Book Fiction


Sarah Perry

Rating: 8 out of 10.

A gothic and sombre novel about human suffering and the man’s inhumanity to man.

I was not familiar with the writing of Sarah Perry when I started this. I had picked up the book from a charity collection in a supermarket and the blurb on the back described a lost manuscript and various time periods including the turn of the century.

As a sucker for adventurous history such as Blood and Treasure or Indiana Jones I had picked up the dog-eared copy in exchange for a donation. I was not expecting an emotional reflection on my own life, which, if you decide to read, is what lies in store.

The novel centres on a a plain and nondescript woman named Helen living in Prague as a translator. Her circle of friends is small, almost forced, and her lifestyle is penitent-like. She is suddenly introduced to the titular character of Melmoth via a manuscript of eye witness accounts.

Melmoth is a legend dating from the time of Christ who wanders the earth with bloodied feet bearing witness to the crimes that man visits upon his own race and in doing so offers to free those living with guilt and shame if they just take her black-robed hand…

The story chronicles, not the lives of individuals who did actively commit atrocities, such as the SS camp guards in Auschwitz, but those that enabled the horrors. The person in the street who looks the other way or the informant who nudges a policeman to the address of a family. The bureaucrats who shuffle the paperwork that enables genocide and the bystanders who would watch innocent women burned at the stake.

I wonder, when God permitted us to fall, if He knew we’d fall so far.

Melmoth is the realisation that we are all complicit in the suffering of someone, somewhere. As Helen explores the manuscript her life in Prague becomes more surreal and her grip on sanity frays as apparitions follow her reminding her of her own guilt (which we learn of in the second act).

Sarah Perry is an undoubtedly skilled storyteller and she moves with ease between different characters and time-periods, varying her narrative style accordingly. The character of Melmoth is an homage to other Victorian novels with the same name but all are really variations of the real-life story of the Wandering Jew; a man cursed to walk the earth for insulting Christ as he laboured under his cross to be crucified.

Whilst the novel is short of true horror there are two definite beats in that are likely to shake the reader (if they have any heart at all). One revelation of Hassan and the Nameless is so skillful that I genuinely paused and spent time contemplating how masterfully she had pulled it off. The entire chapter was excellent with a beautifully succinct ending. To say more would spoil it.

I do recommend Melmoth but, honestly, it is not easy fare to read and the antagonist of the story never truly becomes more than a vague threat on the horizon. The true distress is caused by realising just how easily any of us could look the other way at human suffering or worse, justify it to ourselves.

In summary, an emotional and evocative story that may require you to put down the book and reflect deeply on certain chapters.

Book Fiction Travel

The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

The Alchemist is a joy to read. Quite upset to get to the end.

It will not to be to everyone’s liking, especially the cynics, but as a parable it has a number of wonderful lessons.

Everybody seemed to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about their own.


“What is the world’s greatest lie” the boy asked, completely surprised. “It is this; at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what is happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That is the world’s greatest lie.”

Self-imposed barriers

“No,” the alchemist answered. “What you still need to know is this; before a dream is realised the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. That’s the point at which most people give up. it is the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one ‘dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon.”


If you start out promising what you don’t even have yet, you lose your desire to work towards getting it.


I am like everyone else — I see the world in terms of what I would like to see happen, not what actually does.


The hills of Andalusia were only two hours away but there was an entire desert between him and Pyramids. Yet the boy felt that there was another another way to regard his situation; he was actually two hours closer to his treasure…the fact that two hours stretched into an entire year didn’t matter.


Don’t forget that everything you deal with is only one thing and nothing else.


As he mused about these things, he realized that he had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in quest of a treasure.

“I am an adventurer, looking for treasure,” he said to himself.

Reframing and Positivity

“You should pay attention to the caravan” the boy said to the Englishman, after the camel driver had left. “We make a lot of detours but we are always heading for the same destination.

“And you ought to read more about the world” answered the Englishman. “Books are like caravans in that respect.”


