the kindness of Rebekah at (She Seeks Nonfiction) and others showing me what to do, my link party looks worryingly unlike anyone else’s.  Therefore please if you have any problems, just leave the link to your post in the comments below.



You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!

Click here to enter





Sarn Helen – A Road Less Travelled

Sarn Helen is the name of a road in Wales.  Legend has it that it was named after a Celtic Saint, Elen, whose story is told in The Dream of Macsen Wledig, part of the Mabinogion.   Mmmm! We don’t really know.   The route is as mysterious as its mythical history and, according to wiki, there is much academic dispute about where the road actually went, sections of it being lost.  However, just for the sheer romance of the whole thing,  it was time Sarn Helen had a book, and here it is.  Sort of.

Review: Sarn Helen; A Journey Through Wales, Past Present and Future

Author: Tom Bullough

#9 of 10 Books of Summer

The road of the title runs across Wales from Neath, Near Swansea to Llandudno in North Wales.  Half of Bullough’s book is a delightful tale of people and places met along the way, shortly after the first lockdown in 2020 –  this half is the book that I thought I was buying.

The other half of the book – which I didn’t know I was buying – is a series of didactic essays about ecology and climate change.   These are of course entirely valid, stand alone essays and interviews on matters related to climate change and species extinction are hugely relevant.

I’m not being a denier here.  I too have sat in Parliament Square and waved banners.  But these essays – irritatingly printed in italics as if insisting on their greater importance than the rest of the text –  felt in this particular volume to be added on to the main theme of the book.

Some sections of the work with names like Y Gaer to Llandovery; Cedris farm to Dolgellau and Coed Penbryn to Machynlleth are replete with lyrical writing:

“In Coed Penbryn, above the Melindwr Valley…an acorn lands with a thwack.  Between  my long, deep washes of sleep, a tawny owl gives his hollow cry; some small creature scrabbles through the bracken; the sky, by increments, reveals itself: a silver river through the black of the trees.”

Then suddenly it feels like we hit a brick wall of horror in the shape of climate disaster.  Yes, I know the doom is there waiting, but still, there are ways and ways.

The last chapter is randomly titled ‘City of London Magistrates Court, April 2021’.  Or at least it seems random when you get to it.  In fact, it is the whole point of the book.  It is poor Sarn Helen that is the add-on, not the City of London Mags.

In 2020 Bullough took part in an XR protest in Parliament Square.  He was arrested after he waved a banner supporting the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, tabled in the House of Commons by the Green MP, Caroline Lucas and failed to move on when asked to by a police officer.

I’ve taken part in XR sit-ins.     If you do not move on when asked, you know you will be arrested. Basically people did this not because they fancied a night in a cell, but because getting a day in Court was one of the few ways of being heard as a climate protestor.  Although I write as if this is the current situation,  it is not.  It was the situation back then, all those eons ago in 2020 when we Brits still inhabited a democracy in which peaceful protest was considered a fundamental right.  Now, since the passing of the Public Order Act 2023 in the UK,  the police have huge and sweeping powers to arrest peaceful protestors.

When in Court, Bullough explains to the Magistrates that the increase in global heating will, when his children are in their forties, their sixties, their eighties  – be variations on an eye-watering theme of 5 degree rises.   By this time the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice sheet will almost certainly have melted.  No-one really knows what a 5 degree world will look like.  We have seen the wildfires, floods and other catastrophes that are happening now, when  as far as we are aware in 2023, global heating is still below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

I might add that Bullough was lucky that he had his day in Court when he did.  Now he would not be allowed to give that evidence. Following the Public Order Act 2023 environmental issues cannot be used as a defence.

Yes, you read that right.

This savage, stupid and cowardly piece of legislation, seeks to stop people legitimately protesting about our burning world, even though they cause no damage and harm no-one.

The brunt of the issue as Bullough explained to the Mags is that, as a writer, he has written reams on this subject.  He has given talks and speeches, written to MPs, this MP or another one.  Absolutely nothing happens.  The legitimate route gets you nowhere. There has also been a carefully orchestrated smear campaign against XR.  The message is clear.  If you want to save the planet, that makes you a criminal.

Sat at the back of a courtroom listening to a case against airport expansion,  I too have heard damning evidence given by estimable organisations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace on matters of ecology and global heating. I have watched it all pass over a judge’s head as if the issues concerned arrangements of table places at a teddy bear’s picnic.

I will not take part in any more protests because it is very easy to burn out.  Bullough probably will not either because he has young children and will not want to risk a prison sentence.  It is so easy to silence people, especially during a cost of living crisis.

Anyone who has persevered this far will no doubt accuse me of digressing wildly from the point of the book.  Rather like the author.   I do admire Tom Bullough for his persistence in getting his message out.  I understand entirely how he feels. But also,  I thought that a book about Sarn Helen should just do what it says on the tin.  I felt a bit short changed tbh.

Fresh and Courageous: Birdsplaining: A Natural History #Dewithon23

Before I read Birdsplaining I had no concept of how a book about birds or the act of watching them through binoculars or a camera could possibly be the subject of feminist ire.  But I reckoned if I was only going to read one book for this year’s #Dewithon hosted by Paula at Book Jotter it had better be a good one.  And so it proved to be.   Thank you Paula both for hosting the challenge and for listing this book.

