Monday, 25 September 2017

Review: Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons

Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons by Melissa Harrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the world turns once again on the equinox, nights draw in, the sunshine from summer has been converted into nature’s bounty, mist rolls over fields and a new smell permeates the sharper mornings. Gone are the acid greens of spring and deeper shades of summer, now we have leaves turning rich reds, bold yellows and mellow browns. The swallows who arrived early summer, zoom across the fields one final time before leaving for Africa. Autumn has arrived.

Just seconds ago I was in a concrete jungle, but now I stand surrounded by damp earth, wood and October’s sepia tones – Will Harper-Penrose

So begins the final book in this series of seasons that I have read. Melissa Harrison has again gathered together a fine collection of classic prose and poetry as well as the current stalwarts of our rich seam of nature writing in the UK. Most importantly is bringing to our attention the newest authors and writers who seek their inspiration from their own patch of the natural world. To be honest, they are all good, but there are a few that are outstanding, in particular, Jane Adams, Will Harper-Penrose and Megan Shersby. I am hoping that the chance that all these authors have had to appear in print will pay off in abundance in years to come. If you want a book to read that has those evocative smells and the whiff of bonfire then this is absolutely perfect. Great little book, another beautiful cover and a cracking series.

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Sunday, 24 September 2017

Terry Pratchett Exhibition

I have been a long time fan of the strange Discworld that came from the mind of Terry Pratchett. A place that was familiar at the same time. I was genuinely upset when he succumbed to the terrible disease of Alzheimer's back in March 2015. It was a tragic loss for his fans and those that he had touched in his life.

Last week Salisbury Museum opened an exhibition to celebrate and commemorate his life and achievements.  And what achievements they were; Knight of the Realm, Professor, collector of doctorates, OBE, blackboard monitor and honorary brownie. He used his position to raise necessary awareness of the tragic illness that is Alzheimer's appearing on various TV programmes and talking to people about it and asking the important question about dignity in life and death. He said that this illness made him so angry, an anger that he said could have welded steel he still maintained his humour.

Even though I never met him, and regret not taking the opportunity to do so when he was with us, I miss him and getting the latest paperback each Christmas.

I am fortunate that I have two signed books by him, both have been found in second-hand bookshops






































The exhibition was full of personal mementoes, the sword he made, the letter from Tolkien, the first typewriter he had and a remake of his office as well as art by the fabulous Paul Kidby. I didn't take any photos, as I wanted to have the memories, but I did take one of this. I might have shed a tear at that point.



















If you loved STP's work, then this you must visit this exhibition, it is sensitively done and a fitting tribute to an author has brought much pleasure to millions of readers. I thought it would be rude to leave without buying anything, so got these.



Review: Around the Coast in Eighty Waves

Around the Coast in Eighty Waves Around the Coast in Eighty Waves by Jonathan Bennett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When you think of surfing, the beaches of Hawaii and Bondi Beach in Australia spring to mind, and that Beach Boys song will drift into your mind and stick. The UK has a surf culture too, that unbelievable has been around for over 50 years now and it has around half a million regular surfers and a large number who try it for the first time every year. Modern surfing was brought to Cornwall by four Australian lifeguards who amazed people with the way they could swoop across the waves. Its spiritual home has remained in the West Country, the place that receives a large proportion of the waves and swells from the North Atlantic. Jonathan Bennett set himself a challenge of catching a wave on eighty separate beaches all around the UK that were suitable for surfing.

But first, he needed a camper van.

Having found one in Hastings, he sets off on his fourteen-month journey around the UK. In what turns out to be the coldest winter for a while, he wishes he had bought one with a heater… Starting in Scotland, he kind of heads clockwise around the country, stopping at promising looking beaches hoping to catch that perfect wave. Living on porridge and endless cups of tea he manages to avoid going anywhere near a regular campsite, sleeping where he can hear the waves crash onto the beach. He will surf alone on one of the most remote beaches in the UK, share the water with seals, great and not so great bodyboarders and the odd unmentionable object.