“If I have to fight, it will be just as good a day to die as any other. Because I don’t live in either my past or my future. I am only interested in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. You will see that there is life in the desert, that there are stars in the heavens and that tribesman fight because they are part of the human race. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we are living right now.”

Carpe Diem

“We have to take advantage when luck is on my side, and do as much to help it as it’s doing to help us. It’s called the principle of favourability. Or beginners luck.”


“When you possess great treasures inside you and try to tell others of them, seldom you are believed.”


“I’m going away” he said. “And I want you to know that I am coming back, I love you because…”

“Don’t say anything,” Fatima interrupted. “One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.”


“If a person is living out his destiny, he knows everything he needs to know. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”

Fear of failure

How do I guess at the future? Based on the omens of the present. The secret is here in the present. If you pay attention to the present you can improve upon it.

On being present

“I am an old superstitious Arab, and I believe in our proverbs. There is one that says, ‘Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.”

On the future
Book Non-Fiction Rated 10

A Life On Our Planet

David Attenborough

Rating: 10 out of 10.

A Life on Our Planet is an accessible and compelling statement on the risks to the human race from the world’s most elder ecological statesmen.

It is, quite simply, a must-read for everyone and should be adopted by school’s worldwide.

This book should come with a warning label; liable to trigger anxiety, depression and dread. Certainly for the first half.

Attenborough is an excellent narrator as he guides us skillfully through the complex world of environmental science. His use of facts and data is simple but hard-hitting; it is so effective that readers descend into a hopeless depression. Luckily, the final third has a profound message.

We can solve this. We have a plan and we will solve this. If we can stop bickering.

In the first few chapters we are introduced to the concept of biodiversity, carbon-stores and the rampant exploitation of the planet. Each chapter introduces a new habitat or concept and layers on the understanding you have gained previously.

It is a remarkable book, distilling hard scientific ideas into concise and understandable paragraphs. Readers are introduced to mind-boggling truths such as

By the end of the 20th Century mankind had removed 90 per cent of the large fish from the oceans of the world

We are extracting 80 million tonnes of seafood from the ocean each year and have reduced 30 per cent of fish stocks to critical levels

90% of all fish populations are already overfished or fished to capacity

A single river in the world, the Mekong, supplies 25% of all freshwater fish caught around the globe

Which explains why every fish product I see in UK supermarkets says product of Vietnam

That in itself must be unsustainable. Flying fish all the way around the world only to drive it across the UK to sit atop ice in my local Tesco.

The world of mammals and meat consumption not spared scrutiny.

Brazil dedicates an area seven times the size of the United Kingdom to cattle pasture. Much of that area was previously rainforest. A similar amount of land is used to grow soy.

Over 70 per cent of soy is used to feed livestock being raised for meat consumption

In 1700 we farmed 1 billion hectares of land. Today it is 5 billion hectares, an area of land equivalent to NA, SA and Australia combined.

80% of all farmland is used for meat and dairy production but surprisingly it has little no animals in it. It is dedicated to crops like soy for feeding the livestock. Wealthy nations may raise the cattle but the feed comes from poorer nations whose rainforests are destroyed.

What the readers learn is that we have a highly unsustainable food pyramid. In the wild, herbivores extract the maximum amount of energy from plants and then carnivores eat a small percentage of the herbivores and extract the maximum amount of energy from them. Each level takes what it needs.

Our pyramid is upside down.

We take minimal energy requirements from meat (beef is 2% of our calories) and dedicate 40% of the planet to raising and feeding that livestock. It is an ecological disaster. The majority of farmland is dedicated specifically to beef.

And, it is not just beef.

70% of all birds on earth are domesticated, the majority are chickens. We eat 50 billion chickens per year, many are fed on soy

The irony of clearing rainforest for livestock pasture and soy is that it leads to less rainfall and ultimately droughts over the very land that was supposed to be used for farming and, ultimately, starves the megacities of South America for water and food.

We are encouraged to be a little more like India which eats 4KG of meat per person per year compared to the USA which eats 120KG.

The most alarming sections are saved for carbon though.

Over the last 70 years all of our social, economic and political institutions have adopted one overriding goal – ever-increasing growth in each nation measured by GDP.