The term  Birdsplaining came about in relation to ‘mansplaining’, a word which started to be used after Rebecca Solnit published her essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’.  But birds to do not explain anything to anyone, so wherefore Birdsplaining?  It’s a matter of who describes what and to whom.   It’s a matter of who claims the territory of expertise.  And as always, a matter of who shouts the loudest.

Birdsplaining: A Natural History by Jasmine Donahaye is many things:  a set of essays partly personal; a feminist take on the experience of being a birder – twitcher – birdwatcher – whichever term you prefer, each is loaded with sub-text of which more later.  The book is also a look at issues of race and how women’s knowledge on this subject is belittled,  dismissed or eradicated.

Donahaye starts her book referring to an essay written by a man called Hinch.  This man’s essay was published in the prestigious LA Review of Books entitled ‘Nature writing is over’.  In this he claimed that the death knell been rung on nature writing.  But more importantly it had been rung by women; specifically the likes of Cheryl Strayed who wrote Wild – the author’s account of her lone trek on the Pacific Crest Trail (made into a film with Reese Witherspoon) which subsequently sold around 4 million copies.   Also guilty of this death knell ringing according to Hinch is Helen MacDonald author of another massively successful and influential  book H is for Hawk which recounts Macdonald’s efforts to train a goshawk, set against the background of her grief over losing her father.

People who have read, loved and been inspired by both of those books – people like me –  will be surprised if not a little shocked to learn that they should not have been and that the attitude of those authors was wrong.   So what had these extremely successful ladies done in Hinch’s eyes, apart that is from being extremely successful, to earn his royal disapproval?  The answer seems to lie in combining their portrayal of the natural world with their own internal feelings and life events.  Big no-no.    Those women have heinously ‘domesticated’ the wild, rather than regard it objectively and entire of itself, looking away from the human narrator.

So the rare bird we are all queuing up with our phallic camera lenses to observe is the elusive and lesser known objectivity bird.

But Donahaye mistrusts absolutist statements about the natural world and doubly mistrusts those writers – usually men – who know more than we do and about how we should engage with the natural environment and what we should know and feel about it.   I personally mistrust such statements too, owing to the buddhist philosophy of one-ness of self and environment.

Donahaye states:

“Most of us can recognise and name only a tiny subset of what there is to identify, but nature writers appear to know these things preternaturally.  ‘The same is true of many of their critics, including Hinch; he doesn’t seem to hesitate or wonder about his own preferences but states boldly what the natural order of things is or ought to be.”

And what unbelievable arrogance – to tell us that we may not conflate our attempts to train a goshawk with the death of our father.  That there is something fallacious, or worse trivial, or just plain wrong  about the whole idea!

Wherever Donahaye goes there are, she writes,  always ‘pointing, helpful men’ ready to

‘place themselves uninvited between me and my experience of the natural world.’

with ‘an authority and authoritativeness that is not earned’.

So if you thought that at least the birds were free of paternalistic attitudes, apparently it’s not the case.    And what does Hinch’s attitude achieve?   Assuring us that there is a correct understanding and approach to the study of natural history – and that such a correct understanding and approach is owned by a man writing an article published in the LA Review of Books.

Donahaye states:  “I recogise the value of trying to apprehend the natural world in other than human terms, but that too is a human value-laden approach which requires human, value laden choices…”

Does being knowledgeable give us rights? What is the right attitude to take to swifts? What is the right attitude to take to ospreys? To raptors,  to eagles? What about egg collectors and people with phallic camera lenses aimed at every feathered, struggling thing?  Is it valid to have film crews tramping over protected areas because we like to watch Springwatch?

Unfortunately conservation itself is not free from environmental impacts. Or at least choices.  As the author points out how valuable is the conservation spectacle to the public if we go on spraying herbicides and pesticides, concrete over our gardens or lay plastic grass which degrade as microplastics into watercourses?

The author writes about the use of terms to describe the watchers who watch.  There is voyeurism in the term birdwatching  Who are the birdwatchers and who are the birds? It is not a ridiculous question at all because women are watched, objectified and assessed as of greater or lesser interest just as a birder or twitcher or birdwatcher classifies a feathered flying beastie.  It is surely no coincidence that women are called birds.

Whether you agree with everything Donahaye says or not, these essays feel fresh and courageous,  as a bright morning over a cold lake.  And I for one am grateful to her.

Birsplaining is published by New Welsh Rarebyte and was winner of the New Welsh Writing Awards in 2021.

The Paths We Walk: ‘Landlines’ by Raynor Winn – Stranger than Fiction, #NonFicNov Week 3

This week as part of Nonfiction November, the prompt is Stranger Than Fiction.  For this prompt I have chosen to look at Raynor Winn’s third book Landlines.

“These paths that cross our land take human energy and imprint it on the earth, connecting us to it, leaving both the land and the human changed by that connection.    Thousands of feet over thousands of years have trodden many of the same trails we have, tracing their passage onto the landscape, imprinting their memories onto the soil.  What remains are not just paths, they’re precious landlines that connect us to the earth, to our past, and to each other.”

