Wednesday 31 May 2017

Review: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most people who try to predict the future get it spectacularly wrong. One person didn’t though; Agnes Nutter, witch. The book she left in 1655, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies, had been written shortly before she exploded and ruined several people’s days. But then they had been out to ruin hers. It not only predicts the day the world will end, it knows the precise time. Which if you’re interested, it will be next Saturday, shortly after tea…

Rewind several years though, and we first come across Crowley, an Angel who did not fall from heaven, more saunter vaguely downwards. He is charged with ensuring that the child Anti-Christ is delivered to the nunnery where he will be exchanged with the son of an American diplomat who is just about to be born. Crowley and Aziraphale, an angel, and after 6000 years of knowing each other, more of a friend now. They have planned that the Anti-Christ grows up never being able to decide between Good and Evil, hopefully postponing the end of the world. Except there is a muddle up. The family destined to get Warlock, receive a normal boy and Adam Young grows up in Lower Tadfield, utterly unaware of his potential powers.

If you want to imagine the future, imagine a boy and his dog and his friends. And a summer that never ends.

The world is changing fast though with the approaching Judgement Day. Armies are amassing, the four bikers of the apocalypse, War, Death, Famine and Pollution are assembling, the hell hound is summoned. All of these individuals are being pulled to the military base of Lower Tatton and are being pursued by the last remaining member of the Witchfinder Army, Newton Pulsifer and the multi-great granddaughter of Agnes Nutter, Anathema Device. Will Adam use his powers to bring about the end of the world…

Armageddon only happens once, you know. They don’t let you go around again until you get it right.

I first read this many years (ok decades) ago, as I was a committed Pratchett fan. I really could not get along with it back then, having ventured out of the safe(ish) Discworld, I wasn't keen on the dark elements that Gaiman had brought to the narrative. In 2013, the next Gaiman book that I picked up was The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Something in that book clicked for me and I have ended up reading and loving all of what I have read of his so far. Then Terry died in 2015, and I decided to complete my Discworld collection and read all of his books that I had not read.

This was one of them. This time I loved it.

To have the chutzpah of taking an epic prediction of the end of the world and inject lots of absurdity into it takes some doing and Pratchett and Gaiman managed to pull this one off. The humour is still school boyish though, something that they alluded to in the introduction in my edition. It lacks character development, but the interplay between them, in particular, Aziraphale and Crowley is quite something. Having come to love Gaiman’s writing now, I can see each of their voices woven through the narrative. Sadly this was the only collaboration that they did that made it print, it does make me wonder just what else they could have produced given time. Brilliant and destined to become a classic.

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Monday 29 May 2017

Review: Pedal Power: Inspirational Stories from the World of Cycling

Pedal Power: Inspirational Stories from the World of Cycling Pedal Power: Inspirational Stories from the World of Cycling by Anna Hughes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Since the bike was invented it has provided people with opportunity. It provided people who could not afford expensive methods of transport with a means of travelling further than they previously were able, it gave women freedom and has provided an energy efficient method of transport all over the world. The simple two wheeled machine has given us a plethora of bike types now. You can buy a cheap steel bike for a small amount of money or you can spend a large fortune on the latest carbon framed road bike that is almost light enough to float. We have mountain bikes, tourers, BMX, recumbents, folding bikes and the saddleless trials type. All of these bikes have their owners who have taken them to all of the continents, to some of the highest points on the globe and there are those who have gone to the furthest point from the ocean. Many have taken them around our planet, partly to break records, sometimes just for the hell of it. We have one of the world greatest sporting spectacles in the Tour de France, there is the insanity of the rampage downhill event and the metronomic velodrome.

Hughes has pulled together lots of stories on cycling heroes into this book. You can read about stars of the cycling world such as Froome, Wiggo and MacAskill as well of those who are not as well known, like Sunny Chuah and CK Flash. We hear about one guy who rode up Mont Ventoux on a Boris bike and tries to return it to London before he is penalised, another who attempts to cycle to Hawaii and tales of some of the fastest on two wheels. Most importantly we learn how the simple gift of a bicycle can give people so much opportunity through the work of World Bicycle Relief. This book is full of inspiring people who have seen their lives changed by the simple act of turning a pedal, or used it to change other lives. It is a great book for the bike nut in your life.

