Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

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I have no idea why it has taken me so long to get around to reading Neil Gaiman’s work. It has always occurred to me that he would be the perfect author for me to read, his appearance, his humour, his heroes, all a great fit for me. I read Good Omens many years ago but mostly out of my love of Terry Pratchett. Why did it take me so long to make the link and dive into Gaiman’s own individual work? I’m almost embarrassed to be honest, but at least I got there in the end.

I am a great believer in stories. They infuse into our culture and as a result are incredibly powerful in shaping the way we live both individually and collectively. Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller and in Anansi Boys he explains that power as he describes the shift in ownership of our stories from Tiger, all teeth and claws hunting down its food, to Anansi, the Spider, cunning and wise.

“’Now Anansi stories, they have wit and trickery and wisdom. So, all over the world, all of the people, they aren’t just thinking of hunting and being hunted any more. Now they’re starting to think their way out of problems – sometimes thinking their way into worse problems. They still need to keep their bellies full, but now they’re trying to figure out how to do it without working—and that’s the point where people start using their heads …… now people are telling Anansi stories, and they’re starting to think about how to get kissed, how to get something for nothing by being smarter or funnier. That’s when they start to make the world …… People respond to the stories. They tell them themselves. The stories spread, and as people tell them, the stories change the tellers …… People still have the same story, the one where they get born and they do stuff and they die, but now the story means something different to what it meant before.”

In his books Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, Yuval Noah Harari argues that it was imagination that allowed humanity to thrive in comparison to other animals, because our ability to imagine something that cannot be seen allows us to collaborate in much larger groups. This ability allowed us to mythologise and create stories that united people who had no other connection, had not even met before. We see it now in the way that shared religious beliefs allow people to come together and pool time, skills and resources in a common aim. Even shared support of the same football club has a similar effect.

The stories that we tell ourselves, and each other, really matter. The way that we talk about immigration and how we should respond to and feel about immigrants is a huge issue right now, as some sections of the media shape a whole country’s actions by telling emotive stories, even false ones. Climate Change is another subject affected by our stories. When we set ourselves as outside of nature with the Earth as a mere resource to fuel our pleasure we live out a very different reality to when we consider ourselves a part of nature, reliant upon this life-giving ecosystem for our very existence.

During the 2016 referendum on EU membership the Leave campaign told compelling stories whereas their Remain opponents mainly fell back on woolly rhetoric around fear of a possible change. In hindsight, after three shambolic years the Remain concerns look more real than the Leave stories, but Leave won (albeit narrowly). People respond to stories. The same is true at the personal level. If we tell our children that they are “good for nothing”, for example, eventually they will live like that is true. Parenting is a minefield and we tend to go into it poorly prepared, but our words shape our children’s lives.

“Fat Charlie” Nancy believes that he is the mundane half of a pair of siblings. Both born of a God, Spider seems to have inherited all the cool bits, the swagger and the charm, whereas Charlie was left with uncertainty and a lack of self-esteem. Over the course of Anansi Boys he gradually learns the truth and both he and Spider will live different lives as a result.

Think about the stories that you read, the stories you hear and, perhaps most of all, the stories that you tell. They change the world.

Synopsis

God is dead. Meet the kids.

Fat Charlie Nancy’s normal life ended the moment his father dropped dead on a Florida karaoke stage. Charlie didn’t know his dad was a god. And he never knew he had a brother.

Now brother Spider’s on his doorstep — about to make Fat Charlie’s life more interesting… and a lot more dangerous.

The Author

Neil Gaiman was born in Hampshire, UK, and now lives in the United States near Minneapolis. As a child he discovered his love of books, reading, and stories, devouring the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, James Branch Cabell, Edgar Allan Poe, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. LeGuin, Gene Wolfe, and G.K. Chesterton. A self-described “feral child who was raised in libraries,” Gaiman credits librarians with fostering a life-long love of reading: “I wouldn’t be who I am without libraries. I was the sort of kid who devoured books, and my happiest times as a boy were when I persuaded my parents to drop me off in the local library on their way to work, and I spent the day there. I discovered that librarians actually want to help you: they taught me about interlibrary loans.”

