Saturday, 18 May 2019

The Bookcase. 23 Outstanding Reads. IMHO.

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An unusual post this time. Over the last few years I've been buying second hand paperback books in book sales for very little money- often six books for a pound. Not great news if you are an author trying to make money from writing but good if you like reading.
Like many folk my age, since childhood, I've been a keen reader and the best books, the most memorable or interesting ones stay friends for life. I still have books I first read in my teens and twenties, often re-reading them at ten year intervals and still enjoying them, finding new depths or greater insights with advancing maturity.
So here's a selection of the best books I've enjoyed- and kept- or old favorites devoured again- over the last five years. Although everyone has different tastes these books stand out as excellent, well written, vivid and enjoyable adventures. I still prefer old style paperbacks rather than e-books. Books you can touch, interact with, and store away without ever forgetting they are there- not hidden away in a computer folder or pad index, in all likelihood never to be visited again. Paper books are alive, on show, and always visible.
So here goes....
when writing my own books I went right off reading for pleasure for a few years, simply because I was putting in long hours writing, editing, correcting, learning self publishing, etc etc and getting eyestrain and headaches. After a gap of some years this first book mentioned was my way back in. Sitting in my back garden in the sunshine, reading, drinking soft fizzy drinks and munching crisps or sandwiches. Pure indulgent luxury rather than powering up mountains every weekend. My not so guilty other favourite pleasure in life.
Wicked- Gregory Maguire.
Everyone thinks of the musical (I've not seen it) but the book is magnificent in its own right. A technicolor kaleidoscope of lyrical invention, playful imagery, slightly adult themes and a reinterpretation of the original stories. Quirky, funny, brilliant... and just a tad wicked. And a great female character in the much misunderstood green witch of the title. One of my all time favourite books and still very underrated.
Before The Poison. Peter Robinson.
Bestselling crime novel and the finest I've read in its genre. A prosperous and successful musician travels back to his native Yorkshire and buys a remote house in the Dales, gradually becoming obsessed by the former owners and finding a mystery he's compelled to solve. Well written, full of lucid descriptions and a haunting, moving climax. All the books in this list linger long in the memory, to me anyway, and this is no exception.
The Memoirs of Cleopatra. Margaret George.
Over 1000 pages long but never a dull paragraph as the ancient Queen of Egypt is brought back into vivid, touchable, believable existence. Reads like a bestseller and so it should. After wading into this epic, sprawling, masterpiece you will be convinced you have lived alongside her, felt the same burning sun, sailed down the River Nile, seen the pageants and events- maybe not in the royal palace but in a hut nearby, looking on at the great and the good travelling past the doorstep. A novel but full of accurate factual information retold in a compelling fashion. Another favourite.( This book tends to play down the Queen's undoubted ruthless streak and survival strategy to make her more relatable/likable to a modern audience being the only flaw, but understandable given that the age she lived in had very different rules and values where problem people were simply deleted with little human emotion or regret involved. Different times being a leader then with a long established family tradition of quietly rubbing out your brothers/sisters/ father/mother/cousins, uncles etc without a teardrop spoiling the makeup...)

