A wonderful, engaging historical fiction novel that has the science of botany as a key element. It has anOriginal review posted on Layers of Thought.
A wonderful, engaging historical fiction novel that has the science of botany as a key element. It has an amazing strong female character and an encompassing theory on the nature of all things.
Description: When Alma Whitaker is born in Pennsylvania, USA in the year 1800, her exceptionally wealthy British father Henry is pleased. Alma will be his only natural child, will receive an education uncommon for women, and will want for almost nothing for her entire life. Alma is not a beautiful woman, but her strengths lie in her brilliant scientific mind and her excellent constitution. She spends her childhood days categorizing plants and reading in her father’s huge library. As an adult Alma becomes one of the first women to publish within the field of botany.
This is the richly imagined life story of Alma Whitaker, her driven father whose interest and dedication to botany build him a fortune, and her stalwart and complex family. It is set relatively soon after the American Revolution, during the civil war, and while the theory of evolution was taking form.
Thoughts: There’s a lot to like about this book. From the very start it becomes apparent that Elizabeth Gilbert is an expert story teller. I was entirely swept away with writing that flows and that captured me from the first page until the last. I particularly like that the characters are well developed and complex with a lot of back story. The book also has some famous historical characters which adds to the richness of the story line - such as Charles Darwin and Captain James Cook, who where significant contributors to science and botany - giving the book an authentic historical feel. There are some interesting settings within the novel which may intrigue readers, such as Kew Gardens, a botanical garden in London established in 1756 that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Tahiti, where the author goes into a good deal of depth about the culture and the setting.
As the title suggests one of the book’s major themes is a grand sweeping theory about the nature of humans and life in general, and since it is one that I agree with it made me like the book even more. My only quibble would be a strong and slightly embarrassing sexual thread that runs through the novel, which was a bit much for me. If this particular element had been a little lighter the book would have rated higher in my opinion. However, it’s a terrific novel and comes highly recommended. I would say one of my favorites this year at 4.5 stars. ...more
John’s quick take:A fascinating book for anyone interested in World War II or military history; but alsoOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take:A fascinating book for anyone interested in World War II or military history; but also a terrific read for anyone who likes a good adventure story. This history book is full of both intriguing historical details and breathtakingly dangerous human exploits.
John’s description: As Hitler’s Germany prepared for war, it was determined to match the might of the British Navy. One result of this was the building of a huge battleship that was bigger, faster, better armed and more advanced than anything the world had seen. The Tirpitz, named after Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz who was the architect of the German Imperial Navy, was supposedly unsinkable.
As the war developed, the main role of the ship was to cause havoc with the Atlantic convoys that were both the lifeline of besieged Britain and an important source of allied arms being supplied to Russia. The Germans based Tirpitz on the Norwegian coast, so it could also serve as a deterrent to a possible allied invasion of that country. Hitler had something close to paranoia about the threat of the allies rescuing Norway from its German occupiers.
As it turned out, by far the biggest impact that the Tirpitz had on the war was the threat of what it might do, rather than anything it actually did do. The allied forces were terrified of the ship’s capabilities and went to enormous lengths to protect their convoys and to avoid a direct confrontation, thereby tying up enormous amounts of military assets; meanwhile the Germans, and Hitler in particular, were terrified of losing the ship and were amazingly cautious about using it in anger, despite its reputed invincibility. But Hitler was not the only wartime leader who played a major personal role in the Tirpitz story; Churchill was almost obsessed with the Tirpitz, and relentlessly pushed his forces to attack the ship, even after it should have become obvious that its threat was overstated.
The result was that over a three-year period the British launched no less than 36 operations designed specifically to sink the ship. As Tirpitz was moored in well-protected Norwegian fjords, beyond the range of traditional British-based bombers, many of the British operations were innovative or desperately risky, bordering on suicidal. Among other things the British tried to use human torpedoes, midget submarines, aircraft carrier-based dive bombers, and specially designed mines. Some of the operations used special services groups, supported by undercover agents in Norway, and much of the intelligence about the ship’s movements and plans was the result of the British decrypting top-secret German Enigma communications.
