Thursday 31 August 2017

Review: The Reassembler

The Reassembler The Reassembler by James May
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Modern gadgets and machines are designed to have almost no user serviceable parts, even a washing machine these days will need a technician to plug in a laptop to verify the fault before he is able to repair it. Gone are the days where most things could be repaired, though James May argues that this was because products were expensive, not particularly well made, often went wrong and so needed repairing and routine maintenance. He prefers modern gadgets that don’t need repairing or fiddling with to function. For May, reassembling items is a form of therapy; the act of creation calms and stimulates at the same time. That, and he has a thing about having the correct tools and screwdrivers in particular.

This is a nice tie into the series with lots of colour pictures from the workshop that he used on TV as he takes a pile of nicely laid out parts and makes a lawnmower and a guitar and an old Bakelite telephone. It is full of his rambling philosophy and dry sardonic wit, with short essays explaining how a specific item works, though sadly there is not as much text as I’d like. I completely get why he needs to assemble things, it is a theme that seems to be gaining traction elsewhere that using our hands to make and create is good for the soul. As an engineer (electronics and mechanical) I would have liked more detail on the items he was reassembling, but this an ideal book for the general reader.

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Tuesday 29 August 2017

Review: Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper

Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper by Andrew Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Modern travel is ubiquitous. For a startlingly small amount of money, you can fly to a lot of places around Europe with the budget airlines. This does involve having to get to some slightly obscure airports at some unearthly hour of the morning, pass through a moderately humiliating security check before winging your way to the sun. Have the days of glamourous travel final vanished? However, there are still ways of arriving in a foreign city feeling refreshed without having to suffer the cattle class air transport and that is to find the night trains that are still running across Europe.

Andrew Martin decides to see if they are still a viable method of travelling across the continent and to see if the glamour of the past age has rubbed off on the modern transport. Martin catches various trains across Europe; The Blue Train from the Gare de Lyon in the heart of Paris to Nice on the Mediterranean coast, The ‘Orient Express’, a train that is a legend in its own right, though they no longer recommend carrying a pistol. He travels into the twilight zone on The Nordland Railway, one of Europe’s most scenic train journeys. He takes the Berlin Night Express that travels from the Swedish city of Malmö to Berlin before heading back to Paris for The Sud Express and then Paris-Venice.

This is part travelogue and partly a nostalgic look back at the golden age of night express trains that used to flow back and forwards across Europe. It is a more expensive way to travel, but whilst it doesn’t have the prestige of years past with their gilded dining carriages and champagne flowing, going to sleep in one country and waking up in another, definitely makes the travel element a major part of the experience. It is still a relatively safe form of travel that attracts a variety of characters and because it is not always straightforward it makes for interesting reading. It was a way of him reliving some of the holidays that he had as a small child travelling Europe with his father and sister, arranged for by The British Railwaymen’s Touring Club in the early 1970’s. I have read a number of Martin’s books in the past and this is another that he has written that is definitely worth reading. 3.5 stars

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Sunday 27 August 2017

Review: Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds

Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds by Cordelia Fine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The gender issue is a hot topic at the moment, for decades we have been led to believe that ‘boys will be boys’, that pink and blue toys are entirely suitable for the appropriate sex and that men have evolved to take risks because of the extra testosterone swishing about and that the female brain is utterly different to the male brain.

Psychologist, Cordelia Fine, is having none of it.

The ‘nature versus nurture’ argument is dragged up frequently, but by using arguments from social history, psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary science, Fine takes apart all the old, entrenched evidence and goes a long way to explaining how what is between your legs doesn’t create male and female natures, but the elements that actually defines us is a complicated mix of evolution, hormones, culture and sex.

Fine is not afraid to be controversial in some of her conclusions in this book, looking at the facts and assessing the evidence; pointing out the errors is not going to endear her to some readers. She has written an interesting and enlightened take on the role that testosterone has to play in both male and female bodies, and the effects that it has. She does not hold back as she obliterates the myths and cultural norms in society that still surround the gender issue. She is not afraid to get stuck into the science and statistics and evaluate the studies that have been done. It is a really good popular science, one of the few where I have actually laughed out loud at certain points of the book. Worth reading.

