Saturday 29 April 2017

Review: Bee Quest

Bee Quest Bee Quest by Dave Goulson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

There is nothing better than sitting in the garden in summer sun with a glass of something cold, watching the bees buzz between flowers. The honey bee moves quickly collecting nectar, and then there are the bumble bees. They look like they shouldn’t be able to fly as they float lazily between the flowers. I thought that there were only one or two species of bumble bee, but it turns out there are many more than that. The question is how many are left, and how many could self-confessed insect nut, Dave Goulson, find?

Goulson begins at Salisbury Plain, a large patch of chalk downland in the south-west, which thanks to the British army, has remained untouched from modern industrial farming methods. Provided you remember to avoid the unexploded ordinance, this is one of the best places to find the shrill carder and other rarer bumble bees as well as many other invertebrates, pond shrimps and the fantastically named Great Bustard. The promise of finding a Yellow Armpit bee in Eastern Europe prompts a trip to Poland. The tiny island of Barra is surrounded by crystal clear blue seas and startlingly white beaches; the look is Caribbean, but as this is just off the west coast of Scotland, the temperatures didn’t really match, but this is where the Great Yellow is still left.

Trips further afield to Patagonia, Ecuador and California in search of orchid bees, the Franklin and Giant Golden add a touch of exotica to the search for the rear and unusual before Goulson is brought back to earth with two visits to a brownfield site on the Thames estuary, one official, and another that was, er, less official shall we say. Really enjoyed reading about the re-wilding of Knepp Castle. The changes that Sir Charles Burrell has made to his estate have been as dramatic as they have been beneficial for the local environment.

Goulson has written his best book yet, his writing keeps getting better and his Infectious enthusiasm for his furry subjects is catching. Not only is it a wonderful read, but it is a prescient warning of our meddling with the environment. Drenching the land in insecticides is fundamentally wrong; in California, Goulson saw that a small amount of land set aside for nature could actually improve yields, with none of the detrimental effects of chemical addition. Honeybees are thought to be the biggest pollinators, but it was found that bumble bees are equally good, you wouldn’t have tomatoes for example. If you are a fan of natural history book then this is a necessary addition. Only two minor flaws, it could have done with some photos, and it wasn’t long enough!

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Thursday 27 April 2017

Review: Falcon

Falcon Falcon by Helen Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Raptors are at the pinnacle of evolution, from the huge eagles that soar in lazy arcs, the hawks that use all their guile and cunning and the falcons that are the Exocet missiles of the avian world; this book is the story of the falcon.

Humans and falcons have had a long history together, young birds were collected and trained for sport and hunting for millennia and it still carries on today in particular in the middle east. But it is a tempestuous relationship, there have been points where we have driven them to almost extinction. Thankfully they are making a comeback, partly as people are more aware of the natural world and care about it, but they have been moving from their original clifftop eyries to the heights of city skyscrapers, and what was once a rare sighting now is commonplace. Macdonald explores how they have entered our culture, given names to aircraft, been venerated way back to Egyptian times and were even used for secret missions during World War II.

Macdonald is better known for H is for Hawk, but she actually wrote this volume first. It is an interesting account of these beautiful but deadly creatures and is full of fascinating facts and some quite amazing pictures. In particular, I liked the photo of a skydiver alongside a peregrine and learning that at full chat when they reach speeds in excess of 200mph, they make a whistling sound as they cut through the air. Great little book, one for all lovers of raptors.

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Book Post!

Had a manic week, thankfully now have three days off. Last weekend we'd been away camping and I had come back to find these on my doorstep. Thanks to Elliott & Thompson and Eland

Lounge Books

Just found out that I am on this list of 36 bloggers. Staggered, to say the least

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Review: The Leaping Hare

The Leaping Hare The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

The hare is one of those elusive animals that is rarely seen. These creatures have a completely different way of living to the similar looking rabbit, a creature that they are frequently mistaken for. The book begins with chapters on the natural history of the mountain hare and the common hare full of the details that they have gleaned about the way that they live and rear their young. There are a couple of chapters on the way that they were hunted for food, including some recipes and the way that they were sadly hunted purely for the sport.

However, the majority of the book is filled with fascinating stories and details of the way that the hare has been a part of imagination and our culture, stretching way back to ancient myths and cave art. The authors look at of the folklore associated with the animals, look at the tales behind them supposedly changing into witches, and the stories that connected the hare to the moon, fire and other tricks that it could play.

