Friday 28 October 2016

That moment when all your library reservations turn up at once!

Review: The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between

The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between by Hisham Matar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1969 a coup d'état took place in a North African country. The Free Officers Movement, a revolutionary group headed by a 27-year-old army officer called Muammar Qaddafi, disposed King Idris, Libya’s monarch. So began a 42 year reign of terror by the iron grip of Qaddafi and his family and supporters, where anyone who dared oppose the regime would be removed and imprisoned. Hisham Matar was born in the United States as his father was working there at the time with the Libyan delegation to the UN. At the age of three, he first set foot in his home country. It was to become his home for the next few years, but as the political persecution grew in the country, Jaballa Matar was accused of being opposed to the regime. The family fled the country and Hisham and his brother spent the rest of their childhood in Cairo. University beckoned, and Hisham headed to London to study. Whilst he was in London, his father was kidnapped by the Egyptian secret police, and handed over to the Libyan authorities.

Hisham Matar last saw his father when he was nineteen. He was never to see or speak to him again.

Six years after he was snatched, the family had two letters delivered written in Jaballa’s hand. It explained what had happened and he said he was in the infamous Abu Salim prison. They received no other details until 2010, when Hisham was told that his father had been seen in 2002, implying that he had survived the horrific massacre of 1200 prisoners in 1996. All enquires to the Libyan authorities about their father’s whereabouts and welfare were met with silence or promises of answers. Everything changed in 2011; another revolution overthrew Qaddafi and for the first time in 22 years Hisham could return to his homeland once again and see family that he never thought he would see.

He involves the Foreign Office, as the Labour government at the time was building a relationship with Qaddafi, even having meetings with David Miliband to push for answers from the Libyan authorities on his father. He talks with and meets Sief el-Islam in the hope of finding something; but all he gets is promises. It is an eloquent but painful and emotional memoir to read; you feel his anguish every step of his journey. But it is fascinating too; there is as much about the humanity of some and the shocking indifference from others. Well worth reading.

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Wednesday 26 October 2016

Review: Snow

Snow Snow by Marcus Sedgwick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

Snow. That weird substance that isn’t quite ice, and isn’t quite rain. Its appearance in winter brings screams of delight from the young and young at heart. Other people are equally happy to see the back of it. It is an icy blanket that smothers and softens the spiky winter skyline, bringing an ethereal and transformative silence to the landscape. It is this substance that has captivated Sedgwick since his childhood. He has bought this obsession into adult life too preferring the colder parts of the world over sun kissed beaches, so much so that he is the owner of a chalet high in the Alps.

You like snow? Yes, we said. He blinked a couple of times, then frowned, deadly serious. I hope you do, he said

In six chapters, mirroring the perfect shape of the snowflake, Sedgwick looks at the way that snow has inspired art and literature through the ages, before clearing the paths to discover the science that creates these little marvels of symmetry. There are few legends that have snow as an element, but those that do are powerful and deep in their meaning. It is a unique substance, that can bring death and destruction, and life too as he describes the wonders of a material that whilst cold, can also keep you warm. Softly falling snow has the ability to silence everything and walking out in it will touch every sense that you possess.

Today is one of those days when it appears that it has been snowing since time began

Snow is a short, intense, beautifully written and perfectly formed book, each word carefully chosen for maximum effect. It is a lovely mix of fact, myth and personal stories as Sedgwick tells of his deep passion for the white stuff. He makes us rethink our memories of winter days long gone, of snowball fights, of the wrong kind of snow and school days missed. But, it is also a warning; the effects of climate change means that some people may never see snow in any quantity again. It is a wonderful read and a real gem of a book.

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Friday 21 October 2016

Review: The Humans

The Humans The Humans by Matt Haig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andrew Martin is not the man he used to be. To be honest, he isn’t the human he used to be either. The original Andrew Martin was a maths genius, and he had just solved the Riemann hypothesis on prime numbers, but he wasn’t a particularly nice man either, as the alien who is impersonating him is rapidly finding out. He has been sent to destroy all evidence that this hypothesis has been solved, and he will do anything to ensure that anyone else who has spoken to Martin about the solution, is not in a position to do anything about it either.

