Tuesday 28 November 2017

Review: The Last of the Light: About Twilight

The Last of the Light: About Twilight The Last of the Light: About Twilight by Peter Davidson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

Twilight is that moment when the sun is below the horizon, but the light from our star is still illuminating the lower atmosphere. That moment between light and dark, the gloaming, has been split into three twilights by scientists, civil, nautical, and astronomical before either dawn or dusk. This moment as the world turns inexorably on has fascinated people for millennia and has provided inspiration for writers and artists to explore something that is not quite daytime and not yet night.

Watching through the windows the wastes of evening / The flare of foundries at the fall of the year

In this meticulously researched book, Davidson takes us through the twilight zone into the world of poetry and fine art that is the response to those beautiful sunsets. But is more than those moments, as he expands on the meaning behind the poems, critiques fine art portraits and contemplates foggy autumn days in photographs of a London past. With him, we will discover the extra depth to famous paintings, writers both well known and forgotten and some of the finest prose ever written on the melancholic events of dusk. It is printed on a fine glossy paper to ensure that the reproductions of the art are top notch. It is a book for all those that love the art of all forms and their responses to twilight and one to dip into again and again.

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Sunday 26 November 2017

Review: Oak and Ash and Thorn: The Ancient Woodlands and New Forests of Britain

Oak and Ash and Thorn: The Ancient Woodlands and New Forests of Britain Oak and Ash and Thorn: The Ancient Woodlands and New Forests of Britain by Peter Fiennes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If we were asked to imagine what the UK would look like way back in the Bronze age, people tend to think that there would be a canopy of trees stretching from coast to mountain with gaps where people had felled trees to grow crops. It wasn’t like that though, but there was a significant amount of forests and copses that provided food, shelter, fuel and livelihoods. The love of woodlands is deeply ingrained within our psyche and have contributed to countless legends, myths and fairy tales that have permeated our culture too. In 2010 the government at the time thought it would be a good idea to sell off the Forestry Commission; they didn’t quite expect the reaction that they got from the public who were vehemently against the sale of the woodlands and the plan was shelved.

In this quite delightful and whimsical book, Fiennes taps into that deep love that people have for their forests and local woodlands, mixing his own experiences as he visits ancient woodlands, including one quite dark and creepy moment in a woodland at dusk. He explores the reasons why that even though we have the lowest amount of forest cover of any European country, we have the greatest number of ancient trees, and how London is technically a forest. His ‘Short History of Britain’s Woods in 3508 Words’ is a quite spectacular piece of writing.

His passion for our forests and copses is evident when you read this, but this is a practical book too. He has a great list of 30 achievable things on an action plan list we can do immediately with regards to planting trees and improving our woodlands. They are all simple things and they would make a significant difference to the quality of our natural environment. Definitely a book to read for those who have any interest in woodlands. We cannot rest on our laurels as ancient forests are always under threat from all manner of sources and the more that people are aware of their local woods and use them the better their chances of survival. Would also recommend reading this in conjunction with the excellent A Tale of Trees: The Battle to Save Britain's Ancient Woodland by Derek Niemann.

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Friday 24 November 2017


Went to See Professor Alice Roberts speak last night about her new book Tamed. This is a wander back through history looking at the animals and plants that have been tamed by humans and have made a significant difference to the quality of human life.

She spoke for about two hours in total, explaining when it was thought that wolves first became dogs, the first appearance of wheat and how farming and farmers had migrated across from the near east and the fertile crescent and how the horse was tamed and became an essential part of the lives of  people of the steppe.

All these stories were supported by facts and details from archaeological evidence, the genome and historical records. Roberts spoke with authority and clarity all the way through and it was fascinating stuff. Really worth attending and I bet that there are very few writers who can command a sell out theatre. Naturally, I bought the book, and Alice kindly signed it for me.

Review: A Wood of One's Own

A Wood of One's Own A Wood of One's Own by Ruth Pavey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

After many years of the headlong rush of people and traffic that is London, Ruth Pavey felt that she needed to re-connect with the countryside in one way or another and having a small piece of England that she could call her own and maybe plant a small woodland would be just perfect. The best-laid plans of mice and men don’t always work out though and after a lot of searching and viewing fields that were not really going to be suitable a plot came up at auction. With around £10,000 to spend and an assurance that it wouldn’t go for more than that Ruth was stunned when it sold for £19,500. The wreck of a house and accompanying land sold for over £100k and that left a small piece of wooded scrubland. The opening bid was £2000 and after a few nervous moments, it was hers for the price of £2750.