The operation involving newly designed midget submarines was particularly unusual and daring. After perilous training and a fraught journey across the North Sea, just three of the ten craft made it beyond the ship’s defenses, one of which was then sunk by gunfire and depth charges. But two of the tiny submarines did manage to lay mines which did quite a bit of damage to Tirpitz, and put it out of action for almost six months. However, the ship was repaired and once again became a thorn in the sides of the British.
Eventually the job of sinking Tirpitz was handed over to the Royal Air Force, which now had access to Lancaster bombers which had just about enough range to reach the Tirpitz. The attacks by the bombers stretched the limits of both human endurance and available technology, and the losses were high. But using highly innovative and terrifying new “earthquake bombs”, the RAF finally scored two direct hits on the ship causing it to capsize within minutes; of the 1,700 sailors on board at the time of the bombing, it is estimated that almost 1,000 died as a result of the attack.
John’s thoughts: I found this a tremendously interesting read. It could have been just a dry, historical account of events, but throughout the book, Bishop uses personal diaries, memoirs and interviews with families of survivors to bring the history to life. In large parts the story is told through the eyes of people who were involved.
And what a story this is. If a Hollywood movie had used a plot like this, many would accuse it of being far-fetched and unbelievable. In here we have arms races, technology being pushed to the absolute limits, powerful nations battling for survival, spies, decrypted secret messages, audacious plans and quite stunning acts of bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the latter which I found most amazing. Throughout the book there are seemingly normal people that are willing to volunteer for missions or to do things which are absurdly dangerous. Heroes indeed.
Apart from all of that, I also found it an educational book. I’m old enough that World War II was very real to my parents and grandparents, and I’ve always been fascinated by the period. I learnt a lot from this read and it wasn’t just about the facts and the stories immediately surrounding the Tirpitz. It was also an education to find out more about the people – from how the personalities of Hitler and Churchill had a direct impact on events, to the stories of the daring pilots and sailors who undertook the raids, to the impact of German occupation on Norwegians, to the lives of the sailors on board the Tirpitz. Something else gave me great pause for thought. The Tirpitz never did attack allied ships and essentially the only time it caused any damage was when it was defending itself against attack; yet it had a major influence on events during the war. The threat of a weapon turned out to be much more damaging than the weapon itself. Intriguing, and you can’t help but draw some parallels with the cold war that followed World War II.
I’d rate this book four stars and thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in World War II or military history; but also to anyone who enjoys reading about real-life adventure. ...more
A tastefully fun book for anyone interested in knowing the background for the ingredients that go into creOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
A tastefully fun book for anyone interested in knowing the background for the ingredients that go into creating your favorite alcoholic drinks, including chemistry, historical drama, archeology, recipes, and a fun layout with illustrations and intriguing snippets. This is an excellent book for the geeky imbiber and/or gardener.
Shellie’s thoughts: Definitely not dry, this book has been broken down visually and thematically for clarity, so it’s not like reading a text book. With an easy to digest visual style the book’s contents are divided into three major parts. The first is Distillation and Fermentation where the author alphabetically addresses the plants Agave through Wheat (including an end section called Strange Brews). The second part is Suffusions and it tells about the plant flavors which are added to the basic alcohols mentioned. It’s then broken down into Herbs, Flowers, Spices, Trees, Fruits, Nuts, and Seeds. The third part then covers the plants that are added to the drinks after they are mixed in a glass, using the topics Botanical Mixers and Garnishes.
Happily at the end of many of the sections for the book the author includes recipes for cocktail, syrups, infusions, and garnishes. She embeds short informational snippets on various subjects such as “A Field Guide to Tequila and Mezcal”, “Bugs in Booze”, “What’s the Difference between Ale and Lager”, “Know your Gins”, and more. The book also makes recommendation of what brands of liquors to use, which not to bother with, and other suggestions for creating upscale and finely crafted libations. It also has some gardening advice on growing plants for your own personal garden so that you can add them to your drinks.
I listened to the book in audio first then took a look at it in its hardbound format for further in-depth digging - and I loved both. The audio version was well read from a reader with a pleasant voice and featured a little clink of a glasses to designate the reading of each recipe. I did however feel the need to be able to look at the layout of the book’s organization, so the hardbound version may be little more practical.