From Neil’s website: http://www.neilgaiman.com/About_Neil/Biography

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Welcome to the Heady Heights by David F Ross

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I’ll be honest with you, I’m a fully paid up member of the David F Ross fan club and have been ever since opening up The Last Days of Disco back in late 2014.  I love his brand of bittersweet humour and the relentless optimism of his down at heel characters as they suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Welcome to the Heady Heights is his fourth novel, breaking away from the Disco Days trilogy that preceded it but retaining all of their West Scotland charm. Some of the themes get pretty dark and some of the characters demonstrate traits that are all too repugnantly real, but the determined villains are offset by another ragtag of wonderful human beings kicking at the shins of life.

Archie Blunt is exactly what he thinks he is, deep down a decent guy, but he’s struggling to cope with the hand that he’s been dealt. A crap job, widower to a wife he loved but to whom he never properly expressed it, a father losing himself to dementia, struggling to hold it all together under the financial and emotional pressures of being a normal bloke in an unforgiving world.

He’s joined by Gail, a freelance journalist on the trail of justice, and Barbara, a pioneering WPC in a police station of glass ceilings and in your face prejudice, as well as a gaggle of freewheeling friends and associates catching a croggy on his ride towards fame, fortune, disappoint and redemption.

Not everyone in Archie’s story is a good guy though, some of them are downright nasty and what’s worse is they have the money and the power to get away with it. When their paths begin to cross it’s an engrossing tapestry of high jinks and belly laughs mixed with righteous anger and heart-breaking tears.

At its heart, this is a love letter to the city of Glasgow, warts and all, but it has such a big heart that it can encompass us all. It is a celebration of the struggle to live that we all face to some degree or other. Go out and buy David’s books and in doing so hopefully inspire him to write some more.

 

Synopsis

Archie Blunt is a man with big ideas. He just needs a break for them to be realized. In a bizarre brush with the light-entertainment business, Archie unwittingly saves the life of the UK’s top showbiz star, Hank “Heady” Hendricks, and now dreams of hitting the big-time as a Popular Music Impresario. Seizing the initiative, he creates a new singing group with five unruly working-class kids from Glasgow’s East End. Together, they make the finals of a televised Saturday-night talent show, and before they know it, fame and fortune beckon for Archie and The High Five. But there’s a complication; a trail of irate Glaswegian bookies, corrupt politicians and a determined Scottish WPC known as The Tank are all on his tail.

A hilarious, poignant nod to the elusivity of stardom, in an age when “making it” was “having it all,” Welcome to the Heady Heights is also a dark, laugh-out-loud comedy, a heartwarming tribute to the 1970s and a delicious drama about desperate men, connected by secrets and lies, by accidents of time and, most of all, the city they live in.

Author

David F. Ross was born in Glasgow in 1964 and has lived in Kilmarnock for over 30 years. He is a graduate of the Mackintosh School of Architecture at Glasgow School of Art, an architect by day, and a hilarious social media commentator, author and enabler by night. His debut novel The Last Days of Disco was shortlisted for the Authors Club Best First Novel Award, and received exceptional critical acclaim, as did the other two books in the Disco Days Trilogy: The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas and The Man Who Loved Islands.

 

The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl

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When I pick up a thriller I am generally looking for three things, setting, characters and plot. Although this was my first Kjell Ola Dahl novel, he is of course a very well established author published in 14 countries, so it should be no surprise to find that he has command of his genre. The Courier has all three aspects, perfectly drawing both the physical and psychological landscape of wartime Norway, populating it with authentic characters and twisting through a story arc that alternates between 1942 and 1967 as he guides you to its shocking conclusion.

I was immediately drawn to The Courier when I saw its cover, it’s an evocative image and alongside the title had me keen to find out more. I’ve long been a fan of William Boyd and this felt like it might be in a similar vein to some of his work. It didn’t disappoint and if you have enjoyed novels such as  Restless I feel sure you would enjoy this. Ester, the eponymous lead of the novel, has faced the cruellest of persecutions at the hand of the Nazis and it has inevitably shaped her. Her suffering is an immediate window of connection and understanding of the journey we take together in the story.

All of the characters flow in and out of your sympathies, the ambiguities of living through a war, with all of its horrors and uncertainties, blurring the lines between right and wrong and keeping the reader as much on edge about who to trust as the protagonists. This sense of how war intrudes on normal life with such intensity that it drives people’s choices and ultimately their character is stark and maybe warns against judging any individual too harshly. Yet at the ideological level, the actions of the Nazi occupiers are grotesque and soul destroying.