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Review: The Nature of Autumn

The Nature of Autumn The Nature of Autumn by Jim Crumley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Each season offers its own basket of delights, in winter we have the skeletal trees set against the grey skies, spring brings an outpouring of life and acid greens. Summer, such that it is, is a time of balmy days and abundant food. Before you know it, autumn is upon us once again and nature starts its most dramatic change of all. As the light ebbs, leaves start the process of leaching chlorophyll back into the tree and changing to a fantastic range of colours, the warm days are tempered by sharper mornings and the mists soften the countryside.

Autumn is one of Jim Crumley’s favourite seasons, an emotion triggered after seeing geese flying overhead when he was young. He takes us on a journey around his home country of Scotland travelling from the lowlands up into the Highlands and across to the islands to see the Autumn unfold. His travels take him to see the vast whooper swan flocks that have headed down from the Arctic, the ancient brocks that only exist in this part of the world and he seeks out the Redwoods that grow there. His keen eyes see the golden eagles that float over the mountains, the traces of otters and beavers that live in the rivers, the fleeting glimpses of deer in the woods the blur of a stoat and watching an owl float silently over a field.

There is nothing particularly profound in here, just the stories of a man who takes the time to head out as often as he can to sit and watch the world inexorably grind through the first flush of autumn to the arrival of the snows. He is great at finding the words that fill in the picture of the place that he is visiting; so much so that you feel that you are sitting alongside him at certain points as he takes in the views. As well as being a eulogy to autumn, it is a reflective book too, he takes a moment to celebrate his late father and grandfather and their achievements. It did take a little away from the main point of the book though, but it is still worth reading for his gentle, lyrical language.

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Friday 26 May 2017

Review: Where Poppies Blow

Where Poppies Blow Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There has been awful lot of history written about the horrors of the First World War, we have first-hand accounts from those that fought and suffered, writers who composed some of the most poignant poems and a raft of historical documents and archaeological reports that build a picture of the time. Even though the war dragged on for four years, not all of it was spent fighting. The soldiers had time away from the front lines and the misery of the trenches and when they did they found they could draw comfort from the similarities in the north French landscape to the countryside that they had left behind and that some would never see again.

For it is for the sake of the wolds and the wealds
That we die

Whenever the troops had a spare moment they would take time in between the bombs to observe the birds that were trying to eke out an existence in the war too. It was one of the most popular hobbies of soldiers. Flowers played a large part in soldier’s lives too, some had time to plant and tend gardens, but the image of poppies and cornflowers blooming after the devastation of war is one of the enduring images that remained with the shattered soldiers leaving the battlefields. Some of the officers also hunted, spending hours chasing what little wildlife was left in the fields, some made rods to fish, other took the easier option of dropping bombs in the rivers. Not only did the British Army empty the fields of the workers, they took the horses too, and when they had almost all gone, they shipped them over from Canada. The soldier’s relationship with their equine friends was made closer by the perils of war. In total eight million horses, donkeys and mules died during the conflict, a horrendous number. There were also a huge number of other animals at the front too, the battalions had their mascots which varied from the fairly common dogs, to the less common goats to the frankly unusual orang-utan and cows. Rats and lice were endemic in the trenches causing yet further misery to those knee deep in mud.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row

Lewis-Stempels book is a very different take on the usual histories of the First World War. It is full of personal stories of the way that the soldiers saw nature and how it gave them the motivation for them to carry on in the darkest of times. The prose is almost secondary in this book, as there are so many poems and anecdotes about the natural world around them that he has collected together. It is not all grim reading, there are some really positive parts to the book, but I thought the list of those scientists and naturalists that had fallen in action was most moving as it showed how much experience and knowledge that we lost just from one small sliver of society. The war that had taken so many of the fit and able men showed that they still had their humanity.

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Wednesday 24 May 2017

Review: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir by Chris Packham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Chris Packham is a well known presence on our TV screens, presenting The Really Wild Show from 1986 to 1995 and most recently Springwatch. He is passionate about all things wildlife and conservation, an interest that stemmed from early in his childhood where he developed a fascination with all creatures great, small, dead and alive. His introverted personality meant that he was a boy who didn’t fit in with anyone else at school; he was bullied, beaten up and suffered in some way every day. He was an indifferent pupil, but with the subjects he loved, he excelled at them.