Week 3 of Nonfiction November is Hosted by Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks it is a look at those nonfiction books that almost don’t seem real!


Landlines by Raynor Winn


Moth has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  The most the doctors seem to be able to say to him is don’t tire yourself and be careful on the stairs.  They don’t mention anything about taking a 1000 mile walk.   Despite great improvements in his health during their last trail walk – 600 miles of the South West Coast path – which Winn wrote about in her first book The Salt Path –   a more sedentary lifestyle upon their return has led to a deterioration in her husband’s health .

Moth takes a fall in the orchard and is obviously very ill.   They discuss whether he is well enough to walk to the local Church and back, a distance of a couple of miles.  It is tempting to think that under these circumstances,  wisdom would not be to suddenly decide to walk from one end of the country to the other, especially at a time when the country was only just beginning to emerge from covid lockdowns and many facilities were still closed.  Most people would stay home.  Perhaps most people would be wrong.  There is only one way to find out.

In some respects of course life has changed for Raynor and Moth. She does have three best selling books under her belt and people recognise her on the walk.  She even gets her own book recommended to her by other walkers!  ‘Have you read The Salt Path?  That’s the only reason we’re here.’   But in some respects nothing has changed.  The illness has not gone away.  In her heart she knows she is faced with a long, lonely future unless this one last gamble pays off.

Winn is still scarred by the experience of homelessness:

From a mysterious dark haired woman that appears near a ruined homestead in a deserted highland glen,

“I know only too well the aching sense of loss and fear that family might have felt as they left their home for the last time, probably to head into an unknown future…”

to a pizza restaurant in Manchester that refuses them entry on account of their scruffy appearance and rucksacks, a frosty reception they became accustomed to during their homelessness time.


The walking continues because although it seems an overwhelming crazy thing to do, there is an outside chance that  it worked once before, it might work again.  This is what I find so respectworthy  – the refusal to be beaten.  At the same time what they did is so unlikely that if this were fiction I would have put it aside as completely unlikely.  That’s the great thing about the power of the human soul though.

I don’t know what genre Winn’s books fall into.  They are not strictly travelogues, nor one hundred percent biographical (is anything?) although with elements of both those things. Into the mix goes environmental campaigning and a deep love of landscape.     She is not perhaps a naturalist in the strict sense like Robert Macfarlane or Helen Macdonald, but it doesn’t matter.  Winn is clearly passionate about the land through which they pass and which is vanishing before our eyes, together with most of its inhabitants, except the human ones.  There is an immediacy to her writing coupled with a deep common sense, and I mean that in the original way.  A sense of commonality, of connection.

On visiting Flodden Fields, the site of a 16th century battle between the Scots and English which left thousands dead and which still has an uncanny atmosphere, the author writes:

“Since the sixteenth century humans have changed the world beyond recognition. We’ve revolutionised the way we live; made breathtaking and miraculous discoveries and yet we seem totally incapable of changing ourselves.  We haven’t evolved a step beyond that day in 1513 which saw so many people die.”


This is an idea deeply resonant with mahayana buddhism and the teachings of Daisaku Ikeda on the human revolution.  We can change individually, but we haven’t yet.

There are some parts of the story that don’t quite add up.  For example a couple of bicycles appear around Shropshire and then vanish off on a truck somewhere.  Sometimes they find places to stay, sometimes they camp.  But outside of Scotland wild camping is illegal so perhaps they busk it.  What is beyond doubt is that Winn is becoming a very influential writer and trail walks will probably resound with thousands of extra pairs of boots next year..

I have no idea if anyone has measured The Salt Path effect but I wouldn’t be surprised if thousands of people  will be taking to the country’s national trails who might not normally choose to do this.   Even Mr. Rune and I are thinking of taking to the hills next Spring.  We have done sections of paths before but not…er… 1000 miles.  The prospect of a walk like that – especially when you’re ill – leaves my jaw thoroughly dropping on the floor.

I am perhaps a little underwhelmed by the title Winn has chosen.  Landlines sound more like something that might have been written by BT Openreach.  I would gave preferred ‘Leylines’ or something a bit more romantic.  After all if you are prepared to walk thousands of miles in ill fitting boots, at the same time as being worried sick about your husband, at the same time as having the pressure  to produce manuscripts of the whole thing to a publisher,  then that is a fairly romantic thing to do.

These ideas of walking, landscape, memory and connections are not new . Poets and writers and artists have been treading that path time out of mind.   Robert Macfarlane writes in The Old Ways (Hamish Hamilton, 2012)

“The literature of wayfaring is long, existing as poems, songs, stories, treatises and route guides, maps, novels and essays.  The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature.”

Almost as old as love.




2021 is passing with the speed of light.    As well as climate change, the virus and brexit supply shortages in the UK, I was worrying about reaching the end  of 2021 without finding a personal book of the year.