Strange Shores. Arnaldur Indridason. 
A crime novel set in Iceland with a detective trying to solve a decades old mystery of a young women who vanished without trace. Haunted by an incident in his own childhood the past slowly unfolds it's secrets. Cleverly crafted Icelandic noir and the bleak unusual setting of icebound fjords gives this story its edge.
Station Eleven. Emily St John Mandel.
The collapse of  modern life through a virus/ plague/ man made incident etc is a familiar theme but this book takes a fresh new perspective on it. Very different and refreshing. Well written, memorable, and all too realistic a scenario but surprisingly not depressing. As much a journey under hope and sunlight as any shade encountered along the way. A classic book.
Flood and Fire. Emily Diamand. A winner of the Times Children's Fiction Competition and I can see why. 
Although in the children's/ young adults  category this is just a brilliant read for any age group. Full of adventures, intrigue, changed landscapes and scattered humans, as they navigate through a flooded, half submerged London and England in 2216.  A young girl and her cat creep under the radar in a dangerous new world rapidly reverse evolving into savagery and tribalism, carrying the last working computer from that shattered technological past as her furtive guide and salvation.  Up there as a true modern classic.
Edge of Dark Water. Joe R. Lansdale.  A book set in depression era Texas with shades of Huckleberry Finn as it's setting is a journey down the Sabine River. A region I know very little about but was captivated from the first page to the last in this extraordinary book. A great storyteller and a who done it mystery/ adventure/travel novel gliding past a heightened 3D landscape with characters that jump off the page and stand before you fully formed. Really enjoyable and different.
The Snow Child. Eowyn Ivey.
 Alaska in the 1920's. A hard grim wilderness of short summers and long bitter winters but when a childless couple find an abandoned little girl wandering in the snow they take her in... but who is she and where did she come from? A clever reinterpretation of L'enfant Sauvage/Pinocchio.

Darktown. Thomas Mullen.  Atlanta USA. 1948. A novel. In a divided city split down white/black boundaries the first eight negro policemen are enlisted to solve crimes in their own districts, territory previously patrolled/ controlled by corrupt white officers taking bribes. Based on real historical events the black police officers face openly hostile residents, openly hostile white police determined to stamp them out and a landscape outside the city zone they reside in that will kill or jail them without hesitation, given any opportunity, no questions asked. In the Heat of The Night and To Kill a Mockingbird are rightly regarded as classics but this book really digs deep into the corrosive nature of casual ingrained racism more than anything else I've read or watched. A fast paced murder mystery adventure.... well written, gripping and shocking at every turn. Highly topical in a newly refocused populist politics America and UK.
 Still Life with Crows. Preston and Child. A New York Times best seller and rightly so by these two well known authors working as an effective writing team.  The golden cornfields of Kansas but a long way from Dorothy and Toto as a serial killer paints elaborate outdoor art in the growing corn using human victims as his brush strokes. A brilliant psychological thriller/ crime novel with great characters and unusual locations. Funny, disturbing, thrilling and brilliant.
The Chalk Man. C.J. Tudor.  Set in a small English town this follows a group of young teenagers riding bikes and having adventures in the woods until a chain of strange events alters them forever. A wonderful evocation of life as ordinary schoolchildren in an urban/ rural setting having fun gradually turns darker with twists aplenty before the end. Fascinating and compelling. A great book.

Flightsend. Linda Newbery. As a pleasant change to crime novels, which seem to make up around 70 percent of all books, I picked this one due to its cover art of a young girl lying in a meadow with butterflies dancing around her. I was not disappointed as it was just as nice inside. Sixteen year old Charlie is pulled away from urban familiarity and friends to a new home in the countryside as her mother makes a fresh start. Well written and carefully crafted throughout this is refreshing, magical, sunny and simple all in one dish- like a perfect early morning of golden sunrise or a spectacular ice cream and fruit surprise. Nothing much happens in it... no one dies in a grisly fashion... but it is wonderful nonetheless. A favourite book for cheering me up...just looking at it and knowing what's inside and that it's sitting on my bookcase.  Relatable as it also describes my own childhood in part- half urban- half countryside experience, exploring the woods and fields around my house with my dog as a youngster, getting further away with each new journey/adventure. Sometimes isolated and alone from companions- so creating my own internal universe through imagination during solo wanderings. 'What will I find when I eventually reach that far off wood? What's the view going to be like over the next hill?' The basic stuff of life that still keep me interested today.

Runaway. Peter May.  Another book I enjoyed for partly personal reasons as I too travelled down to London and met someone there that altered my life journey. Although equally well written I read another of his books recently but it failed to have the same emotional impact as this one. Four friends leave Glasgow to start a band in the capital but it doesn't go quite as planned. A very memorable book, uncannily close in certain chapters to my own life throughout the 1970s, which was a very weird experience indeed as I kept thinking " ****, I've been there/done that/visited that place... as well...!? .
Weirdo. Cathi Unsworth.  The seedy underbelly of an English coastal resort during the punk era. Not for everyone this novel with madness, prostitution, music, murder and biker gangs but very memorable proving that not all crime and deprivation happens in big cities. Fast paced, lurid, and action packed.