Where Packham felt most alive though was when he was interacting with the natural world. He felt a connection to every creature that was living and had a fascination with those long departed like dinosaurs. His bedroom was a cross between a zoo and a museum with jam jars full of frog spawn, snakes in fish tanks and drawers full of skulls, eggs and deceased insects. He would spend hours outside looking for specimens, poring over his collections and boiling carcases to get to the bones. But the creature he most coveted was a kestrel, a real live kestrel, and one day he was to realise that dream. Every magical moment that he spent with the bird learning how to train it and observing it in the tiniest detail was to be the time he finally felt at peace with the world around him.

This moving memoir is written with an intensity that is so very different to anything that I have read before. Packham is eloquent with an attention to detail that is quite astonishing, you could say that obsession is his middle name, but it is not surprising when you learn he suffers from Asperger’s. His parents were gracious and tolerant with the way that he saw the world and the way that it saw him, but the way people failed to understand him did intensify the internal conflicts he suffered from. Woven in are accounts of his meetings with a phycologist, where he takes the tentative, painful steps of opening up to a stranger and it is where we learn of his greatest fears and those moments where he has stood at the abyss. If there was one flaw for me, it was the way it was written in the third person. It felt like he was detached from the events going on, and to a certain extent he probably was, but overall it is a really good read.

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Review: An Estate Car Named Desire: A Life on the Road

An Estate Car Named Desire: A Life on the Road An Estate Car Named Desire: A Life on the Road by Martin Gurdon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

Unless you are really unfortunate, your car today will almost certainly start first time, be warm, dry and traffic allowing, you will make it to your destination with no dramas. However, motoring in the 1960’s when Martin Gurdon was growing up, was an adventure in itself. Cars could frequently be seen by the side of the road with the bonnets raised and steam coming out; it was not uncommon to take a full toolset and a spare gearbox, just in case… Gurdon’s fascination with all things with wheels was borderline obsession, he could tell the just from the note of the exhaust, what car was passing, by reading every detail in magazines he could glance at a car and tell just how rare it was. This just seemed normal, surely everyone was like this; weren’t they?

Then his happy childhood broke down; his mother’s illness caused a family crisis and he was dispatched to her sister in Lancashire. His new school tolerated him, but his father made the decision to bring him down closer to home and placed him in a vegetarian boarding school. So begins the final five years of his flawed education, an experience that he tolerated because of his continued obsession with cars, and the thrill of acquiring a Triumph Herald for illicit trips out. Stumbling out of school with no idea what he wanted to do, he ends up in a couple of dead end jobs, frequently visiting the job centre before slowly realising that writing might be something he could do, and if he could write about cars, that would be just about perfect.

Gurdon is his capacity as a motoring journalist has had the privilege of driving some of the world fastest cars, but he served his motoring apprenticeship in the appalling cars that were produced in the seventies, Reliant Robins, Morris Marinas, 2CVs; he is lucky to be alive after reading about some of the scrapes that he got into. Nostalgia seeps from this book like oil from a leaking head gasket and whilst Gurdon acknowledges that some of the cars he owned were dreadful, we see others through the rose-tinted windscreen, in particular his fond memories of his father’s Bristol 401, a car he loved so much, he bought one of his own. There are several laugh out loud parts in this book and a few of what my eldest would call ‘facepalm’ moments. Good stuff and an ideal book for your friendly petrol head.

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Tuesday 23 May 2017

Sunday 21 May 2017

Review: Wild Kingdom: Bringing Back Britain's Wildlife

Wild Kingdom: Bringing Back Britain's Wildlife Wild Kingdom: Bringing Back Britain's Wildlife by Stephen Moss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ever since William Blake wrote the words ‘Englands green & pleasant Land’ in 1804 it has always been considered one of the best descriptions of the British countryside. For millennia humans have been changing the landscape in this country and the wildlife co-existed with us and the habitats that were formed. Now days only green could be considered correct; decades of industrial farming has wreaked untold devastation amongst the wild creatures and flowers that had once made our countryside so pleasant. Headlines scream at us from the papers about how our native wildlife is in trouble and the facts about what has been happening are frankly terrifying.

