Monday 28 November 2016

Possibly guilty of this...

Review: The Book of Tides

The Book of Tides The Book of Tides by William Thomson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twice every day without fail the UK expands in area, and twice every day it shrinks. This phenomenon is caused by nothing more than the tide going in and out, driven primarily by our celestial neighbour, the Moon. Seeing the power of the sea inspired Thomson to develop his own business and to travel around the British coast living with his young family in their camper van and studying the tides whilst indulging in a spot of surfing whenever he could.

The book is divided into eight chapters on all aspects of the tides around the UK. Each chapter uses bold, clear and beautiful infographics as he explains all about rip tides, rapids, whirlpools and waves. There are further chapters on the concept of stream, something that I had never heard of before, and just what a tidal bore is and the best rivers to see them on. The tsunami merits a whole chapter; thankfully they are rare, in this country at least.

I have always been fascinated by the sea and the effects that the tide has on the coastal environment. My closest patch, Poole Harbour, merits a special mention because of its double high tide twice a day. Strangely, Jersey, which has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world doesn’t get any mention at all. Even though the books is crammed full of facts and fascinating details, it is still very readable and more importantly it is a beautiful book to hold and refer back to.

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Saturday 26 November 2016

Review: The Pie At Night: Nights Out in the North

The Pie At Night: Nights Out in the North The Pie At Night: Nights Out in the North by Stuart Maconie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When you think of the North of England an industrial landscape would come to mind, with the factories, mills and heavy industry. It is a hardworking place; but it knows how to have a good time and play hard too. Maconie decides that he needs to dust off his suit, polish his shoes and go out on the town in search of a good time.

Using the best intelligence that he can get, Maconie travels round the north, revisiting the classic haunts of leisure from Blackpool to the dogs, football and rugby of course. Any day off is enhanced by going out for a curry before walking it all off with a stroll across the moors. He hears a brass band, before trying something out of the ordinary and after all that needs a restorative pint.

This is another good book and kind of a companion book to The Pie at Night by Maconie as he travels back and forwards across the North finding out what they do in their leisure time. It is not particularly challenging to read, mostly as he writes in such an easy going and chatty way. That does not mean that he is not perceptive and it is laugh out loud in places too, as he has a knack of getting to the spirit of the event he is partaking in whilst not taking it too seriously. Another one of his that was worth reading.

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The World From My Armchair Challenge

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Friday 25 November 2016

Review: At the Edge: Riding for My Life

At the Edge: Riding for My Life At the Edge: Riding for My Life by Danny MacAskill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The UK has got a lot of talented cyclists now, there are some that can beat allcomers in a sprint for the line, we have a highly talented team that can ride the velodrome and beat the world, a small number of top class riders who feature highly in the Grand Tours and some who can throw themselves down mountains in some sort of controlled terror.

Then there is Danny MacAskill.

If there was one guy who could be said to defy gravity, it would be him. He rides a trials bike, a sort of squashed mountain bike, that he can control in an unbelievable way. He has the ability to leap several feet in the air with it, using that height he jumps to climb vertical surfaces and clear gaps with a breath-taking ability. Couple this with a fertile imagination and a healthy disregard for safety he has created astonishing videos like Imaginate, Wee Day Out and Cascadia and become a You Tube sensation. They are the sort of video that you need to see twice, as you can’t quite believe that someone can do that on a bike.

In this book, MacAskill takes us back to his childhood, through his rebellious phase and brushes with the law on the island of Skye. He tells us of his initial venture into riding street trials and how he learnt his craft. His first video, Inspired Bicycles, was filmed by a friend and uploaded onto You Tube one weekend. He thought nothing of it until he received a call the next day from the BBC wanting to interview him. Overnight he had had 100,00 views of the video and from that moment on, everything went mad. Sponsorship deals followed and the quality of his videos increased dramatically.

