Thursday 29 September 2016

Review: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Legend says that in the Black Mountains is a cave filled with gold. One day Calum MacInnes has a dwarf call at his home seeking this mythical place. MacInnes reluctantly agrees to guide him there, for a price, and they set off for Misty Island where it supposedly is located. There is a healthy amount of distrust between the travellers, MacInnes at one point tries to lose the man, but he finds him fairly quickly. They do bond eventually and slowly reveal secrets from their past, dark secrets that no others had known before. Their secrets are linked to the cave of gold, which is claimed holds a curse for those that take it, a curse that MacInnes thinks he still carries from the first time he visited. Will they find the cave and is it cursed?

This is a moody, atmospheric tale that Gaiman has written, full of XXX and revenge. It is a story that I first read in Trigger Warnings and quite liked, but the dark tale is perfectly complemented by the artwork of Eddie Campbell who manages to convey the brooding skies and mountains of the region as the characters swirl around each other. Solid stuff from Gaiman once again.

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Wednesday 28 September 2016

Review: Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a joke that goes:

HEAVEN is where: The police are British, the chefs Italian, the mechanics are German, the lovers are French, and it's all organised by the Swiss
HELL is where: The police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss and it's all organised by the Italians!!

In Italy the trains are right in line with those stereotypes too. It is a country of fine foods, beautiful countryside, strong coffee and exasperating bureaucracy

Park is very familiar with this as he commutes frequently from Verona to Milan. The journey is a delightful as it is stressful, letting the train take the strain after struggling through the minefield of purchasing a ticket. It is full of detail too, you feel you are sharing the same view as he writes about the vineyards and orchards and the bleak industrial landscapes outside the towns and you stand alongside him admiring the soaring heights of the central stations. He is a careful observer of his fellow passengers too, noting as people rush to grab their morning coffee before snatching a seat and talking loudly to strangers unlike The UK where everyone cocoons themselves in their own little world.

His travels take him down through Italy and onto the island of Sicily. This has suffered decades of almost no investment in its railways, and the locals cannot believe that he wants to use them. He has some fairly strong opinions on the current state of the rail system, including the money spent of the fast links between towns and cities at the expense of sorting out the other problems including the most complicated ticket system going. But somehow it still functions.

As an outsider who has lived there for a number of years he is ideally placed to make these observations of his adopted country and it was a real pleasure to read too. He manages to convey just the right amount of detail coupled with a razor sharp wit, without it becoming too much.

Just like an expresso really.

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New Book!

Just had a review copy of Fun Science: A Guide to Life, the Universe and Why Science Is So Awesome by Charlie McDonnell drop through my letter box

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Review: Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World

Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World by Alastair Bonnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Apart from some obscure bits of the Amazon rainforest and Indonesian jungles we think that there can be no undiscovered parts of the world; can there? Surely, we must have discovered everything on Google Earth by now. Off The Map sets about putting that record straight. In this book, Bonnett helps us discover secret places, unexpected islands, slivers of a metropolis and hidden villages. Russia seems to have more than its fair share of secret and abandoned cities. There is Zheleznogorsk, a military town that never existed on any map and still retains some of its secrecy today. Probably the most infamous is Pripyat, abandoned days after the nuclear explosion at Chenobyl, it is slowly being reclaimed by nature; the amount of radiation means that the area will not be safe for humans to reoccupy for at least 900 years. Give or take…

Bonnett tells us about disputed borders that mean that the people still living there are unattached to any nation, a man in New York who bought the tiny strips of land alongside tower blocks for a few dollars each. There is Sealand, a fortress built in World War Two and now a self-declared principality in the North Sea. Other islands exist in out oceans too, some that are on maps that have never been there, others made from rubbish that has collected together and occasionally floating rocks; or pumice as it is better known, the residue from underwater volcanoes. There is also a huge vessel called the World, collectively owned by the residents, it ploughs the seas keeping all the riff-raff away. He mentions the abandoned villages of England from the second world war, including one just down the road from me; Arne.