Despite the brutal backdrop, Dahl’s writing is absorbing and the visual descriptions envelope you in the setting, transporting you to another time like a walk down Duckett’s Passage in an episode of Goodnight Sweetheart, and the sights and sounds of occupied Norway and resistant Sweden fill your senses. This is a polished thriller, superbly translated by Don Bartlett, that has immediately put Kjell Ola Dahl onto my list of authors whose work can be trusted to deliver.

Synopsis

In 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden, saving herself. Her family in Oslo, however, is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, who helped Ester get to Sweden. Their burgeoning relationship ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.

And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

Written with Dahl’s trademark characterization and elegant plotting, The Courier sees the hugely respected godfather of Nordic Noir at his best, as he takes on one of the most horrific periods of modern history, in an exceptional, shocking thriller.

The Author

One of the fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published eleven novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers (Oslo Detectives series) featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich.

In 2000 he won the Riverton Prize for The Last Fix and he won both the prestigious Brage and Riverton Prizes for The Courier in 2015.

Follow Kjell Ola on Twitter @ko_dahl

 

The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech

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I find myself once again sat on a bus wondering whether the other passengers have noticed the tears welling up in my eyes. Hopefully, they are too absorbed in their own thoughts, companions and mobile phones to have any time for a fellow passenger turning the pages of a book, occasionally wiping away the blurry dampness, finally closing the cover and sitting back.

Louise Beech’s first novel How to be Brave was published in 2015 and her fifth will be published in April 2019, the stories seem to flow from her but the quantity and regularity of her output in no way lessens its quality or impact. Maybe they have all been dwelling inside their author all along, jostling for position, waiting for freedom, for someone to release them from the safety of their compound into the wild.

“I had written four of my books when How to be Brave got me my book deal. I’d already written Mountain, Maria and Lion Tamer. I did edit them a lot after Brave, but they were there. Then in 2017 I wrote my fifth one, Call Me Star Girl. I guess, yes, that had been simmering there. I had for a long time thought I’d set a book in a radio station as I’ve spent a lot of time in them as guest presenter, and always thought what a claustrophobic and spooky setting it could make.”

Louise writes with such emotional integrity that her characters transcend the fiction as you share their stories, recognising their wounds in yourself and the people around you. She tells stories that break your heart, but she does it so exquisitely that you do not want her to stop, the pain paradoxically fuelling joy. Our existence is a mysterious tragedy. There is no life without death, no wonder without suffering, but when we accept our place in that cycle, somehow, we can hold the two together and live.

“Writing is healing for me. It soothes and comforts me to write. I find my own healing there. I guess I mend after a broken childhood/early adulthood. If you witness painful things, perhaps you have a natural empathy when exploring them? I do love humans. As a whole. Have great hope in them! So maybe that is why there’s always positivity there?”

And there is the crux. Hope is what sustains us and somehow when we lay ourselves bare, when we open ourselves to be vulnerable to the inescapable pain of life we find it, or at least we do if we have company. Is that ultimately our purpose? To be good companions, navigating the miracle and tragedy of being alive, together. If so, then Louise’s novels can help guide us.

“I do gravitate towards writing about pain/difficult things. I’m not afraid to explore any topic. This is why, despite jumping genres it would seem, I’m not a genre writer. I hate boundaries/rules/confines. I write what I have to. And I love every minute of it.”

The Lion Tamer Who Lost captures all of this. It is the story of Ben and Andrew, an enviable love but an impossible one.

Synopsis

Be careful what you wish for…

Long ago, Andrew made a childhood wish, and kept it in a silver box. When it finally comes true, he wishes he hadn’t.

Long ago, Ben made a promise and he had a dream: to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve. When he finally makes it, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined.

Ben and Andrew keep meeting in unexpected places, and the intense relationship that develops seems to be guided by fate. Or is it? What if the very thing that draws them together is tainted by past secrets that threaten everything?

A dark, consuming drama that shifts from Zimbabwe to England, and then back into the past, The Lion Tamer Who Lost is also a devastatingly beautiful love story, with a tragic heart.

The Author

Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. The follow-up, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Both of her previous books Maria in the Moon and The Lion Tamer Who Lost were widely reviewed, critically acclaimed and number-one bestsellers on Kindle. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award in 2019. Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting for the Bridport Prize twice. Louise lives with her husband on the outskirts of Hull, and loves her job as a Front of House Usher at Hull Truck Theatre, where her first play was performed in 2012.

The Lion Tamer Who Lost is available now.

Thank you to Louise Beech for answering my questions for this review, included in quotation marks above.