Evans and Thomson’s book is a rich account of this enigmatic creature. It is not so strong on the science and natural history of the hare, but they have brought together the vast number of myths and legends that the hare has been associated with and made it a fascinating read. Their interviews with people from all walks of life in the country have given us a direct link to a long forgotten way of life and it is a reminder of when seasonal change was just that. This reissue of a classic not only is timely as more people looking to discover further aspects of the countryside. One for every natural history bookshelf.

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Tuesday 25 April 2017

Review: Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery

Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Alys had always wanted to be an adventurer; someone who would climb mountains and forge rivers, sail and cycle to parts of the world that she had never been before. But life got in the way, she fell in love and married a penniless artist who sought to expand her mind and gave her a different way of looking at the world. A degree in science with an environmental element offered a perspective between the wild and the controlled. As her writing career blossomed a move to Birmingham presented itself with an opportunity to put down roots and make a garden of her own.

But after a while the call of the wild tugged at her still even deep in the city, a friends suggested sleeping under the stars or canoeing the canals. That struck a chord and a small inflatable canoe was acquired; the urban wilderness awaited her. Alys starts to explore the canals of Birmingham, discovering the beauty in the watery lines that criss-cross the city. It became an escape from her current life, a place where she could be free, so much so that her neat and tidy garden began to blur at the edges as weeds grew and slugs and snails resumed their relentless munching. These moments of solitude she came to cherish.

It was a time to rekindle old friendships too; she had known Sarah and Ming for a while and caught up with them for lunch. They bought their friend along, someone Alys knew a little, as she was a landscape designer. That moment of meeting Charlotte was to shatter her stable world and marriage for Alys had begun to fall in love with her. The moment of discovering her actual sexuality would be the toughest point of her life and separating from her husband who has cystic fibrosis would be the hardest decision to take.

Time alone in nature was what I needed most. It’s my reset button.

Fowler has written an honest, lyrical and whimsical memoir of her very personal journey. She has an incredible eye for detail seeing both the beautiful and the unsightly as she floats along the canals of Birmingham and occasionally London. The deep life changing events happening in her life means that she does get very introspective at times, analysing the tiniest details for meaning and understanding. You do feel for ‘H’ as he is left to drift, as Alys finds her new identity and way in the world. It is worthy addition to this new sub-genre of personal story tied into interaction with the natural world.

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Sunday 23 April 2017

Wellcome Book Prize Shadow panel

I have been on the shadow panel with Bookish BackGrrlScientistRuby Jhita and Amy Pirt, and today we announced our winner for the prize. 

It was When breath Become Air, and you can read far more about the panels decision here:

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Review: The Tidal Zone

The Tidal Zone The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Emma and Adam have been married for a number of years and have two daughters. Emma is a GP, and Adam has chosen to stay at home be the house husband. He has a little work at the university and is currently working on a history of the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral. Though Emma is suffering with the stresses of the modern NHS, it is a happy family life. Then one day Adam receives a call from the school. Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. He rushes to the school, arriving shortly after the paramedics, and heads into the hospital with her.

As they come to terms with a daughter who has a serious illness, their whole family life is turned upside down. After a barrage of tests, the doctors are not completely sure what is up, so she is allowed home. As they come to terms with the changes they start to fret over the smallest things, worry over their other daughter and question things that happen to Adam’s mother that was never explained.

It is a sharp look at modern life, the way that we interact with each other. Moss has managed to write about the pressures that we place on ourselves, as well as those exerted by society with startling accuracy. It is a celebration of the mundane as well as those moments that draw a family together. However, it is a warning of how thin we stretch ourselves whilst failing to keep the work home life balance and a warning of how transient life can be.

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Tuesday 18 April 2017

Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour #WBP2017

I was honoured to be asked to be a host on the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 blog tour, and today it is my turn. I have known of the Wellcome Trust for many years. The first time I heard of them when I was told about my great-uncle making models for them, prior to the Second World War. The next time they came on the radar was when a stipend from them paid for my wife to do her PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Their support for people to develop and explore ideas in the sciences has brought great benefits all around the world.