This is an enjoyable account of Bennetts attempt to surf his way around the UK. The writing is straightforward with good descriptions of the people and places he meets on his surf journey. There is the odd amusing moment and the book is full of surf jargon, thankfully there is a glossary in the back of the book. Sadly what the book is missing is photos, whilst I have been to some of the beaches mentioned, I would have loved to have seen photos of the beaches surfed in the Highlands and Islands. If you have read any of Tom Anderson’s books then you will like this one. 3.5 stars

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Friday, 22 September 2017

Review: Island Years, Island Farm

Island Years, Island Farm Island Years, Island Farm by Frank Fraser Darling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fraser Darling was born in Chesterfield in northern England, the illegitimate son of Harriet Darling and Frank Moss. At the ages of 15 he ended up working on a farm and that led him to study agriculture. That led to a PhD at Edinburgh University and in time he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. At the end of the 1930’s when he was married with a young child he began his work on the Summer Isles studying gulls and grey seals as well as reclaiming land that could be used agricultural production on Tanera Mòr.

Slowly he fell in love with these bleak but beautiful islands. They are places of two seasons; a short but intense summer before a rapid switch to the winter sometime in October. They lived in a tent some on some of the islands, hunkering down as the storms swept in off the Atlantic even in the summer months. His careful observations of the wildlife and the work he carried out making a living on the islands enabled him to write a book on crofting and these two books, Island Years and Island Farm. It is a simple but tough life living as a crofter on the islands, some of the gales that he describes sound horrendous, even getting to the islands was not easy with strong swells and very few places to land. It was something that Fraser Darling relished though, he even made the commitment to buy land and settle and spent time restoring a quay and property to make life a little more comfortable.

His prose is not flowery, just solid and rational, but he still manages to fill your senses with the smell of the sea and sound of the waves. It was a uncompromising life there and whilst it wasn’t hand to mouth existence it was much made tougher when he broke his leg. This simpler time just prior to World War II, is brought vividly to life, a nature classic that made for enjoyable reading.

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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Review: A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Wild Gatherings: Quirky Collective Nouns of the Animal Kingdom

A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Wild Gatherings: Quirky Collective Nouns of the Animal Kingdom A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Wild Gatherings: Quirky Collective Nouns of the Animal Kingdom by Matt Sewell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Humans have always had a natural desire to collect and group things together. It works well for domesticated animals, where people are used to talking about a herd of cows, or a flock of sheep. But how do you collate wild animals and birds? Should they all be flocks and herds? Thankfully human imagination has gone to work on this and come up with a whole host of rich and interesting names for all species of animals.

Matt Sewell has collected together all the collective nouns for all manner of animals who inhabit land, sea and air. As well as the titled, A Charm of Goldfinches and the well-known Murder of Crows he introduces to us the less common quarrel of sparrows, a quiver of cobras, a harem of seals and deceit of lapwings. Alongside each collective noun is a delightful watercolour of the animals and a little explanation of the origins of the noun.

I really liked this enchanting little book with its colourful bold artwork and Sewell’s charming prose but if there was one minor flaw was it too brief.

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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Review: From Source to Sea

From Source to Sea From Source to Sea by Tom Chesshyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tom Chesshyre happened upon a map of the River Thames in a Bric-a-brac market on his way to the library. It was a reproduction of a map by William Tombleson showing the twists and turns from the source near Cirencester to the mouth on the Kent and Essex coasts. He could not resist buying it, and having done so, an idea formed of walking along the river from the source to the North Sea. The Thames is one of the few rivers including the Nile and the Amazon, with a global presence. Whilst the other rivers are thousands of miles long, the humble Thames is only 215 miles long, making Tom’s walk a gentle stroll compared to the adventurers Ed Stafford and Levison Wood who have walked the other two rivers.

Our most well know river has drawn all types of people through the ages, from artists and authors to those that have used the river to make their living from. It doesn’t have the exotic and dangerous elements that the Nile and the Amazon can boast, it does reflect the rich and diverse history of our country stretching back several thousand years. Passing historical churches, vast country estates and idyllic meadows before walking into the famous skyline that is London. Along the way, Chesshyre meets the great and the good and other people walking the same route as him and the characters that make the river such a dynamic place to live and work. Oh, and there are pubs too, lots of pubs

Travel books should inspire you to move from the comfort of your sofa and go and seek the places yourself. In this delightful book, Chesshyre does that. He engages with the spirit of the river and the places that he walks through, whilst pondering the implications of the recent referendum result. This is a walk that I would like to undertake myself one day as it seems to be a wonderful way to see an iconic part of our country.