This was a real possibility until last week when I downloaded a copy of Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land.   For everyone (like me) who is tired of ‘genre’ fiction, ie, books written to fit into publisher’s and bookseller’s certain categories, here is one that spans the whole lot! And I absolutely loved it.   No doubt it helps to have won a Pulitzer prize when attempting this extraordinary feat of course – at least when it comes to selling books.  But apparently Doerr himself has called this book “my attempt at a literary-sci-fi-mystery-young-adult-historical-morality novel”.  (Cordelia Jenkins, FT Weekend, 17th October).

And what an attempt it is.

The Argos is a spaceship hurtling towards planet BetaOph2.  Inside  a few remaining members of the human race are travelling, hoping to start afresh elsewhere in the solar system, the earth having become uninhabitable.    The ship is run by a computer called Sybil, somewhat redolent of Viki in Asimov’s I, Robot But BetaOph2 is light years away.  Those generations that are currently on board the Argos will never reach their destination alive.  Only their descendants of descendants may do so.   Konstance, a teenage girl, is trapped on board.  She has only the ship’s virtual Atlas to show her what the earth looked like –  never having physically seen it.  She is told that she should be honoured to be part of this attempt to create a new life for the descendants of the human race.  But Konstance, not unreasonably,  wants her own life.

Centuries earlier, the last days of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople.  A young orphaned girl, Anna works as a seamstress in the House of the cruel Kalaphates.   The Ottoman army is rumbling towards the city with a terrifying new machine of war known as a canon.  Desperate for money to help her ill sister, Anna finds herself recruited by a young man to scavenge books from a ruined abbey to sell to traders from other lands.

Zeno, a US veteran of a Korean POW Camp works in Lakeport library.   In memory of a lost love, he spends hours painstakingly translating texts from ancient Greek and in particular a text called Cloud Cuckoo Land.  In the same time span,  post-millennium Seymour, aged 15,  also from Lakeport, starts an Environmental Awareness Club at the  library in which Zeno works.   When Seymour looks around,  he does not see that his own horror at the destruction of the natural world is recognised or shared by others.  Seymour tries to take some awareness raising matters into his own hands, with disastrous results.

“permafrost melting, soil erosion … everything warming, melting and dying faster than scientists predicted…”

Doerr’s book spans thousands of years – apart from being human what can all  these characters have in common?  The answer is a text – a fictional codex – which Doerr attributes to  1st century Greek writer  Diogenes. ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’, the text,  tells the story of a Shepherd who becomes dissatisfied with his flock keeping duties and goes off in search of a mystical and mythical city in the sky that he has heard about.

Each of Doerr’s chaaracters falls upon this tale of the shepherd’s quest in different ways and each plays some part in saving it from destruction until it reaches Konstance on the spaceship Argos hurtling towards our no longer unimaginable future.

More than just a great story Cloud Cuckoo Land –  is a love letter to our vanishing libraries and a plea for the preservation of  written texts. It also deals with extremely relevant themes including climate catastrophe and a mystery virus.  I very much hope that corporate billionaires currently tinkering with ideas of space travel will take a moment to read this book.  Most of all though it is fascinating, readable and ultimately hopeful.

Doerr’s previous work,  All the Light We Cannot See set during the World War 2, won the author a Pulitzer prize,  but I found All the Light riddled with sentimentality  – his work can suffer from too many motherless daughters with devoted fathers all being wonderful to each other.  Even so we forgive him a bit of sentimentality for the sheer breadth of vision and the hard graft that must have been required to pull this off.   Although it comes in at 640 pages, I read Cloud Cuckoo Land in a few days and was totally engrossed from first to last.  Highly recommended as an excellent book to curl up with on a cold, wet afternoon.




The Island of Very Disappointing Trees

There are a few authors whose books I will  buy as a matter of course when they are released.  One of those is Elif Shafak.

When I reviewed Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World I wrote that I regarded Shafak as one of today’s great writers.   I have read many of the books on her backlist.   Her writing style is both poetic and compelling, her plotting intricate and intensely human, her research and knowledge of Turkish history considerable.   10 Minutes was narrated by a corpse.   Fine, I’ll be told a story by a corpse.  No worries.   What Shafak says goes, for me.

Or it did, until now. Her latest book The Island of Missing Trees has blown all that out of the water.

The overarching theme of the book is the strain that war places on families, in this case civil war and the partition of Cyprus by a buffer zone patrolled by UN troops,  between Greece and Turkey in 1974.   So far so good.  But the execution I thought was not to her usual standard.   There is a modern story, and a backstory.  In 1974 the plot involves the relationship between Turkish Cypriot Defne and her boyfriend – whom she later marries – a Greek man called Kostas.  I found this whole scenario unconvincing and am not sure I can even explain why except Romeo and Juliet this is definitely not.

The modern story is the story of their child, Ada, now aged 15,  who, at the commencement of the book has been bereaved by her mother’s death.

Ada isn’t coping and in one episode she screams out loud and long whilst in the classroom at school much to the surprise of her teacher and classmates.   It appears there is no intervention after this episode.  Her father, Kostas,  is not coping any better than she is and spends a lot of time in his garden burying a fig tree. Then the mother’s sister, Ada’s Aunt Meryem turns up from Cyprus.