This is a completely fun book which I would recommend. If you enjoy tasteful and upscale libations, are interested in how and what you are drinking is made, and would like some historical details and drama around the process in their creation then this will be a book for you. It would also make a wonderful gift for gardeners and drinkers alike. 4.5 stars....more
John’s quick take:The Great Famine in Ireland is one of the most shameful episodes in the lastOriginal review by John is posted at Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take:The Great Famine in Ireland is one of the most shameful episodes in the last 200 years of Western history. All Standing is an accurate retelling of the story of the legendary Jeanie Johnston famine ship, interwoven with a vivid history of the famine and the tale of one family who emigrated to America aboard the Jeanie Johnston to avoid the catastrophe.
John’s description: On the surface, the Great Famine was caused by potato blight that destroyed the crop that a huge proportion of the Irish relied upon – but the underlying causes went much deeper. With an impoverished economy, a booming population, predatory landlords, an enormous number of subsistence farmers with virtually no rights, and an over reliance on a single crop, the famine was a disaster waiting to happen. But the sheer scale and callousness of the disaster are hard to take in.
Before the famine Ireland had a population of around eight million people. Over the seven year years that the famine lasted it is estimated that a million died from starvation or related diseases and another million emigrated, mostly in a desperate bid to escape the horrors at home. Ireland’s population plummeted by some 25%. Unfortunately for the emigrants, conditions aboard the famine ships were often a lot worse than what they were escaping from. Emigrants were treated like cargo and crammed into ships’ holds with hardly any food and no sanitation, and diseases ran rampant. Over a hundred thousand emigrants died on the so-called coffin ships; on many voyages mortality rates were much worse than on slave ships. When the starved and sickly Irish arrived at their destination, they usually had to once again fight abject poverty, not to mention uncaring authorities and rampant racism.
But amidst the horrors one ship became legendary for not losing a single passenger during 16 cross-Atlantic voyages from Ireland to Canada or America. The Jeanie Johnston, based out of Tralee in Ireland, was built by a Scottish craftsman working in Canada, and captained by a professional sailor who carefully picked his crew and cared for his passengers. Unusually this ship had a ship’s doctor – and a very good one at that. Still the voyages were dangerous and the Jeanie Johnson had to rely on its fair share of luck.
On its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, a farmer’s wife by the name of Margaret Reilly gave birth to a baby boy, who the parents named after the ship’s owner, doctor and crew – resulting in the boy having no less than seventeen middle names! Nicholas Johnston Reilly (that’s his short name) and his parents survived the voyage, arrived in Quebec, crossed into America and eventually moved via Indiana and Michigan before settling down in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
John’s thoughts: Through painstaking research Miles has created a vivid picture of mid-nineteenth century Ireland, the famine, national politics and politicians, local characters involved with the Jeanie Johnston, the ship’s voyages, an emigrant’s life in Canada or America, and the Reilly family story.
While the bare facts are fascinating (not to mention truly horrific), this could so easily have become a dry, documentary history tome, but Miles has avoided that fate and created a really interesting book that is easy to read. In large part she has achieved that by focusing a lot on real people and their stories, which brings the history to life. Cleary that required an awful lot of research and hard work on her part.
Personally I’m still incredulous that the famine was allowed to become as catastrophic as it was – so much could have been prevented or alleviated if it wasn’t for greed, bigotry, inhumanity and neglect. I learnt an awful lot reading this book. Can you believe that in the middle of the famine when a huge portion of the Irish population was starving to death, large amounts of food were still being exported out of the country? Stunning.
It was also interesting to hear about the plight of immigrants arriving in North America, and in particular the racial discrimination that they faced. That’s the second book I’ve read this year which has touched on this theme – the first one being The Spy Lover which told the story of a Chinese immigrant.
I did like the way that Miles weaved in the story of the Reilly family, which served to personalize the big historic picture - though I would say resulted in the narrative jumping around a bit. Regardless, I’d rate this book four stars and recommend it to anyone with an interest in Irish history, immigration into North America, or nineteenth century history generally. For anyone with even a drop of Irish blood in them, this is thoroughly recommended. ...more