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Royal Society Shortlist

The Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2017 continues that fine tradition of finding the best science books out there and introducing us to new authors and the latest books that could pique your interest. The books on the short list are quite wide ranging and all very different. I Contain Multitudes is about the microbes that live within and around us, it is not for the fainthearted at times. If millions of microbes don’t appeal, then how about reading Beyond Infinity, where Cheng takes us to another level with numbers. There are two books on the mind; Other Minds takes us on a journey to understand the inner workings of the cephalopods and In Pursuit of Memory looks at the latest research into Alzheimer’s. The two final one concern our sense of self and our bodies. Cordelia Fine takes on the myths surrounding gender in Testosterone Rex and To Be a Machine is Mark O’Connell’s exploration with those wishing to push the limits of technology and the body.

I do not envy the choice of the judges, but if I had to pick one I’d go for In Pursuit of Memory, a personal and poignant account of the latest on the tragic disease that is Alzheimer’s.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Review: London Map of Days

London Map of Days London Map of Days by Mychael Barratt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Back in 2015 the Canadian-born, but now London-based artist Mychael Barratt presented an eight plate etching of the eponymous city at the Royal Academy. This artwork, which appears in the back of the book, became the foundation for the London: Map of Days. The beautifully designed book is packed with a cornucopia of facts, anecdotes and stories that have happened, taken place or have some link with each of the 366 days (including the 29th February) in and around London. These little snippets of information are accompanied by bold sketches of the characters involved with the fact for that day.

There is something for everyone in this book as Barratt covers miscellany from subjects as diverse as the death of Chi Chi the giant panda, Hersschel’s discovery of the moons of Uranus, Queen Victoria’s marriage and the day that the last Punch magazine was printed. They are all interesting and cover all aspects of this city’s history. There is a delightful fold-out print of the entire map at the back of the book of Barratt’s original artwork too with the Thames weaving its way through the middle. An ideal book for those that like facts or London, or both!

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Sunday, 17 September 2017

Review: Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The mind is a complex entity, we have only scratched the surface in comprehending how it works and what it is capable of. The neural networks that make up the brain are capable of absorbing vast sums of information and making sense of them fast. The intelligence that we have, and can see in other mammals and birds, in particular, other primates, cetaceans, and corvids. There is another set of animals that seem to have also benefited from a large brain and complex neural networks and that is the cephalopods. You’ll probably know them better as cuttlefish, squid and the octopus. These are quite amazing creatures, not only are they aware of all that is going on around them, they can open jars to get the treat inside, have been known to squirt lights with jets of water as they don’t like the brightness and have been found crawling across the floors of laboratories in an escape bid. The skin operates like a high-res video screen as it is able to mimic its surroundings and ripple with colours depending on mood. They have been proven to recognise individual members of staff, even when in the same uniform, so much so that a person they took a dislike too would get drenched when they walked past.

Peter Godfrey-Smith first came across them when someone introduced him to a place they had called Octopolis. This was a place that had many octopi that had brought and discarded scallop shells and begun to make it a safe haven from the predators around. There were a large number of the creatures there that seemed to tolerate each other most of the time, but every now and again there would be running battles between some of the males and Godfrey-Smith was fortunate to capture these on video. Godfrey-Smith though is a philosopher of science, not a biologist, but it got him thinking; just how had this creature had evolved down a separate branch of our shared tree and had ended up at a level of sentience which was quite advanced. The octopi that he regularly sees as he scuba dives off the coast of Sydney are willing to come up and interact with him and the other divers,

It is an interesting book comparing our understanding of human consciousness with a creature that is so alien that we cannot fully get a grip on what it is thinking. There is a lot on the biological makeup of cephalopods and how their brain and nervous system works, as well as a couple of chapters on the evolution of consciousness and how the need to be aware of your surroundings has driven the development of the brain. I would have liked to read more about the observations that they had conducted on Octopolis as the chapters that were there were fascinating. Definitely worth reading for those that have an interest in marine ecology and peering into the dark recesses of the mind.

