Friday 29 April 2016

Got a review copy of Hunter Killer: Inside the lethal world of drone warfare by T. Mark McCurley through the post today and these from the library:

Around the Coast in Eighty Waves by Jonathan Bennett
The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury
Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks

Thursday 28 April 2016

Review: The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy

The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being out and about in the countryside has lots of positives; the views, the fresh air, the sound of bird song and restores our deep connections with the natural world. In The Moth Snowstorm he argues that we cannot be fully human if we lose those connections; for McCarthy the greatest gift that nature gives him is joy. The connections that link us to the outdoors run far back in our DNA, surveys have demonstrated that people subconsciously prefer the open savannah landscapes above all others and that patients in hospital heal faster when they have a view of the natural world through a window. Using various examples, he provides evidence of the damage that we are causing to the animals and landscapes of this world in the pursuit of profit and control. He describes pointless civil engineering projects in the South China Sea, blocking mud flats from the sea and stopping millions of birds having a place to feed on their long migratory routes.

McCarthy takes time to describe those pivotal points that changed his life. These moments of joy are deftly woven with the pain that the family suffered when he was young when his mother was admitted to an asylum and as his father was away at sea a lot, they were moved to his uncle and aunts house. His brother was traumatised by it; Michael sought solace in bird watching to avoid thinking of the pain and the loss. The family were reunited, though the relationships were fragile and strained. It took years for him to understand his exact feelings properly.

It is a beautifully written book by an accomplished author. You are not left in any doubt by his fury at the destruction of habitats and places that creatures are totally dependent on them for survival. Whilst we still have some fantastic things left to see, he remind us of what we have lost. The title of the book is a recollection of the masses of moths that people remember driving through a few decades ago that were attracted to the headlights. The decline of some species has reached 90% and they are the lucky ones; others are no longer with us. He is critical of some of the attempts to reverse the trends, explaining why he thinks that they don’t go far enough.

Frankly it is a worrying book; if we mess this up we don’t have another planet. 4.5 stars

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Wednesday 27 April 2016

Review: Being A Beast

Being A Beast Being A Beast by Charles Foster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Have you ever wondered just what it would be like to be an eagle soaring on thermals or a stag surveying your territory? Some of us may have whilst walking in the countryside or over a contemplative drink, but Charles Foster wanted to know what it was like. Really, really wanted to know… So he chose five different animals; swift, deer, fox, otter and badger, and would try to live their lives as best he could.

He spent six weeks with his son living as a badger inside a hill in Wales in a sett that a friend of his with a JCB had excavated. His friend would leave meals for them to scavenge; but they went for it, eating earthworms and other things that the forest provided, trying to move around on all fours to get a badger’s eye view of the woods they were in. Trying to mimic what an otter does, meant that he spent quite a while splashing around in rivers failing to catch fish, and leaving his own spraints along the banks. Living as an urban fox was easier, sleeping rough in back gardens and scavenging for food in bins, but it did nearly get him arrested! He spends time deep in woods being a deer, imagining what it would be like to be tracked by hounds. Becoming a swift was possibly the hardest, as flying unaided has evaded humans., but he did have a go with a parachute to get a feel of the wind in his hair, and the flies in his teeth.

The human view of the world has some parallels to these creatures; we share the same senses; sight, smell, taste and sound, but their adaption has made them specialists in very particular ways, enhancing their senses so that they survive and thrive. This book is very different to the usual ones that you will read on wildlife. By making the effort to see things from the animal point of view, he has given us a very, very different perspective on the natural world. That and he is a little bit mad… But it works; drawing on neuroscience and psychology his efforts to emulate the lives of the five animals, give him an insight to their daily struggle for survival. There are some amusing moments, and there were parts that I found revolting; but it was refreshing to read something with a very different perspective to the usual natural history books. 3.5 stars overall.

