Monday 27 February 2017

Review: I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You may think that we are just made from muscles, blood cells, bones and a fair bit of DNA, but in between the gaps are microbes. Billions and billions of them. There are the odd rogue ones, but most of them are useful and make up an essential element of our being. Without them we could not live. They help us in countless ways, sculpting our organs, protecting us from disease and feeding and nourishing us; our gut contains a complete ecosystem that ensure that we extract all the energy we need.

Microbes work equal miracles in other animals too, providing the ethereal light that disguises a squid as they hunt, ensuring that koalas are able to digest the unpalatable eucalyptus leaves and the weevil that uses bacteria to make its shell before killing them. The modern worldview of eliminating all microbes is causing as much harm as it is good; people nowdays have a revulsion of all things bacterial, hence the raft of cleaning products that are designed to scour all surfaces and hands clean of these unwanted intruders. However, as Yong successfully argues in this book that not only we might be missing a trick, but our bacterial ecosystem is essential for our survival. A good example of this is in hospitals; the modern view is that all windows have to be locked shut to keep rogue microbes out, but the effect of this is that patients sit in their beds stewing in a lethal mix of micro-organisms. This hazardous situation can be simply solved by opening a window, this allows the dispersal and dilution of the potentially lethal ones. Simple, but very effective.

It is a fascinating account of the unseen creatures that live within and all around us. Yong takes us on this journey through the microscope to discover the most recent research from scientists all round the world and tell us of the secrets that are being discovered about microbes. Some of the treatments being developed have the potential to make people’s so lives much better; one example is RePOOpulate – as unappealing as it sounds! However, this treatment has worked miracles with a 94% success rate and no side effects, a success rate not seen in many other cures. Yong writes with an engaging and eloquent style and makes the science in here really accessible. Well worth reading. 4.5 stars.

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Friday 24 February 2017

Review: Caraval

Caraval Caraval by Stephanie Garber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Scarlett and her sister Tella have never left the tiny island that her father runs with an iron fist. Scarlett is betrothed to a Count, someone that her father knows, but she has never met him. But, before she gets married she wants to attend Caraval, a performance and game that takes place on another island. She has been writing to someone called Legend for a number of years begging to be invited, and not heard a single thing. Until now. An envelope appears with three invitations in, one for her, her sister and fiancée. She is desperate to go, but knows that her father will refuse. A set of events is set in motion, she finds Tella wrapped in the embrace of a strange man, an altercation with her father, and suddenly her and her sister are fleeing the place that they have known all their lives to play Caraval.

Almost immediately after arriving on the island, Tella is kidnapped by Legend, the mastermind of the game. Scarlett is alone and up against experienced players of the game as this year, the winner of the game will be the one who finds Tella first. Scarlett finds a set of clues to assist her in the desperate search for her sister and she has five night to solve them. The game is supposed to be an elaborate and theatrical performance, but what sounds like a piece of fun initially has suddenly become a lot more sinister, because if she doesn’t find her she may loose her forever…

This is Garber’s debut novel and for a first one, it is reasonable. I liked the way that the game was set on an island and way she manages to convey the atmospheric events that take place at night. It is not a bad plot, though there are the odd discrepancies. While there is tension as Scarlett seeks her sister, it has a more melodramatic and gothic feel to it. There really wasn’t a lot of character depth though; they all came across as slightly two dimensional. The magical elements felt like they were dusted on rather than integral to the world she has created and there was more romance than I normally read, but that is my preference rather than a fault with the book.

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Thursday 23 February 2017

Review: When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neurosurgery is not for the faint hearted. It demands the highest training and skill for even a couple of millimetres difference can literally mean kill or cure. This profession is the one that Paul Kalanithi chose with the ambitious aim of having a virtuous and meaningful life. He never wanted to become a doctor, having had personal experience of growing up in a family of medical practitioners. But, he ended up choosing this career after studying English literature and human biology followed by a master’s in the history and philosophy of science. It was whilst training as a neurosurgeon that he learnt to talk to patients about their treatments, their hopes and sometimes the stark realities of their prognosis. To deal with the suffering of the patient and their families, he had to become mentally tough and remote, pressures that not all of his colleagues could cope with.

