Wednesday 30 May 2018

Review: The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Life on the open ocean is harsh relentless and unforgiving. To survive there takes resilience and millennia of evolution. Seabirds are masters of this environment, relishing the storms that drive the vast ships to save havens, navigating ten of thousands of miles, and when they do touch land inspiring those that see the fight as a species to survive to the next generation.

Nicolson has been fascinated by these utterly wild birds since visiting and then inheriting The Shiants, the Hebridean islands just of the coast of Lewis and seeing the kittiwakes and gannets and other seabirds that use the speck of land for nesting, he came to love all these birds that inhabited the islands and places that he loved. Beginning with the fulmar, a bird which he would watch for hours swirling around off the cliffs of the Shiants, he considers the lives and fortunes of ten of the seabirds, including the guillemot, gulls, shearwaters, the colourful puffins and the master of the southern ocean, the albatross. Weaving together the history of these birds along with cultural aspects, folklore, poetry and the latest that science has revealed about their habits and habitat.

Using the latest miniature technology to track the epic journeys they make, and some of these are vast, far out into the Atlantic using the trade winds to travel vast distances with little or no effort. Whilst this book is a celebration of their dogged existence and mastery against the elements; it is also a warning. As climate change bites harder these birds are beginning to suffer as the food they need to raise their young becomes scarce or it takes much longer to reach. They are also suffering because of the amount of plastic that is clogging up our oceans too, with a rise in young being found with bellies full of waste that they just cannot get rid off. Each chapter is illustrated by the beautiful drawings of Kate Boxer the simple imagery capturing the essence of the bird. There is lots of detail packed in this timely book, but Nicolson is such a quality writer that it doesn't feel like a chore reading it. For me, I think that Sea Room just has the edge on this one, but like that book, his deep love for the birds that inhabit the wild windswept places is evident in the book; how much longer we will have them is not yet know.

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Review: Tiny Britain

Tiny Britain Tiny Britain by Dixe Wills
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 a small country we have an awful lot of places to visit, but how do you sort the good from the bad, the quirky and interesting from the dull and tedious. This book is a good place to start. Following on from his other books concentrating on the 'Tiny' parts of Britain this one is all about the attractions that fit the criteria of places to go when you only have half an hour.

There are all sorts of different attractions in here to tempt you to move away from the mainstream, caves, piers, cinemas including one in a caravan, museums in telephone boxes, the cliff side hut of an opium-smoking vicar and the smallest county. There are railways, short ferry crossings and a bus service that if you miss you will have a very long wait for the next one. Some of the best views in the UK can be seen from a small slate bridge in the Lake District and he visits another bridge where a bear of very little brain gave us a game that amuses children and adults alike. Should all this travelling about be too much and you need a break, there are recommendations for some of the smallest pubs in Britain too.

This is another classic quirky and informative travel book by Dixe Wills. It is full of photos of the places that he is recommending to visit with clear instructions on how to find them. There is something in here for everyone, and if you have read and liked any of his other books on Tiny places then this book would be right up your very small street.

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Sunday 27 May 2018

Publisher Profile - Slightly Foxed

For me, independent publishers are the people in the industry who are prepared to take risks on new authors and books where the larger players either don't wish to venture, or where they can't see there being a return on. Each month in 2018 I am aiming to highlight some of my favourite independent publishers, along with some of their books that I have loved and also to have someone from the publisher answer a few questions. This month is the turn of Slightly Foxed

Each year the Uk publishes a staggering amount of books. A number of these end up on the bestseller lists, but in amongst those headline books are lots that never have the same level of hype and publicity. Sometimes this is because the budget isn't there to promote them properly or they are languishing on a backlist. This is where Slightly Foxed comes in, it has an independent editorial team and a raft of people who contribute who are passionate about reading and books and who pick books that you almost certainly haven't heard of. 