She finally had her own woodland.

Having only visited briefly before, it was time to fully explore just what she had bought. It was a strange shape, squeezed in between an orchard, fields and ash woods and sloped facing the sun. As it had been uncared for there was a large amount of thicket and it felt dark, private and slightly intimidating. As she spoke to the people that owned it before and other locals, slowly the wood revealed its secrets to her. The first summer spent there gave her a better feel for the place and she begins to formulate plans of what would work best. A rollalong was acquired purely by chance and suddenly Ruth had a place to make a hot drink and shelter from the showers and maybe, just maybe, she could stay the night in her wood.

It took a number of years for Ruth to bring the wood into some sort of order, but it still had its wild and unruly elements to it and for her and her friends it was a place of solace, somewhere for reflection and to immerse themselves into the natural world. This is more than a book about her wood, as she explores the wider landscape around the Somerset levels and discovers the history of her patch and the people that used to own it. Ruth does not set out to turn it into a productive wood so if you are hoping for a book about woodland management or coppicing then you may want to look elsewhere. Ruth wants to make this a personal place and plants the woodland with fruit and other trees to remember people who have been significant in her life. It is a touching memoir written with gentle and thoughtful prose. I now am envious as I have always wanted a woodland I could call my own.

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Monday 20 November 2017

Review: The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger

The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger by Sooyong Park
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The true king of the jungle is the tiger; lions live out on the savannah. These magnificent creatures have carved a niche for themselves in the humid regions, but the largest and most elusive tiger shuns the warmth of the tropics, preferring icy cold wastelands. This is the Siberian Tiger. It is thought that there are only 350 or so remaining in the wild and so little is known about them and their habits that they are one of the most mysterious big cats.

As the spectre of climate change raises its ugly head, their pristine landscape becomes harder to eek a living from; coupled with the threat from poachers after them for medicines they are becoming rarer each day. For the past two decades, Sooyong Park has made it his life to track follow and study these shy creatures. He has built hides that offer a little shelter from the sub-zero temperatures that the region is famous for to be able to film and observe them. The local people see them as a spiritual element to their homeland and after watching them for this length of time he begins to understand why. This dedication to finding out about their lives results in a very close miss when they saw the camera protruding from the hide.

His dedication to following these magnificent felines is second to none, he is prepared to undertake quite challenging tasks by building elaborate hides to ensure that they are unaware of his presence. The information that he has collected on the tiger he has called Bloody Mary and her various litters of cubs has given us a greater understanding of the lives of these animals. His poignant prose shows just how passionate he is about these tigers and the lengths he is prepared to go, to observe them in the wild. Definitely a book to read on one the world’s most scarce big cats. 3.5 stars

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Saturday 18 November 2017

Thursday 16 November 2017

Review: The Lost Words

The Lost Words The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gone are the days when children’s alphabets would begin with A is for Acorn, B is for butterfly and C is for caterpillar. Now days it is likely to be A is for Acer, B is for Blackberry and C is for Cisco. Back in 2015, The Oxford University Press dropped around 50 words that were drawn from the natural world from the latest edition of its Junior dictionary; they argued that it was less relevant as children were spending less time outside and were glued to the screen of a tablet or phone. The alarm that this caused was quite noticeable, authors such as Morpurgo, Attwood and Maitland wrote to the OUP asking for them to be reinstated in the dictionary.

One of the other signatories to the letter was Robert Macfarlane. He has been collecting words on and about the natural world for many years and if you follow his Twitter feed you will see him post a new word every day expounding the delights of the world around us. But he was in a position to do something else about it too. Words that had been floating away in the air like seeds from a dandelion clock have been found and rehomed in this sumptuous book written by Macfarlane and the artist Jackie Morris; The Lost Words.