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Saturday 26 August 2017

Review: Turning

Turning Turning by Jessica J. Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

At the end of her twenties, Lee finds herself in the city of Berlin. Ostensibly there to write a thesis she has left behind a home, family and quite a lot of heartache in Canada. In a city of 3.7 million people, she is all alone. The thesis plods along, but what motivates her to get up in the mornings is taking a swim in one of the lakes that surround the city. Even though she is swimming solo, there is something reassuring about swimming in the cool dark lakes that help ebb away her inner pain. Knowing how many lakes there are around the city, she decides to try and swim in fifty-two different ones regardless of the season and the temperature.

It doesn’t stay this way, but for a few magical moments in autumn the water is crystalline, like swimming through a gemstone

What starts as a challenge to get herself out of the house and exploring the area slowly descends into an obsession, finding that perfect lake, luxuriating in the cold waters, watching the clouds reflect in the mirror like waters and floating in a gin clear lake. The ritual of wild swimming gives her a new inner strength and helps overcome the past fears of swimming in open water when she was small in Canada. Winter swims add another level of difficulty as she has to use a hammer to crack the ice from the lakes before sinking into the bitterly cold water.

I hear nothing. It isn’t a terrifying, muffled nothingness, but a quiet solitude. Stillness, and I float.

I have read a fair number of these nature memoirs now where the author seeks solace in the natural world to overcome a set of personal issues and tribulations. This, however, is one of the best that I have read so far. Lee’s writing is beautiful, immersive and effortless. The prose has a clarity and depth that is quite breath taking for a debut author. Her openness of her past issues and descriptions of the lakes that she swims in, the way that she notices the details in the way the seasons turn the lakes are quite something. Lee is an author of some skill and I can highly recommend this.

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Friday 25 August 2017

Review: Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Three quarters of a century ago a small number of men and women gathered in Princeton, New Jersey. Under the direction of John von Neumann they were to begin building one of the world’s first computers driven by the vison that Alan Turing had of a Universal machine. Using cutting edge technology, valves and vacuum tubes to store the data, the first computer was born. This unit took 19.5kW to work and had a memory size of five, yes five kilobytes. It caused a number of revolutions, it was this machine that laid the foundations for every single computing device that exists on the planet today, it changed the way that we think about numbers and what they could do for us and the calculations that it ran gave us the hydrogen bomb…

I had picked this up mostly because of the title, Turing's Cathedral, thinking that it would be about that great man, the way that he thought and the legacy that he left us with regards to computing and cryptography. There was some of the on Turing and his collaboration with the American computer scientists and engineers through the war, but the main focus was on the development of the computer in America and the characters that were involved in the foundation of today’s technological society. Some parts were fascinating, but it could be quite tedious at times. There were lots and lots of detail in the book, the characters and political games that they were playing and subject to, not completely sure why we needed to go so far back in time on the origins of Princeton. Definitely one for the computer geek, not for the general reader.

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Thursday 24 August 2017

Review: Land of the Midnight Sun: My Arctic Adventures

Land of the Midnight Sun: My Arctic Adventures Land of the Midnight Sun: My Arctic Adventures by Alexander Armstrong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Arctic lands and ocean that sit on top of our world are harsh and unforgiving in the summer. One mistake can literally cost you your life, so unless you really know what you are doing, it is not best advised to visit in the winter. Alexander Armstrong obviously missed this piece of advice, because he is persuaded that this is going to be the optimum time to visit, in particular, if he wants to witness the end of the winter night and see the sun rise over the frozen north. But before he goes he needs to learn about Arctic survival. This is done in the most British of ways; learning from an ex-marine, in a conference room with tea and biscuits, yes biscuits.