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Book Haul


Friday, 15 September 2017

Review: In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer's

In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer's In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer's by Joseph Jebelli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you think of diseases that kill people cancer and heart disease would most top peoples list, but with the population in the western world getting older, other illnesses are having an effect on mortality rates and people’s quality of life. One of the most significant is Alzheimer's and dementia, a cruel disease that leaves the shell of the person whilst stealing their personality, dignity and their memories. The first time that Joseph Jebelli came across this illness was when he was twelve years old and his grandfather started doing strange things and becoming ‘indefinably peculiar’; Gone was the warm person he had known. This family tragedy became a pivotal point in his life and drove him to pursue a career in science researching the very disease that claimed his grandfather.

I felt totally alone, with the world receding away from me in every direction, and you could have used my anger to weld steel – Sir Terry Pratchett

Jebelli is now an established expert in the field of Alzheimer's research and in this interesting and informative book he sets about describing the background with Alois Alzheimer's discovery of the illness in 1906 all the way up to the current understanding of the science behind this distressing disease. Travelling all over the world he talks to the people at the cutting edge in laboratories about the latest avenues of research as they race to find a cure. He takes time to talk to sufferers and their families gaining a heartfelt understanding of the anguish they go through every day. It is a clear and well-written exploration of the different efforts that encompass research into Alzheimer's. There is a small amount on Sir Terry Pratchett, who was sadly one of those to get early onset Alzheimer's, or his embuggerance as he called it. He donated a fairly hefty sum of money to enable research, but more importantly, he spoke about his illness and spent time raising awareness of it. Jebelli writes about a difficult and personal subject in a way that brings clarity to the dark world that is Alzheimer's, I can highly recommend this book. 4.5 stars

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Thursday, 14 September 2017

Review: Strange Heart Beating

Strange Heart Beating Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a freak accident, a swan attacks a small boat, capsizes it and Leda drowns; she was the cherished wife of Seb. Leda was originally from Latvia and even though Seb knows her, he knows very little about her family and upbringing. As he is sifting her possessions he discovers a set of unopened letters addressed to her. Opening them, he finds they are from a man that she has never mentioned and the precious little he thought that he knew about her crumbles to dust. Hampered in moving on by grief and not knowing, he decides that he has to travel to her village in Latvia to find out who she was.

Goldstone has written a strange and ethereal tale of sorrow and melancholy. Taking the character Seb at his lowest ebb, she proceeds to unravel all that he knows about his beloved and thrust him into a variety of situations in an unknown land with people who only knew Leda a little. I liked this, but whilst the writing is haunting beautiful, I felt that the plot didn’t have the necessary depth to it especially with the promise posed with the dramatic opening. A good debut, Goldstone will be an author to watch though.

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Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Review: Mind of a Survivor: What the wild has taught me about survival and success

Mind of a Survivor: What the wild has taught me about survival and success Mind of a Survivor: What the wild has taught me about survival and success by Megan Hine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Surviving anywhere takes intelligence and guile, but surviving any length of time in the wild takes a great deal of strength. Taking people out of their comfortable urban lifestyles into jungles, up into the mountains and onto the tundra and steppes of our world is another level up. Megan Hine is unusual in that she sadly is a rare female presence in the male dominated world of adventure and outdoor pursuits. However, do not let looks deceive you, she is as tough as the guys too, as surviving requires as much mental strength and rapid assessment of a situation as it does physical ability. Hine is held in such high regard that she has consulted and assisted on various TV shows including Mission Survive and Running Wild by Bear Gryll's.

This in no way makes her any less formidable, she has honed these skills from a lifetime spent outdoors in a variety of hair-raising and frankly terrifying situations. She gets alongside those she is working with to guide and instruct in the best way to survive and even thrive in the circumstances that are presenting themselves. In fact, she goes on to argue, that the most expensive kit may help, but when it comes to surviving that your biggest asset, your brain, will be the crucial element. It is just a shame that can also be your biggest liability…

She is an advocate in getting more out in the wild, not only because the natural world does you the power of good and enriches the soul but the skills you can acquire when outdoors can be hugely beneficial to everyday life at home and in the office. It is a really good book about the power of mind over matter and taking time to assess and make the correct decision, even when that judgement must be made very quickly. She writes very well, mixing her background story with anecdotes of perilous events in the wilderness and combines it all with solid practical advice.