It is not a long book, the spells written by Macfarlane (he claims that he is not a poet, but he is wrong) has a resonance that is soothing and salient at the same time as well as having their roots deep in the natural world. It is the pictures that make this book really special though; Morris’s art for this book is richly portrayed, full of energy and life, there are letters that swirl across a page, she has captured the steely look from a raven and the blur of a kingfisher just perfectly. It is primarily a book for children, but many others will find solace in the way that it seeks to lead people back into the natural world make this such a special book to possess.

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Review: The Girl Who Climbed Everest: Lessons learned facing up to the world's toughest mountains

The Girl Who Climbed Everest: Lessons learned facing up to the world's toughest mountains The Girl Who Climbed Everest: Lessons learned facing up to the world's toughest mountains by Bonita Norris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

When Bonita Norris stood on top of the world’s highest mountain on 17th May 2010 she became the youngest woman to stand on the summit of Everest. Being there was the realisation of a dream that begun when she was when she heard someone talk about being on the roof of the world and being able to see the curvature of the earth and realised that she wanted to do that too. Not only was it the achievement of climbing through the death zone and being on top of a physical mountain, but her journey along the way had taught her so much about being tenacious, having self-belief and pushing yourself far beyond your modest capabilities.

All she had to do now was get back down.

The route Norris took to get to the bottom of Mount Everest was not a completely straightforward one. Her childhood was generally a happy one, until from her parent’s separation. This sparked some anxieties, including an eating disorder, but these were overcome and she ended up studying a degree at Royal Holloway where she heard Rob Casserley and Kenton Cool talk about climbing. This one moment was to change her life forever, give her a purpose that had never crossed her mind and help her forge a different path to the one she was intending. She dropped Kenton a message, and they met at Kings Cross station and he outlined what she needed to do to reach that goal. Now more convinced than ever that she didn’t want to be one of those that had never climbed it, practice at climbing begun in earnest. Her parents were less convinced though, and persuading them she would be able to do it was another mountain to conquer too. Less than a year later Bonita was on her way to Nepal for the first time for a practice run up Mansulu, and her first climb into the death zone of a mountain.

Funding the Everest trip was going to be hard though as these trips are not cheap. She began writing to lots of companies to try and raise the necessary funds and was getting nowhere. A last fraught attempt to raise the cash by ringing into a radio station had the result that she needed and her experience of a lifetime was actually going to happen.

There were several mountains that had to be conquered before her dream of standing on top of the world could happen. Not just persuading her parents that she would be fine as she was climbing with some of the best in the world, but building the self-belief and discipline that comes with undertaking a task like this. Hs has learnt from the heart-stopping moments that she has had when in the high mountains as well as taking those moments to enjoy the personal and team achievements of reaching the highest places on earth, including one of the few to summit Lhotse. Norris is another tough lady who set her sights on a dream and realised it. The writing is not bad, but this is more a book to inspire others to discover the things they want to do and to set about achieving them.

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Wednesday 15 November 2017

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Review: Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kapka Kassabova now lives in Scotland and before that resided in New Zealand, but she was not born in these places. Twenty-five years ago she left Bulgaria as a teenager and in this book she returns to her home country. In her childhood, the border between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece was part of the Iron Curtain. A few miles from where she played on the beach was the physical barrier, an electric fence whose sharpest barbs were directed at the real enemy; its own people. It had the reputation of being an easier point to cross over to the West than further North and therefore the woods and valleys crawled with soldiers and spies after those people seeking freedom.

The recent past is just a small part of the long history of this region. Kassabova travels around the region talking to border guards, fire walkers and treasure hunters as well as meeting the disposed and displaced who have made their way from Iraq and Syria. These refugees have walked away from the horrors of war with only the clothes on their back in search of freedom and a new life. There is much more to this landscape that the modern borders sit uncomfortably on top of. Peeling back the layers of past in the dense forests, she travels to springs that have deep pagan roots and are still considered to have healing qualities and visits tombs that add an ancient dimension to the land.

'It is not for everyone', Nevzat agreed, but I could see that he loved these villages. He and Mr Karadeniz resonated with the ruinous beauty of this landscape. Because they were its children.