In amongst the grim news, there have been some success stories, species have been dragged back from the very brink of extinction or have been part of successful introduction programmes; these should be celebrated for good reason. But while we have been concentrating on the rare and the spectacular, our once common animals, house sparrows and the hedgehog and others have suffered catastrophic falls in numbers. Moss decides to find out for himself just what the state of our nation's wildlife is. Starting with what is the largest land area in our country, farmlands, we go on a whistle-stop tour through our woods, seashores, and mountains. As wildlife is as much a part of the urban jungle nowadays, especially with the fox living off the waste that humans leave behind and peregrines hurling themselves from skyscrapers in the very centre of our capital.

The countryside is being exploited by self-appointed, minority-interest pressure groups whose claims to be the guardians of the countryside would be amusing, were the consequences not so serious.

This is another superb book from Moss, but more importantly is it timely too. The state of the wildlife in the country is at a tipping point after decades of pummelling from chemicals and dramatic loss of habitat. There have been some reintroductions of natives like beavers and the cleaning up of the rivers has seen the spectacular return of the otter that can be claimed as successes and there have been places where farmers and landowners have taken it upon themselves to re-wild the land which have proved successful. The points that he is fairly forcefully making are being echoed elsewhere too, most recently in Bee Quest by Dave Goulson and The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel, guys with their pulse of the countryside. This is a book to read if you care about the very future of our countryside and more importantly this should be a book that all politicians should be made to read.

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Friday 19 May 2017

Review: The Swordfish and the Star: Life on Cornwall's Most Treacherous Stretch of Coast

The Swordfish and the Star: Life on Cornwall's Most Treacherous Stretch of Coast The Swordfish and the Star: Life on Cornwall's Most Treacherous Stretch of Coast by Gavin Knight
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cornwall is one a popular holiday destination for those wishing to stay in the UK. The coves and beaches are beautiful, the land and seascapes are breath-taking and being in the far west of the country, can claim to have some of the best sunsets going and is full of cosy cottages and quaint fishing villages. Where the land ends the Atlantic Ocean starts, bringing in the warmth of the Gulf Stream, it makes Cornwall’s quite balmy at times. It can though be at the receiving end of the might that all the ocean can throw at it, as winter storms sweep in pummelling the coast and cliffs.

There is still a fiercely independent local population who are doing their absolute best to ensure that they can still live in their county even though it has one of the highest second home ownership levels in the country, forcing house prices through the roof. Knight introduces us to the rich and varied characters that populate this place. We hear about the fisherman who battle against the seas month in month out, frequently putting their lives at risk to earn an income. They don’t always return. Those that do then have to battle the bureaucratic tangle that is the fisheries quotas and the families that dominate the markets. They guys who do this tough high-risk job day in and day out fight their own battles with drink and drugs as a coping mechanism. Artists have always been drawn to Cornwall s elemental coast, the quality of the light and the isolation that gave them the tools to focus on their work. Thankfully with broadband now there is a growing community of digital animators keeping the traditions alive.

Knight has written an honest and frank book peering behind the pasty’s and cream teas and surfboards to get under the skin of the county. It is one of the UK’s deprived areas, that most of the time couldn’t give a monkies about the rest of the UK, let alone Europe. He is not afraid to mix with the inhabitants chasing the snippets heard in the Swordfish and the Star pubs until he has a coherent story to tell us. Some of these stories of the rough justice and dangerous moments will scare you and captivate you.

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Thursday 18 May 2017

Review: The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times

The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

It is five years since the Great War finished and the country is still shattered. Casualties from the war abound, and some of who have suffered the most are sheltering in Epping Forest. Lucy Marsh and her brother Tom have been orphaned and live with their grandparents in a struggling pub in the grimy streets of north London. As money is tight, they have been despatched to Grantwood House, home of Lord Hertford where men from the war are convalescing. But there are four of these ‘funny men’ who have suffered horrific injuries have called themselves after characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, Toto and the Lion. Each week Lucy and Winifred climb into an old army lorry to go and see these men, to offer them comfort and companionship.

Circumstances mean that those visits stop and Lucy and the others end up spending lots more time on the estate and come into increased contact with the repulsive Rupert, son of Lord Hertford. He has drawn in a large number of oddballs and outcasts and proceeds to ply them with increasing amounts of cocaine, the drug of the future supposedly… But that future might already be starting to unravel for Lucy.