The thing is, his so called low key operation gets off to the worst possible start. On top of that he isn’t quite sure just what to make of the human race, just what drives these humans, and maybe, just maybe start to fall in love with the lady who is now his wife. Now he has a choice that he doesn’t really want to make; complete his mission; or become human.

It is has some parallels with stories like A Man Called Ove, the kind that gives some people a warm fuzzy glow, and Haig has got this nailed. But for me it wasn’t hugely amusing, though it did make me smile in some parts. The best part for me was the list of advice to us to make your life much better at the very back of the book. Overall, 2.5 stars. Not bad and I will probably read the others that I have on my shelves at home.

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Review: Hell of a Journey: On Foot Through the Scottish Highlands in Winter

Hell of a Journey: On Foot Through the Scottish Highlands in Winter Hell of a Journey: On Foot Through the Scottish Highlands in Winter by Mike Cawthorne
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

As challenges go this was pretty extreme. Across the Scottish Highlands. On Foot. In Winter. And bagging the 135 peaks over 1000 metres.

The guy is insane.

Strangley enough, no one had attempted this before; but this is what Mike Cawthorne decided to do. So he started preparations for the mammoth trek across the last of the United Kingdom’s wildernesses. Not only did he have to get fit, but he left caches of food at set points across the route that would enable him to keep moving. He handed in his notice at his job and made his way to the very north of Scotland. His route would take him from the bleak Sutherland Bay, through the Eastern Cairngorms, past Loch Lomond, and onwards to Glencoe. It is one of our most spectacular landscapes, but with that beauty comes genune danger. These places in the winter can be as cold as the Arctic, and suffer days of relentless winds; little did Cawthorne know just what weather he would encounter on his epic walk.

He is a lyrical writer, managing to keep our attention as he battles through all that the Scottish winter could through at him. But mountains are in his blood, and as foolhardy as a journey of this magnitude is, for him it is a calculated risk, with a strong sense of his exact limits. Even though there was no point where I wished I was alongside him in some of the conditions he encountered, his evocative writing means that you feel the wind, taste the rain, shiver in the cold and absorb the view in the sharp sparkling sun as he did. But it is a call to arms too, as the places he crossed are under threat from greedy land owners expecting this wild and untamed land to pay its way. What we have the opportunity to see now may one day soon be gone. It is a well written book on out most spectacular mountains.

He is still insane though…

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nb 90

The new issue of newbooks magazine is out , and I have two articles in it. It is well worth reading for those of you who haven't come across it before.

Thursday 20 October 2016

Bookish times

Have had a bookish afternoon meeting James Lockhart and Robert Penn at the Dorchester Literary Festival and now hearing Dan Richard talk about his book Climbing Days in Southampton

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Review: The Meaning Of Birds

The Meaning Of Birds The Meaning Of Birds by Simon Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Birds are all around us, they are the wild creatures that we encounter every day. They have fascinated us for millennia with their mastery of the air and ability to produce the most beautiful songs. In this book, Barnes wants us to pause and consider just how much we rely on them and them on us. Covering all manner of topics, from the way that their feathers enable them to fly, how they define the seasons, their ability to navigate huge distances across the planet and how they have fed and clothed us from time immemorial.

Science owes a lot to birds as well. Darwin’s observations of birds in the Galapagos gave us the theory of evolution; engineers have studied the way that albatrosses can fly over 600 miles in a day with scarcely a flap to improve the performance of wings. Climate scientists study migration patterns and times to see glimpse the subtle changes that climate change is having. It is packed full of fascinating details and anecdotes on birds, like how the feathers can be light, waterproof and enable flight, and a subtly different feather can be the most efficient insulator we know. Modern technology helped us discover the hidden sounds in the songs and the precise speed of the Peregrines stoop.

Barnes has given us a well written, heartfelt book about the wonders of birds. It is a broadbrush look at the world of birds and the subjects are varied as the birds you can discover through your binocluars. This book will make you smile too, as nestled in amongst the science and facts is a tongue-in-cheek humour like the irony of tucking into a chicken sandwich when watching birds.. Throughout the book are lots of fine line drawings taken from Eighteenth century bird books, and I think that this lifts it from being another book about our feathered friends to make it a real pleasure to read. It is a book that can be dipped into without losing anything, and most importantly conveys his deep passion for his subject. Great stuff.