This book is primarily about people of the region as well as the places they inhabit. Kassabova meets and speaks to the people in villages who are seeing their populations plummet and the buildings crumble around them. However, this is not just about those that live in the region; but she is prepared to share a coffee or a meal with those that are waiting before passing through to other places, shining a light on the current refugee crisis that is prompting the rise of nationalism in Europe. Most impressive though is Kassabova’s writing; it is elegant and lyrical with a beautiful haunting melancholy about it, immersing you, the reader, in the landscape. Just, quite a wonderful book really. 4.5 stars

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Sunday 12 November 2017

Review: The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason

The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason by Christopher De Bellaigue
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In these frankly, traumatic times where various parties are taking more umbrage at each other’s point of view and the language is becoming more provocative one of the accusations levelled against the Muslim world is that they are failing to adapt to a modern world and modernise their culture. This has not always been the case though, as back in the nineteenth century the Muslim world embraced change and modern practices, medicine and universal suffrage. In this book on the Islamic Enlightenment, de Bellaigue goes back over 200 years to take us through the history of the region and the politicians, scientists and writers who have been key to driving the change in the region.

This is not a book you can rush, as de Bellaigue takes enormous pains to find the movers and shakers who drove through the change in this Muslim world and tell their story. It is full of complex tales and he is equally critical of the Muslim countries and of the Western states that carved up the region for their own ends whilst using the local political leaders to continue to oppress the populace. The amount of research that has gone into this makes for incredibly dense prose and I found it quite challenging to read. I also felt that sometimes the narrative of the stories of the people got lost in the detail. Will probably become a standard text in its time, but it is possible more for the specialist rather than the general reader.

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Saturday 11 November 2017

#NonFictionNovember Giveaway

As it is #NonFictionNovember I'd thought that I would do a Giveaway

I have a set of all three of the books by the late great Roger Deakin. He was a writer, environmentalist and founder of Common Ground. Waterlog is considered the book that sparked the interest in Wild Swimming. He is a beautiful writer with a keen sense of observation of the world around him.

They are second hand and are in good condition. This is a UK only giveaway. Just comment below and I will choose an entrant randomly next Friday Evening around 9pm


Intriguing Book post from the lovely Oliva at Quercus

Friday 10 November 2017

Review: Zoology

Zoology Zoology by Gillian Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zoology is a collection of poems that is deeply rooted in the countryside and the seasons. Beginning with Missing, there are mini collections of poems on Hafod Y Llan, museums and other taken from over the course of a year. The collection ends with an eulogy to a variety of friends and fellow poets. Particular favourites include Last Gather, Silent and River.

After frozen ground, a loosening / After silence, birdsong, a beginning / Earth’s skin pricks with growth

This is the second of Gillian Clarke’s poetry collections that I have read in as many weeks, having been recommended to me by a and artist on twitter. She draws deep from her childhood and the natural world to form the words, there are themes that run back and forwards throughout the book. For some, this might be repetitive, but I liked the way that it reinforces the way that the seasons repeat without fail every year. I think this was even better than Five Fields.

Maybe good men will again come to power, truth speak / And words have meaning again

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Wednesday 8 November 2017

Review: The Furthest Station

The Furthest Station The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There have always been apparitions on the tube, faces on the other side of the window alongside yours, momentary glimpses into another world were enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Just recently, however, there has been a proliferation of sightings on the Metropolitan Line and these spirits are really starting to scare people. The only people in the Metropolitan Police that can deal with this are the Special Assessment Unit a.k.a. The Folly, so Peter Grant is despatched along with Jaget Kumar from the British Transport Police to suffer the perils of the rush hour and to find out what has spooked the ghosts.

Abigail, Peter’s cousin has started turning up to the Folly and as she is showing potential for magical things, Nightingale takes it upon himself to train her as well. There is the possibility that a new River God has turned up, but as he is very young, Peter needs Beverly to come and see him, they form an instant bond and surprise the older couple looking after him as they vanish in the river. As they close in on the reason that the ghosts are agitated, the search takes on a new urgency when they realise that someone may be in danger and they are fast running out of time.

This is a really good novella that slots into the fantastic Rivers of London Series. Written with the same humour and wit as the previous ones it fills in more detail to the characters of Grant and Nightingale as well as introducing Abigale for the first time. It was nice to see Nightingales’ play a larger part in this as he has always been in the shadow of Grant to a certain extent. If it had one flaw, it is way too short; but it was great to see that there is book seven coming next year. 4.5 stars

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Tuesday 7 November 2017

Review: Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us

Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us by David A. Neiwert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intelligence is not a trait solely linked to humans, it is present across the whole animal kingdom. Some of the mammals with the highest intellect are the cetaceans, in particular dolphins and Killer Whales. Better known as the Orca, these beautiful creatures have been tormented and persecuted by us for a long time, but things are changing as we learn more about their amazing abilities. It was known that they travel around in small family pods, but it has only recently been discovered that there are several sub-species of orca. Each of these sub-species has developed their own language and culture, have astonishing echolocation and form lifelong bonds.