What didn’t I like about this book?  I didn’t find that I was interested in the outcome of the story but I found all the characters unsympathetic.  Even Ada.  Although a motherless 15 year old should be empathetic she just wasn’t.  In fact she is rude to everyone and while I understand that that might be the reality of being traumatised it didn’t make interesting reading.  I didn’t really want to be told a story by a fig tree.  Although there is plenty on climate change and global warming, the explanations come across as didactic.  Descriptions of the original relationship between Defne and Kostas were uninteresting and unconvincing.  None of the grief felt real.  Kostas just disappears off to England when things start hotting up in the civil war,  because his mother suggests he ought to go.  Well, hey ho! He must have been really in love then!

There are a couple of mistakes in the text.

In 1974 one of the characters ties her ‘trainers’ round her neck using the laces in order to creep out of the house.   I think Shafak is too young to have been around in 1974 I sadly am not.  I don’t think ‘trainers’ existed in 1974;  there were, however,  plimsoll style shoes known as sneakers.

Elsewhere a character says:  ‘Do you have a problem with that?’ an expression which sounds very 21st century and probably would not have been used in the 1970s.  Although maybe in Cyprus it was!

These are minor nitpicks I know,  but they really grated.   Obviously others have not been disappointed judging from the endorsements on the front cover.   Not only was Island of Missing Trees nothing like as interesting and engaging as Shafak’s previous work, but the book did not even seem to be written by the same author as 10  Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World, or Three Daughters of Eve.




A Chill Wind off the Mountains: Two Books on Siberia

I am currently reading Colin Thubron’s book In Siberia and am about half way through.    In 2008 Thubron was listed by The Times among the 50 greatest postwar writers.  He is a Companion of the Royal Society of Literature.

In Siberia does what it says on the tin.  I love his descriptive prose as the writer hikes around this forbidding and extreme land in the 1990s.  Thubron speaks Russian,  but so what?  No guarantees here.  It is ideal autumnal reading as the weather turns and we look for a fireside curl up book.  What better than to toast your toes and read about someone else taking all the frozen cold risks!

Here he is,   alighting from a train at a deserted village in the middle of nowhere.

“It never fails.  You arrive in a small town towards sunset.  You know nobody, nothing.  The main street is empty, the shops closed, the few offices almost deserted.  But you tell yourself within an hour I’ll be under shelter… a chill wind is blowing off the mountains. Then you wander past an open door and fall into conversation with a. man who peers after you.  He suggests a workers dormitory he knows… .”

During the twentieth century this (once) pristine land became a metaphor for exile.   Those who came did so involuntarily and to die.  That Siberia  existed a million years before the gulag has been forgotten as its history has become overwhelmed by twentieth century purges and the Ipatiev house site of the slaughter of Tsar Nicholas and his children, Doctor and servants.  This house no longer stands.  Boris Yeltsin apparently ordered to be razed lest it become a shrine.  Too late, perhaps.


From ‘snowbound purity and the repository of an imagined innocence’ Siberia became ‘a storehouse to be plundered by officials and hunted bare by Cossacks; and above all, long before the Gulag, as a limbo that could receive all the viral waste of the Empire, criminal, vagabond, dissident. Through Siberia Russia would purge itself.  Its vastness could quarantine evil.

Oh courageous Mr. Thubron!

And oh courageous Sophy Roberts!   Author of my second book, The Lost Pianos of Siberia

“Artists and intellectuals perished in Siberia without so much as a state record of their arrival or their death, whether it was suicide that took them, the typhus addled way-stations, or the caged barges which carried the exiles upriver into Siberian towns like Tomsk.  Their stories were silenced by a penal system which killed off far more people than Siberia ever remembered.”

A journalist by training, Roberts’ debut work was chosen as Sunday Times Book of 2020.  It catalogues the author’s search for the history of music and musical instruments – particularly  pianos – across Russia and Siberia from 18th century to present times.  For its lost musicians and artists.

Sophy Roberts has teased out a history of a people and their music, pockets of perseverance against terrible odds.  I imagine she went to not inconsiderable amounts of trouble to do so, since the journey from Moscow to Vladivostock on the Trans-Siberian Railway is a trip of some five and a half thousand miles!

Roberts writes:

Covering an eleventh of the world’s landmass, Siberia is a land of extremes. Its biggest lake holds a fifth of the world’s fresh water. Its taiga is the largest forest on earth. Siberia is crossed by the world’s longest railroad, and is home to the coldest inhabited city on Earth.

Lost Pianos of Siberia

Siberia does not seem  first choice for those looking for a home for their Steinway & Sons instruments.  Yet Roberts takes us deep into the home of the gulag archipelago, the Vorkhuta mines, Sakhalin Island and Kolyma.  Siberia’s history is also the history of some of the most grim and vicious cruelties of the twentieth century.   Yet there were still pianos, largely from Russia.

In Russia, Empress Catherine was largely responsible for the popularisation of European Music.  With Potemkin by her side, she became a great patron of the arts.  You can still see her piano

“behind red rope  in Pavlovsk , an 18th century Tsarist pleasure palace outside St. Petersburg”

Catherine’s efforts were greatly assisted by a performance given by Liszt in 1842 in St. Petersburg which heightened the prestige of ownership of a piano.  Before long Russia started to beat the western world at its own game and by the turn of the twentieth century Russia gave us Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff.  To accommodate their great composers and pianists, the Russians became expert piano makers.