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Monday 25 April 2016

Review: The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District

The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When people think of the Lake District the first thing that comes to mind is the landscape; the majestic fells, the lakes and tarns nestled among the peaks and valleys and the harsh beauty of our National Park. It is a place that has inspired writers and artists for hundreds of years, and has 16 million visitors every year. However, for a number of people they are completely dependent on this landscape to make their living. James Rebanks is one of those people.

The Rebanks family have lived and worked as shepherds in the Lake District for generations. His father was a shepherd before him, and his grandfather taught both of them all he knew. The inexorable grind of the seasons defines what they do and when. The Herdwick flock is moved up onto the high fell during the summer, and all the farmers gather to bring it down at the end of the season. The shows and sales are in the autumn when they sell the spare lambs and look for the new males tups to add to their bloodlines and quality of stock. Winter is the hardest time; the incessant rain, heavy snows and storms make keeping the sheep alive a daily battle, even for the tough Herdwicks. Spring brings new challenges as it is lambing time. Most of his flock can manage perfectly well, but there is always those that can’t and need that extra assistance. As another year passes the sheep are move back up onto the fells once again.

‘This is my life. I want no other.’

Rebanks is not afraid of hard work. Following his father and grandfather into this way of life, and he has chosen a tough and demanding career, but he loves it. He paid little attention at school, wanting to be out in the fields and up on the fells, continuing a way of life that people from the Viking age would still recognise. In his early twenties started education again this time with the single mindedness and determination to succeed. It gave him a separate career that supports the work on the farm. Like his father, he is strong minded and opinionated; great qualities for battling through all that the elements and bureaucracy have to throw at him, but not necessarily for making relationships straightforward. He is not the most eloquent or lyrical of writers, he tells it as it is, but the enthusiasm for his way of life comes across is deep hearted and honest and this is what makes this book such a pleasure to read.

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Sunday 24 April 2016

Went to a World book night event last night and managed to collect two new books:

The Hurley Maker's Son by Patrick Deeley
The Running Hare: The secret life of farmland by John Lewis-Stempel

And was given one of the new Bard is my Bag Tote bags too.

Saturday 23 April 2016

Library Haul today:
Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster 
Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies by Peter Marren
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy byMichael McCarthy 
Fellside by M.R. Carey 

And received a review copy of :
The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World by Laurence Scott

Friday 22 April 2016

Review: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What makes writing good? Is is a pedantic knowledge of of all the rules and having perfect grammar and punctuation or understanding those rules and knowing when to bend them? Writing well is not an easy task, ask any author who has a deadline, as it demands consistency and coherence. In this book the linguist Steve Pinker brings us the latest scientific understanding about what makes our language great.

The book is full of examples of how to write well, as well as illustrations of how not to do it. His wit and humour underlies all that he writes, as he outlines best practice, and then mentions that he disobeyed the rules in the paragraph before and did you notice? He has selected a number of cartoons to illustrate his points and has a series of anecdotes to reinforce the points that he is making, the most amusing of which was where an academic had written a critic of Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, pointing out all her grammatical errors; he then had another author write an article highlighting the errors he had made. It could have gone on forever…

Overall it was worth reading. It is written from an American linguistic perspective, but he does acknowledge the subtle differences between their language and ours. The English language is an immense too that has layers and layers of complexity and subtlety, and this goes so way to give modern writers a framework.

One to dip into again I think.

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Tuesday 19 April 2016

Review: Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage

Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage by Kathleen Winter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Northwest passage is the route across the roof of the world at the very top of the Americas connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and is a thing of myth and legend. It has claimed whole ships and countless lives as they ventured into the ice and uncharted territories. With the rise of global temperatures this passage is now open to shipping, but it is still a place of mystery and unknown landscapes. In 2010 Kathleen Winter was asked if she would like to join a ship making this voyage, as the official writer. She would join various people on the ship, historians, scientists and archaeologists, each there for a particular reason.