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Monday, 11 September 2017

Why I Use Good Reads

This month the website, Good Reads, a place for book addicts and readers turned 10 years old. I have been on there since 2012 and it is a place that I visit several times every day.

There are several elements of the site that make it an essential place for all who love to read to use. It has a basic shelving system nominally based around three compulsory ‘shelves’ to read, currently reading and read. However what makes this an excellent book management system is that you can add as many shelves as you like and can call them what you want too. I have set up shelves for all manner of things, for example travel books and natural history, list of books that have been on the various book prizes that I am interested in as well as having a shelf for every year going back to 2002 listing in order (I know, I know) everything that I have read.

The to read shelf is most useful for recording everything, and I do mean everything, that I am either desperate to read or have a slight interest in. As I write this the total stands at 4583. No, I have not mistyped that number; it is 4583. Might take a while to get through those… I know that there will be some that will drop off, be deleted and actually never read, but it is a way of recording an interest in a book that I can find at any point later on. It is particularly useful when planning the next months reading, or working out a reading list for challenges and so on.

Talking of challenges, every year on the 1st January Good Read asks if you would like to set a reading target for the coming year and who can resist a challenge? For the past three years I have set a target of 190, and in 2013 set a target of 185. This year I might just scrape through the 200 barrier, might… It is not for everyone, I know, but I like having something to aim for when thinking about what that I want to read.

There is a more though. Good Reads has a great social side to the site too. As well as being able to connect with friends, and see what they are reading, every review written on the site is publicly visible and can be liked and mostly commented on. Like other social media sites, it can suffer from the odd bell end, but thankfully they are few and far between. There is also the ability to set up and join groups to link up with like-minded readers is great. I am currently a member of several who read all manner of things from sci-fi to natural history. I am also a moderator of one called Book Vipers which is a group that reads fiction, non-fiction and classics. I also design an annual challenge for the members which seems to go down well.

Support on there has been excellent, we had a sock puppet issue in the group that I moderate, and dealt with very swiftly by the team. There are flaws with the site though, it can occasionally crash which can be frustrating, it would be lovely to add half star ratings, something that they acknowledge, but with their owners being Amazon may not happen. I am also a librarian on there with the power to change book details. I once got chastised for amending the name of an author! Apologies were sent and I think that I was forgiven.

There are other sites out there, Library Thing and Book Likes are probably the most well-known. Whilst they do things slightly differently to Good Reads, they are not as popular.


So if you love reading, want to find like-minded readers and multiply your TBR tenfold, then you cannot go wrong by signing up to Good Reads. You won’t regret it, but your bank balance might…

You can find me here on Good Reads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/11951948-paul 

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Review: Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of the Mathematical Universe

Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of the Mathematical Universe Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of the Mathematical Universe by Eugenia Cheng
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are some big numbers out there, footballers earn a jaw dropping amount per year, for what I am not entirely sure… The global economy is around US$107.5 trillion, there are approximately seven quintillion, five hundred quadrillion grains of sand on the earth and it is thought that there are 10 times as many stars as that. All of these numbers are frankly huge, enormous, gargantuan even, but compared to ∞ they are a mere drop in the ocean. In this book, Eugenia Cheng takes us on a journey to the outer reaches of the mathematical universe to contemplate the slightly abstract concept that is infinity. In it she poses various questions about this number, asking if 1 + ∞ is larger than ∞ + 1, are some infinities larger than others, can you fit an infinite number of people in Hilbert's Hotel and when does a number start becoming irrational.

Thankfully this book has lots of diagrams as Cheng sets about explaining the concepts of infinity, from the very simplest right up to the most detailed. I found most of it straightforward, but occasionally it was fairly tough going. When trying to get your head around infinity has challenged mathematicians for ages so it is not going to be easy for us mere mortals. Cheng endeavours to keep the prose readable, however, someone who has not picked up a maths book since school might struggle with this, but most of the time she gets the concepts across clearly. Overall a good introduction to infinity.