Dusting the crumbs off and suitably equipped for his cold trip into the Arctic, Alexander heads to Scandinavia to see the sun rise for the first time is quite a while. His journey will take him around the some of the countries around the Arctic ocean. After a night in the famous Ice Hotel, he travels to Iceland where he is humiliated by a Viking style wrestler called Eva, with have a few heart stopping moments with the ice truckers as they trek back and forth along frozen rivers delivering the items that people need to survive. Foolishly he decided to try ice swimming where the water is a tropical -1 deg C, but made a better choice with pools that are warmed by the geological faults. He sees sights that will stay with him for the rest of his life and meets people who are generous with their time and hospitality.

Alexander throws himself into the various activities that they have chosen for him, which makes for entertaining reading (and viewing too). This is not a landmark book in travel writing, rather a reasonable tie-in to the TV series. It is written with Alexander’s subtle humour and wit, with the odd laugh out loud moment and it is a light hearted and easy read.

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Book Post!

Thank you to Faber, Eland and Doubleday for these

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Review: Gods of the Morning: A Bird's Eye View of a Highland Year

Gods of the Morning: A Bird's Eye View of a Highland Year Gods of the Morning: A Bird's Eye View of a Highland Year by John Lister-Kaye
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though the Highlands of Scotland feel like our last wilderness, they have still been shaped by man. One man who has been fortunate to experience the wildlife and seasons at their most dramatic is John Lister-Kaye at his home and Highlands field centre, Aigas. He doesn’t really need to go looking for the natural world; it is just there. The long hours that he has spent there have permeated deeply into his soul, he knows the best seasons to see the deer, the place to the spot the pine martens, the fleeting visitors who come for the summers and who have headed south from the Arctic winters. In this book, Lister-Kaye talks us through the events that have taken place over a year, but rather than being written as a diary, it is a series of observations on some of his favourite wildlife and feathered friends, in particular, interwoven with musings over the changing climate where they live.

Like molten gold from a crucible, the first touch of sun spilled from the east

This is the first of Lister-Kaye’s books that I have ever read and I have been meaning to get to it for ages. He writes in a careful and considered way, drawing out the detail of the things he is seeing around him as they happen, and quite often what he writes is just quite beautiful. The field centre that he runs provides him with inspiration and a deep rooting in the natural world and is the font of his knowledge and understanding of what happens as the seasons roll around. He manages not to make it a polemical rant over the state of the climate, but you get a sense of his grave concerns over the future. Will definitely be reading more of his books, as I have just got his newest!

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Review: The Corporation Wars: Dissidence

The Corporation Wars: Dissidence The Corporation Wars: Dissidence by Ken MacLeod
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On an anonymous exo-moon, SH-17, a robot moves from basic intelligence to sentience. This spreads amongst the other robots on the moon and suddenly they are asking questions, questions about their masters and why they are here. The corporation that owns them has no desire to deal with entities that will not follow instructions and decides that they have no choice but to destroy them. One of the mercenaries they call on to undertake this is Carlos, a supposed criminal and mass murderer from a conflict a long time ago. Technically he is dead, which might have been an issue, but his mind has been preserved and he has now been uploaded into a virtual reality with others to fight against the rebel robots.

So begins a fantastical set of battles between the robots and the virtual reality soldiers. If you are expecting a story with lots of human interaction, then this is not the one for you, there is very little of that. At times it can get confusing as to who is fighting whom and just who they are fighting where, but Macleod somehow manages to tame the plot for you to keep up with what is going on. He does pose some more fundamental questions too; what is human? Is it the virtual reality mind, the sentient robot or the purely legal entity that is a corporation. Looking forward to the second in the series.

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Sunday 20 August 2017

Review: Limestone Country

Limestone Country Limestone Country by Fiona Sampson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

For millennia mankind has been shaping the landscapes that we have lived in, we have torn down trees to make fields, changed watercourses to better suit our needs and expends vast amounts of energy hauling rocks from the ground. The very land that we live on has provides all that we need. What people lose by living in a city is that contact with the soil and rocks that rural living affords, the way that the landscape changes as the seasons roll by and more importantly the roots that we put down as we settle in a particular area.