It is a fascinating book, full of weird and wonderful trivia about places that you really wouldn’t want to visit on your holidays. It is also an exploration of what makes a landscape and the things we draw from it. Worth reading for anyone who is fascinated by those places that just don’t fit the map. 3.5 stars

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Saturday 24 September 2016

Library Haul

Huge haul from the library today:

Wood by Andy Goldsworthy
Pole to Pole by Michael Palin

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman
A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright

Island Home by Tim Winton
The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

Pathlands by Peter Owen-Jones
The Spy with 29 Names by Jason Webster

Friday 23 September 2016

Baillie Gifford Prize

Long list for the Baillie Gifford (formerly the Samuel Johnson) prize has just been announced:

Second-hand Time, Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich (Fitzcarraldo Editions) 
The Vanishing Man, Laura Cumming (Chatto & Windus)
Being a Beast, Charles Foster (Profile Books)
Stalin and the Scientists, Simon Ings (Faber & Faber)
Negroland: A Memoir, Margo Jefferson (Granta Books)
This is London, Ben Judah (Picador)
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, Hisham Matar (Viking)
The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee (Bodley Head)
East West Street, Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, Frances Wilson (Bloomsbury)

Not a bad collection of books there. I have read Being a Beast and Gene so far. Looking forward to the shortlist.

Review: Tracking Marco Polo

Tracking Marco Polo Tracking Marco Polo by Tim Severin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Marco Polo and his journey across the Silk Road to the Far East had always fascinated Tim Severin. When he was presented with an opportunity to follow in the explorers footsteps travelling from Venice across the Middle East to Afghanistan, he jumped at the chance. There was only one minor flaw in the plan, Tim and his companions would be travelling by motorbike and sidecar, but none of them had ever ridden a motorbike.

So begins the tale of their journey as they battle across deserts, through mountain passes overcoming floods, sandstorms and crashes. They even passed through the ominous sounding he Valley of the Assassins. Not only was riding the motorbike a struggle, the languages were a bit tricky for all three too. Severin even managed to squeeze in a camel ride seeking the famed apples of paradise in the Deh Bakri Pass.

This book is an enjoyable look at a world very different to ours today. But they were foolhardy. I cannot believe that none of them could ride a motorbike at the beginning. They had a little training, but still didn’t really gain a huge amount of competence throughout the journey. They did draw a lot from their trip, being on motorbikes they came to understand the people and culture of the countries that they visited much more than they would have done in a car or truck. Not a bad read; 2.5 stars

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Review: The Silver Eye: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts

The Silver Eye: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts The Silver Eye: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts by Susan Brind Morrow
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 the Royal Saqqara Pyramids were opened in in the late 1800s it was discovered that the walls of the burial chambers were covered in hieroglyphics that were 4000 years old. The deciphering of the Rosetta Stone enabled historians and Egyptologists to read the text on the walls, but no one could understand the collection of myths, incantations and ritualistic texts. To us in our modern age, they reveal a culture and religion with a worldview and understanding of the natural world that is completely alien.

In this book, Brind Morrow argues that they are actually a coherent and intelligent work of art and literature. She suggests that what we are reading is poetic and not mythology, and taking a more literal view of it might answer some of the questions it raises. The entire middle section of the book is her full translation of the text from the walls of the entrance chamber, antechamber and sarcophagus and at nearly 100 pages of the book it is pretty comprehensive. In the final section she picks up on details from the texts, and expands her theory of what it all means.

There were parts of this I really liked, the translation is quite magnificent for example; you get a sense of just how the ritual elements would be performed and spoken. But it is not a light and easy read as she goes into lots of detailed explanations of meaning and significance of particular hieroglyphics. There are a number of photos and diagrams scattered throughout the book, which does bring a sense of the scale of the place. At times I did get a little out of my depth, but then I haven’t read huge amounts about the Egyptian period to fill in the context. This would be an ideal book for anyone with a fascination in the Egyptian period.