Changeling by Matt Wesolowski

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It is nearly two years since I reviewed Six Stories, the first instalment of the series by Matt Wesolowski that follows a podcast format of six episodes to share six different perspectives on a cold police investigation. I was immediately impressed by the format, which fitted perfectly with host Scott King’s revisiting of an old, unsolved mystery, interviewing key people in each episode, shedding new light on events and uncovering old secrets.

Changeling is the third novel in the series and the format continues to work perfectly, but the emotional pull of the narrative has seen a step change. I missed Hydra, the second instalment, so I cannot say whether the trajectory has been consistent but although the original was a gripping thriller this story of the disappearance of seven-year-old Alfie Marsden is a fist around the heart, relentlessly squeezing until the final devastating release.

Alfie Marsden goes missing in Wentshire Forest on Christmas Eve 1988. His parents have separated and his father breaks up an attempt at a family Christmas concerned that Alfie is no longer safe with his alcoholic mother. He pulls over on the Wentshire Forest Pass to investigate a tapping sound in the engine of his car but within a few minutes of his head being under the bonnet he finds Alfie is gone. Organised searches fail to find the lost child but his father returns to the site every year to visit a shrine and hope that his son might somehow return from the trees.

Alfie was officially declared presumed dead in 1995. A case gone cold and ideal material for Scott King to investigate, but he does so reluctantly. Something unnerves him about this particular case. Is it the strange stories about Wentshire Forest that are unsettling him or the people creeping out of the shadows, guiding him like a chess piece through a Six Stories that seems to have moved out of his control?

The picture builds throughout the episodes, which make up equally balanced chapters. You start to sense the elements that don’t quite add up, but who can you believe and how is their perception of events distorted by their perspectives? The speculation inevitably begins to take hold of you as you digest each new insight. By the time the final chapter loomed I knew what was coming but it didn’t lessen the impact at all.

Sometimes you can feel what the author has invested emotionally into their writing and this is one of those cases where it clearly mattered to Matt Wesolowski that he tell this story. It’s a book that you won’t want to put down as each episode leads a little further into a nightmare of psychological manipulation. What stays with you at the end is the people, the voices of the lives that have been affected. Good work Matt, a vital story beautifully told.

Synopsis:

On Christmas Eve in 1988, seven-year-old Alfie Marsden vanished in the dark Wentshire Forest Pass, when his father, Sorrel, stopped the car to investigate a mysterious knocking sound. No trace of the child, nor his remains, have ever been found. Alfie Marsden was declared officially dead in 1995.

Elusive online journalist, Scott King, whose ‘Six Stories’ podcasts have become an internet sensation, investigates the disappearance, interviewing six witnesses, including Sorrel and his ex-partner, to try to find out what really happened that fateful night. Journeying through the trees of the Wentshire Forest – a place synonymous with strange sightings, and tales of hidden folk who dwell there, he talks to a company that tried and failed to build a development in the forest, and a psychic who claims to know what happened to the little boy…

The Author:

Matt Wesolowski is an author from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK. He is an English tutor for young people in care. Matt started his writing career in horror, and his short horror fiction has been published in numerous UK- an US-based anthologies such as Midnight Movie Creature, Selfies from the End of the World, Cold Iron and many more. His novella, The Black Land, a horror set on the Northumberland coast, was published in 2013. Matt was a winner of the Pitch Perfect competition at Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival in 2015. His debut thriller, Six Stories, was an Amazon bestseller in the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia, and a WHSmith Fresh Talent pick, and film rights were sold to a major Hollywood studio. Hydra, was published in 2018 and became an international bestseller.

The blog tour for Changeling featured a short interview with the author that you ca read here:

Matt Wesolowski Interview

Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz

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I have missed Orenda Books during my enforced sabbatical from reading and reviewing. The consistent quality of the authors is a tribute to the talent and commitment of the publisher’s driving force, Karen Sullivan. Her ability to pick a book is uncanny and most excitingly of all she has introduced me to writers I would never have found on my own. This is certainly true of German author Simone Buchholz whose novel Beton Rouge arrived last week and immediately caught my attention with its striking cover.

Short, sharp chapters rattle by in this crime novel featuring Public Prosecutor Chastity Riley. This is the second novel in the series to be translated into English, but although I came to this one without having read Blue Night, I immediately took to the character despite my lack of  back story. Written in the first person the novel puts you inside Chas’s head and despite the darkness that sometimes lurks there it’s an appealing place to be. She’s intelligent, quick and engaging, whilst also being sardonic, biting and a little neurotic. I liked her a lot.