Amazonia James Rollins. An adventure thriller set in the hot steamy heart of the Amazon jungle.  A one armed government agent goes missing in remote location only to emerge years later with two working arms before dying. A second expedition sets off to solve this mystery and the stage is set. An enjoyable romp into the deep unknown.
Altar of Eden. James Rollins. Same author -equally good tale set around the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans. Abandoned fishing trawler washes up on coastline carrying a cargo of exotic animals. Vet gets called to examine them and finds them strangely altered in certain ways. Combines vivid landscape locations and good story detail with elements of cutting edge science, animal and human genetics research, ethical and moral future dilemmas, 3D fractal imaging etc. into one very interesting novel.
Itch. Simon Mayo. A schoolboy element hunter finds himself drawn into a dangerous adventure. Although a young adult novel... any good book to me is a good book. Period. And this is. Very unusual and original story/subject matter and well written... a page turning classic.
Witch World  series. Andre Norton.  Taken as the first six books in this series  it's on a par with Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings for fantasy adventure. A 1960s classic and well worth reading in sequence. Still great reading today and highly influential on later works in this genre.
Chris Beckett. Mother of Eden. Although set in a future world this novel also looks back at our own origins mythology and examines the process and evolution but in an exciting way by creating a vivid story all its own. The second in the Eden series.
A Tap on the Window. Linwood Barclay. A detective thriller murder mystery which takes place around USA's Great Lakes district and the Canadian border towns. Compelling story, well written and interesting throughout. Author of a string of bestselling books so no surprise its a gem of a novel... although the 'bestseller' tag is not always a guarantee of a great book, just a popular one.
The Dune Trilogy. Frank Herbert.  Way back in the early 1970s the books where I first discovered the term 'Jihad' or Holy War and the concept of religions fighting continual battles with each other down the centuries. Heady stuff for a teenager then and even more topical now on our divided planet.
A science fiction classic... a cracking read today... and like the best imaginary world tales... reflections in a mirror only one small step away from our current reality.

Endurance. Alfred Lansing.  The true story of Shackleton's failed Trans-Antarctic expedition and the subsequent incident filled prolonged return across frozen wastes, over city sized icebergs, and towering mountains. An epic sea adventure of survival against all the odds. Aptly named book and beautifully written. A classic.
In the Heart of the Sea. Nathaniel Philbrick. The true story of the whaling ship 'The Essex' lost at sea 1000 miles from the nearest landmass after being rammed by a giant whale, presumably enraged by the slaughter of its family group. The survivors cling to tiny rowing boats used to chase whales but, unlike the others, this one is not running away any time soon.  The real life incident that later inspired Moby Dick.

23 outstanding books to enjoy.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Spring Bike Ride. Femme Fatal. (almost.)