Then one day the tables were turned; he became the patient.

He had dismissed the back pain and the exhaustion as part of the job and never sought advice until it was too late. His diagnosis was metastatic lung cancer. As his hopes and dreams evaporated; he realised he may never become a qualified surgeon. He had spent his career treating dying people every day. When the tables were turned, he faced his own death with dignity. It did make him see how his chosen profession treated those coping with terminal illness.

We shall rise insensibly, and reach the tops of the everlasting hills, where the winds are cool and the sight is glorious

It is an eloquently written book and such a sad story. Towards the end of his life they decide to have a child, knowing that the wider family would support Lucy; the description of him being at the birth but barely able to rise from his bed is very moving. Finally, Lucy’s eulogy to Paul is equally heart breaking and full of love. It is a painfully honest account of a short, but intense life.

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Tuesday 21 February 2017

Review: Spymaster: The Life of Britain's Most Decorated Cold War Spy and Head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield

Spymaster: The Life of Britain's Most Decorated Cold War Spy and Head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield Spymaster: The Life of Britain's Most Decorated Cold War Spy and Head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield by Martin Pearce
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Martin Pearce has a distinct memory of asking his uncle what he did and hearing the reply ‘Oh it’s quite boring really, dear boy. I’m a kind of security guard at embassies’. It was an unusual choice of career for the son of a Derbyshire farmer, who normally would have followed his father on the farm. But the truth was much stranger than that, because Maurice Oldfield was Head of MI6.

He was educated at Lady Manners School and then went to Victoria University of Manchester after gaining a scholarship. He gained a First Class degree in Medieval history and was elected a fellow. Then World War 2 started and he went from a quiet university life to signing up; his potential was realised, and he was seconded into the Intelligence Corps. His war service meant that he was awarded an MBE, and promptly joined MI6, starting in Counter-Intelligence. So began his career in the shadowy world of the spies.

He spent a lot of time overseas, working from the embassies in Singapore and Washington and cultivated a vast network of informants, both friends and acquaintances who would provide snippets of information and reports to him. His great strength was his analytical mind and the way that he could draw all these pieces of information to give him the bigger picture. His other strength was playing the waiting game, letting a target have some free reign with the hope that he would then make the mistake so they could bring him in. He was in Washington during the Bay of Pigs events and it is thought that his counsel with Kennedy played a small part in averting a larger catastrophe. Returning to the UK he was promoted to director of counter-intelligence, and second in line to the head. He missed getting the top job when Sir John Rennie was appointed, but his time had not come. That happened in 1973 and he became the first head not to come from an establishment upper-class background nor attended Eton or Oxbridge. He held the position until he retired.

Peering into the smoke and mirrors that is the intelligence services in the UK, Pearce has uncovered and told us the true story of his uncle. It was a pretty blemish free career apart though it was tarnished at the end after an alleged event when he was the co-ordinator for security and intelligence in Northern Ireland. It was a minor blot on an exemplary career, but it was thought to have been a rogue element in MI5 that caused questions to be raised. It is a fairly balanced account as Pearce has sought to uncover the evidence and report accordingly. With all of these books on spies, it would be equally fascinating to find out the gaps in the account that Pearce was not able to discover. Would be right up your street if you like real life spies.

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Friday 17 February 2017

Review: The Wild Other: A Memoir

The Wild Other: A Memoir The Wild Other: A Memoir by Clover Stroud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The childhood that Clover and her siblings enjoyed was a relaxing home life, growing up in the country whilst surrounded by horses and the beautiful hills outside Oxford. This idyllic upbringing was brought to an abrupt end in November 1991 when the head interrupted her history class and asked her to step outside. It was then she learnt that her mother had been involved in an ‘incident’. She had fallen from a horse and was seriously injured; just how serious would soon become apparent.

Clover’s life would never be the same again.

This first loss of her mother, the hub and heart of the family, would fracture their lives from that moment onwards. Clover sought solace in friends, lovers and drugs. The search for comfort would take her across to Ireland, to the vast ranches of Texas as a cowgirl and finally to the arms of another lover from the splintered Caucasus regions before she wends her way home to the Vale of the White Horse. She settles and raises a family, with all the ups and downs that this entails. Her mother’s condition slowly worsens as she then deals with her own crisis.

