Saturday, 21 October 2017

Review: Wonderland: A Year of Britain's Wildlife, Day by Day

Wonderland: A Year of Britain's Wildlife, Day by Day Wonderland: A Year of Britain's Wildlife, Day by Day by Brett Westwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We are used to hearing horror stories of the dramatic decline in our wildlife and the daily persecution that they suffer, but if you know where and more importantly when to look, we still have an amazing abundance of flora and fauna to see. Drawing on two lifetimes experience, naturalists Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss take us on a daily journey into the natural world. No stone has been left unturned as we find the creatures of moor and mountain, stream and river, field and dale and more importantly those that you might see when you look out of your kitchen window. They write about all sorts of creatures too, from the smallest flies that you can only find on particular plants, the majestic eagles you can see on the West Coast of Scotland and the fleeting visitors as they pause briefly here on their epic journeys.

As I have come to expect from Stephen Moss the writing is excellent; it is detailed whilst still being interesting. Haven’t read anything by Brett Westwood before, but have been listening to his Natural Histories on Radio 4 a lot recently and have come to like the enthusiasm for his subjects be they slugs or owls. They are an ideal partnership and this is one of the things that makes this book so special and a veritable goldmine of the natural world. Will definitely be buying this in paperback when it comes out.

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Friday, 20 October 2017

Book Post!!

Thanks to Gollancz and W&N for the first two. Found a John Lewis-Stempel I hadn't read for £2 in a charity shop too

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Review: The Secret Life of the Owl

The Secret Life of the Owl The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Birds of prey have always fascinated me, they are the pinnacle of evolution as predators and have honed their techniques to maximise their efficiency. A glimpse of one is always special, whether it is a pair of buzzards wheeling on the thermals, a kestrel hovering over a motorway verge or the stoop of the feathered exocet that is the peregrine. I have only ever seen one owl in the wild though; just after dusk this shadow dropped off a tree from the woods near my back garden and glided close over my head. It was an unnerving experience.

Nocturnal creatures have always had an element of enchantment about them with their ability to move in almost total darkness. Those that fly, like bats and owls, can seem almost magical. Their special qualities have captivated mankind for millennia, and there are traces of owls in cultures going back as far as the Stone Age. Their rounded faces with the penetrating gaze have made us consider them as wise creatures but their night activities meant that some thought they were bearers of omens and messages from the other side. The legends that they have inspired are only equalled by their actual abilities; some species can rotate their head almost all the way round, some can hover, others can fly completely silently,

I see him. Just a leaf blown through the pillars of the autumn oaks

John Lewis-Stempel is one of our current crop of writers that have taken the mantle of nature writing from luminaries of the genre such as J.A. Baker and Roger Deakin and made it their own. Lewis-Stempel has drawn on the prose and poetry from a variety of sources to shine a light on the elusive owl as well as drawing on personal experience of the owls that inhabit his land in Herefordshire. I could read John Lewis-Stempel’s prose all day and this is almost perfect with just one tiny flaw; it is too short! This is a lovely addition to my natural history library. 4.5 stars

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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Review: Land of Plenty: A Journey Through the Fields and Foods of Modern Britain

Land of Plenty: A Journey Through the Fields and Foods of Modern Britain Land of Plenty: A Journey Through the Fields and Foods of Modern Britain by Charlie Pye-Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

When people think of farming though they tend to have a rose-tinted image of farmers and those that till the soil, seeing the fields of corn waving in the breeze and the farmer leaning over the gate looking at a field of cows. Most of us would need to go back several generations to find family members who worked as farm labourers, so our disconnect from the land that feeds us is more or less complete. And yet we have shaped the very landscape around us for the past five thousand years and one of the primary reasons behind this was to provide food for people to eat. These days though we have a split population; the majority have no clue where their foods originate from as they obtain all of it in packets from the supermarket and there is a minority who are fully aware of the source of their Sunday roast and may even know what its name was…

Charlie Pye-Smith took a year travelling around the country in a motorhome to take the pulse of British farming. He meets with producers large and small, those who have farmed that patch for generations, new people who are driven by an ideal to produce better food and talks with the owners of some of the largest farms in the UK. The way that some of these people produce our cupboard staples, milk, bread, meats and drinks are all examined under his careful gaze. There is a critique of the system, that is allegedly driven by the consumer, but is actually controlled by the supermarket giants and how farmers are having to diversify just to keep their heads above water financially.