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The first bike ride of this year 2019 and I finally persuaded Anne to join me. I promised a cornucopia of riches, a rainbow of colours, sights and sounds.... So off we went.
Although it was a cycle ride around our half of Glasgow- the west end- there was no shortage of greenery as I took my usual route through a necklace of parks.
Cherry blossom in May. This riot of pink petals only lasts two short weeks but it's a real fantasia for the senses. The Cream Season.
And after 60 years of devoted worship I know all the best places to greet her entrance when she makes her appearance. Persephone, that is.The Queen of Spring.
Red Hawthorn bush. It was a perfect spring day.
And I wanted to fill it with variety. So a bike run down the Glasgow to Loch Lomond Cycletrack came next, but heading for Glasgow City Centre, past Victoria Park and Partick.
and a short detour here in Partick to find this gable end mural- which I'll call 'the gardener.'
Streets in Partick.
Then a run down through the City Centre district, still on the River Clyde cycle track.
Riverside apartments.
The Clydeside cycle track leading to Glasgow Green. So much... so familiar... to me anyway...
After visiting Glasgow Green however I threw in a surprise move- by abandoning the traffic free cycle tracks for a spot of road cycling. Anne was not too happy with this however, even though I picked the back roads as much as possible. I was keen to see the new Gorbals district and the murals there.
The new Gorbals district. You know you are getting old when you live through three different sets of housing stock. As a young apprentice I worked in the original streets of tenements here that gave birth to the book 'No Mean City' and the 'Razor King'. I then worked in the next phase of redevelopment- the high-rise towers of the 1960s to the 1990s. Now this is the new look today. I like it. A world away from the earlier buildings but holding far less residents in the various districts than in the past.
And the murals we were here to see.
A tribute to Stan Lee, of marvel Comics fame. Although the likes of Spiderman, The Hulk, etc have always been popular, in recent years dozens more Marvel characters have made it onto TV and cinema screens around the world. And seeing this I can't think of a Glasgow mural I didn't like- always high quality and different- world class visual street art and an extra bonus for visitors to the city. There is a Glasgow Mural Trail to see them all.
University of Glasgow looking rather Gothic from this angle. Next up we headed for Festival Park and Govan. To get there I had a carefully worked out plan to use the minor back streets with less traffic on them but it didn't quite work out that way, with busy Tradeston and Ibrox in the way to negotiate through. I soon discovered Anne was not a confident cyclist in city centre traffic with no sense of direction whatsoever on a bike and did not particularly like this section of the route. Especially when we got separated for a while and I had a hunt finding her again in the maze of back streets within a dodgy district- mummy in peril!!!!- hence the Femme Fatal tag. Never mind- even heaven has occasional storms. She did seem delighted to see me when we did eventually meet up again... for about five seconds. Then she did a good impression of thunder and lightening over my sudden disappearance/ re-appearance. Sorry. (I told you right at the start I was mad, bad, and would always lead you into trouble... and excitement....:o)
"Glasgow can still be a dangerous place." I scolded her. " We need to stick together when road cycling in the city in traffic."
"It certainly is with you as a tour guide." she replied.  "You were off around that corner like a bullet. No chance of keeping up, then I had to stop for a phone call."
" Ah, so it's your fault then. Glad you owned up to it."

I fancied going to Govan to see a new section of  the River Clyde cycle track at Water Row, seen here, where a ferry used to cross the river until they removed it. At one time, when all the shipbuilding yards and factories lined both banks and employed countless thousands up until the late 1960s around a dozen small ferries, (passenger and vehicle), ran across the river. I vaguely remember crossing on a few old ones but Glasgow was a very dark, grim city back then with uniformly black buildings everywhere until they were all stone cleaned back to their original vibrant colours and the chimney soot and grime washed away. The city also had some of the worst housing in Europe back then and the worst/roughest council estates/schemes. Young folk growing up today and seeing the city as it is now would find it hard to believe how different it was 40 years ago. That is the great thing about cities worldwide- they are constantly evolving and transforming year by year.
A new art sculpture in Govan. I really like this one. Very dynamic. A tribute to Mary Barbour and the people of Govan who fought against unscrupulous landlords who raised the rents across the shipbuilding districts forcing people into destitution and homelessness. With Glasgow almost doubling in size every ten years from the late 1800s to the 1950s period, eventually reaching a high-point over one million residents in crowded conditions there was no shortage of customers for any vacated buildings willing to pay inflated rents.
It stands outside Govan underground and bus station. Full story here.
 We then sampled the extra section of cycle track with views across the river to Glasgow Harbour.
Glasgow Harbour.
and then the last remaining streets and parks en route to catch the ferry home. The Renfrew ferry.
But it was not over yet! Anne had laid on a sumptuous three course meal. Oh Boy!!!!
Starter. Rock Melon and sprinkled sugar. (this is Glasgow after all- a health-food free zone.)
Five a day on a plate. Orange, grapes, cherry tomatoes, hot cross bun and rainbow cookies. A taste sensation on a budget.
Strawberry trifle to end. An amazing finish to an eventful bike ride. Thanxs.