It is an enjoyable book to read learning about his early escapades and how he has pushed what he can do on a bike to the very limit. If you’re expecting a lyrical narrative though, you might be disappointed, but MacAskill tells it how it is and it is quite refreshing for that. One for the fan, but even if you do’t want to read it you must see some of his videos. 3.5 stars

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Thursday 24 November 2016

Review: Can You Solve My Problems?: Ingenious, Perplexing, and Totally Satisfying Math and Logic Puzzles

Can You Solve My Problems?: Ingenious, Perplexing, and Totally Satisfying Math and Logic Puzzles Can You Solve My Problems?: Ingenious, Perplexing, and Totally Satisfying Math and Logic Puzzles by Alex Bellos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Puzzles of all sort have fascinated people for ages, they have varied from riddles, counting challenges, crosswords, logic puzzles and mathematical conundrums. Spending 20 minutes or so on a puzzle is not wasted time; it has been shown that they can in some instances improve cognitive ability. It is not fully conclusive, but the main draw for doing all sorts of puzzle is that they are fun. Some of our greatest minds including codebreakers and Nobel Prize winners have used puzzles to keep their minds sharp and as a distraction from normal life.

The popular maths guru, Alex Bellos has bought together all sort of different puzzles into one book. These 125 different puzzles have been grouped together into broad categories, like logic, geometry and of course the mathematical ones. Each puzzle has an introduction and a little history about it which makes for fascinating reading. Some of the puzzles that Bellos has found for us to stretch our grey matter are deceptively simple and there are some in here that are are fiendishly difficult!

Some of these puzzles date back millennia; Bellos has bought them right up to date with this collection. Most fascinating is the history and evolution of these puzzles. As brilliant minds solved one they then dreamt up even more complex ways to torment us. There is something for everyone in here, not just for fans of Sudoku, and the different levels of puzzles mean that you have some that intrigue, other that need a little more effort and some that may make your head hurt. It is an excellent book for encouraging mathematical exploration without out frightening some people.

Thank goodness though, the answers are in the back…

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Wednesday 23 November 2016

Review: May We Borrow Your Language?

May We Borrow Your Language? May We Borrow Your Language? by Philip Gooden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One billion other people around the world speak my language; except it isn’t really my language as English is famous for purloining and absorbing other peoples words and making them its own. This melding of languages has been happening for thousands of years. People have arrived in our island, stayed for a while, and left only smudges in the soil and a handful of words in the vocabulary. Careful searching in our language can uncover Celtic and Roman and Saxon words deep in our language. More than that, we have shamelessly stolen words and phrases as we have travelled the seas and oceans for places as far away as Hawaii and Australia, and claimed them as our own.

In this lovely book Gooden brings us a mere dusting of some of those words that are familiar and unusual, ancient and strange, but all looted from other languages. Each carefully selected word has details on its origin as well as a date when we misappropriated it into English, along with anecdotes and the story behind the word. There are nuggets of information in here on all his chosen words and each is written with wit and aplomb as he reveals the history and details on words as diverse as cwen, lust, delphinan and bathos. It is more than that though as these words mark the expansion of our language as we absorbed words into it, sometime taking the meanings, sometimes not. The ages of some of the words is fascinating too, I would have put juggernaut as a modern word; turns out it isn’t. It is a worthy addition for anyone with an etymological collection of books, and if you like Mark Forsyth this is right up your street.

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FT Business book of the Year

Congratulations to Sebastian Mallaby for winning with The man Who Knew

Monday 21 November 2016

Review: The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Along the Iron Curtain Trail

The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Along the Iron Curtain Trail The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Along the Iron Curtain Trail by Tim Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Growing up as a teenager in the 1980’s the cold war and the Soviet threat was very real indeed. The whole system imploded at the end of that decade and the Iron Curtain that separated Western Europe from Communist bloc for decades was drawn aside. This physical and ideological border stretched from the Black Sea all the way up to the Barents Sea on the Finnish border with the USSR. This continental wide border is now the route for Eurovelo 13 (EV13) a 10,400km trail that passes through 20 different countries, countless monuments and a huge variety of landscapes of the countries that once were opposed.

It was this route that Tim Moore sets out to cycle. Not on a fancy bike though, oh no, the one he has chosen is a two geared, tiny two wheeled shopping bike. His velocipede of choice is a MIFA 900, a bike made in the GDR with broadly similar attributes to that of the Trabant. For some mad reason he was starting on the Russian Norwegian border in the midst of an Arctic winter.

Ambitious? Definitely, but what could possibly go wrong…

The route he takes is littered by the long forgotten and sinister paraphernalia of a once impenetrable border; razor wire, rusting towers and abandoned checkpoints. Cycling on the snow on a properly prepared bike is hard enough, but riding on this remnant of the GDR it is really tough going. He is kept in high spirits by the kindness of strangers, sleeps in hotels and hostels and occasionally peoples spare rooms. His tenacity to keep pedalling is matched only by his addiction to the Magic Man energy drink with its warming addition. He meets all sorts of characters on his journey, all affected by the change as the region changed from Communist control to modern Europe and free borders.