We are supposedly nine meals from a breakdown in society, so we all have a critical interest in the way that our food is produced. Pye-Smith’s book does pass a sympathetic but critical eye over the process and actually meet the people who herd the sheep, make cider, grow hundreds of tonnes of potatoes and milk the cows. There are discussions about the Common Agricultural Policy that has provided subsidies and in some cases financial lifelines to farmers. He does touch briefly on the sustainability of the industry, but there was very little on the environmental havoc the industrial style of farming has wreaked in the pursuit of the lowest price and greatest profit. This is still a book that deserves a wider audience because of the subject matter, partly as people are far more interested in what they put in their mouths nowadays. It should also be used to open the debate about the food industry especially with the growing uncertainty in a post-Brexit Britain and all that entails.

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Monday, 16 October 2017

Review: As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books by Alex Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

It was Alex Preston’s Aunt that foster his love of the natural world and birds in particular. But in his teenage years, skateboarding and listening to Niverna was considered much cooler by his peers than being stuck in a draughty hide. This passion was suppressed but it never went away. Instead, Preston was drawn into an avian world between the covers of books where the poetry and writings from luminaries such as Dillard and Fiennes, Hardy and Hughes. It took another decade and a half for him to feel comfortable in the things that he wanted to do and this reignited his desire to watch birds again.

Taking us through twenty-one birds as exotic as the blue streak that is the kingfisher and the inspiration for the title of the book, the tiny wren, and the speed of the swifts, Preston extols the virtues of each, weaving in poetry and prose taken from the books that made an impact as he grew up. There are personal stories too, his father with cancer, being alone deep into Russia and his wedding in December. All of these memories are written with a stark honesty.

Each of the twenty-one chapters is fronted by a breath-taking image created by the graphic artist Neil Gower. These full sizes colour plates show the bird is a typical scene, a peregrine in a stoop, the murmurations of the starlings, Skylarks float over golden fields and the silence of the barn owl. Scattered throughout are black and white sketches of the birds and other objects, even the endpapers are a thing of beauty; the kingfishers that make up the pattern are caught by Gower in that moment as they dive to fish. Whilst I have read some of the books that he mentions in the text I now have a longer list of items that I want to read. Preston has got to the very essence of what makes the natural world and birds in particular necessary to make ourselves whole. The book is so well produced, with its spectacular cover, high quality pages and tactile binding. It is a joy to hold and a delight to read.


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Saturday, 14 October 2017


Review: Exit West

Exit West Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In an unknown city in Asia, Saeed and Nadia slowly become aware of each other. Their meeting over a coffee is where their story begins, and slowly they start to see each other more. But in a city that is full of tension and with the low-level conflict threatening to erupt into full-scale war, their moments of intimacy are what keeps them sane. Inevitable their greatest fears are realised and civil war commences. Family members are lost in the crossfire, and they know that they need to escape to try and make something of their love and lives. Passing through a door, they end up in a European country. The battle is no more, but as aliens in a strange land, the violence may have ended but hate has not. Making the most of their lives they scratch out an existence before the opportunity for another life through another door beckons.

It is a strangely beautiful book, whilst also being heart-wrenching. Hamid has written a microcosm of the world’s troubles seen through the eyes of a couple who seek companionship as much as they do love and has come up with a metaphor for the current and growing refugee crisis. These people are often here because they have no choice, don’t particularly want to be here and would rather be in their home country living peacefully as they once did. It hovers on the edge of science and dystopian fiction with the ability of Saeed and Nadia pass through doors to other places and the way that the states they inhabit are full of drones and pervasive surveillance. I am a big fan of those type of novels, but this part jarred with the intensity of the rest of the prose on how innocent people are forced to makes these changes to their lives just to exist. It is thought-provoking though and I have a feeling that it will be a book that will rumble around in my subconscious for a while. 3.5 stars.

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