I loved the title of the book, which was the thing that drew me to it originally. Drawing on the deepest elements of folklore and the forest, Brooks has written a book cannot be called comforting at all. The writing is not fast paced and it borders on the surreal at times, full of subtle euphemisms as the dark plot is revealed little by little. However, it is compelling. If it has one flaw, it took a while to get going as Brooks has lots of characters to place in the story, but once I was there I read this in just a couple of days. A great debut novel and one that rewards you for sticking with it.

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Tuesday 16 May 2017

Review: Empire Games

Empire Games Empire Games by Charles Stross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seventeen years ago the Monarch of the New British Empire was overthrown. Since then power has steadily transferred to the North American Commonwealth. They are on course to defeat the French and return democracy once again. However, the commissioner of the shadowy Ministry of Intertemporal Research and Intelligence tasked with monitoring the movement of people through the paratime links between the parallel worlds has been warning that the Americans are coming. No one believed Miriam Burgeson but as the leader’s health fails, the first American drones appear in the skies.

In another timeline and a different America, Rita has been identified as world-walker, an individual who can switch between the parallel worlds with ease. She is a feisty individual, not completely sure why a shadowy agency wants her but presented with precisely no choice in the matter. First, she must be trained, undergo surgery and be indoctrinated, but the time is cut shorter as the pressure grows on the US to find out what is happening in the world alongside theirs. The perils of first contact between the worlds is heightened as they both have nuclear capability and no one knows if this battle will go white hot once again.

This is a fast-paced mash-up of the spy and military genres set in a near future sci-fi world; or should that be worlds. There is plenty of drama in the plot, with the odd twist that enhances the storyline no end. Like all good sci-fi books, it manages to mess with your head whilst sounding eminently plausible, the various societies that Stross has created do take a while to get your head around too. It leaves many questions unanswered making the ending a little bit scrappy, but as it is the beginning of a series, I don’t mind that so much. Very much looking forward to the next one.

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Sunday 14 May 2017

Review: Love,Madness,Fishing

Love,Madness,Fishing Love,Madness,Fishing by Dexter Petley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dexter Petley was born on the borders of Kent and Sussex in the mid 1950’s. It was a tough upbringing in post-World War 2 Britain; people in the Weald scratched out a living picking hops and mending and making do. Failing the Eleven Plus meant that he didn’t go to grammar school but ended up at the local secondary modern school where they taught some of the children how to run a smallholding. Partly to escape from real life, Petley taught himself to fish and began a lifelong affair with the riverbank and countryside. He ended up making his own rods, floats and weights as there was not the cash to buy them new or second-hand.

This is an authentic, enchanting, but unsentimental memoir of growing up in Kent in the late sixties and early seventies. If you are looking for a memoir on fishing there is not so much in here; it is more an undercurrent to the whole book and something that he returns to again and again. It is full of colourful characters that add much to the narrative who Petley came across as he was growing up and learning the ropes of life. It is also a snapshot of a rural life as it underwent significant social changes as Britain moved from the Sixties to the Seventies. Occasionally dark and often gritty, this memoir is tempered by the crisp, fine writing.

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Review: A Sky Full of Birds

A Sky Full of Birds A Sky Full of Birds by Matt Merritt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Birds are one of the wild animals that we can see every day without even putting any effort in to look. Some are so ubiquitous, like the pigeon that we barely notice them. Others, like the robin, have a special place in our hearts, which is why it was voted our nation's favourite bird. You will often hear the song of a blackbird, see starlings and sparrows charging about everywhere and if you are lucky, glimpse a kestrel as you race past on the motorway. However, if you are to pause a little longer, and look at little harder you might just see birds that you never thought you’d come across.

Merritt is advocating taking those few extra moments to really look at what is happening. Small birds flying around a larger one are probably mobbing a buzzard if there are agitated pigeons in a city the look for a streak of a Peregrine. A bird on a pyracantha when you’re putting your shopping in the back of the car could be a waxwing and not just a blackbird. But if you really want to see the magnificent murmurations of starlings, huge flocks of wading birds or hear the din from a rookery or the sweet note of a nightingale then this book would be a good place to start.