Reading this book is a raw and painful experience. Her turbulent life after her mother’s accident, forms the woman she is to become; strong, independent, vulnerable and delicate. She has the juxtaposition of knowing exactly what she wants, without always knowing the direction that she is heading. Clover is very open about her personal life, going into a fair amount of detail at times, not looking for judgement or approval; just being honest about what happened. The landscape where they lived is her anchor when dealing with all that life throws at her and it is something that she returns to at all the different stages of her life. I was hoping for more of the natural world and her interaction with it. It would have lifted it from the good to the great. Still worth reading though as she writes with a clarity and honesty that you don’t often get. 3.5 Stars

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Wednesday 15 February 2017

Review: The Apple Orchard: The Story of Our Most English Fruit

The Apple Orchard: The Story of Our Most English Fruit The Apple Orchard: The Story of Our Most English Fruit by Pete Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few years ago I remember someone who lived in an Orchard Close frequently having to explain to people what an orchard actually was. For those of you still unsure, Pete Brown has titled this book to give you a subtle clue. These glorious pieces of landscape have been created by man for hundreds of years and are that bridge between the completely wild and the tamed garden. In these beautiful creations, you will find all sorts of wonderful things, cherries, pears, cobnuts, but most frequently, the apple.

Taking us through all of the stages in the year to bring the apple tree to fruit we will learn about cold units, grafting, why you cannot plant just one apple variety and he even has a go at harvesting. His journey starts with a slice of fresh apple, and very nearly ends there when he realises that he is allergic to them! Thankfully he is not allergic to cider… His journey takes him far and wide starting with the Pagan festival of Beltane, he meets morris men, Kingston Black, scientists, wassailers, makes a pilgrimage to the home of the Bramley, joins in with an Apple Day, helps make cider and meets yet more morris men.

It all started when he was researching about cider and realised that he had made more notes about the places where the apple was grown than he had about the cider. The seeds that were sown there, lead to this superb book on the delight of that most English of places, the orchard being written. He is a great author, up until now I have only come across him on Radio 4, but this book is witty, whilst staying interesting and rigorous all the way through. Sadly, orchards have been on the decline, something that he intends to change by writing this book, with the hope that communities celebrate these places for what they are.

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Tuesday 14 February 2017

Review: Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman

Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman by Peter Korn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nowadays people spend inordinate amounts of time in front of computers supposedly creating things and whilst some of these things can be satisfying, quite a lot of the time it isn’t. Peter Korn has had a lifetime of creating objects, when he began as a carpenter against his father's wishes. After a few years doing that, he suddenly had a desire to make a create furniture, to move from making things to creating things. These changes in career meant relocating to different parts of the States, taking each new venture in his stride and discovering his voice when it came to producing exquisite items of furniture. One thing that wasn’t in the plan though was the discovery of cancer.

He is a fighter, though, and thankfully he survives. But this is more than a memoir of his life, profession and a critique of his creations. He sets about answering the questions that he poses in the title of the book, describing what he and the people that he has taught through the school that he has set up, gain from the process of creating functional and beautiful things, and learning from the experience of others. It is quite a philosophical book, with a nod towards Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but much more eloquently written as he explores just how the creative process can bring fulfilment.

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Sunday 12 February 2017

Review: The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland's Border

The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland's Border The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland's Border by Garrett Carr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

In the fallout from Brexit, the only land border between the UK and Europe will be between 300 miles along the porous border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This line once staffed by soldiers and checkpoints had started to fade back into obscurity as the tensions and anger from decades of the Troubles eased and dissipated. Garrett Carr decided to walk and canoe along this border, to get a sense of the state of these nations and discover more about the people and places. The area he walks through are lightly populated with the odd farm and some villages and towns. Some of the people he meets on his journey are friendly and welcoming, others suspicious and reserved, a hangover from times past. It is a beautiful part of the world, full of ancient monuments, crannogs, ruined forts and the relics of recent history, checkpoints and damaged bridges, illegal border crossing points and observation points.