Not content with helping people discover books that most wouldn't have heard of and feature them in their magazine, they took the steps to start to republish some of what they considered the best that had dropped out of print. They now have a selection of beautifully made books that are there for a new generation of readers. If the books and magazine aren't tempting enough, then there are some carefully chosen literary gifts that will have you reaching for your wallet fairly quickly.

So thank you Steph and the Hattie, Olivia, Anna and Jennie at Slightly Foxed for taking time out to answer my questions.

Can you tell me a little about the history of Slightly Foxed?
Slightly Foxed started life in 2004 after the sale of the independent publisher John Murray to a large conglomerate. Gail Pirkis, former managing editor at Murrays and Hazel Wood, a Murray editor and journalist wanted to set up a bookish company with the emphasis on independence.  After much thought, Slightly Foxed, the quarterly literary review was the result.  It started around Gail’s kitchen table with a handful of staff, including Steph Allen from Murrays and Kathleen Smith from Waterstones. Kathleen moved on to the bookshop Topping & Co in Bath, but the original team are all still there – aided by Jen Harrison Bunning who arrived in 2006 and a strong team in the office (more of whom below).  It is a testament to Slightly Foxedthat staff have a tendency to stay.
After 4 years of publishing the quarterly we moved into books, specifically reprinting memoirs and autobiographies no longer in print. The Slightly Foxed limited editions, beautifully produced pocket hardbacks in an enticing array of coloured cloth have become collectors’ items.  Following on from their popularity we launched the Slightly Foxed paperback series and the Foxed Cubs – a children’s series of historical novels from Ronald Welch.  Plain Foxed Editions followed on. 
For a short while we had a second-hand and new bookshop on the Gloucester Road, which was wonderful while it lasted, but we have now established an online bookshop offering presents for bookish friends or relatives and a carefully chosen range of book-related merchandise, including bookplates featuring wood engravings by some of our favourite engravers.  
We have an active marketing team who combine traditional marketing (advertising, inserts etc) with a stylish social media presence, a growing partnership scheme with other like-minded magazines and organisations and regular events. We aim to launch each quarterly at an independent bookshop, or other venue that has a connection with our latest issue or edition and we have a one-day literary festival held every November in the Art Workers’ Guild in Bloomsbury
How is the company organised today and how many people work for you?