Merritt will captivate you with his infectious enthusiasm for our feathered friends. He has used his craft as a poet to make this a fluently written book. It is full of details and keen observations of his subject, but then you’d expect that as he is well qualified to write this too as he is editor of Bird Watching Magazine. Definitely, a book worth reading and will hopefully give people some pointers on where to look for these natural miracles.

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Thursday 11 May 2017

Big Green Bookshop

I follow a bookshop on Twitter called The Big Green Bookshop who are in Wood Green in London. A couple of weeks ago Simon tweeted that he was seriously skint and needed to sell a whole pile of books to pay the bills that week. His post went viral and his online orders jumped from 1 or two a day to around 100! This is also the same guy who after a spat between Piers Morgan and JK Rowling decided to tweet all of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to him. 800 tweets later Morgan blocked him...

Today he had a page about him and the bookshop in the Times. He is a great guy, I'm sure he find a book to sell you :-)

Review: A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing

A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing by Richard Smyth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

Can you imagine a world without birdsong? The very thought makes me shudder, but in the noise created by modern city life, the warbling is relegated to a footnote in the modern din. Whilst you will hear more birdsong in the countryside, the wholesale devastation of birds and invertebrates by modern industrial farming mean that you do hear it as often as you once would have.

It is a tragedy of the modern age.

Thankfully you can still hear birdsong and at its best it is a wonderful natural musical background to our world. It has had a profound effect on artists, musicians and has influenced elements of our culture and sciences for hundreds of years. For Smyth though, it was a small part of his world, like an electronic gadget, but it was something that he really didn’t understand or have any concept of. He was not alone, lots of people have tried to fathom out the whys and wherefores of birdsong and have never really got to the bottom of it. Some of the songs are territorial, some are to attract mates and other songs just seem to be for the hell of it. What we hear is not what the birds hear

Realising how little he knows, Smyth sets out on a journey to discover how much, or little, everyone knows about this phenomena. On this he will discover the syrinx that allows them to sing two notes at once, the live recording of cellist, Beatrice Harrison, with a nightingale in a Surrey garden, how poets respond to the notes they are hearing and how birdsong made the soldiers on the battlefields of World War 1 feel homesick. It is quite a journey too; he meets birders, linguists, twitchers, data analysts and musicians. All of these add to his understanding of what happens, but the only way to gain the emotional response is to head into the nearest wood with an expert who can tell his warbler from his chiffchaff.

I finished reading this in the garden over the weekend with birdsong all around. Sadly, mostly it was the tuneless chirps from the sparrows, but in amongst that was songs from a bird that I didn’t recognise. The effortless writing in here makes for easy reading and he keeps your interest in the subject all the way through by mixing together history, science and personal anecdotes. All of this adds up to a book on birdsong that is well worth reading, and it has a stunning cover too. Like all good non-fiction books it answers lots of your questions, and hopefully it will inspire people to get outside to hear the music of the birds.

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Tuesday 9 May 2017

Review: The Abundance

The Abundance The Abundance by Annie Dillard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anne Dillard is very different to most people. When they look at the world around them they only see a fraction of what is actually there, she relentlessly absorbs every detail of the place and experience. But her true skill lies in taking what she has seen and writing about it with tight, and sharp prose. In this new collection, Dillard writes about subjects as wide-ranging and diverse as solar eclipses, the family jokes, the bundle of energy that is the weasel, as well as essays on skin, tsunamis and about the Victorian expeditions to the North Pole.

Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you.

Her sense of fascination and wonder at the things she sees permeates the book with all the subjects she talks about, making this a wonderful thing to read. My favourite essay was the one titled ‘For The Time Being’, about that material that most do not consider, sand. In her unique way, we find out how many grains of sand are created every moment, how it flows with water down to the sea before transforming back to rock over countless millennia. We learn that the sharpest items are not always metal and that they took hundreds of small blows to form these exquisite stone implements. This is the second book of Dillard’s that I have read now and I am finding that I am liking her writing more and more. Her penetrating gaze at the world around is brilliantly complemented by her precise prose. Whilst I realise that some of these have been published before, this is a fine introduction to her work who hasn’t read anything of her work before.