Her journey started in Greenland. The towns and villages have gaudy coloured homes that perch on the shores of this immense landmass; it is part of Denmark at the moment, and their influence is strong over the local population. As they reached the shores of North Canada, Winter is starting to get to know the others on the ship and start the process of making friends, and understanding why they have come on this journey and learning some of the skills and knowledge that they have bought. They are given the opportunity to leave the ship at certain points and explore the landscape and meet the Inuit people. The far north is in a state of flux at the moment, and the rights of the people who have deep attachment to their land are being ridden roughshod over as nation look to exploit the vast mineral resources of the region. It is also a personal journey of reminiscences of her parent’s journey from the UK to Newfoundland to start a new life and the difficulties and challenges that she encountered starting afresh.

Winter’s lyrical prose in this book is wonderful. She treads lightly amongst her subjects, wanting to encounter places and experiences, rather than have them pointed out to her. Her descriptions of the places are intense and haunting as she evokes the stark beauty of this harsh land. She mentions one of my favourite books of all time in here too, This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich, an accoutof her seven trips to Greenland. There were times when Winter’s writing reminded me of Ehrlich’s book with her descriptions of the landscape and people. So why only four stars? As fascinating as her own personal memories were, I think that it took a little away from the journey that she undertook across this dramatic landscape.

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Sunday 17 April 2016

Had three reservations to collect from the library and accidentally ended up getting three more. Oops..

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Traveller's Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World by Andrea Wulf

Looking for the Goshawk by Conor Mark Jameson

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

My Hour by Bradley Wiggins

Review: The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers who Sought to see the Future

The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers who Sought to see the Future The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers who Sought to see the Future by Peter Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When English people are not sure what to talk about, they discuss the weather. They probably did that 300 odd years ago too, but rather than seeing that the weather was part of a global system, it was assumed that all weather was Gods will, and a storm was evidence of his displeasure. In this book Moore brings to us the men who went against the convention and dogma of the day, with the hope of unlocking the secrets of the skies and understanding what made our weather.

The pioneers of science first sought to quantify and bring order to the atmosphere. There is Luke Howard the man who described and named the different cloud formations, Francis Beaufort who devised a scale so that wind strength could be quantified. James Glaisher started in astronomy but his fascination in the weather meant that he was the ideal man to take measurements in the first trips in hot air balloons to understand the upper atmosphere. Key to it all was Admiral Robert FitzRoy, sailor, explorer, scientist and the founder of what we now know as he Met Office. There were others too; James Epsy who thought he could control the weather, and the American scientists who explained the reason why a hurricane twists. There were others who contributed, in other technologies, such as Samuel Morse who gave us the telegraph, and allowed rapid transmission of the data collected by individuals across the country to the office in Whitehall.

These men were driven by saving lives for the navy and coastal communities. They taught people how to understand the instruments that they were using to take measurements. He describes the fight that they had against the vested interests of the day, as well as they complete disbelief that these men could predict the weather and in particular storms. The first few times that FitzRoy got a storm prediction wrong he was lambasted in the papers, but the men who used these warnings knew that these were vital to their trades.

Moore brings these men together in a narrative that is fascinating and compelling in equal measure. He brings alive the drive and obsession that these men had in understanding how the weather happened, and more importantly what happens on a summer day, compared to another day. The legacy that they have given us is a much better understanding of the atmosphere, weather trends and cycles. It has also given us the Met Office. One of our national sports is slating them when they get something wrong, especially on long term predictions or missing the odd hurricane, but for the day to day forecasts they are normally pretty good. Overall a pretty good book, but I would have preferred a more UK focus as he did head across the Atlantic and Channel fairly often, but still well worth reading.

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Friday 15 April 2016

Review: For the Love of Radio 4 An Unofficial Companion

For the Love of Radio 4 An Unofficial Companion For the Love of Radio 4 An Unofficial Companion by Caroline Hodgson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Radio 4 makes up about 95% of my radio listening with the odd venture into Radio 1 on a Friday evening for the dance music. Very rarely listen to Radio 2, though I have memories of hearing Wogan & co on as a child on my parents radio, and would never ever contemplate turning Radio 3 on. Ever.

Radio 4 is a national institution now.

