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Annabel Gaskell "gaskella2" (Nr Oxford, UK)

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Caroline: A Mystery
Caroline: A Mystery
by Cornelius Medvei
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars This tale's pinned on a donkey ..., 5 Aug. 2012
This review is from: Caroline: A Mystery (Paperback)
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This short novel is a weird and wonderful thing, slightly surreal in parts, but utterly captivating.

It is the story of Mr Shaw, who takes his family on their annual vacation where he tries to unwind from his day job in insurance, but is fretting internally (as is his wife), over his impending retirement. One day, they're all out for a walk, and in a field up the road, they spot a donkey who is called Caroline, and she and Shaw are instantly smitten. He buys Caroline, sends his family home in the car and takes two weeks to walk Caroline back home to live in their front garden. Soon he's spending every spare minute with her. When the neighbours complain about her braying when he's at work, the solution is simple - he takes her to work with him. Then one day his son discovers his father playing chess with the donkey in her shed ... and this is when the tale takes a more surreal aspect, and here I'll stop to save spoiling things, save to say that there is plenty more to come.

The narrative is interspersed with extracts from Mr Shaw's papers, his researches into donkeys, his opnions on RL Stevenson's classic travelogue Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, together with rather amateurish and grainy photos. They all add to the charm of this strange friendship.

When you think of humans with animal best friends, at one extreme there are the very real close relationships between shepherds and their dogs, (and yes, even the X-Factor winners Ashleigh & Pudsey). At the other end of the scale is James Stewart and his invisible six foot rabbit friend Harvey(from the 1950 film, and 1944 play by Mary Chase). You are never quite sure how real Harvey is, whether he's truly imaginary or a fairy spirit, whereas Caroline is quite clearly a real donkey with winning eyes and a way of getting people to do what she wants - but how real is her chess-playing prowess?

Whatever her skills, the relationship between the donkey and Mr Shaw is lovely, platonic, but also obsessive on his part. He, however, had been wondering how to handle his retirement, and she is both the way to ease him into it, and able to give him a new lease of life at the same time. Full of humour, yet equally touching, this is a gentle but quirky novel that was a pleasure to read. (9/10)

The Collini Case
The Collini Case
by Ferdinand von Schirach
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Short and sharp for a courtroom drama, 21 July 2012
This review is from: The Collini Case (Hardcover)
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The author of The Collini Case, a prominent German defence lawyer himself, honed his writing on short stories - case histories of gruesome and shocking crimes, of people who get away with murder and the like. His first novel, a courtroom drama, isn't long either, but he does pack a whole story into its 160 pages.

It starts with a murder. A prominent German businessman is killed by Fabrizio Collini, a quiet Italian who has worked for Mercedes Benz for decades. Caspar Leinen, a young defence lawyer takes on the case - a good result will make his name. However, after accepting it, he finds out that the victim was known to him and he is unable to get out of the case. Collini admits guilt, but refuses to give a motive - it doesn't look good for Leinen's reputation. We read about how Caspar got to where he is, and his relationship with the deceased. We see how the German justice system works; Leinen's case is surely doomed - and before we know it, we're at page 100. Then he makes a discovery. Everything changes and the rest of the novel is turbocharged by its results towards a dramatic conclusion.

It's a taut little novel. It doesn't get bogged down with court procedure, keeping to the essentials only, and not over-dramatising the lawyers' performances - there's no melodrama here, yet the book works brilliantly as a gripping legal thriller. I enjoyed it so much I almost wished it had been longer, but its brevity is a large part of why it was so good.

On the Cold Coasts
On the Cold Coasts
by Vilborg Davidsdottir
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.64

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A woman's place in 1400s Iceland, 5 July 2012
This review is from: On the Cold Coasts (Paperback)
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At the heart of this novel is the tale of Ragna, a young Icelandic woman from a family with property in Greenland which she will inherit. Still a young teenager, yet betrothed to Thorkell, Ragna becomes unmarriageable when she becomes pregnant by an English sailor who is shipwrecked on their shores. Disgraced, she manages to make a life for herself and her son and is luckily taken on by the new English Bishop Craxton as housekeeper, a role that gives her as much respect as she she can ever now expect. However Thorkell returns, now an ordained priest, and is immediately attracted to Ragna again. Can a relationship work between a priest, who should be celibate but has already sired bastard children, and an excommunicated woman?