The book is a lovely blend of ancient history, contemporary issues, and of course travel. Carr touches lightly on the Troubles, reporting incidents and events of atrocities as he passes where they took place; he does not judge either side, leaving us to wonder about the point of some of the most cruel events. Whilst peace has returned to the region, people are still sensitive to the past. Carr is an eloquent and lyrical writer making this book a pleasure to read as he takes us through this liminal borderland. He has a great selection of photos taken throughout his walk of significant and interesting features. As well as that, the maps are probably the best I have seen in any travel book, ever, but you’d expect that given his background. It is a significant book about this country and I can highly recommend it.

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Saturday 11 February 2017

Review: A Tale of Trees: The Battle to Save Britain's Ancient Woodland

A Tale of Trees: The Battle to Save Britain's Ancient Woodland A Tale of Trees: The Battle to Save Britain's Ancient Woodland by Derek Niemann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Woodlands nestle deep within our national psyche; they have been the origins of myths, fairy tales and legends for millennia. They have fed us with the fruits from the under-storey, sheltered us with their trunks and the off0cuts have kept us warm. The more ancient a forest, the more we seem to love it. Vast oaks, swathes of bluebells and woodland animals just add to the deeply ingrained feelings we have for these places.

Woodlands that we almost lost for ever.

Post World War Two, these most ancient of place came under sustained attach from government, farmers and even the Forestry Commission; the very people supposedly charged with looking after these assets. The spectre of profit over ecosystems loomed large, and in thirty years, yes just thirty years we lost half of our ancient forests. In this tale of doom and gloom were sparks of hope though. People who were passionate about their local woods stood up to landowners and the government; rogue commission employees to matters into their own hands and the rise of the conservation and wildlife trusts lobbied and bought woods and coppices under threat.

Some of the events he writes about are quite shocking, copses that were hundreds of years old, decimated in a few days. Other stories of rogue Forestry Commission employees, who though it was wiser to ignore the wishes of the management and the stock plan saved some of these woodlands. The deep passion Niemann has for his subject is evident throughout the book, His soft lyrical voice has given us a really wonderfully written book on the ancient forests that dot our landscape, and the fight that people have undertaken to save them and bring them back from the brink of the abyss. They still aren’t completely safe, but the evidence showing the benefit to our landscape and wellbeing is now evident, and these green jewels of our countryside have a much better future.

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Friday 10 February 2017

Review: Cider With Rosie

Cider With Rosie Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is 1917 and Laurie Lee and his family have just arrived in the village of Slad in Gloucestershire for the first time. Their new home is nestled deep in the valley, warmed by open fires and water is got from a pump outside the back door. It is two families that have come together, the elder children are from the first marriage; his father re-married when their mother died, and had a second family before going off to war. Even though his father is not there, it is a happy childhood. The war reaches its end and the village celebrates; the family lives in hope of seeing their father again now it has ended. It was not to be.

Soon he was old enough to attend school. It was split into two classes, infants and Big Ones, separated by a partition. It was here that he was brought together with all the characters of the village and started to forge friendships that would remain with him. The teachers were very different to those today, harsher and often brutal, they had little scope for tolerance, demanding only obedience. Life in a rural community was as much about the daily life and way that the seasons slowed moved on slowly. Singing carols around the village at Christmas starting with the squire, skating on the frozen pond, to the balmy days of summer spent playing games in the fields.

Its roots clutched the slope like a giant hand, holding the hill in place. Its trunk writhed with power, threw off veils of green dust, rose towering into the air, branched into a thousand shaded alleys, became a city for owls and squirrels. I had thought such trees to be as old as the earth, I never dreamed that a man could make them.

Lee is such a lyrical author, writing about this tiny piece of England that was forever changed after the First World War. It is not shown through rose tinted glasses; this was tough at times, death was a frequent occurrence in his family and with neighbours and other villagers. The hard work was tempered by simple pleasures. This glimpse of a time long past, of a place that he loved and made him the man he was to become when he walked away at the age of 19. Thoughly enjoyable book that is really too short.