I have read all of Moore’s other books, so I was really looking forward to this. He manages to dream up some quirky and unusual travels, walking across Spain with a donkey, locating those that have had the ignominy of getting ‘nul points’ in the Eurovision and rediscovering his inner Roman in the re-enactment world. He is ever so slight nutty, and this makes for very funny moments in his travels. His self-depreciating attitude means that he rubs along with most people he meets, and give us a series of amusing anecdotes too. It was well worth reading as have been all his others. It didn't quite reach French Revolutions though which is still one of the funniest book I have ever read.

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Saturday 19 November 2016

Friday 18 November 2016

Library Haul this week

Review: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from A Secret World

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from A Secret World The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Copses and wood seem static places, only changing as the seasons ebb and flow. The forests of Europe and the UK have inspired writers, built towns and fleets and provide food warmth and shelter for millennia. But all is not as it seems in this wooded world, as Wohlleben details in his book with the latest research and understanding of just how a tree is created, grows and dies. The science behind these ground-breaking new discoveries is revealing a secret world of communication, nurture and microclimates. The environment that they create from the roots to the tips of the crown is carefully controlled, they shelter young trees from fierce summer sun, pass nutrients through the fungal webs in the ground and protect each other from the battering in winter storms. There is details on how they manage to pump gallons of water high into the air; something that is not fully understood yet and how they react to when you hack a branch off. No wonder they can live five times longer than us.

He is deeply passionate about woods and forests, something that is evident from the very first chapter. The science that he reveals is almost unbelievable really, but it is backed up with solid evidence and examples; but there is still so much that we do not know or understand. As he has come to understand the deep complexity of these individual trees, and the forest as a whole, he has changed from being a logger to a forest ambassador and arguing that maintaining and enjoying the forests in a sustainable way is the best for us and the forests. Forests add so much to our health and our lives, and more importantly the well-being of our planet and this philosophy is as beneficial to us as it is to the management of the forests. This is a well written call to learn to love our wooded areas once again.

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New Challenge

Those of you that know me know I read a fair amount of travel books. I am considering a huge challenge to read a travel book set in every country in the world called:

The World from My Armchair

What do people think of the name?

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Book Post

Review: Fun Science: A Guide to Life, the Universe and Why Science Is So Awesome

Fun Science: A Guide to Life, the Universe and Why Science Is So Awesome Fun Science: A Guide to Life, the Universe and Why Science Is So Awesome by Charlie McDonnell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just the mention of science to any inactive teenager is enough to make them move rapidly in the other direction, but the You-Tuber Charlie McDonnell has made it his mission to bring the wonders of science and the world to them. He will take us on a journey through all types of science, from the solar system and the cosmos and right back to the Big Bang. He covers all manner of other things too, from the human body, particles physics and a brief introduction to chemistry.

If you can prise the screen out of their hands, then this book is a good introduction to all things sciencey. It is not a serious science book, but those that this book is aimed at is not expecting that and therefore it makes it ideal for those who think that science is scary and difficult. It is full of funky fonts, fun page layouts and weird and wonderful drawings that make the facts appealing and amusing anecdotes to make the reader smile. I have now passed it to the target audience, my teenage daughters, for their opinion, so will report back on this later on.

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Friday 11 November 2016

Review: We

We We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A millennia ago One State conquered the world, now they have designs on the rest of the Universe. They are building a spaceship called Integral and the chief engineer, D-503, is writing a journal that he is intending on taking with him on its maiden journey. Even in his privileged position he has to live in a glass apartment so he is constantly visible to the Bureau of Guardians, better known as One State’s secret police. He only has a moment of privacy when his state appointed lover, O-90, is permitted to visit him on certain nights. O-90 has other lovers, including the best friend of D-503, R-13 who performs as a One State sanctioned poet at public executions.

Then one day, the safe predictable world that D-503 has known, changes in ways that he could never have conceived, and nothing can ever be the same again.