We have a busy office with four full time staff.  Jen Harrison Bunning looks after our website design, oversees our social media presence and future projects.  Anna Kirk deals with bookshops and our partnership scheme, alongside editorial assistance.  Olivia Wilson runs our renewal programme and will be our new podcast manager and along with Hattie Summers keeps our readers happy, dealing with their subscriptions and book orders.  Our editors work mainly from home, in Devon and London and we have three part-time staff who help with packing, marketing, accounts and events.  At busy times everyone does a bit of everything! We also have two contributing editors.  Once a month the editorial team and the marketing team meet up and we aim to get the full staff together at regular intervals – for a little gin and a catch-up.  Altogether there are 11 staff and between us there are also 6 office dogs and 3 cats! 
What is the company philosophy when it comes to selecting contributors for your journal?
Our contributors come from all different walks of life – some well-known in the literary world, some not – but what they all have in common is the ability to write personally and entertainingly about books they love and return to.  The end result is not so much a review magazine as a collection of literary enthusiasms and book recommendations.
How do you go about choosing the titles to be included in your portfolio?
Our memoir list is primarily selected by Gail and Hazel (our editors), from a mixture of favourite past reads, titles suggested by other staff members and some suggested by readers.
Tell me about your process after selecting a book for publication
After obtaining the rights from the agent, the book enters the editorial and design phase (see below).  We announce each title to our subscribers, a number of whom have a repeat order of the same limited edition number.  
How much effort goes into the design of the book, for example the cover design, font selection and so on?
The look of the issue and our editions is extremely important to Slightly Foxed.  The issues are A5 in size, 96 pages and are printed on high-quality, cream-coloured vellum to stand the test of time (many of our readers collect back issues and we have slipcases for them to house an annual subscription).  Each issue has a specially commissioned cover and we have a number of artists who return to us time after time. Cover artists include Posy Simmonds, Quentin Blake, Angie Lewin and Sue Macartney Snape among others. 
Our cloth-bound limited edition series was inspired by the pocket hardbacks of the 1920s-40s and much work goes into the choice of cloth colour, endpapers and ribbon. 
Key to the Slightly Foxedlook and ethos are our printers, Smith Settle in Yorkshire who have been with us from the first issue.  They are a traditional craft printer with a reputation for high-quality printing and bookbinding. 
Are there any up and coming books that you are publishing soon that we need to look out for?
We are bringing out Brendon Chase from BB, our third reissue of a BB title and greatly anticipated. We are also looking forward to bringing Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels for children in the Foxed Cub series.
In our limited edition series we have memoirs from Ernest Shepard, Jennie Erdal, Jan Morris and Eric Newby coming out in the next eighteen months. 
What debut authors are you publishing this year?
Something new for us – Philip Rhys Evan’s A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book, due out in September. 
How did you come across them?
He is one of our readers and sent his manuscript in! 
What title of yours has been an unexpected success?
Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools 1939-1979by Ysenda Maxtone Graham.  We had wonderful review coverage for this title and reprinted 6 times! 
What would you say were the undiscovered gems in your catalogue?
There are almost too many to mention, but books that our readers have discovered for the first time and loved include Diana Holman-Hunt’s My Grandmothers and I, John Hackett’s I Was A Stranger, Gavin Maxwell’s The House of Elrig, Michael Holroyd’s Basil Street Blues and Adrian Bell’s trilogy of farming memoirs.  
How do you use social media for promoting books and authors?
Social media has become increasingly important to us for publicity and marketing purposes.  We use twitter and facebook to promote events, share news from other publishers and spread the literary word and we have a stylish, carefully curated instagram site which is worth taking a look at if you haven’t done already @foxedquarterly
Is working with book bloggers becoming a larger part of that process now?
Yes, Jen Harrison Bunning who plans and photographs our Instagram posts is connecting with an increasing number of book bloggers.  We always share any bloggers posts about Slightly Foxed and enjoy reading them in the office.
What does the future hold for Slightly Foxed?
Podcasts! We are excited to be joining forces with a podcast company to produce our own carefully selected content and round the table discussions from the Slightly Foxed team.
We will also be celebrating the publication of our 60thissue in December with an event at the London Library.
A big thank you to Steph and the team at Slightly Foxed for taking time out of their hectic schedules to answer those questions for me. I really appreciate it. I have contemplated getting a subscription for a while now, and after reading this have taken the plunge. If you do want their books, get them direct from the website or I would urge you to buy them from an independent bookshop as you can as this support them, the publisher and of course the author with one purchase. 

Saturday 26 May 2018

Review: ReWild: The Art of Returning to Nature

ReWild: The Art of Returning to Nature ReWild: The Art of Returning to Nature by Nick Baker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the Western world, the majority of people have become remote from the natural world. Rather than walk the paths and see the vistas from the hills, inhale the smell after summer rain. Or listen to the wind rustling the leaves and hear the sound of water running over rocks, most opt to stay inside, bathed in the blue-white light from their screens rather than absorbing the vitamin D from the sun.

The concept of rewilding in terms of adding the top level predators back into wild has been expertly covered in George Monbiot's book, Feral. Baker does touch on that at the beginning of the book, but this primary focus in here is getting you out into the forests and on the moors and giving tips to maximise your enjoyment of the places you visit by using all your senses.