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Wednesday 21 September 2016

Review: Every Thing We Touch: A 24-Hour Inventory of Our Lives

Every Thing We Touch: A 24-Hour Inventory of Our Lives Every Thing We Touch: A 24-Hour Inventory of Our Lives by Paula Zuccotti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To navigate modern life we use a myriad of things every single day; phones, spoons, tools, clothes and pencils are just some of the objects that we touch and use every single day. In this book Zuccotti has got people to log everything that they touched, then got them to bring them to a studio to have those things photographed. Each photo was taken on a large white floors and shows that person’s life that day. Some of the items are deeply personal, some have huge sentimental value and others are transitory.

Just a glance at the objects on the page and you can almost always tell if the individual is male or female, young or old, but it sometimes becomes harder as she has people from different cultures bring in the snapshots from their lives. The range of people makes it fascinating too, there are cleaners, cowboys, artists, dancers and even a nun. Each person has a little bio of why they used some of these things and gets to choose a favourite object. It is quite amazing just how many things you touch and use throughout each day just to get up, get to work or school and get back home. There are a number of things that are similar across all the people who participated, technology for example, but Zuccotti has managed to select a diverse range. There is not a huge amount to read though, unless you like reading vast lists, but if you can lay your hands on a copy it is worth spending some time flicking through.

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Today's Book

Just received Spymaster: The Life of Britain's Most Decorated Cold War Spy and Head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield by Martin Pearce in the post

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Review: Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have flown domestic, short haul and long haul flights in everything from cattle class to Upper Class and as a form of transport it is a little bit dull. Flying is seen as mundane now and love it or hate it, you cannot deny that modern air travel is the thing that has opened up the world up. It is one of the safest forms of transport ever invented too, making travelling to destinations far and wide, safe, easy and painless.

In this eloquent book, Vanhoenacker tells us just what it is like to be a commercial pilot in this modern age. The plane that he is trained to fly is the classic 380 ton Boeing 747. He tells about crossing oceans and continents, night flying and the delights of spending time in different destinations on each day of the week. He loved flying from an early age, but it was only after he graduated and ended up travelling the world as a management consultant that he started to re-consider his career choice, wondering if he could be a pilot. He took the plunge, retrained and realised his dream of becoming a pilot.

I really enjoyed this book, he writes in a calm measured way, as you’d expect and hope for, from a pilot. What comes across most is that he has never lost the sense of wonder in flying. You hear of him as a small boy being completely entranced by it and he still is now, from the magical scenes of the Northern Lights to the history behind the names of beacons that they track across the world. He takes pleasure in the names of winds and clouds, night flying with only the stars for company and reassurance in the skills of the engineers that enable him to fly. I like the way that he focuses the chapters on a particular aspect of flying; Water, Place, Air, Night and Machine; all different perspectives of the same journey.

The writing is a breath of fresh air; it is adept and detailed without feeling complicated. When he is flying across the oceans you see the curve of the earth as he does and sense the ice on the wings as they descend into world famous cities. A beautifully written book, even one for those who don’t like flying. 4.5 stars

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Monday 19 September 2016

Royal Society Prize

All my reviews have now been uplaoded onto Nudge for the six shortlisted Royal Society books:

Not sure who is going to win. I hope it is The Most Perfect Thing, but think that it might be Gene.

Saturday 17 September 2016

Review: High-Rise

High-Rise High-Rise by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Robert Laing is recently divorced, and moves into an apartment in a tower block on the outskirts of London, close to where he works as a doctor and lecturer. It is packed with all the latest conveniences that a modern Londoner needs; swimming pools, shops, supermarkets and restaurants within its four high walls. Residents need not leave the comfort of their new residence.

It doesn’t take long for him to settle in, finding friends on the different floors with similar interests and outlooks. But things start to change; the residents become uninterested in the outside world preferring to remain within their new world., and this insular perspective starts to breed trouble and violence as minor incidents become major ones as neighbours and then whole floors gang up on one another. The lower, middle and upper floors eventually join into three distinct groups, parallel with the class divisions in society, and the skirmishes descend into outright violence.

Ballard has taken society and compressed it into the limits of a forty story tower block and let them loose. What could have been paradise and a comfortable way of life is suddenly a modern hell. It comes across as similar to the Lord of the Flies, where a fragile existence falls apart rapidly. It is a grim tale; a dystopian novel that show just how rapidly a small number of humans can descend into chaos and horror. There were some parts that I liked about this, for example it has a great first line, but it is chilling the way that the tower block descends in to raw primitive terror. 2.5 stars overall.