So, that's the love interest got out of the way. What was more interesting in this novel were the other themes behind the central romance.

At the turn of the century the Black Death had killed nearly half of the population, and left Iceland a very poor country, reliant on the stockfish (wind-dried cod) trade. Iceland was divided into two political factions - the nationalists, led by the Icelandic Archbishop are loyal to the old regime, as Iceland was owned by Norway and Denmark at this time. Those at Holar, who are governed by the new English Bishop appointed by the Pope, are happy to ply an illegal trade with England, ruled by Henry V at this time of 1420. The English rule the trading though setting the prices which makes for an uneasy relationship.

Thorkell, who has political aims of his own, manages to get promoted to being Bishop of a parish who wouldn't submit to Holar, deposing the sitting Bishop who remained loyal to the Norwegian King. These priests and their people are not afraid of taking up arms, and when some English sailors in Iceland by permission of the see at Holar start to do some raping and pillaging, the scene is set for conflict.

Ragna gets caught between the two sides - her responsible role at Holar working for the Bishop, and her passion for Thorkell, the randy priest. All along she is seen as a commodity, initially destined to end up being owned by a man one way or another, even though she will be an heiress. Men are not subjected to the same standards as women by the church, and Thorkell can easily get away with his behaviour.

I really enjoyed this historical novel, especially the cut and thrust of the episcopal politics in 15th century Iceland. Ragna has some spark to her, and the will-she-won't-she relationship with Thorkell contrasts with the big picture. Some of the romance and dialogue may be slightly cheesy, but you kept rooting for Ragna throughout. If you liked The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, you'll probably enjoy On the Cold Coasts, (which is much shorter too!).

The Devil's Garden
The Devil's Garden
by Edward Docx
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars There is darkness at the heart of this novel, 6 Jun. 2012
This review is from: The Devil's Garden (Paperback)
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Set primarily in the last inhabited river station up a tributary of the mighty Amazon, The Devil's Garden conjures up strong visions and parallels. You immediately think of other `jungle' novels - Heart of Darkness being the obvious one of course, and indeed they do share some heavy themes. This novel is billed as a literary thriller, which I suppose it is, but very much in slow-burn Graham Greene mould - I'm thinking The Quiet American meets A Burnt Out Case here ... but first let me tell you a little about the book.

Dr Forle and his assistant Kim, aided by German guide Lothar, work in the jungle carrying on the work of Forle's partner studying a particular species of ant; ones that create Devil's Gardens - poisoning all the plants around their nest except their favoured home making strange glades in the forest - like man of course! One day, the peaceful existence of the station residents is disturbed by the arrival of the Judge and a Colonel and soon a band of soldiers. Officially there to register the jungle tribes to vote, their presence upsets everything, and after Forle witnesses a boy being tortured one night, it is clear that life can't go on as normal, although Forle tries to assert his authority. You just know that it's going to go wrong ...

For the non-indigenous folk, (except perhaps Lothar who seems to know his way around in the jungle), life revolves around the river. The settlement itself only goes skin deep. Everything arrives and departs via the river and the path between the communal building, the comedor, and the jetty is the only highway.

Forle is rather naÔve, like Conrad's view of those Europeans that haven't gone native, he seems to believe that by letting the Colonel and Judge know that he knows what's going on, (although of course he only knows the tip of the iceberg), that perpetrators will be dealt with and life can go on. And go on it does, but only sort of. He doesn't realise the ulterior motives behind the soldier's actions and those of the judge, and the danger that they are all in and this leads up to an all-action thrilling climax.