I do love a good short prize list, in particular, one with non-fiction titles in it and that is why I have followed the Wellcome Book Prize for a while now, normally reading one or two titles from it as and when it suits. This year because of the reading and reviewing I have been doing for Nudge, I have managed to read the entire non-fiction longlist for their website and I have now read the two shortlisted fiction titles. All this prior to the winner being announced.

Dropping some of the longlist titles to choose the six on the shortlist must have been hard as all the titles were worth reading, but the panel has decided on the list below:

The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (USA), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

How to Survive a Plague by David France (USA) Picador, Pan Macmillan

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (USA), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (France) and translated by Jessica Moore, MacLehose Press

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (UK), Granta Books

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (UK), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

Today I am going to be talking about The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I read this shortly after it was nominated for the Royal Society Prize and had been fortunate to get a review copy from my excellent local bookshop, Gulliver’s. But first an extract with many thanks to (The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (USA), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House)

Extract from ‘Prologue: Families’

As I write this, organisms endowed with genomes are learning to change the heritable features of organisms endowed with genomes. I mean the following: in just the last four years—between 2012 and 2016—we have invented technologies that allow us to change human genomes intentionally and permanently (although the safety and fidelity of these “genomic engineering” technologies still need to be carefully evaluated). At the same time, the capacity to predict the future fate of an individual from his or her genome has advanced dramatically (although the true predictive capacities of these technologies still remain unknown). We can now “read” human genomes, and we can “write” human genomes in a manner inconceivable just three or four years ago.

It hardly requires an advanced degree in molecular biology, philosophy, or history to note that the convergence of these two events is like a headlong sprint into an abyss. Once we can understand the nature of fate encoded by individual genomes (even if we can predict this in likelihoods rather than in certainties) and once we acquire the technology to intentionally change these likelihoods (even if these technologies are inefficient and cumbersome) our future is fundamentally changed. George Orwell once wrote that whenever a critic uses the word human, he usually renders it meaningless. I doubt that I am overstating the case here: our capacity to understand and manipulate human genomes alters our conception of what it means to be “human.”

The atom provides an organizing principle for modern physics—and it tantalizes us with the prospect of controlling matter and energy. The gene provides an organizing principle for modern biology—and it tantalizes us with the prospect of controlling our bodies and fates. Embedded in the history of the gene is “the quest for eternal youth, the Faustian myth of abrupt reversal of fortune, and our own century’s flirtation with the perfectibility of man.” Embedded, equally, is the desire to decipher our manual of instructions. That is what is at the center of this story.

As you can read from this snippet, it is a significant book. Mukherjee is right to point out that our mastery over the gene is as significant as it was for the atom last century, but, and this is a fairly large but, mastery does not equal control.

My original review for the book written back in August last year I think is still valid:

Genes are not only the key to life, but they hold 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.

It is a book that has a lot to add to the discussion and wider public knowledge of science as a whole and health in particular. Mukherjee’s book highlights the enormous benefits that the science of genetics has brought humanity so far, as well as the enormous potential that this research has.

With all the books on the shortlist you will enrich your soul and your mind by reading them. Take a chance, pick one and give it a go; you’ll probably learn something too

There are a number of events taking place prior to the winning book being announced next Monday; details can be found here:

Monday 17 April 2017

Review: Mend the Living

Mend the Living Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Simon Limbeau is in search of that perfect wave. He knows it is out there, and perhaps this will be the day that he finds it, the forecast seems to indicate that it will be good. Rising just before 6 am, he ventures into the freezing morning to climb in the van with his friends to hit the beach. It is a journey Simon has undertaken hundreds of times. Waves were found, ridden and conquered and they pile back in the van trying to warm up. Chris turns the key in the van and begins the return journey; all their lives were just about to change for ever.

Simon was not wearing a seatbelt and as Chris dropped off to sleep, the van drifted to the left until it hit the pole. All three lads were rushed to hospital following the accident and parents were contacted. Marianne, Simon’s mum, gets to the hospital. Looking shell shocked, she is ushered into a meeting with the doctor. Simon’s condition is serious, very serious indeed.

So begins the sensitive telling of a story that is a parent’s worst dilemma. It is a short book, often captivating, always emotional, but occasionally dips a little to heavily into technical jargon. However, De Kerangal’s sparse prose is what carries this story, making what is an intensely charged read, a thing of beauty still. It is a sad, touching story, sensitively told.