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Friday 16 September 2016

Review: Sputnik Sweetheart

Sputnik Sweetheart Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sumire is just 22 and is an aspiring writer with a fondness for Jack Kerouac. She is living of a family stipend, and cannot afford much so wears second hand coats and robust boots. She is slowly falling in love with Miu, a glamourous business woman who is seventeen years older than her. K, is the friend and confident that Sumire talks to about anything and everything; as he hears of her falling head over heels in love with Miu, he doesn’t feel that he can tel Sumire just how he feels about her.

Miu asks Sumire to come and work as a personal assistant with her and as their friendship deepens, Miu is still unaware of Sumire’s infatuation. Now she has a job, she quits smoking neatens up her clothing and finds a nicer apartment. As Miu imports wine, she needs to go to Europe to find new vintages and asks Sumire to accompany her. K is still in Japan and stars receiving letters as they travel around the continent. The date that they planned to come home passes and in her latest dispatch her reads that they are taking some time to relax and unwind in a cottage on a Greek island.

Suddenly he gets a call from Miu. She wants him to fly to Greece to help in the search as Sumire has vanished without a trace...

As I have come to expect from Murakami books now, it is surreal, where you have the impression that you are seeing the story unfold through a misted window and is infused with subtle underlying erotic undertones. The tension in the story is set with the disappearance of Sumire and the love triangle, even though each party doesn’t know what the other feels. Possibly this is my favourite of his so far, but most importantly (and amusingly) it does follow some the of themes in this chart:


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This Weeks Book Haul

Bought two books this week Uncommon Ground by Dominic Tyler and Deer Island by Neil Ansell.

Was also fortunate to be sent Jungle by Yossi Ginsberg courtesy of Summersdale and The Meaning of Birds by Simon Barnes courtesy of Head of Zeus

Review: The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Arthur Dent had never really got the hang of Thursdays and in his bleary eyed state that morning he notices that there are bulldozers outside his house. It turns out they have come to knock his house down to make a bypass. Lying down in front of one of the bulldozers, his friend Ford Prefect suddenly appears. Arthur Dent thinks he is an out of work actor; it turns out he is a researcher for the most popular book in the universe, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and is from a planet called Betelgeuse but has been stuck on the Earth for 15 years. Dragging Arthur to the pub and plonking three pints down in front of him, Ford reveals all of this and the minor issue that the planet is to be demolished to make way for a galactic freeway in about 12 minutes time.

“Space," it says, "is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.

Ford and Arthur manage to get on the Vogon ship, moments before the Earth is demolished, but it is not long until they are discovered. Dragged before the captain, they are forced to listen to his poetry before being ejected into space with 30 seconds to live on a lungful of air… Twenty nine seconds later they’re recused by the Heart of Gold, a ship that the current President of the universe, Zaphod Beeblebrox, has stolen. So begins Arthur’s adventures with Ford, Zaphod, Trillian and the life and soul of any party, Marvin the Paranoid Android as they seek the legendary planet, Magrathea, aided by snippets and gems of wisdom from The Hitchhiker's Guide.

"Don't Panic. It's the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody's said to me all day.”

Even though it is flawed at times and the characters lack depth, it works because it successfully combines science fiction and dark humour with classic British farce. Its brilliance though is in what Adams did with this book, permeating our culture with expressions that people know and use without necessarily knowing where they originated, such as the answer to the question of life the universe and everything, having the brain the size of a planet and most importantly ‘don’t panic’. It is a book that goes far beyond the science fiction genre that it started in. To say that I love this book would be an understatement, it is such a shame that he was taken from us so early, so I will raise my Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster as a toast to a lost genius.