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Thursday, 7 September 2017

Review: The Internet is Not the Answer

The Internet is Not the Answer The Internet is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where would we be without the internet and the world wide web in particular? Since its conception in the 1960’s (yes really that long ago) it has grown at an exponential rate and has come to permeate our entire lives in a variety of different ways. In its short existence, it has had bubbles as investors have rushed into schemes, made people fortunes as well as almost become as essential as shelter, food and water. For every laudable use for the net to connect like-minded people across the globe there are many dubious activities; theft, fraud, deception and trolling spring to mind. What you also have now is a consolidation of power as the huge monoliths of the web, Facebook, Google, Amazon have brazenly bullied, bought and pushed their way to the top of the virtual pile.

With this concentration of power has come a pervasive surveillance by the state and private companies of every activity that we do online. There is a concentration of wealth in these people that own and run these organisations too. The negative effects that this is having is only just starting to become visible and from what Keen describes is happening in San Francisco with the polarisation of the rich and poor, it is not going to be pleasant as it affects the wider society. He has written an interesting take on the state of the net and some of the subjects reported in the book are quite eye opening. Whether or not we are too late to do anything about it, time will tell. 3.5 stars

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Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Review: Cleopatra's Needle: Two Wheels by the Water to Cairo

Cleopatra's Needle: Two Wheels by the Water to Cairo Cleopatra's Needle: Two Wheels by the Water to Cairo by Anne Mustoe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The inspiration behind this journey is for Anne Mustoe to travel from the site of Cleopatra’s Needle on the Thames in London to the place in Egypt where the original monument came from, Heliopolis. Once again she would travel alone on her bike and to add to the challenge would follow the course of rivers and seas where possible. Her journey will take through four European countries and across the Alps before crossing the Adriatic and heading down towards where Europe meets Aisa; Turkey. The last part of her ride takes her through what is now a very troubled area of the world, as she passes Syria, Lebanon and into Egypt.

This is the first of Anne Mustoe’s books that I have read. She is a pragmatic, no nonsense type of character, who does not let most things phase her. She suffers from a knee injury, is robbed, cycles up and over the Alps and runs out of whisky and gets very wet more times than she cares to remember. She cycles solo most of the time but is joined on occasions by friends. As she rolls along the route, we are told about the people she meets and learns about the history of places that she passes through. The prose is quite matter of fact as Mustoe writes in a straightforward and competent way. It is not the best cycling travel book I have read but makes for enjoyable light reading. Will be reading some of her others, as this was one of three I picked up at the same time. 2.5 Stars

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Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Monthly Muse – August

Even though I had two weeks off work in August and a lovely week in Jersey, I didn’t get as much read as I wanted too. This month’s reading was a varied selection, with everything from how they built one of the fastest and highest flying jets in the world to a man who rebuilds things just for the pure pleasure of it. These are the books I read:




 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Managed to read four books this month for the World from my Armchair Challenge; Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie, Walking Home from Mongolia, Land of the Midnight Sun and Cleopatra's Needle. Two of the authors were cycling different ways across Europe, and Rob Lilwall decided to walk from Mongolia to Hong Kong, whilst Alexander Armstrong visited several countries that ring the Arctic Ocean. All very different perspectives and experiences of the countries that they travel through from the different authors. I much prefer Andrew Martin’s non-fiction to his novels and Night Trains lives up to expectations as he travels across Europe at night
 
Read a couple of science fiction books too, Touch by the very talented Claire North which was about a ghost who could travel between people at will and the search for this ghost to avenge a murder. Rule 34 was about near future police investigation into some very strange deaths, completely mad and great fun, i.e. classic Charles Stross! Turing’s Cathedral was about the very origins of computers and the men that made them, sadly there wasn’t much on Turing. The Secret Life is an investigative journalists stories about three modern day internet people, two real and one fake. Makes for interesting reading.

The science of gender is a sensitive subject, and in Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine looks at the issues and the stereotypes that exist. It is one of the shortlisted books for the Royal Society Prize, which is a great way of finding new authors and titles for high quality science writing. Blackbird is a compact volume about of one of the engineering marvels of the Cold War, this plane broke a number of records with regards to height and speed as well as pushing the technology in new materials for aerospace. The English Guide to Birdwatching is a novel about two authors with the same name as the authors of the book, and a stolen manuscript. There were elements that I liked, but there were several parts that I couldn’t get along with as they jarred with the rest of the book.