Fiona Sampson has lived in a variety of places, but the places that have made a deep and lasting impression on her have all had limestone as the bedrock. In this book she explores just what has made these places so unique and important to her and the people that she lives near. Beginning in Autumn, we are in Chambon in southern France where people still farm the land and produce the most wonderful foods. More challenging is the soupy French dialect as she struggles to translate as the strong aperitif clouds her mind. It is a place that she feels at home in.

Stepping back a season to summer we arrive in Slovenia in Škocjan in the Karst region. Sampson recalls time spent with a Macedonian lover, the slivovitz plum brandy, the walks through the woods that are full of boars and deer and the caves that permeate the area containing finds from humans who lived there 3000 years ago. We find ourselves in the village of Coleshill in spring, a place that they have lived in for seventeen years and are just about to leave. It is a place with a long history and parts that you’d immediately recognise as quintessential rural scenes. The limestone there has been shaped by the rivers that flow through it and water still plays a huge part today in the landscape particularly in the spring.

Winter takes us to a place that needs no introduction really, Jerusalem. Getting to this ancient city that sits on the sedimentary rocks that were once even older sea beds, is demanding enough with all the required security checks. When you arrive under the stark sunlight and blue skies the limestone feels like it has been bleached to a pure white. The colour of the limestone changes with the light and the area you are in, ranging from softer pinks to purples. In some ways it reflects the city, with its triparty of religions and the hotchpotch of streets adding to the atmosphere.

There is lots to like about this book. It has a certain intimacy as Sampson talks about the places that have meant so much to her where she has lived and the people that inhabit them. The final chapter was the one I liked the least, can’t quite put my finger on why, but I think that it might have been because it was a city, which tend to larger and more impersonal and it didn’t have the warmth of the other chapters. Even though it is disconcerting heading backwards through the seasons, it suits the character of the book perfectly. As I have come to expect from poets who write non-fiction, the prose is quite special. It is a fine addition to the contemporary works that Little Toller have in their Monograph range that I seem to be inadvertently collecting now.

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Book Haul & Library Reservations

Friday 18 August 2017

Review: Walking Home from Mongolia: Ten Million Steps Through China, from the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea

Walking Home from Mongolia: Ten Million Steps Through China, from the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea Walking Home from Mongolia: Ten Million Steps Through China, from the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea by Rob Lilwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is only when you look at an atlas that you get an idea just how large China actually is. It manages to be the second largest state by land area and is home to around 1.3 billion people. It is not unknown for journeys to take a long time even by road, so to contemplate walking across the country is madness; or takes a special kind of adventurer.

Rob Lilwall is that man.

Joining him is Leon McCarron, an adventurer in his own right, but he will be there to film the journey for a documentary. The 3000-mile journey will take them from the Mongolian Steppe all the way to Hong Kong. Their 10,000,000 steps will take them across the Gobi in the depths of winter, over the Great Wall, past the terracotta army, through valleys and over rivers. The people they meet are almost all friendly and welcoming, even the police and authorities who naturally take a great interest in their journey seem to be remarkably relaxed. It is a tough walk, as well as the physical issues involved in an endurance adventure, they have moments when tempers fray and misunderstandings abound.

It is quite an astonishing walk through a country undergoing rapid changes. Lilwall is not the most eloquent of writers and he is honest about the bad parts of the walk as well as those moments that will stay with him forever, but this is a book written from the heart and that is what makes this worth reading. 3.5 stars

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Review: Touch

Touch Touch by Claire North
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time that Kepler discovered that he could jump from one body to another was when he was first murdered. As he was viciously beaten by the killer, he reached out and grabbed him and was suddenly looking at his own broken body in the dark alleyway. Kepler has not died, instead, he has become a ghost with the ability to flit between people at the slightest touch. There he lives their lives, experiences their feelings, sometimes for a few moments, sometimes for a whole lifetime. He values them as hosts and ensures that his experiences from others are shared with them to leave them something after he moves on.