I've been a fan of Dead Can Dance for many years. They also have some of the finest videos on You Tube. Complex, often astonishing, magical original art in 4 min chunks. This is no different. A visual masterpiece of design and imagination. Best watched full screen. In a class of its own. The level of work to make this is impressive.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

10 Miles From Moffat. Loch Fell. 688 metres. A Hillwalk in the Southern Uplands.

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With the blackthorn in bloom on bare branches without a single leaf in sight and spring in the air I received an invite from Alex to go down to the Southern Uplands on a bagging trip. "You can have a fairly easy day or a long hard one..." he offered sportingly.
It was a no brainer. These days I will unfailingly pick the easy option.
We therefore passed through the pleasant village of Moffat on our way to the hill. Although England may not have remote empty wilderness outside the Lake District and its National Parks what it does have is history and centuries old riches in abundance with hundreds of picture postcard memorable small towns and villages full of interest and quirky surprises. Over 500 of these communities worth a day trip visit compared to less than 50 worth sufficient tourist interest to last a full day up here. Scotland is often an uncivilized, poor relation, ghost town, by comparison, village and small town wise that is, but Moffat is one of the pretty ones, along with Bigger, Peebles, Melrose, and Strathaven.
Happy pig with an Easter treat. (I think it's an Oxford Sandy and Black breed.) Around 10 miles outside Moffat however we were deep in the rural solitude again that the Southern Uplands are famous for. Nowadays, many parts of the Scottish Highlands are busy with tourists nine months of the year. You can still find empty wilderness aplenty up there, away from the tourist hot spots but it's not that way on the road network or car parks, many of which are crowded in peak season or during any holiday periods.
Alex ( and I ) prefer the Southern Uplands these days due to the always quiet roads and empty landscapes. When we last visited Knoydart ( 'the last great Scottish wilderness' in many older hill-walking guidebooks) it was still spectacular and rugged but it did not feel that empty anymore with dozens of tents, numerous caterpillars of hill-walkers setting off every morning up the hills and sizeable, if quiet, beach parties at night. Like Ibiza with midges. (Although it's supposed to be remote, enterprising Londoners with big wallets can get there within one day by plane, train and ferry from the metropolis.) The area and village has featured in numerous Sunday magazine colour supplements over many years as a remote 'bucket list' location so that's no surprise. Mind you, I have met quite a few unattached locals over the years who enjoy the influx of visitors each summer as it gives remote areas and remote individuals a better chance of finding someone to date and start a relationship with- always a problem in the Highlands and Islands where traditionally many young folk have to go to the cities to find work or suitable partners.
Being the Easter holidays no two hour tailback queues on the Loch Lomond road for us however and we were also the only car in the car park down here all day. With no Munros and hundreds of hills to climb in this vast coast to coast area that's not surprising. And as you can see it might not have the rugged mountains and cliffs of the Scottish Highlands but it does have, in certain places, a wild beauty all its own.
In typical bluesky weather conditions we set off for the hill- me not having a clue where I was going due to not finding my Moffat OS map and Alex leading by intuition and baggers scent sniffing guide for a summit trig alone.
For an easy hill it seemed a long way in through a vast wilderness. The 215 mile long distance walking route the Southern Upland Way would be crossing our path at some point and this section is one of the scenic highlights of the entire route. This blue speck, a fellow walker in the distance, was the only other person we came across all day.
S.U.W. Info board halfway in.
