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Review of

Signs of Life by Stephen Fabes

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I was brought up on maps and first-person narratives of tales of far away places. I was birth-righted wanderlust and curiosity. Unfortunately, I didn't inherit what Dr. Stephen Fabes clearly had which was the guts to simply go out and do it. I also didn't inherit the kind of steady nerve, ability to talk to strangers and basic practicality that would have meant that I would have survived if I had been gifted with the requisite 'bottle'. In order words I'm not the sort of person who will get on a bike outside a London hospital and not come home for six years. Fabes did precisely that. Full Review

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Review of

Toubab Tales: The Joys and Trials of Expat Life in Africa by Rob Baker

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"Go to Mali," they said. "The music is amazing," they said. "And you get ten hours of sunshine every day." So I did.

Rob Baker is an ethnomusicologist. A what? I hear you cry. Well, an ethnomusicologist studies music in relation to culture, so rather like a folklorist studies the oral and written story traditions relating to a culture. Full Review

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Review of

Bucket Showers and Baby Goats: Volunteering in West Africa by Christine Brown

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In the summer of 2008, this book's author was spending her days working in an office job in the USA while spending her nights dreaming about being somewhere else, doing something else. Long story short, she ended up volunteering in Ghana, West Africa. Now coincidentally, in the summer of 2010, this review's author was spending her days working in an office job (albeit in the UK) while spending her nights dreaming about being somewhere else, doing something else, and she ended up just 3 countries away, volunteering in Sierra Leone, West Africa. So you can see why, when this book came up, said reviewer was delighted to have the opportunity to read and critique it. Full Review

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Review of

Rooms with a View: The Secret Life of Great Hotels by Adrian Mourby

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Adrian Mourby has given us a flying visit to each of fifty grand hotels, from fourteen regions of the world, with the hotels in each section being arranged chronologically rather than by region, which helps to give something of an overall picture. So what makes a hotel 'grand'? The first hotel to call itself 'grand' was in Covent Garden in 1774 and it ushered in the beginning of a period when a hotel would be a lifestyle choice rather than a refuge for those without friends and family conveniently nearby. The hotels we visit all began life in different circumstances and each faced a different set of challenges. We begin in the Americas, move to the United Kingdom, circumnavigate Europe, briefly visit Russia and Turkey then northern Africa, India and Asia. Australia, it seems, does not go for the grand. Full Review

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Review of

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

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Sometimes when people suggest that you read a certain book, they tell you this one has your name on it. Mostly we take them at their word, or not, but rarely do we ask them why they thought so unless it turns out that we didn't like the book. That's a rare experience. People who are sensitive to hearing a book calling your name, rarely get it wrong. In this case, I was told why. The blurb speaks of the author considering an older, less tethered sense of herself. Older. Less tethered. That's not a bad description of where I am. Add to that my love of the natural world, of those aspects of the poetic and lyrical that are about style not form, and substance most of all, about connection. Of course, this book had my name on it. It was written for me. It would have found its way to me eventually. I am pleased to have it fall onto my path so quickly. Full Review

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Review of

O Joy for me! by Keir Davidson

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Oh Joy for me! gives Coleridge credit for being the first person to walk the mountains alone, not because he had to for work, as a miner, quarryman, shepherd or pack-horse driver, but because he wanted to for pleasure and adventure. His rapturous encounters with their natural beauty, and its literary consequences, changed our view of the world. Full Review

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Review of

The Great Horizon: 50 Tales of Exploration by Jo Woolf

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Jo Woolf has compiled a brilliant set of fifty short insights into the lives and achievements of some amazingly brave people. Their fearless journeys have helped us unlock many of the mysteries of the wildest parts of our world, and also given us an understanding of what it is like to be faced with the most terrible conditions and still have the determination and grit to carry on. This book could be viewed as a taster which encourages us to seek out and read more about some of the most iconic explorers. Their stories are pretty incredible and Woolf does them justice. Full Review

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Review of

Berlin in the Cold War: 1959 to 1966 by Allan Hailstone

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Berlin in the Cold War: 1959-1966 contains almost 200 photographs taken by author/photographer Allan Hailstone in his visits to the city during this period. The images provide an insight into the changing nature of the divide between East and West Berlin and a glimpse into life in the city during the Cold War. Full Review

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Review of

The Marches by Rory Stewart

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The Observer quote on the front of the paperback edition of Stewart's latest book observes This is travel writing at its finest. Perhaps, but to call it 'travel writing' is to totally under-sell it. This is erudition at its finest. Stewart has the background to do this: he had an international upbringing and followed his father in both the Army and the Foreign Office, and then (to his father's, bemusement, shall we say) became an MP. Oh, and he walked 6,000 miles across Afghanistan in 2002. A walk along the Scottish borders should be a doddle by comparison. Full Review

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Review of

China in Drag: Travels with a Cross-dresser by Michael Bristow

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Having worked for nine years in Bejing as a journalist for the BBC, author Michael Bristow decided to write about Chinese history. Having been learning the local language for several years, Bristow asked his language teacher for guidance - the language teacher, born in the early fifties, offered Bristow a compelling picture of life in Communist China - but added to that, Bristow was greatly surprised to find that his language teacher also enjoyed spending his spare time in ladies clothing. It soon becomes clear that the tale told here is immensely personal - yet also paints a fascinating portrait of one of the world's most intriguing nations. Full Review