I couldn’t quite get on with this for a few reasons. The plot didn’t really move that fast, even though it is a short tome, and the characters feel as flat and two dimensional as the glass walls that they are continually viewed through. I can see where Orwell and Huxley got their inspiration from though as this is brutally chilling at times with the all-pervasive state intrusion and levels of control that are frankly terrifying. Not bad, but for me didn’t have that extra something that 1984 has. 2.5 stars

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Wednesday 9 November 2016

Review: East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Back in 2010 the barrister Philippe Sands was asked to give a lecture at Lviv University in Ukraine on the subjects of genocide and crimes against humanity. This gave him the opportunity to visit the city, and maybe discover more about his maternal grandfather, a man who he knew so little about. Sands knew he was Jewish, had moved to Vienna as war enveloped Europe in 1914 and then moved onto Paris after the Nazis entered Austria. When he probed further he discovered that there were scant details about him; it was a life enveloped in secrecy. Little by little, he discovered details of his grandfather’s life, how the family had moved across Europe, his mother’s journey to Paris as a small child in the company of someone other than her parents, somehow staying one-step ahead as the Nazi regime started sending people to the death camps.

His visit to Lviv University also revealed that his own field of legal expertise, international humanitarian law, had been conceived by two men who had studied law there. Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht were the men who forged the ideas of genocide and crimes against humanity. These legal concepts were first used in anger in the Nuremburg trials post World War II when the prosecution of Nazi war criminals took place. He brings the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, Hans Frank into the narrative. Responsible for the deaths of over 1 million Poles and Jews in the short time he was in charge, he also had the dubious honour of being Hitler’s personal lawyer. After the war, the lives of Franks, Lemkin and Lauterpacht would come together in the International Military Tribunals in room 600 at the Palace of Justice as the world learnt of the horrors of the Third Reich .

Sands has written a poignant and personal memoir of tracing his grandfather. However, this book is so much more than that. His story of the three people that culminated in the Nuremburg trials is a fascinating account of the development of international law. It was personal for Lemkin and Lauterpacht and his grandfather Leon too as they were among the people lost numerous members of their families in this absolute tragic and pointless loss of life that swept Europe. Words like genocide and crimes against humanity should never exist, but sadly, they do. For a book that is full of much sadness, there is hope too; the legal principles that they initiated are being used to bring people to justice. These principles that they defined will never solve the problems of the world, but they do give peoples and cultures opportunity for redress. It is a influential historical account of men who were prepared to fight brutality with peaceful means. Can highly recommend this.

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Tuesday 8 November 2016

Review: Second-Hand Time

Second-Hand Time Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In 1991 the USSR imploded after seven decades of communism. It briefly flirted with capitalism, before settling down to autocratic rule under Putin. In this hefty tome, Alexievich partakes in conversations with a varied cross section of people, and has interviewed scores of individuals with the intention of finding out how those left in the country of Russia think and feel now. She calls this people., Homo sovieticus, those that were left after the Marxist-Leninist experiment ended.

These people have witnessed the collapse of their society; some are glad to see the back of it and others mourn its loss. Rather than ask them what they think of society and where they think it should be, she asks about the everyday, their families, their lifestyle and the numerous ways that they eek out a life in post-Soviet Russia. From this narrative of the mundane the bigger picture comes together. It is sometimes a heart wrenching account of a fractured, splintered society and those who speak bare their souls to her.

It is dense, complicated and makes for uncomfortable reading. But, the picture it paints reveals the suffering of the people, their hopes, fears and present day anxieties. But, it is immensely rewarding, as it revels the character of a people in a touching portrait.

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Sunday 6 November 2016

Review: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Silk Road. Just the very name conjures up images of travellers carrying expensive bolts of cloth, exotic spices and fine ceramics from the Far East to Europe. This road was more than that though, it was how the two separate domains of East and West first encountered each other, was the backdrop to countless wars, as power ebbed and flowed back and forth across the continent. The road has been responsible for the spread of numerous religions over millennia, not just the Abrahamic ones, but Buddhism and Zoroastrianism spread along the route. Great cities grew along the road, which spawned even greater cultures.

Western countries have dominated the planet for the last 500 years but in this book he argues that most of these turning points in history have had some greater or lesser influence from the Silk Road in world history. Not sure I agree with all of the inferences, but I think that he is right in that the fulcrum is tilting world power away from the West and back to the East once again. It is a very detailed, huge, broad-brush view of world history seen through the prism of this ancient route from Europe to the Far East. I had hoped there would be more on the ancient history of place and people that trekked and made their lives from the Silk Road network; there wasn’t sadly, but it was still a good history of the world seen from this perspective. 3.5 Stars overall.