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Review: Miss-adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America

Miss-adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America Miss-adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America by Amy Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Having had an idea to quit her job and go backpacking around South America, Amy started to tell friends and family of her intentions. What she wasn’t quite expecting was the vast amount of advice that was proffered to her on what to see, where to go, what to do, and most frequently what not to do. Advice that was perhaps a little unnecessary and probably irrelevant too. So after her boss had told her that there was no money in travel writing and that she would come to regret it, she replied: ‘I’m going to do it anyway’.

So begins Amy’s full on adventure around a number of countries in South America, beginning right in the deep end, the Bolivian jungle. Here she manages to scare herself several times a day, swim in crocodile infested waters, and encounters spiders that she didn’t know could grow that large. Having just survived the jungle, climbing a mountain seemed like a good idea, didn’t it? She was joined by friends on various parts of the trip, as well as meeting loads of new people most of whom were friendly and occasionally those that weren’t.

All the way through the book Amy considers that advice that she had been given. She realised that some of the advice that had been provided was sound, and some, shall we say was less than helpful… Weighing up that provided by friends, against some from experts Amy slowly concludes who provides accurate guidance and when it should be listened to. Amy is a competent writer and the book is scattered with genuine laugh out loud moments, so much so I was getting odd looks when reading this at lunchtime and sniggering. If you like books written by Tony Hawkes, then this is right up your street.

I do hope though that her mother hasn’t read this book!

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Thursday 13 April 2017

Blog Birthday

Just realised today that it is just over a year since I started blogging. I have posted just over 300 times, and have had over 8000 page views.

Thank you everyone!

Wednesday 12 April 2017

Review: The Otters’ Tale

The Otters’ Tale The Otters’ Tale by Simon Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Otters are one of our apex predators in the UK, but after the Second World War, they almost went extinct due to environmental and other pressures. That they have slowly clawed their way back as the rivers and streams that they live in became less polluted. The fact that they now they can be found in every county in the land is a conservation success and should be applauded. They are almost mythical though, they are seldom glimpsed, even when going looking for them, you may only hear a splash. You will find evidence that they are sound though, their spraints are fairly visible and you’ll probably come across the scattered remains of supper every now and again.

Even after buying a watermill on a chalkstream in Hampshire Simon Cooper didn’t expect to see one either. As he moved around the lake and streams that came with his property he began to find the evidence that they were some nearby, but it was finding a family of otters in the mill race, just feet from his desk, that he realised that he was the intruder on their territory. So begins this transitory relationship with this mother and four cubs, as Cooper spent more time watching and following their trial and tribulations of growing up and learning how to swim and feed and playing as you’d expect otters to behave.

Cooper’s daily observations have given us this well-written tale of the elusive creature that is the otter. He has used some artistic licence to write the story of Kuschta and her cubs, how she moved into the lakes, the liaison with the father and how she goes about raising and training them to hunt and survive. The story side is woven in with a raft of solid facts and detail on these fascinating creatures following them through the seasons as they live and thrive around the mill. A really good book on that most evanescent of creatures and a worthy addition to anyone’s natural history library.

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Tuesday 11 April 2017

Review: Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies

Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies by Peter Marren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is something about butterflies that captivates some people. They fulfil no ecological purpose, as they are not pollinators, they are not a source of food for a most animals as they are frequently full of poisons and unpalatable substances, they just seem to exist because nature can make it so. Regardless of their purpose, these brightly coloured little insects have enthralled people for years. From the time he first caught one at the age of five, Peter Marren was one of those captivated by these beguiling insects. So began a hobby that has lasted a lifetime, first hunting them for his collection, then rearing them when he realised that what he was doing was not sustainable.

However, this is not another guidebook about butterflies, rather a guidebook about butterfly lovers. Marren’s deep passion about his subject is evident as he brings us the stories and potted biographies and histories of those that have had a similar passion to him. We learn about the Rothschild family members who were equally besotted, what John Fowles and Vladimir Nabokov liked to collect and how butterflies have inspired countless artists and writers. He guides us through the extinctions of some and the reintroduction of the Large Blue and takes us through the life cycle right from the egg to the next generation.