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Wednesday 8 February 2017

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rosemary Harpe is beginning to think she might not make her rendezvous with the spaceship Wayfarer, wormhole builders. The pod she is in runs on cheap fuel and she is not sure that the drugs she is using to make the journey palatable, completely work… When she emerges from consciousness all she can think about is will her new brand new identity work when she gets to the ship? She makes it safely and after passing the Bioscan is welcomed about the Wayfarer. He fellow crew consist of humans, Ashby, the captain, Corbin the algae expert, Jenks and Kizzy who are the techs. With them are other species, Sissix a reptilian, Dr Chef and Sinat Pair called Ohan whose particular skill enables them to navigate through the wormholes.

Her new life is carrying out clerical and admin stuff for the ship and keeping well out of the way from her previous life. But life for the crew is about to change completely, they have the opportunity to punch a wormhole through to the Toremi, a race that have recently indicated that they want to be a part of the wider interspecies cooperation. This chance offers financial security, but it is a huge risk too; Ashby decides that he has to take it. So begins an adventure that will stretch and threaten them as they discover who their friends really are.

This is a really enjoyable drama set in space, with a diverse and unusual set of characters with flaws and qualities alike. The pacing was good, with quieter more reflective periods in-between moments of rapid action. I liked the way that Chambers wrote about the tech and physics, none of it felt implausible and she manages to convey what is happening without taking reams of text to explain it. The story wrapped up nicely, but it did feel like some of the story was being held back for the next ones in the series though. Good stuff, definitely will be reading the next ones in the series. 3.5 stars

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Tuesday 7 February 2017

It's arrived!

Review: Web Of Deceit: Britain's Real Foreign Policy

Web Of Deceit: Britain's Real Foreign Policy Web Of Deceit: Britain's Real Foreign Policy by Mark Curtis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The definition of diplomacy has been described as the ability to tell a person to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip. When you think of a titled British ambassador, you have the image of a soft talking Sir Humphrey as a gentle ambassador for British interests abroad. Curtis has spent hours pouring over formerly secret government files released under the Thirty year rule; turns out the reality is very different from the image that they have cultivated…

From the evidence the he has amassed Curtis argues that the UK is an 'outlaw state', an ally of many repressive regimes and a frequent a violator of international law. He catalogues the shocking human rights abuses carried out by foreign countries with tacit approval of the UK government. The unpalatable details of historical events in Indonesia in 1965; Diego Garcia; Iran and British Guiana, Kenya, Malaya and Oman are covered in detail. The Uk has also supported repressive governments in, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. This policy of having a political elite in charge of a country to control the population purely so British business and economic interests can take precedence over that particular countries wishes is abhorrent.

It makes for quite depressing reading and is a slamming indictment of the UK government and Foreign Office. Whilst this was primarily aimed at the New Labour government; who thought that inserting ethical before foreign policy would make it so. It doesn’t, if you have not changed the fundamental principles of the policy. Sadly, I cannot imagine that it is any better under the present encumbrances… It is a bit dated (I have had it sitting on my shelf for years!), but still an eye opening read.

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Saturday 4 February 2017

Review: Hidden Histories: A Spotter's Guide to the British Landscape

Hidden Histories: A Spotter's Guide to the British Landscape Hidden Histories: A Spotter's Guide to the British Landscape by Mary-Ann Ochota
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The British landscape as we see it today smothers a whole load of history. But if you look very carefully at the scene in front of you, you can start to see hints of the features that lie just beneath. But what are they? This is where Hidden Histories can help. Ochota has compiled a guide to discovering what the lumps and bumps that dot our countryside really are, so you can tell your cursus from your barrow, standing stones from a rubbing stone and your stretchers from your English bond. For each of the sections, you are provided with lots of details on what to look for, how to make an assessment of just what it is you are looking at and how to determine just how ancient it really is.

The book is packed full of excellent photos as well as artworks, maps and detailed drawings of all sorts of places, buildings, landscapes and features. I particularly liked the way that he has chosen her top five of a specific feature, so you can go and have a look yourself. It is a very good guide for getting you out into the landscape to look at it with a different set of eyes and to discover the history that you probably haven’t noticed before. 3.5 stars

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Thursday 2 February 2017

Stanford Dolman Travel writing

My thoughts on the Stanford Dolman Travel list, winner announced tonight:

Looking forward to hearing who has won