Gods of the Morning is the first of John Lister-Kays’ books that I have read. He has been based at the Aigas Field Centre for many years and this is a lovely little book of his observations of the natural world around him. Limestone Country is the latest addition to the Little Toller Monograph series. These are carefully chosen contemporary works that have a strong focus on either landscape or natural history. This is about four places where Fiona Sampson has lived that she has fallen in love with that all have limestone as their bedrock.

My book of the month though was Turning by Jessica Lee. An emigre from Canada to Berlin, Lee decides to swim over the course of a year in 52 of the lakes that surround the city. It is a beautifully written book that is quite astonishing for a debut author.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Review: An English Guide to Birdwatching

An English Guide to Birdwatching An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lily Lynch and Stephen Osmer are your archetypical fashionable couple; she is an artist and he is a journalist and critic and they are heavily involved with the glamorous arty people of London. Osmer likes to write confrontational stuff about all sorts of subjects, including about an author and critic both called Nicholas Royle. Silas and Ethel Woodlock have retired to the Sussex coast to spend their final years near the sea, but what they had not taken into account is how much noise and distress the gulls would cause them. At a loss for things to do in retirement, Silas takes up creative writing and starts to think that he might have found something that he could enjoy.

When he finds his first short story ‘Gulls’ in a book called Murmurations: An Anthology of Uncanny Stories About Birds, he is not very happy. In fact, he is livid, absolutely livid, because the story has been attributed to an author called Nicholas Royle. Woodlock knows it is not Royle’s as it is the same as the manuscript that was left in a pub several months earlier after he had passed it to Ethel to read. Woodlock finds out where Nicolas Royle lives and in a moment of fury, decides that he needs to go and talk to him about this. He arrives mid-way through a party and lets rip at Royle before events take a much sinister turn.

There were parts of this novel that I liked; the way that the Woodlock’s fitted each other well, but were unsettled by the move to a new area. In real life, there are two authors called Nicholas Royle, who are frequently muddled and I liked the way that he has picked up on this and made it an integral part of the book. I liked the short essays called Hides, but it really jarred as it didn’t fit in with the novel and I am not quite sure why the conclusion of the novel is in the final essay. It is ok, but not fantastic.

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Friday, 1 September 2017

Book Post







Review: The Secret Life: Three True Stories

The Secret Life: Three True Stories The Secret Life: Three True Stories by Andrew O'Hagan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Modern society has become utterly reliant on the internet. It is pervasive and has many positive and negative aspects, from the way that it can bring people together to the troubling undercurrents of the darknet. In The Secret Life, Andrew O'Hagan brings us three different stories, one of a man who courted public opinion whilst holding it in contempt, a man who was thought to be someone else and shies away from the spotlight and a final story about a man who does not exist. All of these individuals live in the hazy zone between real and online life.

His first story concerns Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, the website that looks to get under every government’s skin. Assange had signed a fairly substantial deal with Canongate to tell his life story, and O'Hagan is brought in to interview, document and prepare a readable text ready for publication. Assange is a hugely complex character who suffers from justified paranoia, vanity and narcissistic tendencies, who wants to portray a particular image of himself and his website; he reviles excessive state controls that some countries apply, whilst missing the irony of applying similar rules to those that work for and with him. O'Hagan somehow manages to cobble together a manuscript for the publishers, but has come to realise that Assange doesn’t want to publish at all, merely to have the prestige of being an author.

The second essay describes how O’Hagan uses the identity of a deceased young man, Ronnie Pinn, to construct and fake real and online profile. After obtaining a birth certificate he starts by signing up to a couple of social media platforms, as the fake identity grows and the credibility of the identity is established, he starts to venture into the murky world of the dark net where illegal items are easy to obtain. It is all simple to do, but it didn’t really tell O’Hagan who Ronnie Pinn actually was, the more he investigated he realised that he was a much of a ghost in real life as he was on the net. Until one day he found out that his mother was still alive.