Told by Forle who, being a scientist, is a trained observer, life in the station contrasts with extracts from his journals about the ants. The ebb and flow of life on, and in, the river also contrasts vividly with the menace within the jungle. This certainly sets the scene, together with a growing suspicion that something bad will happen - there are hints of spies and double-crossing. It really takes its time to get there though. This is where it felt very Graham Greene-ish to me, and I rather enjoyed this aspect.

What I also liked is that life at the station hasn't changed much from other earlier jungle novels. Yes, they have a computer in a laboratory, but that all had to be shipped in boatload by boatload, and they only have the oil to charge the batteries for a few hours use each night. Everything else is done the traditional way, and initially, Forle's biggest worry is that the Judge will drink them dry before new supplies arrive.

I didn't mind the slow-burn at all, I revelled in the foetid darkness at the heart (!) of this novel. I also hoped that Forle would find himself as, at the start of the novel, like a Graham Greene lead character, he was in danger of burning out too soon. Docx can really write, and I will look forward to reading his previous Booker long-listed novel Self Help. The two stars of The Devil's Garden are really the river and the jungle, and they drive the book at their own pace making fascinating reading companions.

by Laurent Binet
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and irritating at the same time..., 30 May 2012
This review is from: HHhH (Hardcover)
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Although in the end I 'enjoyed' HHhH, I was at the same time rather irritated by this book. The cover proclaims "All the characters are real. All the events depicted are true." It purports to be a novel, however, when you start reading it, it's all about an author - the actual author? - who is researching an operation during WWII. We have a story within a story: the author's framing narrative, and then his version of Heydrich's life and the plot to end it which is really exciting.

The `author' tells us about film depictions of Heydrich (including the rather brilliant Conspiracy [2001]with Kenneth Branagh). He debates with himself about what to leave in and what to leave out. His girlfriend berates him for writing a cheesy sentence which imagines Himmler going red with apoplexy. He wishes that he could have written some better dialogue than documented discussions report. All this made me feel that HHhH is less of a novel, and more of a `making of' type of book.

I normally don't have any problems with this kind of metafictional concept, I am a Paul Auster fan after all! I did have problems reading HHhH as a novel though. It felt more like Anna Funder's book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall which I read earlier this year; that was a mixture of memoir and reportage - which is what HHhH felt like too. The added assertion that everything is true just added to the non-novel feel.

In particular, I didn't like his snarkiness about other authors who have written around the same subject,(not that I've read the books cited, but that's not the point). Jonathan Littell's doorstop of a novel The Kindly Ones is put down as "Houellebecq does Nazism." He also criticises a 1960 novel by Alan Burgess called Seven Men at Daybreak for waxing lyrical about the flight which will drop the parachutists into Czechoslovakia. Hang on! They're both novels - they're allowed to blend fact with fiction for the sake of the narrative aren't they? Binet's `author' raises himself above them, being "a slave to his scruples".

This was where the book failed slightly for me, because I just didn't like the `author', whether he is Binet himself or a fictional counterpart. I realise that this style was a mechanism for exploring the role of truth in an historical novel, but I found it to be too clever for its own good and even a bit heavy-handed in going on about it so much.

Apocalypse Cow
Apocalypse Cow
by Michael Logan
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sex-crazed Zombie Cows - Shouldn't work but it does, 13 May 2012
This review is from: Apocalypse Cow (Hardcover)
A comedy thriller featuring sex-crazed zombie cows - The publicity says "Shaun the Sheep meets Shaun of the Dead". Shouldn't work, but somehow it does! It recently won a half-share of the inaugural Terry Pratchett "Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now" Prize, set up by Sir Terry with publisher Transworld. So what's it about then?

Strange things are happening in Scotland. Some cows have gone mad in an abattoir, and the situation is being dealt with...Meanwhile: Teenager Geldof Peters, is itching, allergic to the hemp clothes his rabid hippy vegan mother makes him wear; Terry works at the abattoir, and is paranoid a) about getting a girlfriend, who b) is immune to the stench of death that clings to him from his job; and Lesley McBrien is a journalist under pressure - she's being made redundant and only a scoop will do.