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Saturday 6 May 2017

Review: Pathlands: 21 Tranquil Walks Among the Villages of Britain

Pathlands: 21 Tranquil Walks Among the Villages of Britain Pathlands: 21 Tranquil Walks Among the Villages of Britain by Peter Owen Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We are so fortunate in this country to have an intricate lattice of paths and bridleways that criss-cross our land, and Jones has collected together here 21 walks from the Scottish borders to deep in the West Country that make the most of these. They are all off the regular walking routes and he has chosen them specially to highlight the varied land and seascapes that we have in our country. As he walks, he talks to us about the things that he sees, when he gets lost and about the people he meets.

This is a books of walks, as much as it is a book on walking in the countryside, moving at the pace where you actually interact with nature rather than zoom past in a metal and glass cocoon. There is nothing revelatory in this book, rather Jones writes in a contemplative way, one man with a profound love for all aspects of the countryside. Good stuff.

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Friday 5 May 2017

Review: Island Home: A Landscape Memoir

Island Home: A Landscape Memoir Island Home: A Landscape Memoir by Tim Winton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As Tim Winton said, 'I grew up on the world's largest island.' This ‘island’, Australia, or continent as most people think of it, has had humans living there for thousands of years. These original people had over these millennia to come to an incredibly in-depth understanding of their landscape and how to tread lightly on it. It was a similar relationship to his locality that inspired Tim Winton as a child. Growing up in Karrinyup amongst the coastal landscape of beaches, rock pools and swamps meant for a fantastic childhood, but also the very soul of the land percolated into his very being and became the well of inspiration for his writing.

His experiences growing up also gave him a passionate desire to see the wildest places of his nation saved for future generations. For the past 200 years, the European immigrants have taken much from the land and the native Aboriginals, and have left it polluted and devastated. Winton has spent time in the UK and other places, but the bond with this hard and frequently dangerous landscape have had a lasting impression on him. This is an enjoyable book to read as Winton is such a talented author and it is a good companion volume to Land’s Edge, which I think is even better than this.

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Review: Swimming with Seals

Swimming with Seals Swimming with Seals by Victoria Whitworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Wild swimming seems to be in vogue at the moment. I read Floating by Joe Minihane last month and have Turning by Jessica J. Lee to read and I am hoping to get my hands on a copy of Swell very soon. Victoria Whitworth’s book has slotted nicely in the middle of this aquatic series of memoirs that all can trace their source to the fantastic book that is Waterlog. As her marriage begins to crumble and she begins to suffer health problems that middle age brings on, she seeks company with others in the Orkney Polar Bears, a swimming club that aims to swim in the sea often as possible.

In high summer, an Orkney afternoon lasts forever

Enjoying the experience Whitworth starts to go swimming alone, finding that being in the water for the briefest of periods helps calm her and cleanse her mind from all the other stuff going on. Her swims are written about, in brief, punctuation marks taken from the Facebook group cataloguing the weather, temperatures, the tides, the swell of the sea and how often she is joined by the curious seals and other animals and birds. In between these posts she takes us through her personal history, an earlier life in Kenya and the relationships that she had with her parents and her contemplations on love, life and death. Deeply embedded in the book are woven the things that make Orkney so special, the layers of ancient history and myth, the incessant wind and Gulf Stream that stops the island from freezing during the winter and the way that the natural world is a intrinsic part of living there.

Inhale the air straight from the Arctic, sharp as a whetted blade

Her writing is such that you gasp too, as she enters the sea to swim. Sea swimming though is a very different experience to wild water swimming; the water can be much colder and waves that have travelled all the way across the Atlantic can arrive with some force on the shore making some dips a challenge, to say the least. This is an eloquent celebration of swimming in the cold waters of Orkney and a fascinating memoir. I would have liked more about the landscape and natural world of these special islands, and it has pushed this up my list of places that I really want to visit.

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Thursday 4 May 2017

Review: Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London's Great Forest

Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London's Great Forest Strange Labyrinth: Outlaws, Poets, Mystics, Murderers and a Coward in London's Great Forest by Will Ashon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Epping Forest is an ancient forest of 6,000 acres in area, stretching between Forest Gate and Epping. It is around 19 miles long and approximately 2.5 miles wide, reaching from the urban sprawl of Walthamstow to the edge of Essex. It has been covered with trees since Neolithic times, became a Royal forest in the 12th Century and is London’s largest open space. It is into this litter-strewn green lung that Will Ashon heads, not totally sure of who or what he may discover, but he knows that some of the secrets contained in the woods will reveal themselves.