The net result is that we have returned millions of years worth of carbon back into the atmosphere in a matter of decades and we have breached four of the 9 boundaries that will lead to human extinction.

We are, quite literally, eating and building our way out of a habitat and into a tipping point of unstoppable destruction.

The reader is regaled with mind-altering facts such as

96% of all mammals on earth are humans and the animals raised for humans to eat; wild animals are just 4% of the earth.

It is animal documentaries encouraging us to believe otherwise. The Blue Planet team spent four years attempting to film blue whales due to their rarity. Four years. However audiences did not know that. It looks like the oceans are teeming with life instead of the vast lifeless deserts they are becoming.

To sum it up, we have become accustomed to an impoverished planet.

Only 3 nations secure 100% of their electricity from renewable sources; Paraguay, Albania and Iceland.

If this seems depressing, well, it is. A better word might be sobering.

However, the remainder of the book carries a message of hope.

Attenborough talks at length about the solutions and the path to sustainability. How changes in education, in diet, in attitude and in equal rights can play a part. Wealth inequality will have to be tackled.

If you are reading this, you are likely one of the individuals that has to change, as am I.

50% of humanity’s impact on the living world is attributable to the richest 16% of the human population

If you live in the UK or the USA, that is you.

It is not the Kenyan subsistence farmer that has to change. Or the Chinese labourer tending rice paddies. It is the Las Vegas party-goer, the online gamer, bloggers like me and diesel car owners. It is the fast-food eaters, the Amazon shoppers and the long-haul flighters. It is the plastic toy buyers at Christmas.

Right now, 1.3 trillion plastic items have merged into a great garbage patch in the Pacific and other patches are forming around the globe. No beach in the world is free of plastic pollution.

One of the great lies we have told ourselves is the myth of the buy -use-discard cycle.

On a single planet, there is no such thing as away when you discard it. It goes somewhere and impact something.

Sustainability in all things should be our species philosophy

An absolute must-read. 10/10.

Book Fiction Travel

The Beach

Alex Garland

Rating: 9 out of 10.

On it’s 25th anniversary, Garland’s debut novel, The Beach, remains as frenetic and brilliant as it ever was but now it benefits from nostalgia.

A true classic and not just in the travel genre.

It has been 25 years since Alex Garland arrived on the literary scene with his applauded debut, an anti-tourism novel which was quickly adopted by backpackers and travellers everywhere.

The story was inspired by the author’s time in the Philippines, particularly the beaches of Palawan island but he chose to set it in Thailand due to the greater familiarity of the travelling community.

25 years later the book has also become somewhat of a prophecy as we grapple with climate change, consumerism, over-consumption and the destruction of biodiversity, which are the fears of the anti-hero narrator Richard and his psychological companion, Mr Daffy Duck.

Daffy warns Richard that humans will destroy the Beach, a sanctuary for travellers who are bold enough to find it, travellers like him and his friends; Etienne and Francoise. Richard descends into a Colonel Kurtz-like madness becoming estranged from wider society that seems alien, perverse and hedonistic.

If you have not read it then I will not spoil the end but suffice to say, anything humans touch cannot remain unspoiled since they are predisposed to sharing and boasting which encourages ever greater numbers to arrive and upset the balance.

The writing is frantic and fast-paced but never disjointed. The dialogues are short but filled with emotion. Some members of the beach community lack characterisation but that could be because Richard is an unreliable narrator and relatively disinterested in some of them as people.

The true star of the novel is Richard’s interactions with Mr Daffy Duck, his psychological alter-ego who goads Richard into seeking masculine danger, inspired by the war he was promised in his youth Vietnam movies, Gulf War 1) but never volunteered for and his love of computer games.

If you have not read it then I would absolutely recommend it as a must-read but be warned, the novel is also the last great time before mass communication was enabled.

As an early millenial who grew up with an analogue childhood and a digital adulthood, The Beach was published at the point when such adventures could likely never happen again. The world is too saturated in mobile devices, cameras and instant communication.

In 1996, in order to communicate, we were still reliant on physical mail, long distance telephone or finding an internet cafe to send the occasional Hotmail or Excite email.