The capability of enhancing your senses lies within all of us, something that Baker realised when he had a close encounter with a bear in Alaska and in that moment all his senses came alive. He has various suggestions that will aid you in improving the way that you perceive the world around you. Some of them are sensible, learning to really see what is there, starting to use your ears to hear the myriad of sounds that surround you, even in what most consider to be silence. Not seeing is equally important; spending time in the twilight as it gets dark and letting your eyes adjust, gives a very different perception of the landscape around you; it also heightens your other senses. There are chapters on the senses that we tend to omit when we do venture outdoors, touch and taste.

He recommends walking barefoot along a woodland path and taking time to feel the texture of the things around. Taste is one sense that you rarely use outdoors; something that Terry Pratchett. Summed up in his quote when he said: All fungi are edible. Some fungi are only edible once, but this applied to real life as people generally aren't willing to take the risk trying things when out in the wild. He does recommend it, tasting different leaves in a sensible and controlled way, but I really wouldn't recommend slugs as he tried on one trip!!

It is not a bad book overall, he has some useful ideas about how to make ourselves more open to the natural world by using all of our senses as we walk through a glade or up a Tor. The writing is uncomplicated, making it fairly straightforward to read, but it doesn't sparkle. The addition of the accident that his family suffered from was almost a superfluous addition to the text, it felt like it was shoehorned in. The points he was making were covered elsewhere. Not a bad read, and adds to the collective that getting out in the natural world is good for your soul.

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Thursday 24 May 2018

Review: Austral

Austral Austral by Paul McAuley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

The newest nation on Earth is on the Antarctica Peninsula, a place that has now been made habitable by global warming, rising sea levels and the advent of ecopoets. These genetically modified humans had special adaptions to cope with the extreme cold and climate at the far south of the planet. Seen as sub-human, they were despised and feared by the rest of the population.

Austral Ferrado is a second generation ecopoet, or husky, as they are often called, and she has been in and out of prison as a convict and a is now corrections officer. Always skirting at the edge of the law she has been involved with the criminal mastermind there, Keever, he has a favour to ask and it is going to be one she cannot refuse. He wants her to speak to Deputy Alberto Toom, who is her uncle, as he arrives and the disturbance that will cause will be a distraction helping Keever make his escape. Except Austral has a something that she is keeping from Keever, a secret that could threaten her life if he knew.

Instead, she abandons the plan when she realises what is going to really happen, and almost by accident, kidnaps Kamilah, Toom's teenage daughter. Now on the run with her cousin, Kamilah is her ticket off Antarctica. She is going to be reliant on all her skills to stay ahead of the authorities and Keevers gang in the forests and across icy plateaus of the peninsula, but even though all their tech is off to stop them being tracked, there is still someone who knows where they are.

This alternative spin on a dystopian future set on the continent of Antarctica is a great concept by McAuley, he has taken what will become mankind's greatest challenge in the coming years and places a thriller story on it. The geoengineering that humanity had tried has not worked as they thought; some think because they shouldn't have bothered and others in the story think that they didn't go far enough. On this bleak future is the story of Austral, a woman driven by wanting to get what she feels she is owed. The plot is essentially a thriller and it is varied, fast paced and action packed at times and at others slow as she gets to know her cousin and fills in the backstory. He has managed to get a society that blends high tech elements with the low tech way that most people will be living. I am not a huge fan of thrillers, twists and turns aside, it is fairly straightforward to predict where they are going, but that shouldn't put you off reading this alternative future.

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Wednesday 23 May 2018

Review: The Little Book Of Camper Van

The Little Book Of Camper Van The Little Book Of Camper Van by Michael Heatley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As style icons go there are not as many that are as cool as the VW Camper van. First made in 1950 and called the Type 2, as the Beetle was the Type 1, it was based on a sketch by Ben Pon a Dutch importer of Volkswagens. From these humble beginnings as a work vehicle with just over half a tonne of load capacity, but versions were made that became ambulances, flatbeds and even hearses. The split screen with the two side doors was the first and production ran until 1967 with all sorts of variants. It became known as the T1 and the next model was the T2, and was quickly names the bay window. This morphed into the T3 the more boxy looking van. The T4 was the first of the front-engined and front wheel drive model that has now become the T6 in it's most recent iteration.