“In the beginning the Universe was created. This had made many people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”

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Monday 12 September 2016

Review: The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg

The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg by Tim Birkhead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Way back in the 1950’s the Egg Marketing Board recommended that we should ‘go to work on an egg’. It was something that the nation took to heart and nowadays we consume over 11 billion hen’s eggs in the UK. They are a healthy nutritious food; though in my household most of them end up in cakes…

Tim Birkhead has been fascinated by birds and eggs for his entire career. In this book, he seeks to answer a variety of questions. Such as how are eggs formed, how are their colours and shapes created, is the pointed end laid first and are some designed to roll in a circle on a cliff face. Using information from his own scientific research and examples from museum collections and from a whole variety of different birds Birkhead sets about answering some of these by beginning from the moment of fertilisation to the point where the unborn chick makes that first chip in the shell.

We learn how the eggs are made in the oviduct, how the shells are strong enough to be sat upon during incubation and weak enough to allow the chick to escape. There is masses of detail explaining how they breathe, whilst still having a protective layer against water and microbes and explains the purpose of the yolk and albumen. As well as the science, he looks at the history and mankind’s fascination, and sometimes obsession, with eggs bringing alive all sort of weird and wonderful facts. There is details on the parasitic birds like the cuckoo who have the ability to mimic other birds shells almost exactly, as well as lots of his passion for the guillemot and their beautifully patterned eggs.

It is a fascinating account of what you would think is a simple entity. He writes well, managing to get the balance between details, clarity and scientific jargon just about right. Throughout the book, he regularly points out that answering one question frequently prompts two more and tells us where more research is needed as we simply do not know the answers. What makes this particularly special is his boundless enthusiasm for his subject, not just in his own research, but also for the history behind this most perfect of things. 4.5 stars

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Sunday 11 September 2016

Review: Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind over Body

Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind over Body Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The field of alternative medicine is plagued with claims that can be as misleading as they are lethal. In Simon Singh’s book, Trick or Treatment, he covers aa number of the alternative medicines with a solid scientific rebuttal of those that fail to live up to expectations. But is there something going on that science is beginning to uncover? In this book Marchant considers the latest scientific research into the effect that our minds can have over our bodies, with solid evidence of the effects of positive thoughts and mindsets.

In the book she considers some fairly fundamental questions; the way our minds work, the almost magical effect of placebo, the management of pain and how the act of caring for someone can be transformative. There are chapters on training your immune system and the power of friendships. All of these things, when used in conjunction with a sympathetic doctor and the appropriate course of drugs can have an amazing effect compared to just regular treatments. Alternative medicine has lots of flaws, but what it does do well is to spend time with and care about the patient, something that conventional appointments with their rushed 10 minute slots and almost guaranteed prescription at the end of the consultation seems to have now lost. Throughout the book she meets with the scientists, doctors and patients who are at the leading edge of this research, bringing us their perspectives and trying to articulate why they think that it is working.

When reading this it did bring to mind Pratchett’s headology, the way that people see themselves and the world around them. But this is about real lives and people who are being treated with regular medicines, but who are fortunate to have doctors who are considering the whole individual at the same time. Marchant writes this with sparkling clarity and authority, and thankfully rarely dips into obscure medical jargon. It made for very interesting reading too, with some well written examples of those that have been healed or had their lives return to something closer to normal. Based on the research here, we need to consider both mind and body treatments not just a blind acceptance of the newest drugs. All very interesting stuff and much food for thought.

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Saturday 10 September 2016

Review: Thunder & Sunshine: Riding Home from Patagonia

Thunder & Sunshine: Riding Home from Patagonia Thunder & Sunshine: Riding Home from Patagonia by Alastair Humphreys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Humphreys' first book, Moods of Future Joys, he describes his journey by bike through Europe with the intention of going through Asia. 9/11 changed everything, so he cycled all the way down through Africa instead. This is the account of the second half of monumental ride around the world. First, though, he needs a boat, not a bike. Securing a passage on a sailing boat as a crew member, he departs from Cape Town, next stop Rio.

He travels down to the very south of the country and begins his journey once again from Ushuaia with the intention of cycling all the way to Alaska next. The contrast between this continent and Africa could not have been more different, and he climbed some of the largest hills on his trip so far. In South America, he never ceased to be amazed by the generosity of strangers, people who had virtually nothing would be prepared to share food and hospitality with him. The distances are huge, and the headwinds are relentless, but persistence pays off and he manages to make it to Columbia. Crossing the Darrien Gap is always going to be an issue, there is nothing there resembling a road, but he solves it by crewing on another boat to Panama.