At 186 pages it’s a quick read that could be taken in one sitting, but it shouldn’t be skimmed as that could miss the opportunity for relationship. The book’s strength is that you get to inhabit Riley, her thoughts and her take on the people and events that surround her. It’s that intimacy that keeps you turning the pages and reading just one more chapter, the sense of knowing whilst wanting to learn more.

Most of the people that you meet in life are projections of something that they hope to be or think you might like to see. It’s refreshing to dwell within the blurred lines and vulnerability of another, albeit fictional, person’s reality. Very little actually resolves into a nice, neat finish either in the lives of the characters or in the case being investigated. We observe the detail of events and we participate through the thoughts of the lead protagonist, not to judge but simply to share the experience.

I didn’t need to have read Blue Night, the earlier release, to enjoy Beton Rouge but I will definitely be reaching for it now.

Synopsis:

On a warm September morning, an unconscious man is found in a cage at the entrance to the offices of one of the biggest German newspapers. Closer inspection shows he is a manager of the company, and he’s been tortured.

Three days later, another manager appears in similar circumstances.
Chastity Riley and her new colleague Ivo Stepanovic are tasked with uncovering the truth behind the attacks, an investigation that goes far beyond the revenge they first suspect … to the dubious past shared by both victims. Travelling to the south of Germany, they step into the elite world of boarding schools, where secrets are currency, and monsters are bred … monsters who will stop at nothing to protect themselves.

A smart, dark, probing thriller, full of all the hard-boiled poetry and acerbic wit of the very best noir, Beton Rouge is both a classic whodunit and a scintillating expose of society, by one of the most exciting names in crime fiction.

The Author:

Simone Buchholz is an award winning crime writer who lives in Sankt Pauli, Hamburg. I found this interview with her from the blog tour for Blue Night which gives a nice introduction to the author and her work.

Interview with Simone Buchholz

Beton Rouge is published in paperback on 21 February 2019, thank you to Orenda Books for my review copy.

Feral by George Monbiot

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A fabulous way to end the month’s books that sits very nicely with the earlier reading of Wendell Berry and Neil Ansell. Monbiot’s thesis on re-wilding provides an exciting and hopeful look at how letting go of our need to control nature could benefit the planet, the wondrous variety of creativity that inhabits it and ultimately ourselves. He makes a strong case for letting nature run its own course and deliver an environment suited to our climate and sub-structure rather than interfere with human land management that has (sometimes unintended) negative consequences.

Monbiot writes with a level of historic and scientific rigour, that gives his thinking credibility, and personal anecdote, that allows him to write with the dirty hands of experience. His passion for the subject and for transferring his arguments from the page into reality is infectious and inspiring. The coming together of some key threads for our times, in terms of finding ways in which we can inhabit the planet without destroying it and at the same time live meaningful lives, offers genuine hope for the future at a time when it feels like we really need it.

Globally there is currently a growing issue with identity in a world that has been shrunk by technology but at the same time divided economically. Different ideologies are claiming that they can change things for the better but at the political level it feels like there is nothing radical enough to turn the tide of industrial capitalism. Governments and corporations are seeking the big answers to their big questions, but the reality is that it will be small solutions, that exclude those monolithic organisations, that hold the key.

I have found many voices, from a range of traditions and backgrounds, over recent months that have inspired me to believe in an another world and another way of human life. Increasingly I am convinced that a movement towards radical localism, in which we care for the place in which we are and all the life within it, will take us there.

Lost Summer by Bill Reynolds

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lost summer#“The ’67 Red Sox and the Impossible Dream”

The Boston Red Sox feature in my baseball experience predominantly as the opposition. They were the team that the New York Mets beat in the 1986 World Series to secure my support in my first introduction to the game as a teenager, and they were the humiliated visitors to Yankee Stadium when I saw my first, and currently only, live baseball game on a family holiday in 2015. The advantage of being a distant fan of the game, however, is that any team can be of interest as they lack the stain of intimate battle that a local rival would have.

Lost Summer is the story of the 1967 Red Sox and their “100 to 1 shot” at winning the American League pennant. As with all my favourite baseball books there is a developing history that sits alongside the game with the shadow of the Vietnam War looming large, as well bubbling racial tensions and a growing generational divide, but this was a book in which it was the sporting narrative that really grabbed a hold of me.