These three disparate losers will end up being flung together in a race for their lives to get the full story out of Britain which, as more animals become infected, becomes a martial state and is quarantined by the rest of the world. The story is that the zombie-animal disease is a bio-weapon unleased by terrorists, but Lesley, Terry and Geldof know differently, as does their pursuer, the evil Mr Brown who will do anything to prevent the truth from getting out...

Geldof reminded me rather of Adrian Mole, although not as pompous, and of course his family with their lofty eco-credentials were easy targets for parody. They contrasted with their oafish burger-loving neighbours neatly, which gave plenty of scope for jokes about lentils.

Our team of heroes will, of course, have to transcend their own ineptitudes and personal stereotypes to overcome the forces against them and raise their game to outwit the scheming Brown. Even without the zomboid animals all over the place, there is gore and ultraviolence aplenty, and the plot races through its pages.

It was a fun read and I raced through it. This book reminded me of nothing so much as a Christopher Brookmyre novel with added zombie cows. I'm a big fan of Brookmyre - I don't think this was as good as his debut, Quite Ugly One Morning, but not too far off, and I can see why Pratchett & co liked it.

by R J Palacio
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Manipulated, but with kindness ..., 12 May 2012
This review is from: Wonder (Hardcover)
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A ten year old boy starts at a new school in the fifth grade...
It's a good prep school, he passed the exam with flying colours...
It'll be the first time he's been to school, ever...
He's been home-schooled by his Mom...
Auggie (short for August) is clever, funny and loves Star Wars...
He doesn't have many friends, but his sister Via, and Daisy the dog make up for that...
Why? Because people stare, then look away quickly...
Auggie's face takes some getting used to...
He was born with multiple facial problems including a cleft palate...
But underneath it he's a normal boy, who just wants to be loved ...
It's going to be a hard year...

That is the essence of this book in a nutshell, which follows Auggie's first year in school. I'm not going to say much more about the plot, as you can work out what sorts of things will happen. This brave youngster is putting himself (and us) on a roller-coaster that will have huge ups and downs, many twists and turns before it pulls back in to the station for the summer recess.

Yes, we readers are manipulated. Yes, it's a bit sentimental, designed to tug at your heart-strings. But, it was unputdownable. I smiled when Auggie won battles, I got cross when he struggled, and at one point I did cry. I didn't mind all this though, for it was done with kindness.

Written for children, this book illustrates the issues of living with deformity really well. We start off with Auggie telling his own story, but in later chapters the tale is handed over to his sister and his friends, interspersed with more of Auggie's voice. We hear both sides, including what it's like being the sister or friend of someone like Auggie. There are many, many valuable points about bullying and friendship to be gleaned from Auggie and his classmates. Underlying it all though, as set out by their English teacher Mr Browne, in his `Precepts' for life, is the quality of being kind. He tells them, "When given the choice between being right or being kind. Be Kind."

I hope this book achieves a wide readership among boys and girls. They'll find that Auggie is actually great company - he's very self-deprecating and funny. The author captures the personalities of all the children brilliantly, as she does Auggie's parents. Speaking of parents, I also hope that enough of them read it too - there is one event later in the book that should be a lesson to all grown-ups about snobbishness and tolerance. It got me really cross!

It may have been predictable reading it as an adult, but I loved this novel. I laughed, I cried and I couldn't put it down.

The Devil's Beat
The Devil's Beat
by Robert Edric
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.99

4.0 out of 5 stars If you go down to the woods today ..., 12 May 2012
This review is from: The Devil's Beat (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Reading the blurb of the latest novel from Edric, I had visions of Arthur Miller's masterpiece, The Crucible, updated to the early 20th century but actually, it has more in common with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale.

Four girls claim to have seen the Devil while out walking in the woods. Were they genuinely possessed? Or is it just hysteria?