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Friday 14 October 2016

Review: A Natural History of the Hedgerow

A Natural History of the Hedgerow A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things that you notice when coming in to land at an airport in the UK is our patchwork pattern of fields and hedges that makes this green and pleasant land. It is a unique part of our heritage, and in some cases hedge lines can be traced back hundreds and occasionally thousands of years. Not only do they add some much to our countryside, but they are literally a lifeline to our birds and mammals as well as being home to all sorts of other plants and fungi.

In this book the well known naturalist Wright takes us on a voyage of discovery with the humble hedge. He weaves together natural with cultural history along with a comprehensive list of the flora, fauna and fungi found in a most hedges. The scope is widened with the inclusion of other ways of separating crops from hungry livestock, including dry-stone wall, Cornish hedges (also walls) and the ornate fences. It is a book full of fascinating historical references and entertaining facts with plenty of high quality photos. It makes for a fascinating reference book, and when it is out in paperback will definitely be added to my library.

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Book Post

Have just got Simon Garfield's new book through the post:

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Review: Uprooted

Uprooted Uprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Agnieszka has lived in her village for all of her life; It is nestled in a valley alongside a river, but it is bordered by the Wood; a dark place full of powerful magic that casts its shadow over the whole kingdom. But Agnieszka has other things on her mind; she has almost reached the age of 17, and she will stand with her friends at the next choosing when the Dragon makes his appearance. Her greatest fear is that she will loose her closest friend, Kasia, who everyone thinks has the qualities that this wizard will demand. When girls are released a decade later, they stop briefly in their home before leaving the village for ever. The speculation as to what has happened to them terrifies her almost as much as succumbing to the forces that haunt the Wood.

But her fears are unfounded, because what the Dragon seeks with the girl he chooses is not visible beauty, but one with a natural magic deep within her soul and that is the one thing that Kasia doesn’t have.

So begins a original and imaginative fantasy that is unlike anything that I have ever read before. I loved the natural magic that she uses in the book and the way that they use it to combat the elements in the forest. It is deeply rooted in the myths and legends of forest lore from European history and the way she portrays the Wood is almost like a character itself, drawing and evoking the subconscious, primeval fears of the forests that we all have. The plot was reasonable, but a tad predictable and the characters were fairly good, with qualities and flaws in equal measure. The most disappointing bit was the end, which fizzled out for me, hence four stars. Otherwise really enjoyable.

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New Books...

... through the post Thanks to Head of Zeus and Rebecca Foster

Review: Graveyard of the Gods

Graveyard of the Gods Graveyard of the Gods by Richard Newman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Gene Barnes lives by the silted banks of the Wabash River. He was a marine in the past, but
now runs the family’s pig farm. Business isn’t great, so he helps out an old buddy out by
disposing of bodies every now and again. Where they have come from and why, Gene takes
the cash and knows it is best not to ask. Until one day, he recognises one of the bodies.

Now he has questions, lots of questions.

You can read the reast of the review here

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Sunday 9 October 2016

Review: The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase

The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you always wanted to write like Shakespeare? Or is reaching literary immortality your thing? If you have nothing of any note to say, but still want to have maximum effect in your prose then you need to learn the finer arts of rhetoric. In this expose of the one liner, Mark Forsythe details the way to write that will give you much more style than you thought possible. Its origins are Greek, who formulated the concepts; these were built on by the Romans, before the baton was handed to the English when they finally got around to their Renaissance. Beginning with the always alluring alliteration, he moves through merism, hyperbaton and diacope before asking some rhetorical questions and considers periodic sentences. It would not be complete without the fourteenth rule, nor elements of paradox or hyperbole…

I have read and loved the The Etymologicon and The Horologicon before so was really looking forward to this, and mostly it didn’t disappoint. I liked the way he expanded the 39 elements of rhetoric, moving neatly onto the next from the previous chapter. And it is very readable too, he has a knack of explaining things with the barest hint of wit and using examples that bring a smile to your face. Well worth reading, even if you haven’t got a degree in English!

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Friday 7 October 2016

Review: Arctic Dreams

Arctic Dreams Arctic Dreams by Barry López
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Arctic has captivated people for centuries, it has held the promise of wealth, is a place of unspoilt beauty whilst being one of the toughest places to survive in. It has drawn explorers and writers, adventurers and artists who use the landscape for inspiration. But it is an incredibly harsh environment; it takes no prisoners.