The third and final story is called the ‘The Satoshi Affair’ about the mysterious and elusive creator of Bitcoins. For ages no one really knew who Satoshi Nakamoto was, or if it was a group of people who pulled together the code to make the blockchain database that is the foundation of the Bitcoin credibility. There was lots of speculation as to the identity. O’Hagan was then asked to write the story of Satoshi Nakamoto, who may be an Australian web developer and former academic called Craig Wright. He had just avoided being arrested shortly after it was suggested by a website that he was Nakamoto and had headed to the UK with his wife. As O’Hagan interviews him, there are points of lucidity and certain moment when no one is actually sure if he is trying to pull the most elaborate hoax ever.

O’Hagan has bought together three fascinating stories of the modern day blend of real world and online personas and identity. It is quite shocking is some ways just what someone can achieve and obtain in the dark recesses of the net with little or no effort. The essay about Assange made for entertaining reading, just to see what he was actually like from an insiders view was quite an eye opener too. Craig Wright’s story was the hardest to get a grip on, even though he is a clever bloke and more than capable of coming up with the blockchain, there are still elements of doubt as to whether he is the legendary Nakamoto or not. Overall I thought that this was an enjoyable book of our modern age. 3.5 stars.

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Thursday, 31 August 2017

Review: The Reassembler

The Reassembler The Reassembler by James May
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Modern gadgets and machines are designed to have almost no user serviceable parts, even a washing machine these days will need a technician to plug in a laptop to verify the fault before he is able to repair it. Gone are the days where most things could be repaired, though James May argues that this was because products were expensive, not particularly well made, often went wrong and so needed repairing and routine maintenance. He prefers modern gadgets that don’t need repairing or fiddling with to function. For May, reassembling items is a form of therapy; the act of creation calms and stimulates at the same time. That, and he has a thing about having the correct tools and screwdrivers in particular.

This is a nice tie into the series with lots of colour pictures from the workshop that he used on TV as he takes a pile of nicely laid out parts and makes a lawnmower and a guitar and an old Bakelite telephone. It is full of his rambling philosophy and dry sardonic wit, with short essays explaining how a specific item works, though sadly there is not as much text as I’d like. I completely get why he needs to assemble things, it is a theme that seems to be gaining traction elsewhere that using our hands to make and create is good for the soul. As an engineer (electronics and mechanical) I would have liked more detail on the items he was reassembling, but this an ideal book for the general reader.

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Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Review: Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper

Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper by Andrew Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Modern travel is ubiquitous. For a startlingly small amount of money, you can fly to a lot of places around Europe with the budget airlines. This does involve having to get to some slightly obscure airports at some unearthly hour of the morning, pass through a moderately humiliating security check before winging your way to the sun. Have the days of glamourous travel final vanished? However, there are still ways of arriving in a foreign city feeling refreshed without having to suffer the cattle class air transport and that is to find the night trains that are still running across Europe.

Andrew Martin decides to see if they are still a viable method of travelling across the continent and to see if the glamour of the past age has rubbed off on the modern transport. Martin catches various trains across Europe; The Blue Train from the Gare de Lyon in the heart of Paris to Nice on the Mediterranean coast, The ‘Orient Express’, a train that is a legend in its own right, though they no longer recommend carrying a pistol. He travels into the twilight zone on The Nordland Railway, one of Europe’s most scenic train journeys. He takes the Berlin Night Express that travels from the Swedish city of Malmö to Berlin before heading back to Paris for The Sud Express and then Paris-Venice.

This is part travelogue and partly a nostalgic look back at the golden age of night express trains that used to flow back and forwards across Europe. It is a more expensive way to travel, but whilst it doesn’t have the prestige of years past with their gilded dining carriages and champagne flowing, going to sleep in one country and waking up in another, definitely makes the travel element a major part of the experience. It is still a relatively safe form of travel that attracts a variety of characters and because it is not always straightforward it makes for interesting reading. It was a way of him reliving some of the holidays that he had as a small child travelling Europe with his father and sister, arranged for by The British Railwaymen’s Touring Club in the early 1970’s. I have read a number of Martin’s books in the past and this is another that he has written that is definitely worth reading. 3.5 stars

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