This changed, as did everything else, After the revolution in 1917.   The Tsarist regime fell, many great houses were destroyed, their occupants murdered or fled.

“In 1919 one of St Petersburg’s music critics sold his grand piano for a few loaves of bread.”

If the Revolution were not enough, twenty years later came the Nazi advance and the siege of Leningrad.

It was around this time that Russia’s remaining pianos were shipped to Siberia for safe keeping.

Unlike Thubron, Roberts doesn’t speak Russian but uses translators and a host of local guides: Aleksei in Tobolsk, ‘tall and handsome dressed in a black suit… .’ In Kiakhta, A Mongolian opera singer called Tsogt (a buddhist whose family had fled the Lake Baikal in the thirties). puts Roberts on the trail of a rare Bechstein grand.

Kiakhta is:

“…steppe country imbued with Buddhist history, where there are as many churches as there are Buryat invocations to the spirits evident in the blue and yellow ribbons tied to trees.  The Bechstein was an instrument invested with so much desire, I was ready to believe almost any version of events as Siberia’s past and enigmatic present pulled me in.”

Recreating what happened to the remaining instruments and finding – if not the actual pianos then at least their stories –  is a  feat of detective work and one that I greatly enjoyed following.


Life is Dangerous. Keep Out.

When the weather is hot and sunny as it has been for the last week here in Old Blighty,  it seems certain that it will be hot and sunny forever.   Based on this faulty logic,  I make all sorts of plans for barbq’s which guarantees that the more it snows tiddly pom the more it will most certainly – tiddly pom – go on snowing.

I am not alone in my sunny dreaming.  Encouraged as much by a stamp-duty land tax holiday, as by the fact that  moving house was for many months in 2020  one of the few things that it was still legal to do – many people have chosen to vacate this our great and ancient City of London for rural areas or the wide spaces, azure skies and salty tang of the seaside.  Now that we are hot, and unable or unwilling to travel, the beach is the place to be.  Preferably permanently.

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley.

Of course none of us is influenced by these great literary openers, right? Wrong. The most humble bungalow with a corner of attic having a sea view (assuming you stand on the desk and lean precariously to the right)  has sold within two and a half seconds of becoming available.  Record idiotic levels of price-upping prevail and gazumping is sadly but unsurprisingly back.  Two of my friends have already lost potential properties as a result.

I do feel a bit sorry for existing residents of beloved rural idylls, especially in Cornwall this year with the G7 summit and the whole world including the Bidens and their security teams and helicopters, plus Carrie Johnson and the baby,  all descending on Carbis Bay, St. Ives – a one-time sleepy fishing village turned global force for… something.

Meanwhile, back in the grimy, heat laden city, we are truly becoming a café society. The Prime Minister wants to dispense with regulations that previously inhibited bars and restaurants from using public outdoor space like pavements to serve customers.      For one who was born into a country of big freezes and regular snow drifts; when even the smallest of local councils would own their own snow ploughs, this still comes as a bit of a shock.  It’s official.  London is heating up.

In fact I hate to show my age but I remember the Café des Amis setting up outdoor tables next to Covent Garden Opera back in the 80s, an enterprise at the time regarded  with a mixture of pride and bemusement, partially edgy  and partially insane.  Who would risk sitting outside?  In the evening?

It’s all very pleasant of course  on a hot summer’s evening the likes of which the UK has seen rarely in the last two thousand years  to forget about wildfires. And heat waves in Oregon.

To aid us in our forgetfulness,  we now have the whole surfer chic thing going on around the coastal areas of the UK, beach style eateries popping up everywhere.    Our ancestors – should they ever have cause to return – might justifiably wonder if they have ended up perhaps in Crete, whose temperatures the UK has equalled this week.  Why dine on mixed fish on the harbourside at Chania when you can do the metaphorical sardine thing in Leicester Square?

Of course it is not just summer heat but instability of seasonal weather norms that is causing confusion.

Warmer part of the world have changed species habitats .    Richard Mabey writes that  the humble bluebell – which once carpeted the forests and hills of the land hitherto known as Great Britain – in April, is struggling with the rising temperatures and unstable seasons.  No doubt, he says,  other, hardier and more adaptable species  will arrive to fill the gap.   But they will not be bluebells.

So much is now written about habitats and their loss and climate change. Sometimes its good to back and hear a voice that reminds us that plant and animal conservation have been concerns for a long time.

Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure was originally published in 2005 and this year is reissued by Little Toller BooksIt is my 7th of 10 Books of Summer, a challenge hosted by Cathy@746 Books. 

Mabey’s book is an enlightening read, erudite without being dry, honest to the point of bleakness in parts, without being depressing.   It was one of the first in the style which came to be known as the new nature writing, along with naturalist and friend Mark Cocker.  These are books which entwine stories of the natural world with the writer’s own biographical tales.