This is quite a short book with an overview of every model and the camper versions that were made by official partners and third-party companies. It is full of colour photos of typical models and talks a little about the Surf and hippy culture that adopted these versatile vans. I own a T4 and was given this as a gift, but it is kind of an odd book in some ways. There is not enough depth on the subject in here for a dedicated fan, neither are there enough photos for someone who is not so worried about the history so much. It does come with a DVD and that isn't bad either.

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Review: Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery

Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery Citizen Science: How Ordinary People are Changing the Face of Discovery by Caren Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

The last experience that most people had with science would have been at school, where for a fair proportion of those studying it really couldn't get along with it. One maxim that I had heard to differentiate between the three core subjects was: if it moves it is biology, if it smells it is chemistry and if it doesn't work it is physics. So the thought of getting involved in science in any shape or form has some people reeling. Yet you can; you don't need a PhD or even a degree all you need is a fascination and curiosity for the world around you and anyone anywhere in the world can contribute.

In this book, Caren Copper tells the stories of the ways that normal people are getting involved in science projects. In this way, they are challenging the academic norms on how and more importantly who can collect scientific data. There are stories of people who have been collecting weather data for decades all around the United States, and how these thousands of daily records are showing worrying trends for more unstable weather. We learn of people who use spare computer power to run through protein folding sequences to assist scientists when they are creating the latest drugs. Nature lovers who wanted to ensure that turtles could lay their eggs in safety begun collecting the plastics and in particular the nurdles, that were being washed up in startling volumes on the beaches, a pressing environmental concern at the moment given the longevity of plastics.

People have always contributed to medical research, often unaware too, but there is now active participation in drug trials with people wanting to help others who will be suffering the same illnesses further down the line. Collective action by communities by people who are being made ill by companies who still pollute the atmosphere and waters is covered in one chapter, showing that how keeping records and having it backed up by scientific and government authority can make a difference. Details of migratory birds and butterflies that are observed by enthusiastic individuals add to the bigger picture that science understands about the twice-annual flow of life around the planet.

Probably the sphere of science that an amateur can have the most impact in is astronomy. All over the globe thousands of people every night head outside hoping for clear skies to observe the majesty of the night sky. Their observation are just as important as the astronomers who have control over the largest telescopes in the world. Even those who are averse to heading out can get involved too; there are websites that people can log onto to assist in verifying types of galaxies, something that us mere humans can do much better than computers at the moment. In fact, amateurs are so important in this field that they often appear on the peer-reviewed papers alongside the 'real' scientists.

Science is not as scary as you think and thankfully Copper has written a fascinating book that shows how you, yes you, can be involved in science. There are a list of resources in the back of the book and websites where you can go to find out more and sign up. It is American centric, but there are some links below where you can find out more:


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Sunday 20 May 2018

Review: Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some are getting too much, most aren't getting enough. No, I don't mean that; what I am talking about is sleep. There are people out there who seem to be able to exist on almost no sleep, people who are in the office at stupid o'clock in the morning and who are still up way after midnight. While scientists knew that we needed food and water and could explain why, no one could adequately explain why we slept, what purpose it served.

It is only recently though that scientists have been able to understand through decades of cutting-edge research just how key sleep is to our health and well-being. In essence, sleep is an essential element to our well being and health and in this book, Professor Matthew Walker sets out just how important it is and how most common diseases in the modern western world have roots deep within our lack of sleep. In this he will explain just what the different sleep types are and how they help us think over deeper and long-term issues, the effects of stimulants on our sleep and why do most teenagers drive like they are missing part of their brain? Because they are… It takes deep sleep and developmental time to accomplish the neural maturation that plugs this brain 'gap' in the frontal lobe. There is a fascinating demonstration on how lack of sleep can affect how we perform; he shows that sleep deprivation can have an equivalent effect to alcohol when driving.