It was entirely plausible that someone could disappear into South East Asia for 6 months with minimal contact back home and only have a dozen grainy photos to show for their experience.

Today; such a world is just a memory.

In 2018 I visited Koh Samui with a friend and independent travel was extremely hard to find; I took my moped, against regulations, into the interior jungle, down unmarked trails, following locals who lived amongst the sweltering conditions and I still found intagrammers posing at rock formations.

We organised a boat incursion for snorkelling and travelled an hour to the marine park island of Koh Tao. Upon arrival we were dismayed to find over a hundred people posing specifically in the surf whilst taking selfies.

My friend Tony shrugged and said ‘it is a years worth of photos‘. I wasn’t sure I understood and asked him to explain further.

Instagrammers will take 200 or 300 photos and then drip-feed them into their feed every day so it looks like perpetual travel. This is just a job for them.

In that regard, The Beach has become a prescient prediction of everything that it feared. Masses of tourists, dumping tonnes of waste into biodomes for kudos and bragging rights.

As the stoic Jed asks partway through the novel –

One day I would like to ask the authors of Lonely Planet, what is so fucking lonely about the Khao San Road?

It is a brilliant read, but don’t be surprised if it leaves you disillusioned and yearning for a time that can never be regained.

Book Fiction

The Outsider

Stephen King

Rating: 3.5 out of 10.

The Outsider is a book of two halves; the first excellent but the second part ineffective and boring.

It begins as a gripping crime thriller with a nuanced plot and good dialogue and descends into a strange, non-scary monster hunt with vague references to previous novels which are not immediately clear.

It seems that King himself did not know how it ended so just wrote another 200 pages of X-Files mundanity.

I genuinely loved the opening chapters of The Outsider. King weaves a compelling whodunnit mystery with mountains of evidence stacking up against the prime suspect, Terry Maitland.

The character is brilliantly written causing the reader to doubt their own convictions; is Terry Maitland innocent or a stone-cold sociopath playing his captors?

King is clearly inspired by murder mysteries of old including Harlan Coben who features as a plot device. In actual fact, the novel is littered with pop culture references of all eras from Game of Thrones to the Beatles.

However, it is at the introduction of the character Holly and the Finders Keepers agency where the novel unravels and the mystery ends. If you have not read the previous Finders Keepers / Mr Mercedes novels then it is hard to drum up any affection for for the new protagonist who all other characters fawn over. It also veers the story sharply away from crime and into some easy-get-out supernatural territory.

The plot holes are filled in with Holly’s beliefs and prior experience of the supernatural. At one point she retells a story of a mass-murderer who transferred consciousness except we the audience don’t hear the story. She invites the other characters to sit and listen, they take their seats and King jumps to and when Holly was finally finished telling the tale the sun was just coming up. Huh? I haven’t read Finders Keepers so I have no idea what she told the other characters in this missing section of exposition.

Regardless, it was superfluous of the story. The novel descends into a run-of-the-mill X-Files mystery which is very light on scares or tension of any kind and a Deus Ex Machina ending to a gunfight.

The final showdown is, being honest, a huge let-down.

The third act is partially redeemed by the vivid characterisation of Lovie who was a pleasure to read but that was a highlight in a sea of boredom.

The whole novel is capped with a strange obsession with the character of Holly who is consistently complimented for her foresight, detective skills, bravery and whatever else King would like to reward her for. At one point she instructs another character, skilled in shooting, what they should do to escape a sniper. You can almost hear the experienced policeman saying good idea Holly. Notwithstanding the novel spent the first 250 pages building that policeman up to be calm and calculating under pressure particularly in violent scenarios.

The last sentence of the protagonist made a mockery of the entire character.

It genuinely feels like King wrote a phenomenal first half, could not figure out how to save the suspect and just resigned himself to oh it was a monster all along. A solid 250 page thriller becomes a meandering 560+ page let-down with a weird fetish for the nervous, anxious, anal-retentive Holly.

You can pick it up cheaply on Amazon, but I wouldn’t recommend it.