Taking far longer than usual to move out of the house in which he grew up, and aided and abetted by a severe bout of depression,  Mabey makes his belated escape to the Norfolk fens where he writes about sheets of water, the Wailing Wood, owls,  birds, fens, the yellow star-of-bethlehem and orchids in an ‘ethereal shade of rose’.  But his particular interest, like the poet John Clare,

is the erosion of common land and common usages of land which in the 1960s it was believed would  result in over-exploitation and possible extinction.  In other words, privatisation was to be the saviour of the land!  Hah!  Such beliefs largely came about as the result of an influential essay written by American ecologist Garett Hardin.  But this is mere ideological disaster fiction, says Mabey, unrooted in reality or evidence and based on no knowledge of the particular history of the commons system in England.

‘No one can shoot rabbits or dig sand or – except the new conservation managers – cut trees.’

Conservation like so many other aspects of our lives and environment is governed by prevailing ideologies, that means the people in charge make the rules .    Is all management beneficial?  A question which reflects querulous attitudes to the rewilding project undertaken by the Burrell Family at the Knepp Estate on the Sussex Weald.  Mabey writes:

‘Scrub is the enemy of official nature conservation.  Despite being an entirely natural habitat, the haunt of nightingales, breeding warblers, roosing winter birds, shy orchids and a multitude of insects, its removal – or at least control is the priority on almost all nature reserves.’

It seems that our obsession with management is the result of an inability to share. And also an obsession with ownership and the eradication of all risk.  A friend of mine who used to walk her dogs between West Bay in Dorset and Burton Bradstock (it’s steep, there are cliffs. It’s where they filmed Broadchurch) recently told me:  “It’s all very managed now.” People can no longer be relied upon not to fall off cliffs.  They must be warned, fenced in.

“We left behind the countryside interpretation business, the hides with gates, the trails marked in five colours, the boards that tell you what to look out for and what to feel about it… ‘You are Not Encouraged to have First Hand Experiences. They May Hurt. Life is Dangerous. Keep out.”

I will be back next week with a review of Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki.

If This Is Living The Dream, I’ll Pass

To give up a life in London as the author does,  to go and live on a remote Hebridean Island and run a croft.  How amazing.  Wait, not only to do those things, but to write about them and then get a publishing deal,   that is so much living the dream it’s almost a cliché.  I’m jealous.  At least I was, until I finished reading this account of the author’s life on a remote Hebridean island.

I am an island by Tamsin Calidas (Doubleday) is the story of what happens when living the dream turns into a bit of a nightmare.  This is Book 4 of my 10 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746 books

Not that it will ever happen for me – I shall be here blogging away in my garrett ’til nirvana comes.  I doubt anyway that I would have been any good at crofting.  You have to be practical and able to make things from bits of  wood and nails, learn the art of lambing,  not allow yourself to be talked down to by a herd of stroppy cows standing in the middle of the road demanding the password.   You have to be prepared to spend, long, dark winter evenings alone or with only the sheepdog for company, doing the crossword with dodgy TV and ultra dodgy phone signal.   Trips somewhere else involve long journeys and sometimes plane tickets all of which cost money you may not have.


The romantic phraseology rolls thick and fast off the pages of this book like whipped cream.

“Our croft is called Rocky Ridge, or the Rough Farm. Our house is built from island stones. It’s memories are woven into the landscape knitted together of ancient Gaelic and Norse names. My mouth wraps about their unfamiliar shapes. The Norse is angular, hard like the fjordic mountains, but the Gaelic is soft like the fields.”

But far from the idyll she (or I) might suppose this new life to be, Calidas finds the realities of crofting are tough and there is no Starbucks round the corner.  Not, the author says, even a pub and far worse, no resident doctor.  She does not mention which island it is but for those in the know it can’t be hard to work out.  Calidas talks about getting the ferry from Oban and there are only a few places that are served by ferries from Oban.

The islanders know which island.  None of them is ever mentioned by name – except one lady, Cristall – but generally they come across as an unfeeling lot if not downright menacing on occasion.   All is not well in paradise, Calidas tells us,  part of the reason being, she believes, is that land holding is still steeped in tradition and incomers are not thought entitled to own crofts.   I have no idea if this is true any more, and online articles and interviews I found were quick to deny  it.  But to the author it is true.

“The history of this croft matters. Its loss is a palpable grief to some and a source of enmity to others.”


“I wonder if we will ever be forgiven for taking a piece of the island’s soul.”

Things go well initially but after a while they do not.  In fact they go  spectacularly wrong, so much so that I found myself thinking.  That bad?  Really?  So much so that I became suspicious and took to googling to find out what sort of reception the book may have had nearer to home.   I don’t think I have ever done that with an autobiographical account before.

If you live on a tiny island where everyone knows everyone, and you write a (presumably) best-selling book criticising the islanders implying that they are racist, inward looking, and intolerant of outsiders – even in one case making a thinly veiled accusation over the death of a prized animal,   I imagine this is not guaranteed to make you more popular with your restricted pool of neighbours.

Calidas skates on fairly thin ice.   That is her choice of course.  But I became inclined to think that there are two sides to every story and we were only hearing one of them.

The writer’s marriage fails and the child she hopes to have does not appear.   She struggles to survive on her own, is lonely and broke, at one stage foraging for food.    Then she suffers two injuries and her family are either hundreds of miles away or for various reasons unable to support her.