A small Nottinghamshire town becomes the centre of attention as an enquiry is to be held. A doctor, a cleric, and a magistrate, all from the town make up three of the enquiry panel together with their leader Merritt, an outsider appointed by the Assistant Chief Constable. Together they must investigate the girls' claims and decide what happened - if they can.
As you might guess, the reverend and the magistrate have their own interests in taking part. Rev Firth is hopeful of promotion to a larger parish; Mr Webb will be running for Mayor. Nash, as a medic, is a good reader of peoples' character and will remain faithful to his oath, this will be a great help to Merritt.

Although told in the third person the story, as it unfolds, is entirely Merritt's. We arrive in the town with him, and we follow his progress step by step as he begins to get the measure of the town and its people, and the likely path of the enquiry. Merritt is an old hand. We soon learn that he has participated in thirty or so such enquiries. They always start off with huge interest, with the flames fanned by the press who sensationalise every little thing, but it usually soon dies down as the volume of depositions and paperwork needed to record everything so the facts can be sifted brings a monotony to proceedings. He hopes this will happen here too, but at last the enquiry can begin.

The enquiry will throw up huge challenges for Merritt to stay in control. His fellow panellists will have their own axes to grind; slogans and demonic symbols will be daubed around town; the newspapermen won't go away. Then, there are the four girls and their families to deal with. They are different in age and character, and Mary Cowan, the oldest is an obvious ringleader, and I'm not going to say any more about them to avoid any spoilers.

This is a novel that gives up its secrets slowly. The first hundred pages are all about taking us into the setting up of the enquiry, full of mundane activities, so by the time that Merritt is ready to go, we're longing to find out what happened, but it still goes along at a measured pace - the enquiry can only go so fast, and still Merritt has scant fact to go on. However this strict procedure isn't mirrored by events which begin to get out of hand quite quickly. Ultimately this is a book about manipulation - it's going on at all levels between the alleged victims, their families, the investigators, the press. Although Merritt strives to remain impartial and objective, even he can't help but become part of the fever for action.

Edric is an interesting author. He always seems to find a different angle to tell his story from. His writing is considered and always readable, but I was so glad when the pace of this novel did pick up a little; then I enjoyed this tale of putting the spotlight on a small town and the behaviours of its occupants.

The Fever Tree
The Fever Tree
by Jennifer McVeigh
Edition: Paperback

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A sprawling romance out of Africa, 29 April 2012
This review is from: The Fever Tree (Paperback)
You know how sometimes you're just in the mood for a sprawling romance, a continent-crossing historical epic, that sort of book. That was me last week, and The Fever Tree is such a book.

The novel opens in 1880. Frances Irvine is left destitute upon the sudden death of her father. He had been a self-made man, and he and Frances lived in comfort in London; however one last bad investment lost his fortune. Frances is left with a choice: either to go as a nurse/governess to her cousins in Manchester, or to emigrate to the Cape to marry Edwin Matthews, a young doctor that had lodged with them some time ago. Frances doesn't really know Edwin, but what choice does she have? The next chapters tell of her journey to Africa as a second class passenger, travelling with a group of young women emigrating to become nurses. It is on board ship that she meets William Westbrook - charming and so handsome... He notices her too, and soon she is itching to be released from her vows - enough said! William is a rogue though, and arriving in the Cape, she discovers that he's not what she'd hoped for. She also finds that Edwin has not set up a practice there, but instead is working for William's boss at a station in the Karoo - some way even from mining town Kimberley. She marries Edwin, but being a doctor's wife up-country is not what she expected either. Edwin meanwhile, is concerned about cases of smallpox, and the mine owners will do anything to discredit him. Their relationship faltering, Frances goes to Kimberley - where she will experience the grabbing world of the diamond mines and see for herself the exploitation of the native workers ... and see William again. Rashly, she makes some further poor decisions which will have disastrous consequences.

This was a novel of great contrasts. Between the first and second class passengers on the ship; the hard-working settler farmers and the nouveaux riches in the African cities; and particularly the greedy mine owners and their casual mistreatment of the native Africans they employed in horrific conditions. The contrasts in the landscape too, the anything goes pioneer town feel of Kimberley, compared with the "austere beauty of the Karoo" which inspired the author to write the novel.