Humphreys' found Mexico to be interesting country, but entering America was a huge contrast to South America. Some were friendly and one lot bought him a new bike, but others considered a cyclist to be an annoying inconvenience on the road as he cycled up the Pacific coast. Reaching his goal of getting to the Arctic Circle, it was time to turn and head west; Russia beckoned. On this leg of the journey he was joined by a friend and fellow adventurer, Rob Lilwall, as they cycled along the Road of Bones, Siberia’s infamous road. This was probably the coldest part of the journey varying from a chilly -40 deg C to a balmy -20 deg C and he seem to spend most of the time freezing his arse off! Next up was Japan, a country that is so very different to anything he had experienced before. With visas sorted, he crossed to China and set of exploring this huge country, and discovering that the language barrier there was much bigger than he expected.

He was on the homeward stretch now, and the rest of Asia beckoned. Provided he could navigate the torturous visa and border controls… Each country bought delights, new experiences and occasion brought it home to him just how fortunate he was. Reaching Turkey was the point where he for the first time went back into a country that he had cycled through four years previously. He was nearly home.

This was an enjoyable account of the second part of his journey as well as being a more honest appraisal of why he was doing it and what he had gained from the experience. He discovers as much about himself as the world and the people he met on this 46,000 journey round the world. I felt this was better written than the first book too, but what really comes across is his ability to get along with people from all walks of life and not to see anything as insurmountable. If you like travel books, or cycling books then this and the first volume are worth reading.

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Thursday 8 September 2016

Review: The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World

The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World by Oliver Morton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Mankind has spent millennia altering and changing their local environment, but with the discovery of fossil fuels and our current addiction to them we have begun the process of changing the entire global climate. He explores the effect we have had on our world with carbon dioxide, nitrogen fertilisers and sulphate in the atmosphere and considers the perilous situation that the world could be in just a few years. Even though some choose to ignore it, climate change is the thing that isn’t going to go away.
A need to address the risks of global warming is urgent and pressing. A small group of scientists are looking at proposals such as cultivation of photosynthetic plankton or a stratospheric veil against the sun or having automated robotic ships cloud seeding for intervention against the effect of climate change. In this book Morton seeks to inform us about the benefits and hazards of these geoengineering strategies. Even trying to change things in a positive way is fraught with danger, but inaction holds equal dangers.

Morton has drawn together a broad overview on the coming threats of climate change and the possibilities that geoengineering offers in digging us out of the mire. It does make for interesting reading the discussion of the technologies available to reduce carbon emissions and reflect sunlight back into space. While he covers various new technologies and new ways that are being considered to combat this, he didn’t seem to be bold enough to commit to the one he would recommend. Overall this isn’t a bad book, but didn’t seem to have the focus that I was expecting, but then that might be because the solution might be as dangerous as the problem. 2.5 stars.

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Tuesday 6 September 2016

Review: The Hunt For Vulcan: How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet and Deciphered the Universe

The Hunt For Vulcan: How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet and Deciphered the Universe The Hunt For Vulcan: How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Everyone has heard of Einstein; his name is synonymous with genius and his Theory of Relativity not only gave us a completely new branch of physics, it also solved the mystery of the missing planet ‘Vulcan’ that scientists and astronomers had been searching for. The story though begins much earlier.

In 1687 Isaac Newton published PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or Principia which described how particles attract using the force of gravity. This seminal book defined classical mechanics that allowed scientists to understand and even predict the movement of the planets around the sun. Noticing that there were anomalies in the orbit of Saturn, Urbain Le Verrier using the mathematics in the equations that Newton developed, managed to predict that there was a planet outside of Saturn. This discovery by Verrier and visual verification of the planet Neptune by Johann Gottfried Galle was a remarkable demonstration of celestial mechanics, and made their reputations in scientific discovery.

One thing that had puzzled astronomers for years was that there was an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury. Aiming to reproduce his success in the discovery of Neptune, Verrier worked through the calculations and claimed that there was a planet closer to the sun. People all over the world scoured the heavens looking for this planet, even claiming to see it at times.