He is not the only one who has this ability, as he discovers by accident one day as he tries to jump to another person. His own existence is threatened as his host is assassinated and it is only by jumping fast that he is able to save himself; once again he ends up seeing through the eyes of the person who has just killed him. This time though he is seeking vengeance for the murder, and his search for the answers will force him to find out who Aquila are and to once again face his nemesis, Galileo.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was a book that turned your concept of time travel inside out and with this North has done it again with the ghosts that travel the world in their hosts. On top of that, there is a reasonably plotted thriller with fast pacing and good twists. I particularly liked the way that she used the concept of amnesia to explain how the hosts couldn’t always explain what had happened when the presence departed. It can get a little confusing as they flit between each body so very quickly and I didn’t really get why there were parts of the story that took us back in time to past experiences, it was enough to keep up with the regular characters. Dramatic ending too. Looking forward to reading more of her books.

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Thursday 17 August 2017

Review: Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie

Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie by Andrew P. Sykes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Europe is a place of great variety. There are all sorts of terrains and climates, as well as cultures, languages and a common history that stretches back millennia. On his third adventure across the continent, Andrew Sykes decides that travelling from its furthest southerly geographic point, Tarifa in Spain, all the way up to its most northerly, Nordkapp in Norway would be a good way to experience them. He is back on his faithful bike Reggie for the ride along the western side of Europe.

He rides through eight countries and thirty-five degrees of latitude including crossing the Arctic Circle. The 5000 odd miles takes him past the edge of Portugal, over the Pyrenees and along the Atlantic coast, before cutting inland past vineyards and the French countryside to reach Paris, where he foolishly takes his life in his hands and cycles along the Avenue des Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. Surviving that, he carries on to a whistle stop tour of Belgium and the Netherlands before reaching Germany, his final country before the final leg of the trip. Even though he reached Scandinavia in the summer, it was still going to be a challenge to reach his final destination.

Sykes is not trying to set any records, this is riding for the hell of it, to venture out, meet people, see places and for the pure pleasure of being on a bike. And enjoy it he does, even though he battles through rain, relentless headwinds and some near misses with very large trucks. He meets various friends in certain towns and cities on the route as well as cycling with random cyclists who were sharing some of the same journeys. Sykes writes with infectious enthusiasm and it is a really enjoyable read. Hopefully, this will inspire some to make their own journeys of discovery.

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Wednesday 16 August 2017

Book Post

Thanks to Duckworth, Canongate, Reaktion Books. Elliot & Thompson and HEad of Zeus for these

Wednesday 9 August 2017

Review: Blackbird: The Untouchable Spy Plane

Blackbird: The Untouchable Spy Plane Blackbird: The Untouchable Spy Plane by James Hamilton-Paterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Of all the aircraft ever developed the SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ is probably one of the most distinctive. Conceived by Clarence 'Kelly' Johnson along with a team of brilliant engineers at 'Skunk Works', Lockheed Martin's highly secret military development site, the design first saw the light of day in the late 1950’s. That is seventy years ago and it still looks futuristic now. Built to replace the U2 spy plane, it was designed to be the fastest and highest flying aircraft. When development finished in the mid-1960’s it was the pinnacle of aero and jet development, it could fly at 85,000 feet at a speed of Mach 3 (approximately 2000mph) for a range of 3200 miles. The various versions of the plane flew missions over the world from then until the end of the nineties and it was never shot down. It was only retired as the job it was designed to do could now be done better with satellites.

The Blackbird is an engineering marvel. The engineering team had to solve so many problems in using titanium, then an exotic material, even finding that the cadmium plating on their tools would affect it. The pilots had to be dressed as astronauts as the plane flew so high and the fuselage was mostly fuel tanks. They had a reputation for leaking fuel all over the place, but that was not entirely true. The plane holds various speed records including one for travelling from New York to London in just 1 hour 54 minutes, which is just staggering. It is a plane that looks fast even on the ground.