This book is crammed full of facts and anecdotes on this station that offers a background murmur to millions of Britons throughout the day. Hodgson has dredged the archive and pulled together masses of detail on programmes, the people and the shows that make this station unique. The book is split into the main areas that are covered, so there are chapters on the news and political analysis, the dramas, the arts and sciences and the superb comedy shows that are available. Each chapter has lots on the programmes that fill the airwaves and how we got to where we are today with a historical snapshot of the section.

I don’t like everything that is transmitted, but it is a broad church, and there is genuinely something for everyone on the station. My favourite programmes are the Friday night satirical comedies, that have the mix of biting political satire with almost no holds barred. Great stuff. The channel is a bit weaker now on the science since Material World went, but it still has a good mix of news and documentaries. The book brings alive those programmes that is has that offer comfort to regular listeners; the unhurried tones of the shipping news, John Humphries savaging the current politicians and the metronomic pips. It is not without its flaws though. It does feel bitty as it jumps from history to fact to potted biographies of presenters.

Worth a read if you’re a fan of the station.

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Review: The Hunt

The Hunt The Hunt by Alastair Fothergill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another good tie in to the BBC series, The Hunt. Through 240 still photographs and footage from the show, the book captures the life and death moments of the hunter and the meal. In the series and the book the show’s producers and cameramen roamed the entire globe, trying to get those image that define a species. They went to the bitterly cold and bleak Arctic oceans and islands to bring us killer whales and polar bears, to the humid rainforests where Harpy eagles are one of the top predators, to the blistering heat of the African savannah following lions and cheetahs after their next meal.

The images are exquisite. They have captured and selected the best moments of the hunt, using the latest technology and cameras to bring alive the energy and effort that these animals use to survive the day. Whilst filming they made some cutting edge scientific discoveries too, and the text provides details of these. The final chapter is about how they filmed the series, with photographs of the camera crews at work, and how the final fantastic images were frequently obtained after a long period of waiting, and how those watching the hunter, almost became prey. Another good coffee table book; now to watch the series.

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Thursday 14 April 2016

The last time I went to Olympia it was for the great British Beer Festival, but this was the first time for the London Book Fair, and it was an experience, and very different from the Beer Festival!

There are hundreds of stands there, right from the tinies publishers with one self of books right up to the behemoths of publishing Penguin Random House with their huge stand. It is set over two floors with the smaller companies and organisations around the balconies looking down on the main event.

I arrived shortly after 10, and promptly got lost, even though it wasn't that busy at the time. I had made a list of publishers that I wanted to visit, and after I had oriented myself, I started wandering up and down trying to find them. The main reason for going though was to meet up with the lovely people from nb magazine and Nudge. More on that in another post.

You are not able to get on the large publishers stands unless you have a prior appointment. The smaller publishers though were great, they were welcoming, interested in why I was there and managed to get my details in front of a few PR types. Also managed to meet a number of people I have only known in the virtual bookworld up until now including Marc from Angry Robot. Great guy.

Wasn't sure what to expect with regards to book samples. Did manage to get three though:

Drake by Peter McLean
Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty
Granta 133

I also collected a number of bookmarks and the owner of Little Toller gave me a fantastic tote bag. One for the library books. I also have a substantial number of new catalogues from numerous publishers; my already out of control TBR is not going to get any lower...

Would I go again? Yes, well worth the trip, and as my name gets out there it would be good to meet more people next time.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Review: The Bloody Quarrel: The Complete Edition

The Bloody Quarrel: The Complete Edition The Bloody Quarrel: The Complete Edition by Duncan Lay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fallon has made what may be his most fatal of errors; he has shot down the one man who he trusted to save his country. But the King sees him as a hero, rather than the murderer that he is. He is drawn into the inner circle of the King’s court where he becomes mixed up in all the court plots and intrigue. This is taking him away from the task that he came there for, rescuing him wife and the families of his men from the cruel Kottermani where they are held as slaves. But first he has to survive.