Walker recommends that we need around eight hours each night; I normally only have about six hours sleep a night, heading to bed around midnight and being startled into life as the alarm screams at 6.15. Reading this has made me think about the best way to increase that given the potential health benefits of sleep. Did like the fact that a sleep graph is called a hypnogram. Generally, it is very well written too, he takes time to explain in a clear manner the points that he is making but occasionally it drifts towards more academic prose. If you have trouble sleeping or are just fascinated by the way the body works then you should read this.

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Review: Mysterious Britain: Ancient Secrets of the United Kingdom and Ireland

Mysterious Britain: Ancient Secrets of the United Kingdom and Ireland Mysterious Britain: Ancient Secrets of the United Kingdom and Ireland by Janet Bord
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The phrase, the past is a foreign country is completely true when you venture way back into English history. There are strange standing stones and circles that are still visible in the landscape, ancient earthworks, churches with pagan marks and wells that still have ritual significance even today. Even though modern archaeological techniques and science can go some way to explaining the sites, there is still so much we do not know or can even comprehend.

When this was published way back in 1974 they knew even less then, but there was plenty of speculation as to the origins of the stones, burials and henges. Some of the suggestions in here as to the original purpose of the place would not even be entertained now, for example there is way too much nonsense on UFO's and Ley Lines. Hence it is now quite outdated, but I have had it sitting on a shelf for a decade and a half and though I had better read it. Extracting it from there reminded me a little of Time Team! What I did like though were the photos of the places, they harked back to a time before visitor centres and information boards and were often quite atmospheric.

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Review: Among the Summer Snows

Among the Summer Snows Among the Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Snow? In the summer? It sounds like climate change gone mad and given the weather recently it could be quite feasible. However, this is not the snow that Christopher Nicholson seeks. Most of the snow doesn't last past the summer, clearing before the winter returns, but he is obsessed with the finding those patches of snow in the Scottish Highlands that are left over when the rest have gone and because of the size managed to survive all year.

Nicholson heads alone into the hills braving the elements, it is late summer after all, in search of these ghostly remains of winter. Not every year has them though, a warming climate is ensuring that, but the ones he finds vary in size from a few feet across to huge ones that you can get in underneath. Some of these patches of snow have been there for years, the layers building up to create some truly deep drifts. There are even some that you can crawl under bathing you in this eerie blue-white light as is passes through the ice; they have even been called snow cathedrals.

I have been high in the French Alps in July and see pockets of snow and where we were in Tignes there was a glacier where they were still skiing on. To read about snow pockets was something that I had never expected that we still had in Scotland. There is more to this book than that though, there are musings on the weather, other walkers and a touching tribute to his late wife too. All through the book are hauntingly beautiful photos of the snow caves that he finds on his walks and the fragments of snow set against the dramatic landscape of the Scottish mountains.

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Saturday 19 May 2018

Review: A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels

A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels by Caspar Henderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

There was a time when humans had a natural curiosity and wonder for the world around themselves. Before Google, to find things out you actually had to go and learn them, experience them or find and read the book about it. Nowadays anyone with an interweb connection can quickly read up about anything about any subject. By having everything available at our fingertips has meant that information is transitory, read but never absorbed and more importantly as Henderson argues in this book, we have almost lost the ability to wonder.

People have wondered what is over that far hill and what lies just beyond the horizon for millennia now and the oldest form of this speculation was the map. These mappae mundi were the places where people's imaginations could run riot, full of strange and magical creatures and of unknown lands, these were the internet of the day.

Should we want to look up from the blue LED glare of our screens though there is still a universe of wonder out there? Henderson takes us on a journey through what he considers to be some of the wonders still left in the world. Beginning with light where he explores from the photon to the black hole passing under the rainbow. He then moves within our body to discover more about the workings of the heart and brain. The chapter on the physical brain leads on to the concept of self as we currently understand it.