Hamilton-Paterson has managed to bring us a distilled history of an aircraft that is eminently readable and full of details and anecdotes on the development and challenges that the creation of this aircraft too. There is a limited amount of detail on the operations that the SR-71 undertook, probably because most are still classified. It is a good introduction to the aircraft, with some interesting photos as well, but if the book has one flaw, it was that it was too short.

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Monday 7 August 2017

Review: A Month in the Country

A Month in the Country A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The church in Oxgodby has a medieval wall painting that is need of uncovering and restoring. For Tom Birkin, a survivor of World War 1, it offers a place of peace and tranquillity to contemplate the past years and to recover from his failed marriage. He is not the only stranger in the village, a man called Charles Moon is also employed to look for a grave on the un-consecrated ground just outside the church.

As Birkin contemplates the events that took place over that idyllic summer, he remembers an English countryside that had undergone little change. It was a time that the nation drew a collective breath after the horrors of the war and had started to return to a pre-war pattern. His acts of rising, talking to Moon and then working on the artwork soothed his nerves and calmed his soul, and the season ground inexorably towards autumn.

Carr has written a book full of subtle nuances and symbolism. By taking these men who have seen things that no man ever should experience, he uses the serenity of an English summer in a small village to dissipate their fears and anger. In this short book, he ventures deep into the roots of happiness and how both joy and sadness are closely linked and form your very person. It is difficult to pin down exactly what makes this such a good book, some of it is its brevity, there is not a wasted word in here, but I think for me it is the way that Carr has captured that very essence of summer distilled it and woven it throughout the book. Will definitely be reading this again.

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Monthly Muse – July

Managed to read 15 books in July, which was more than I thought. Was distracted by having our kitchen and dining rooms knocked together to make a big open room. Whilst I didn’t do the structural changes and fitting, still had all the decorating and numerous other jobs to do.

Quite a big change and is already making a difference; just need the flooring to finish it now

Anyway to the reading:

Yet another varied selection with science, landscape, Laurie Lee’s classic memoirs, two books on Britain, a couple of natural history volumes and a one on a lady’s fight for justice in an authoritarian state. Even managed to read four fiction too.

Best of them was probably Until We Are Free. In this Ebadi describes how she has been hounded by the authorities in Iran to the point that they forced her into exile. It is not the easiest book to read, but it is well written and is a powerful message against those states that abhor democracy and freedom.

Really enjoyed the send and third memoirs by Laurie Lee, he is such a quality writer. Linescapes by Hugh Warwick is a book looking at the lines that we have created across the British landscape and how they can be used to revitalise the wildlife of our green and pleasant land. Signal Failure looks at it from the opposite way, Tom Jeffreys’ walks the proposed path of the HS2 from London to Birmingham and talks to those it will affect and the impact it will have on the countryside and ancient woodlands. Tom Fort took a nostalgic view of the role that the village has played in our landscape and culture and Bill Bailey’s book on his favourite birds was quite charming with his delightful little sketches throughout.

I am a big fan of China Miéville, so was really looking forward to The Census Taker. Whilst it had some charm, and some frankly quite chilling elements, it didn’t have the impact of some of his others that I have read. The Essex Serpent was good too, a gothic and richly imagined book set on the Blackwater Estuary. A Month in the Country is a story of subtle nuances about a man restoring an artwork and reflecting on his experiences spent during World War I. Ken Macleod’s The Corporation Wars was something completely different, sentient robots fighting a war against human AI. Good though.

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randell is a study of dark matter and how it has influenced our galaxy and solar system since the earliest times. My physics is a bit rusty so did occasionally struggle with this. The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu thou was really good, Charlie English tells the story of how the scholars and collectors took steps to ensure that their precious manuscripts were safe from the threat of terrorism. Beyond the Fell Wall is an immersive book about Richard Skelton in the landscape of the high fell.