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Review: The Redemption of Erâth: Exile

The Redemption of Erâth: Exile The Redemption of Erâth: Exile by Satis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Brandyé is beginning to learn the proper meaning of solitude; exiled from his home, he is lost on the shore of a black sea, but whilst alone he realizes that he may just have an influence on the world at large, but he has to cope with Darkness closing round him. Just as he is getting used to the loneliness, he is captured by the Cosari, a seafaring nation, who celebrate their trinity of glory, battle and death.

Read the rest of this review here

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Tuesday 12 April 2016

Review: A Time To Keep Silence

A Time To Keep Silence A Time To Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Patrick Leigh Fermor is a man of action and adventure. He walked across Europe at the age of 17 and captured a Nazi General in an audacious operation in the Second World War. He was a person who enjoyed his food and drink and was frequently the life and soul of the party. He is the last person that you would expect to venture into a monastery to spend time with the monks. He visited two monasteries in this study of religious life; a Trappist one, La Grande Trappe and a Cistercian one in France, Abbey of St Wandrille. The transition to monastery life for Fermor was quite tough, even though he took a discrete flash of brandy.

In the days that he was there, he grew to appreciate the routines and timelessness of the days. A lot of the monks day is spent in silence, particularly over meals, difficult for someone who has spent much time enjoying the social aspects of sharing food and wine. The monks that he could speak to gave him an insight to the lives that they led there, and how they lived before. In the one monastery, the librarian provided him with the key so he could enter as and when suited him, and he spent time reading his way through some of the books there. As tough as it was settling in to the monastic way of life, it was almost as difficult leaving and reverting to normal life, which surprised him somewhat. The third monastery he visited was an abandoned one in Turkey. The Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia are carved from the mountain itself, and the organic form brought calmness and the solitude that the monks required.

This is very different to the other books of his that I have read before; gone is the bravado and adventure, instead there is quiet observation and sensitive, respective prose. He brings alive the history of the places he stays too, they had been founded and built way back in time. He explores his feelings too, losing the sense of death and foreboding and restriction to enjoying the solitude and peace that being there bought. It also shows is his capacity to mix with all types of people, from the abbots whose word was law, to the lowliest monk and bring their characters out in his books. Well worth reading. 3.5 stars overall.

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I am off to the the London Book Fair tomorrow. First time I have ever been and I am really looking forward to it. #LBF16

Saturday 9 April 2016

Review: Invisible: The History of the Unseen from Plato to Particle Physics

Invisible: The History of the Unseen from Plato to Particle Physics Invisible: The History of the Unseen from Plato to Particle Physics by Philip Ball
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The ability to become invisible has been a fascination of the human race for millennia. But what would you do if you could vanish from sight? Would you use your new found power or abuse it? In this book, Philip Ball has mixed science and history to reveal this subject. Starting with the myths and legends of Plato, before moving through the occult fascination of the dark and middle ages, and ends up with the Victorians and their captivation with ghosts, fairies, magic and auras.

Following the historical part, Ball moves onto the modern ages with several interesting chapters on the advent of radio transmissions, on radiation and X-rays, the discovery of bacteria and viruses following the invention of the microscope. There is a chapter on the evolution of military camouflage, from the bright reds and blues of the army, and how they ended up with the drab khaki colours for armies. The naval part is quite good, with photos on some of the mad ideas that they had to hide boats and ships from the enemy. The stealth aircraft these days manage to look like something the size of a golf ball on a radar screen, quite amazing given their size.

Overall it is a good book. I felt that he spent a little too long on the historical detail, and I would have preferred much more on the modern technologies that scientists and engineers are using to make people and object disappear from sight. Worth reading though, as all Philips Ball’s book are.

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Here we go then, my first venture into blogging.

I am a reader, who is very active on Good Reads. I have just made it onto the top 100 list, and then received an email this week with this on:

I was stunned! There are 20,000,00 users on there, but I am still stunned.

I read nigh on 200 books every year, and my favourite genres are travel and natural history. I do read all sorts of other things too, contemporary fiction, science, science fiction, and lots more.