This was a new era of the game for me with different teams coming to the fore and new heroes stepping up to the plate. I didn’t need to have seen the Red Sox play to understand why the fans idolised Carl Yastrzemski, who played the season of his life to lead the Sox to the pennant. Reynolds painted all of the pictures and Lonberg, Scott, Smith, Petrocelli and manager Dick Williams, the right man at the right time to turn around a failing club, came alive on the pages.

The relationships that develop between the players as they sense that they are moving from being perennial losers to a side that is genuinely challenging for the pennant provide real insight into the strong bonds that being part of a successful team create. The growing excitement of the city of Boston and surrounding state as they recognise that something special is happening and they are drawn to Fenway and to their team captures so much of what it means to be a sports fan.

Although this was a baseball book and the teams involved were not only playing a different sport but in a different country and a different era, as its pages drew to a close I found myself reflecting more than anything on my own support for Nottingham Forest, my local football team. I felt a greater understanding of the bonds that must exist between the “Miracle Men” who won back to back European Cups and some of whom I have interviewed for the fanzine Bandy & Shinty. I also felt more than ever a burning desire for Forest to achieve what has increasingly become their own impossible dream, returning to the top flight of English football.

Deep Country by Neil Ansell

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I have to admit that this really was not what I had expected it to be. The book is about Ansell’s five years living in an isolated, rundown cottage in the Welsh hills. As a result, I was expecting lots of practical advice about living an alternative lifestyle combined with reflection and introspection resulting from spending so much time alone. In reality, much of the book is a bird spotter’s journal as the author charts the coming and goings of the various creatures that share his wilderness home.

This is interesting in itself to be fair but there is a limit and it was not until the point that I was tiring of the birdlife commentary that the revelation of the book came through. Ansell explains that the longer he spent in isolation the less time he spent thinking about himself. In fact, rather than finding his true self as he might have expected, he actually became irrelevant. This experience of becoming so much a part of his environment that he essentially lost his own identity is fascinating and something that I would love to have been able to explore in more depth.

For most of us, our egos are central to who we are and how we feel about ourselves. We feel good about what we have achieved in our lives, the things we have done and the places we have seen. We judge each other based on the jobs that we do, the houses we live in, clothes we wear and the cars we drive. We worry about how we measure up to the people around us and what the future will hold for us. If we stop to think about it seriously, however, what does any of it really matter?  Is our self-importance reducing our quality of life?

If we were able to unplug ourselves from the cultural expectations that we face in our lives would we actually find ourselves happier, free to live a simpler and more natural life? Would we strip away the lies and projections that help us survive “civilisation” leaving merely our true character? Essentially, that is what the author has done but it has taken an extreme action. The challenge for those of us who are unable to remove ourselves so dramatically is how we experience some sense of separation from ego that might then draw us on.

The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry

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Every time I pick up a Wendell Berry book, I want to change the way I live. The Unsettling of America was first published in 1977 and in it Berry, more than forty years ago, warned of the damage being done not only to the environment, but also to our communities and to ourselves by big agriculture. He explains, dissects and offers hope against the damage done by agribusiness that puts short term yields and profits first and the health, well-being and futures of people and planet right at the bottom.

His writing is diverse, covering academic argument, anecdotal storytelling, fiction and poetry, but its impact is always the same. He points to the intrinsic connection between people and place that many of us have lost sight of as we push relentlessly into faster and bigger consumerist lifestyles. Our disconnection from place has taken us away from the land, from food, from the essential cycle of life and death, from meaningful, worthwhile work and from the satisfaction of being what we are supposed to be.

The best thing that we can do with our lives is to live in a place and care for our patch of land. That is the core theme that I take away from Berry’s teaching and it is hugely countercultural. In our culture we value mobility, rarely live where we grew up, often work in a different place to where we live and pepper our lives with holiday escapes from them. Berry highlights the problems that this creates as we lose local knowledge and culture in our settings and how work away from where we live inevitably devalues what we do.

Perhaps even worse is the tendency for people to be able to profit from their use, or misuse, of a place they do not have to live in. There are no consequences as corporations destroy habitats and communities in the pursuit of profit and then move on, extracting their profits and leaving devastation behind them.

Several of the chapters are very specific arguments with leading agricultural leaders and policymakers of the time, but at its heart the book is really about questioning our values and what really matters in the brief time that we spend on this earth. What is truly striking about it is how strongly Berry’s words still speaks into our culture decades after their first publication. His is a prophetic voice with much to offer us as individuals and as a species.