His writing is authoritative without being tiresome and it flits along at a fair old pace. It is also a warning; we have been persecuting all sorts of wildlife in this country, and the relentless push to greater efficiency and cost savings has put butterflies and many of their habitats in peril. I liked the mix of solid science and research with a series of personal stories and it is a really good general book in the study of his favourite insect.

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Saturday 8 April 2017

Review: Havergey

Havergey Havergey by John Burnside
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

Havergey used to appear on maps but has long since disappeared from them. Even though most don’t know it exists, it is home to the wanderers and dreamers from a shattered world seeking a new life in an ancient land still formed by its exposure to the elements. They rarely have visitors though, so when a guy appears the small community is naturally curious. He is slightly bewildered, claiming to have come from the past. They ask him to stay in a building near the shore as a form of Quarantine, and he is assigned Ben, the Watcher, to look after him and help him settle.

John is not going to be allowed out but will be fed and sheltered. In the same building is the community archive, a collection of documents and letters and other texts. As he sits and reads them during the day, John starts to get a feel for the way that the community has evolved to its present state. He is joined every meal time by Ben, who tells of the Collapse and the state of the world now from the one that he left and who asks his guest what he makes of their island and if he would be able to make his home here.

Reading this is a strange and almost surreal experience. It is full of subtle nuances as Burnside explores the concepts of utopia on an island that is a refuge in a dystopian world. He also uses it as way of making us the reader think just what we are doing to this world that we live on, not only in the obvious harm, but to consider the misguided good that some think is appropriate. There is not a huge amount of character development as the themes are the prominent way of getting us to think about the current state of the world. I did like it, in particular, the sparse but eloquent prose, but at times it was a bit too fleeting. The main points it is trying to convey dovetail in quite well with the Confessions of a Reluctant Environmentalist that I read recently. It is a book that I will read again and mull over with a glass of something. 3.5 Stars

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Monthly Muse

Bit late getting to this for March, had a manic two weeks, then underwent an operation and two weeks off of work. Back now and it has been insane this week… Anyway, reading wise, March was pretty productive. The two weeks at home meant that I could speak to the contractors that we need to quote for our kitchen revamp over the summer and I managed to make some inroads into my backlog of review copies. In all I read 21 books. It could have been higher, but social media does get in the way. And they were these:

Quite a varied collection this month. One of the best was The Art of Neil Gaiman, a behind the scenes look at the way that he creates his masterful works. Walking the Americas was really good too; will be watching the TV series soon, now I have finished the book. I bought the Wildlife Trust Series after I had some book tokens last year, and I am making point of starting each one of the first day of that season. This month was Spring, which I started on the 20th March. Harrison has a knack of finding some absolute classic texts as well as some promising new authors.

I was vaguely aware of Anne Dillard, but have never read any of her work. Canongate had kindly arranged for me to get to of her book that were being re-printed for their Canons series. Teaching a Stone to talk was the first of Dillard’s book that I had read, well worth it, and I have the Abundance to read soon. How to Survive a Plague was worth reading, though it is an immense book full of detail and people with the fight that the gay community had to go through to get AIDS research on the agenda. Kapp to Cape was enjoyable too, an attempt at setting a record cycling from the very north of Norway to South Africa. Read (more inhaled) one graphic novel, but it was Gaiman so it had to be done and was partially mesmerised by Falling Awake.

Read more fiction this month that I would normally do, there was the disturbing Roanoke Girls, the creepy Behind Her Eyes and the out of this world Stars are Legion. Sealskin was a worthy retelling of the ancient legend of the selkies, Sleeping Giants was a sci fi book set on our planet and the new fantasy world that Terry Goodkind had created. The no fiction I had read was interesting too, from the quirky Adventures in Stationary, the future thinking Homo Deus, a lovely book on the fox and learnt how to make a hit. Paul Kingsnorth’s new book on his thoughts on how the green agenda is losing its focus was interesting too.

I have been asked by Rebecca at Bookish Beck to be a member of the shadow panel of readers who will make our way through the six titles shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize. We will be choosing our own winner shortly before the official prize announcement on Monday, April 24th. We are also joined on the panel by Amy Pirt who blogs at This Little Bag of Dreams. I will also be on the Wellcome Prize blog tour on the 19th April. Never participated in one of these before so slightly nervous!

This coming month I will be ploughing through the backlog of review copies that I have.