But there was just one minor problem; it didn’t exist.

It took another fifty 50 years for the former assistant at the Swiss patent office to understand the errors in Newton’s work, and formulate his new simple theories that revolutionised our understanding of physics.

Levenson has drawn together all these fascinating characters into a story that is not only interesting to read, but reveals the way that we have come to understand our Solar System. Occasionally he drifts of into fairly complex science, but this is a great example of bringing alive a science story that most have forgotten, as you’d expect from the head of MIT’s Science Writing. Well worth reading, even for those who haven’t thought about physics since they left school.

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Sunday 4 September 2016

Review: Silverheart

Silverheart Silverheart by Storm Constantine
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Karadur is an ancient city, ruled by the powerful metal clans who control the forges; it is a place of heat, darkness and political intrigue. Born into the silver Clan but now a rogue and thief, Max Silverskin, who delights in tormenting those in power. Captured and imprisoned in a sealed cell, he is overcome by a force that leaves a witch-mark on his heart and breaks the cell allowing his to escape. The mark he now carries is known as the silverheart and he has six days to find the original magical artefacts of the clans to save the city; or die.

Hidden below the city is a place that most of the people of Karadur don’t know exists; the hidden realm of Shriltasi. It is a secret known only to the head of the clans. With the arrival of the Silverheart, the Ashen, who live in Shriltasi, realise that the prophecy about the fate of the twin cities is about to come true. So beings a frantic race as Max has to use all his skills as a thief to try to obtain the relics, dodging Captain Cornelius Coffin who intends on capturing him and building an unlikely alliance with Lady Rose, heir and daughter of the powerful Iron clan.

There were a number of things about this that I liked, in particular the gothic, steampunk feel to the book, along with the light infusion of magic. The characters feel a little two dimensional though and never really developed over the six days or so that the story takes place. It is not a bad plot and is written with a nice pace and tension to it, but with a lot of these types of books it was a tad predictable.

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Saturday 3 September 2016

Library Haul

Got these three from the library yesterday:
On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
The Joy of Tax: How a Fair Tax System Can Create a Better Society by Richard Murphy
The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson

Friday 2 September 2016

Review: The Gene: An Intimate History

The Gene: An Intimate History The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genes are not only the key to life, but holds the details of our history and our future too. In this book, Mukherjee takes us on a journey to uncover the origins of this master code and the story of discovering and deciphering it. It is a story that spans world history, but begins with a monk in an Augustinian monastery who discovers a unit of heredity in his study of peas. Mendel may not have been one of the first to be fascinated but the ideas of heredity, and he certainly wasn’t going to be the last. Darwin was one of the next with his discovery of evolution and the way that certain traits established themselves in the populations of finches on each of the Galapagos Islands.

As science advanced during the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, cells started to give up their secrets to the scientists that were studying them. Each discovery added to the knowledge of how each of us carries traits and characteristics from our parents. This dream of making the perfect human from good parents became the spectre that is eugenics, culminating in the horrors with the Nazi obsession with creating the perfect Aryan race and eliminating those that were deemed to be sub-human. Post world war two we knew more about the way that RNA and DNA worked, but no one could work out just how it did it. The brilliant X-ray images of DNA that Rosalind Franklin took gave Francis Crick and James Watson the insight to work out the construction of the beautiful double helix that is DNA. He describes the quest to map the entire human genome, a feat achieved by scientists working across the globe, who just beat a private company who had designs on patenting it.

He is eminently qualified to write this, as he is the assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. He brings us up to date with the latest research and discoveries in genetic research as well as posing the questions that we need to ask and answer as we learn how to change and write to the human genome. To cover all that we have found out about the gene, the book needs to be broad in scope. It is fairly detailed and occasionally baffling and incomprehensible to a non-scientist like myself, but thankfully not very often. Woven through the book too is the story of Mukherjee’s family and their reoccurring history of mental illness as it moved through the generations; it adds a nice personal touch to the book, showing just how our genes can affect us all. If you want a good overview of the history of the gene, you can’t go wrong starting here.

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