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Thursday 3 November 2016

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Review: Negroland: A Memoir

Negroland: A Memoir Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jefferson was born into a privileged family in Chicago; her father was head of paediatrics at a famous local hospital and her mother was a well-known socialite. Even though she had a rarefied upbringing and decent education in 1950’s America and could be considered part of the local elite, she was never going to be accepted by society in general, because she was black.

“I call it Negroland because I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible. A word for runaway slave posters and civil rights proclamations; for social constructs and street corner flaunts. A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates. As capital letters appear to enhance its dignity; as other nomenclatures”

Jefferson’s family were members of what she describes as Negroland, an exclusive club of privileged blacks or what her mother calls, “upper-class Negroes and upper-middle-class Americans”. They were excluded from the very high society of Chicago because of their colour whilst never managing to integrate themselves fully in the black community there. Through her eyes, we see American societies crucial turning points in the late 20th century; civil rights, gender awareness and prejudice.

“Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege. Our people have had to work, scrape for privilege, gobble it down when those who would snatch it away weren’t looking. Keep a close watch.”

The writing is conversational and at times chatty, but most importantly it is full of wry commentary, provocative observations and melancholic musings. She shows perseverance in trying to make her way in a country that has made real progression with regards to race, but still has so far to go. Worth reading for an insight into a culture and a country so very different to mine.

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Review: The Un-Discovered Islands: An Archipelago of Myths and Mysteries, Phantoms and Fakes

The Un-Discovered Islands: An Archipelago of Myths and Mysteries, Phantoms and Fakes The Un-Discovered Islands: An Archipelago of Myths and Mysteries, Phantoms and Fakes by Malachy Tallack
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Deserts have been known for mirages for millennia; the oasis that appears in the distance offering shade and water that as approached vanishes. Strangely enough, the same happens at sea, islands are glimpsed through fog and rough seas, navigation errors mean that sailors find places that exist elsewhere and others are purely figments of imagination. In this high quality book, Tallack has bought together the myths and legends of two dozen islands that were thought to exist, and now no longer do.

There are sections on sunken islands, un-discovered islands and mythical islands. Some are well known, Atlantis probably and the Isles of the Blessed being the some of them. Others are obscure and unheard of, until now. There are two or three pages of stories and background on each island, with some speculation as to the why’s and wherefores of their appearance and disappearance. Throughout the book are the delightful and colourful illustrations by Katie Scott; they add so much to the narrative of the book.

It is ideal for map and geography lovers and is a beautiful produced book too. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be much depth to the stories. It is not the fault of Tallack, but it is understandable when you remember that these are places that have no basis in reality, the tangible facts are scarce.

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Interview with Simon Barnes

I had the privilege of interviewing the nature and sports write, Simon Barnes for his new book The Meaning of Birds.

Great guy, with some strong opinions.

Review: The Joy of Tax

The Joy of Tax The Joy of Tax by Richard Murphy
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Benjamin Franklin once wrote ‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. I would add ‘and your computer crashing’ to that, but the sentiment is still valid. Richard Murphy has been a voracious campaigner on all things tax, creator of ‘Corbynomics’, and in the ironically titled, Joy of Tax, fully intends to challenge every idea that you have about taxes.

Whilst most people don’t like paying tax, we seem more than happy to accept the benefits and services that a government provides from their tax income, so much so that populations expect governments to spend more than they can raise from tax and run a deficit. That changed in 2008 after the global finance system derailed and the political debate have been dominated by the spectres of austerity, debt and cuts. This hostile discussion has meant that the debate on why we need tax, and how it can benefit society have been ignored ever since. It is this debate that Murphy wants to bring to the fore in this book.

But, it’s a taxing subject…

He makes a good evaluation of the present system, with its few qualities and many flaws and overall it was an interesting read. His proposals are bold and in certain cases innovative, and rightly he argues we need to dramatically simplify the tax system to stop excessive revenue loss from loopholes. All sensible stuff, but Murphy comes across as a bit preachy about it all and it grates a little in the end. Generally ok, and if you have an interest in all thing financial then you may get more out of it than I did. 2.5 stars overall.

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