The celestial light on an arctic cusp

This hostile landscape is a place that Lopez has returned to time and time again to discover the people and animals that navigate and migrate across this land of ice. The ecosystem there is finely balanced and part of his story tells us how these closely interlocked systems are so susceptible to external influences, in particular with regards to climate. As well as writing about his journeys, we learn about the discoveries that were made by sailors and explorers over the past four hundred years, many of whom lost their lives as sailed into the freezing oceans. He describes his scientific observations, packing in details about the millions of birds and animals in the region.

Jet-black guillemots streaking over the white ice

I loved the landscape parts of the book, his eye for details on the landscape and the people are really good, and the writing comes across so well you could be there watching the aurora borealis with him. His writing is clear and concise, without being too showy. Whilst I understand it is important to set the context of how we came to know this place, there was a little too much history for a travel and nature book really, and I would have preferred much more on the landscape. It was worth reading, but I have read better though.

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Wednesday 5 October 2016

Just arrived

Just got from Faber the new book by Alex Bellos, Can you Solve My Problems?

Tuesday 4 October 2016

Review: The Particle Zoo: The Search for the Fundamental Nature of Reality

The Particle Zoo: The Search for the Fundamental Nature of Reality The Particle Zoo: The Search for the Fundamental Nature of Reality by Gavin Hesketh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

Most people know that you can take an object and break it down to its pure elements, and from that you can use an electron microscope to look at the very atoms that make up that element. In the early part of the twentieth century, we discovered that the atom consisted of protons, neutrons and electrons. For a while physicists thought that that was it, with regards to the makeup of all the elements. But, slowly and surely these three particles were split again and again to answer the fundamental question: what are these particles made from?

In this book Hesketh, explains the processes behind breaking down these particles into smaller and smaller pieces and sets about describing the wonders and mysteries that the scientists have discovered. We learn about the string theory, if there is dark matter and the finer nuances of quantum physics. In this strange new world we unearth the weird and wonderful time-travelling electrons, gravitons and glueballs and glimpse the fleeting trace of the neutrino. All of these sub particles are collectively called the particle zoo, the most elusive of which is the Higgs Bosun.

Hesketh is eminently qualified to write this, as he is an experimental particle physicist at the world’s largest and most expensive experiment, the Large Hadron Collider; better known as CERN. At this place particles are accelerated up to a speed not short of the speed of light before being slammed into each other. The result is a high energy collision and physicists spend hour pouring over the results determining just what particles are produced. A lot of what has been discovered fits the standard model that was developed in the 1970s, but for every question answered, there are more that are posed.

Overall Hesketh has written a comprehensive guide to the latest developments of the strange sub-atomic world. It is a very weird world indeed, but thankfully he does bring some clarity on the mystery that is particle physics. At times it is it baffling, and often stranger than fiction; as he says at one point ‘you couldn’t make it up’! But it is a good book for a reader interested in recent progress made at CERN and a general history of particle physics. 3.5 stars

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Sunday 2 October 2016


I have finally taken the plunge and signed up for Twitter. You can find me here:


Saturday 1 October 2016

Review: Wood: Andy Goldsworthy

Wood: Andy Goldsworthy Wood: Andy Goldsworthy by Andy Goldsworthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wood is a remarkable substance, we can use it to heat us, to carry us through water and air and time spent in coppices can breathe life into our souls. But the artist Andy Goldsworthy sees wood in different ways and this wonderful book is his interpretation of the way a tree lives and transforms. Using the natural materials he finds close to an oak tree in each season he creates breath-taking art that is ethereal and fleeting. These transient pieces are captured perfectly by his camera before they return to nature.

A small confession, Goldsworthy is one of my favourite artists who creates such beautiful natural artworks. His use of different materials in each of the pieces bring different energies and dynamics to the photo, as you know some will not even see another sunrise. There is precious little text in here, the main purpose of the book is the photos. But if you like the natural world, Goldsworthy’s creations from rocks, branches, leaves, ice and snow will touch your very heart. Excellent, just excellent.

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Library Haul

Collected three books from the library today

Falcon by Helen MacDonald
A Sky Full of Birds by Matt Merrit
The Swordfish and the Star by Gavin Knight