If this is living the dream I’ll pass.  But maybe it all happened just as she writes and there is a kind of redemptive ending.  I do recommend this book, mostly for its starkly beautiful descriptions of the natural world.

“The island is changing and so am I. In November the cliffs are hewn sharper by salt spray and winds skirling off the sea.  The heather bells brighten as the grass dies back and the browning hills darken.”

Photo by Michael Fousert on Unsplash

The Wild Silence is the second book by Raynor Winn, author, naturalist, homelessness expert

#The Wild Silence. A Review of Raynor Winn’s sequel to #The Salt Path

First of all a big shout out to Son of Rune (the elder) for the amazing transformation of the design of this blog.  Thank you.

The Wild Silence is Raynor Winn’s second book which covers the time from her and her husband Moth’s return home (where is home?) to the writing of the book and trying in middle age to establish a new life for themselves.  When Winn wrote her first book The Salt Path, she thought she was writing a personal account of a personal event.   But this memoire of homelessness, with its unassuming displays of courage and endurance touched a universal nerve.   The Salt Path became a runaway best seller in 2018.  Being infinitely well qualified to write on these issues, Raynor Winn and her husband Moth were made homeless – aged in their  ‘fifties. Moth also received a terminal diagnosis more or less in the same week.   It seemed that the only way was up

After Winn and her husband complete the massive undertaking of walking the 650 mile South West Coast Path (in the UK) finding a new normal isn’t easy.   The Wild Silence moves both backward and forward in time – backward as Winn remembers her rural childhood and the meeting of Moth; how she overcame her mother’s disapproval of the man she chose for her life partner.  Then forward to the beginnings of writing The Salt Path and to a proposed tenancy of an old farm and apple orchard in great need of care and renewal.  It is hard to avoid the analogy between watching new green shoots of a return to life for an arid and over farmed corner of land, and a parallel return for the protagonists who have to decide who they can ever trust again, if anyone.

Raynor Winn writes so beautifully that sometimes her books seem less of a story and more of an ode – to a vanishing landscape, to a lost childhood of (relative) rural peace when there were still meadows and insects, but mostly to Winn’s life’s consuming passion, her husband Moth and the mountains, both literal and metaphorical, that they have climbed together.     But there is not much that is wistful and certainly no sentiment in these pages. Winn is too  practical, too strong and far sighted.  Rather than wasting time mourning what has been lost, Raynor Winn sits down with a notebook and pen and plans what the heck she can do about it.


No time to stand and stare.


W.H. Davies, poet and author of Autobiography of a Supertramp once wrote:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad day light,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

‘Leisure’ From: Songs of Joy and Others (1911)

Davies was born in Newport, South Wales (my hometown) and knew real poverty.  As the title of his autobiography suggests, he became a drifter.  His poetic gifts, whether or not related to his peripatetic lifestyle, were born out of his deep understanding of the human connection to the natural world.  To me, Raynor Winn’s writing is also redolent of those connections.  Here she describes a walking holiday they once took in Scotland:

“Days later, among the rocks at the summit of Ben More, the highest point on Mull, the island spread beneath us in an undulation of hills and glistening lochs.  On every side, a sheet of lush green draped over an ancient volcanic land, falling softly  to the sea.  And there in an upswell of air, lifting without moving wing or feather, the huge, terrifying, magnificent shape of a golden eagle.  Glowing rust in the afternoon sun…”

However, while from the safety of historical perspective, we all wallow in the romance of the supertramp, the reality is somewhat different. Society’s current ethos on these matters of wandering and penury – unless you are Simon Armitage (with whom Moth was confused at one stage on their walk and asked for a recitation) – can be summed up by     ‘if you don’t have a job and a house you must be a criminal, or mad, or both.’

But Raynor and Moth  are just themselves, having to learn to avoid using the ‘H’ word while walking.   So instead they find a story they can tell,  about selling up the house and retraining to teach, which people could accept.   Better to be thought of as a bit eccentric than homeless.

In her first book Winn wrote:

“ If you ask someone to describe a homeless person, the majority will give you a description of a rough sleeper, unrolling a mat and bedding down in a street, perhaps with a dog, invariably begging for money for drugs or alcohol.  A stereotype that evokes a range of emotions from the feet that pass them as they sleep in doorways, from mildly uncomfortable to aggressively violent.”

Homeless folk are associated by others in society with potential trouble, mental health issues, drugs.   Often local Councils deal with anyone they consider ‘suspicious’ by compassionately engaging the police to employ the nineteenth century Vagrancy Act to move them on, or arrest them.    But anyone can be homeless. Jobs are becoming a rarity and the cost of property continues to spiral.    Safety nets are getting threadbare and more full of holes and at the time when Winn and Moth were walking and at the time she began these books the pandemic hadn’t even started.  Criminalising poverty is not going to make it go away.  Post pandemic, these issues are only going to require even more urgent action, and funding.  Achieving this level of awareness is one of Winn’s aims having experienced the sharp end of homelessness herself.  With these lyrical books she has found the perfect medium for her voice.