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Review of

On My Way: Norfolk Coastal Walks by John Hurst

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It was pure serendipity: after a five-hour drive, we were, annoyingly, left with an hour to fill in Blakeney before we could have the keys to our holiday cottage. There was an art exhibition in the church hall, so we went in - and found a display of the most gorgeous pictures. I'd cheerfully have bought every one and hung them on our walls, but thought that I would have to make do with a couple of greetings cards when I saw On My Way: Norfolk Coastal Walks and I couldn't resist buying it. Full Review

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Review of

Britain's 100 Best Railway Stations by Simon Jenkins

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In the mid-twentieth century, the railway was something which harked back to the Victorian age with trains being supplanted by cars and planes, but steam was being replaced by oil, even then and in the twenty-first-century oil is giving way to electricity. It's cleaner, more environmentally friendly and the stations which we'd all rushed through as quickly as possible, keen to escape their grime, were restored and became places to be admired, possibly even lingered in. Simon Jenkins has chosen his hundred best railway stations. Full Review

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Review of

The Life of a Scilly Sergeant by Colin Taylor

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Meet the Isles of Scilly. (I know they should be called that – the author provides a handy guide to the etiquette of their name, their nature and location, etc.) For our more distant readers, they're several chunks of granite rock out in the Atlantic, where Cornwall is pointing, with just 2,200 permanent residents. They're big on tourism, and big on growing flowers in the tropical climate the Gulf Stream bequeaths them – although the weather is bad enough to turn any car to a rust bucket within years. They're so wee, and so idyllic-seeming, especially at night, you can be mistaken for thinking there would be no need for a police presence. But there is – at least two working at any one time. And one of them in recent years has been Colin Taylor, who has done his official duty – alongside maintaining a well-known online existence, which has brought to life all the whimsical comedy of his work. Full Review

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Review of

Travels With My Sketchbook by Michael Foreman

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I guess the best children's literature can do away with complete veracity, as long as it has something about it that is recognisable – a little of the spirit, heart and character of the real thing, whatever it may be. And if that's the case then it definitely applies to children's literature illustrations, such as those provided close on two hundred times by Michael Foreman. This prolific artist leapt at a scholarship in the US when he'd completed his official, formal studies, and it would appear – huge credits list regardless – that he's never stopped moving since, as this book takes us to all corners of the world, and back home again. Full Review

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Review of

The Unlikeliest Backpacker by Kathryn Barnes

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Almost on a whim (by her own admission) Kathryn Barnes and her husband Conrad Nicholas decide to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Not exactly on a whim: they do invest some time in some (maybe not enough, maybe not the right) preparation. And not all of the trail: Kathryn has no intention of a walking a desert. That she intends walking at all comes as a shock to her family, that she would even contemplate camping has them staring in disbelief. Full Review

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Review of

Souvenir (Object Lessons) by Rolf Potts

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I know a lot about the subject of this book – although please don't think for one minute that is akin to a boast that I could have written it; far from it. But I too have a mountain of souvenirs here and there. They come in five kinds, don't you know – including a miniature version of what you've been to see (my porcelain Field of Miracles from Pisa, that has long since lost its miraculous ability to act as both memento and leaning hygrometer); pictorial representation, such as postcards (oh so many postcards); and physical bits of the place (a particularly Klimtian bit of stone found on a beach on Jersey only this autumn past). I am such a collector of souvenirs I get narked when I go to a place such as a cathedral and all that's on offer is religious product and nothing branded with the site, which is rich considering the whole souvenir industry came from religion and religious pilgrimage in the first place – you only need consider that in buying a souvenir you're trying to take a bit of its source home with you, and for that very reason people sought a continuance of some kind of holiness via religious artefact. You only need consider it, I say, but rest assured all that history and everything else has been considered in the making of this wonderful book. Full Review

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Review of

Mr Tambourine Man by Nicholson

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Back in 1965 we heard Mr Tambourine Man by the Byrds on the radio very regularly. Nicholson was thirteen and saw the 45rpm recording of the song in the window of the local music store and would have loved to be able to buy it but didn't have the money. Thirteen-year olds didn't in those days unless it was a birthday or Christmas and you couldn't get a part-time job until you were fifteen. There would be a few of those badly-paid jobs before he finished his A levels and went to New York for three months. It's this trip which Nicholson feels turned him from being a boy into a man and allowed him to see the bigger picture. Full Review

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Review of

Long Road From Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

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I cancelled my Country Walking magazine subscription about a year ago and the only thing I miss is Stuart Maconie's column. His down-to-earth approach and sharp wit belie an equally sharp intellect and a soul more sensitive than he might be willing to admit. Let's be honest, though, I picked this one up because of someone else's review, in which I spotted names like Ferryhill and Newton Aycliffe. Places I grew up in. Like Maconie I have no connection (that I know of) to the Jarrow Crusade but when he talks about it being a whole matrix of events reducible to one word like Aberfan, Hillsborough, or Orgreave then somehow it does become part of my history too. Tangentially, at least. Full Review

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