It was warm with a heat haze building but a cool breeze kept it pleasant. In my own book, Chapter 13, 'The Borderers' I was calling these hills 'Teddy Bear' summits in that they do feel warm and friendly, cuddly almost, especially in fine weather, with no major cliffs, dangerous hazards, or sharp rocky ridges to negotiate. The slopes are usually covered in lush golden or brown grass and paths to trig points are few and far between so you do feel like ants clambering over a warehouse of discarded soft toys. Even the ground underfoot is bouncy and padded, ankle deep and tender on the toes. Although mainly around the 2000 to 2500 foot mark they still feel hard to ascend, especially as we were still approaching Alex's peak with no clear view of it yet in sight. Mind you, I still had no clue what one it was, trusting to Alex to find it as his only map was phone sized and digital these days on a tiny screen I never gained a look at.
"I'm glad we picked the easy one." I remarked dryly, after walking a fair distance inwards and no sign of a furry belly button or Steiff tag anywhere. "Whatever one that is." He just smiled and carried on.
A lot of Southern Upland scenery can look very like this, especially lower down around the bothies with miles of pine forests, or on the more nondescript uplands, hill after hill of slowly spinning wind turbines but this area was special.
Further in we arrived at a steep ravine with almost vertical scree slopes leading down to a gurgling steam bed.
A narrow path/sheep trail hugged the side of this gorge with a sharp drop of several hundred feet down into the gully on our left. This section did not feel 'teddy bear' friendly in any way and at one point a chunk of the path had fallen away altogether, down into the gorge, maybe marking a luckless sheep of too heavy hoof print, making an quick unwanted exit here at terminal velocity towards the abbyss. Narrow and airy for a good distance it was uncharacteristic for the Southern Uplands in general but they do have their moments.
Gradually the deep gorge ran upwards to meet the traverse path and at the end of it we could finally see our hill. Loch Fell, A Donald, 688 metes or 2258 feet. Hooray!
This path took us up onto Cat Shoulder, seen here, and the official high level route of the Southern Upland Way. Around us at this point we had Capel Fell, Ettrick Pen, Crofthead Hill, and White Shank, all around the 2000 foot mark.
At this point we started going back downhill again.
'Hey, the summit's up there!' I informed my errant companion.
'Secret bagging tick to collect.' he winked. 'Follow me.'
I decided secret bagging ticks, when they lost me hard won height, were bad news but we did find a nice hidden bridge then headed up again. Despite wearing shorts I was pleased to report no sheep ticks afterwards. Another bonus.
And this is us... heading up the slopes of Loch Fell.
View near the summit.
Scenic Southern Uplands. If you want real solitude and people free landscapes you will find it here.
Steep cliffs and near vertical forests. Cutting these down when mature will be hard I'd imagine but predicting which direction they will fall might prove easy.
The 'Teddy Bear Wilderness' surrounds Alex in a friendly hug. In many mountain landscapes if you fall over unexpectedly or throw yourself down most likely it will hurt via a protruding boulder, rock slab or gravel. Here, nine times out of ten, you just bounce back up on a soft old paw.
 Wild mountain flowers covered the upper slopes, providing splashes of colour. Grass of Parnassus in abundance here, growing in wide carpets on damp soils also aptly named bog- stars. This spring however it was bone dry and the UK has already experienced several large grass and moor fires- very unusual for this early in the season in a normally rain blasted country.
Zig zag path over Cat Shoulder. The official Southern Upland way route. A great day out and thanks to Alex for suggesting it.

Watched this film- Captain Fantastic - a couple of days ago on TV and its, well... very different. A father- Viggo Mortensen in a perfect fit acting role brings up his children in a remote wilderness setting, home schooling them in isolation in an extreme manner. Although loving he is a strict disciplinarian and hard taskmaster with strong, sometimes flawed, views on society. At times not an easy watch but always interesting film throughout as it does raise many questions and illustrates how everyone, to some extent, is a product of conditioning/environment/teaching even in normal households. i.e. driven, high achievers will probably mold/influence/brainwash driven high achieving children, like wise easy going families without push- children will follow, religious parents...strong probability of religious children etc. It seems fairly obvious a concept but this film highlights it even more as it's at the extreme end of that process.
I liked it anyway. Very different and unusual. It will probably be on TV again and is worth catching. Great happy scene this. As a family hitting the city they make their own entertainment... and rules. Does not give too much of the film away and good song cover.