In the wild they are ruthless hunters, they have developed sophisticated hunting techniques for a particular prey. For example orca in one part of the world will eat fish, they have a penchant for salmon and in other parts of the wild, they hunt seals, seabirds and even moose. Yet they are gentle and kind with there being almost no known incidents of people being killed in the wild. There have been a few deaths, but these have happened in places where they have been held captive. There is a large chapter on those orcas that have been taken from the wild and held in captivity; holding a creature as magnificent as this in a concrete tank is equally cruel and unnecessary.

This is a fascinating book on these awesome creatures. Neiwert clearly explains the latest research and explores the myths and legends associated with them, as well as information on the perilous state that they are in because of our scant concern for the environment. There are some heart-stopping and wondrous moments he has experienced with them whilst bobbing around in his kayak in the ocean near his home. It is a thoroughly enjoyable book on these stunning whales.

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Saturday 4 November 2017


Have got three through the post this week, one from Granta & one from Hodder Non Fiction

My House of Sky is a book that I contributed to the crowdfunding with and Little Toller sent it this week

Monthly Muse – October

Well that was a busy month, didn’t seem to stop around the house, but we now have finished three rooms downstairs and have stripped the hall and I an half through the lounge. This didn’t leave much time for reading though, so only managed to read 14 in the end.

And here they all are:

I managed to read two fiction books this month, Exit West, one on the shortlist for the Booker Prize. I have read others of Mohsin Hamid so had high hopes for this one. It was good, as he is addressing the reasons behind emigration and the problems associated with people living in a strange city, but there were certain elements that I thought jarred with the rest of the book. He Said, She Said was a domestic psychological thriller, that was reasonable, but had the odd implausible moment, but it was fast-paced and twisty.

My least favourite books this month were travel and both about Russia, Molotov’s Magic Lantern was about Rachel Polonsky’s time spent in Moscow in the apartment block that Vyacheslav Molotov had lived in and there were the remenants of his library there. The Second was Black Dragon River, where Dominic Ziegler travels down the river Amur that is the border between China and Russia. Both have their fascinating points, but they were very heavy on the history of Russia in my opinion.

Read two books that had a title beginning The Secret Life of… The first was The Secret Life of the Cow published by Faber. It was a reprint of the book by Rosamund Young and was a fascinating little story of her farm and the cows and other animals growing up on it. The other was The Secret Life of the owl by the very talented and twice winner of the Wainwright Price, John Lewis-Stempel. A delightful book on the owls around his farm and the wider landscape with the quality of prose that I have come to expect from John, and a fine addition to my growing library of natural history books.

Read three books on the UK this month, the first of which was Watling Street where John Higgs follows the path of the ancient road that stretches from London all the way to North Wales. Along it he re-discoveres the long history and contemplates the state of modern Britain post Brexit. The second was by Charlie Pye-Smith as he travelled back and forwards talking to those responsible for growing our food. The final one was Ancient Wonderings by James Canton. In this he travels to various Neolithic sites in search of the traces that are still left over. It is a really interesting read and it shows that the more we find out the less we know of their lives.

Read my third book from the Baillie Gifford shortlist, The Odyssey. It is a touching story of a father and son as they look at the life lessons from this epic tale and the author learns more of what made his father the man that he was. I was on the blog tour for The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities by Paul Anthony Jones another fine book on forgotten words from our language, with a word for each day. Really good and a must read for any etmologists.

Finally two natural history books, Wonderland, where Stephen Moss and Brett Westwood take us through every day in the year with animals, birds, plants, trees, moths and all sorts of other things to see in the natural world. A really wonderful book, and one I will be buying in paperback. The final book was As Kingfishers Catch fire by Alex Preston and some stunning illustrations by Neil Gower. This is an utterly beautiful thing to hold and was my book of the month too.