With him, we will discover well-known characters from times long gone, the infamous highway man Dick Turpin was an elusive resident, the sculptor Jacob Epstein spent a lot of time in the area and Ashon tries to make sense of his complicated relationships. There is, of course, the Royal influence that still permeates the forest, and I hadn’t realised that the City of London, a slightly sinister organisation with a fair amount of influence, are the owners and managers of the forest. There are lots of other people that have sought the tranquillity of the woods. Most have never been on the public’s radar and as Ashon ventures to parts of the forest he hasn’t been to, he sees the traces that they have left; crashed cars, initials scratched into the bark of trees and remembers the deceased that have been found there. He decides after a long period of time to have another go at climbing trees, finding that the ancient pollards offer the best opportunity for ascending into the canopy. To discover himself, is he going to be able to be brave enough to stay a night in the forest?

This is unlike any book about a landscape that I have read recently; it has a certain rawness and vulnerability to it as Ashon faces his fears. Most natural history books see the localities they are writing about through a romanticised lens; he’s not afraid to write about the ugly and unsightly things that have happened in the forest as much as the beautiful elements. There is plenty of history within the covers too, these stories are teased out and put in a modern context and his interviews with those that have sat on the fringes of society are enlightening as they are interesting. It was well worth scrabbling through the understorey with Ashon to discover the ghosts of the past, the sounds of the present and the possibilities of the future of Epping Forest.

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Tuesday 2 May 2017

Review: The Book of English Folk Tales

The Book of English Folk Tales The Book of English Folk Tales by Sybil Marshall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Before the advent of radio, TV and the internet, people used to listen to stories and tales of people and places. Most of the time these were very local, how a rock came to be balanced on a hill, stories of battles against strange and magical creatures, accounts of local history that have become legendary and moral tales to warn people from pursuing a particular way.

Marshall had collected this comprehensive collection of folk tales over thirty years ago from all around the country and has grouped them by subject and theme. The themes are as wide ranging as Fabulous Beasts, Moral Tales and the Supernatural. All of these stories are deeply rooted in the local vernacular and were as much as a part of the old English countryside as the hills, cliffs and sea.

Choosing the stories in this collection must have been tough, but there are enough from different regions to ensure that she has chosen the best example. This is a beautiful book to hold too, not only does it have a richly patterned cloth cover, but throughout the book are John Lawrence’s stunning wood engravings that bring so much to the tales that Marshall collected. A worthy reissue of the collection and I hope that people can one again be enchanted by these myths and chronicles. 3.5 stars

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Monday 1 May 2017

Monthly Muse

Even though it is only a day shorter than March, April just seemed to zip by. Managed to read 16 books somehow and they are here:

Best of the bunch was Bee Quest by Dave Goulson. This is his third book, and probably the best so far. His enthusiasm for his buzzy subjects is infectious and he writes with wit and a bone-dry sense of humour. Others of note were Strange Labyrinth, Hidden Nature, Floating and Mend the Living and The Otters’ Tale. Miss-Adventures was a blast and Havergey was an unusual book, Little Toller have a fine range of natural history books and this was their first venture into fiction. It was good, and a bave move for them. The only one that I was not so struck on was Everything that I Never told You, it was beautifully written, but really didn’t work for me plot-wise.

Blog Tour

I was honoured to be asked to take part in the blog tour for the Wellcome prize shortlist of books, along with other experienced bloggers! The book that I was allocated was The Gene, a story of our discovery of the essence of life and also of Mukherjee’s story of his family woven within it. Sadly, I couldn’t make the prize announcement but it was won by Maylis de Kerangal with Mend the Living. My post is here.

Lounge Books

Sam Missingham has been with Harper Collins for a while now but as of a week ago, will be parting company with them. She had this idea about a place for book lovers to congregate and find new books and this was the opportunity for her to launch Lounge Books. Anyway, on there she had posted a list of 36 book bloggers that she would recommend that people should follow right now, and I was included on that list. To say I that I was flabbergasted would be an understatement, genuinely please to be forging my own path in this online world, and to be counted alongside stars of the blogosphere such as Simon Savage

Who knows what May will bring?