It was hard to dislike Frances, however silly she was. She threw her heart into most things except, initially, Edwin. When things went wrong, I was rooting for her all the way. Edwin, as a doctor and scientist, is married on two fronts - he's precise, restrained and strongly principled, and finds it hard to let go, but he's a good man, (unlike William). I admired Edwin, and grew to really like him too for his inner strength.

Impeccably well-researched, this novel was full of detail and made the differences between the lives of the haves and have-nots very clear, as it did too the effects of smallpox, the epidemic and its attempted cover-up, (a true event, I gather). This attention was never at the expense of the central romance which swept me away and kept me reading, captivated, to the end.

As I read The Fever Tree, I was reminded of another epic romance that I recently - Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. O&L too featured a voyage with passengers in first and second classes, episodes in the outback, and a central faltering relationship. Although I loved O&L, its slow-burn and sheer bulk did require concentration and time to read and appreciate. The Fever Tree encompassed a similar scope in a simpler style that is crying out to be made into a film or TV series, with less pages. A brilliant debut novel - I loved it too.

by Tom Bullough
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When the sun shines, Russian winters become the best of days ..., 13 April 2012
This review is from: Konstantin (Paperback)
Konstantin is based upon the early life of one of the founding fathers of the Russian space programme - a pioneer in rocket science. The author concentrates on the period of his childhood, going through to his mid twenties where we leave him as a teacher developing his scientific ideas, but yet to realise them. The novel opens in 1867, and Kostya is taking food to his father who is working as a forester:

"Kostya hurried down the bank towards the frozen Oka, fine and light in his heavy sheepskin coat as a sparrow in its winter plumage. On the river, the tracks of the woodsmen cut north through the even snow, steering a line towards the pine logs strewn along the shore beneath the forest. Kostya ran and slid on the exposed ice. From the darkness of the birch trees he emerged in the December sunlight, one arm extended for balance, the soup can blazing beneath his shirt and his coat, and nowhere beneath the ice-blue sky could he see any movement beside his own long, wavering shadow."

The long Russian winters form the backdrop to most of this novel. There is no denying the hardship it causes to the average Russian family, but when the sun shines, Bullough's lyrical prose makes it seem like the best of days, a romantic time for tramping in the snow or going tobogganing. Here, Kostya is waxing lyrical to his brother Ignat on their way to the town's sledging hill:

"In my world, anyway, there wouldn't be any gravity, so it would be easy to pick up anything we liked. In my world, I would be able to jump versts through the air. I would be able to jump through the clouds and right out into the ether. If I wanted to go to Moscow, I would just have to run and jump and I could fly there, easy. The people in the train would see me zooming past like a cannonball! ..."

Kostya was stricken with scarlet fever when he was nine which is vividly portrayed. The ensuing deafness frees him to think, the muffled world of school no longer getting him anywhere. Aged 18 he goes off to Moscow where he studies at the free library, and gains a mentor in its librarian Nikolai Federov, a philosopher and proponent of Russian Cosmicsm, which combined culture, religion and ethics with science and evolution to look forward to the future of mankind. With Federov's encouragement and guidance Kostya flourishes in his self-teaching. We leave Konstantin a few years later - he's become an inspirational science teacher to his pupils, he's married and has become a family man, but we can sense that his best is yet to come...

Set as it is during a period of great change, where science and engineering are beginning to revolutionise life, Bullough manages to combine one man's dreams and achievements with the essential spaciness of the landscape into a rather fine Russian novel. To cap it all, an exciting coda puts Tsiolkovsky's influence on those scientists who came after him firmly on the map, telling the story of Alexei Leonov's spacewalk in 1965.

Kostya's parents were both fascinating characters not being conventional Russians, and I did miss them in the second half of the book once he'd moved to Moscow. No detail is missed in the author's descriptions though - from felt boots to the use of the old Russian units of measurement (versts and arshins etc, approx 1km and 71cm respectively), everything is authentic.

Russia, winter and science - three subjects that, when combined with his beautifully descriptive prose, made an enticing and charming read. Tom Bullough is a writer I'm longing to read more of.

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