The final two chapters and my favourites were on how we see the world then and now and the wonderfully titled Adventures with Perhapsatron. Throughout the book, there are diagrams and illustrations to complement the text and I particularly liked the use of side notes to add a little extra depth, though the grey font wasn't the easiest to read. Overall an enjoyable book.

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Wednesday 16 May 2018

#BlogTour - Why Do Birds Disappear - Lev Parikian

Welcome to my turn on the blog tour for Lev Parikian's new book, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? 200 Birds, 12 Months, 1 Lapsed Birdwatcher published today:

The picture of the cover doesn't really do it justice. The artwork is exquisite and the title has fine copper foiling, not only that it has a nice heft to the hardback too

A little about the author first. most of the time he is not an author, rather he is a conductor. No, not the one on a bus, but the guy with a small stick who manages to coerce an unruly bunch of musicians into producing marvellous music. He even wrote a book about it called, Waving, Not Drowning. With his second book, he feels that the balance has shifted from just being a conductor to being a writer too. This book was crowdfunded by the new publisher on the block, Unbound. He is currently seeking funding and ideas for his latest venture called The Long and the Short of It where you can suggest the ideas to be written about.

Anyway, back to today's book. Here is my review of the book:

At the age of 12, Lev Parikian was an avid birdwatcher. He had a huge list of birds from the common or garden to the exotic neatly ticked off. Except he hadn't seen some of them, in fact, he had probably only seen half of them. There has been a smidgen over six hundred species recorded as being seen in Britain, and as the bird watching bug bites again after a walk around the park in an attempt to combat middle age spread, Parikian feels that this time he needs a challenge and this time to do things properly. So there are rules; there has to be because this time it is serious.

But what sort of target should he go for? A friend of his managed 206 in a single year, but he was an avid bird watcher, 100 would be too easy and 300 would be unrealistic. A lot of birds that have appeared over here are very rare, swept in by the Atlantic storms and take a day or so to re-orientate themselves before disappearing once again. But first, he needs to create a list, because every birder needs a list. Separating the birds into four categories, already seen, will probably see, might see and no chance (one is now extinct after all) and the list has been whittled down from a vast 600 to an unmanageable 200. It should be ok, shouldn't it?

Starting with the ubiquitous blue tit, so begins a very amusing story of trying to track down his 200 ticks. It will take him from the Dorset shorelines to the dramatic west coast of Scotland, the big skies of Norfolk and the waters of the Somerset levels. He has some spectacular finds and spends a lot of the year not seeing any owls at all; there was one here five minutes ago is not what you want to hear. Some of the trips he is accompanied by his wife and son who seem to tolerate his new obsession and he is helped by other bird watchers that are generous with their time, expertise and telescopes. Two hundred birds in one year is a big ask, can he do it? Will he actually see ll the birds? Can he stick to the rules, or will it be a project that will join the other abandoned ones alongside the discarded resolutions on the barely used yoga mat…

Parikian has written a thoroughly enjoyable book that because of his bone-dry wit had me chuckling and laughing out loud at times. I thought that it was written with genuine warmth about his feathered subjects, his cricket and spreadsheet obsession and his love of life in general. There are amusing anecdotes about him learning to become a conductor at the same place that his father worked as well as nostalgic and poignant moments about growing up and losing his father. One to read and enjoy, and maybe make you reach for the binoculars.

Thank you to Unbound for providing a review copy. 

You can follow Lev Parikian on Twitter here and his blog is here.

Don't forget to get your copy from an independent bookshop. By doing that you support, them, the author and the publisher. Follow the others on the blog tour too:

Review: Eagle Country

Eagle Country Eagle Country by Seán Lysaght
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

When you think of eagles, you imagine them perched on an eyrie high in the Scottish mountains on the West coast. They are majestic birds, soaring over the landscape with almost nothing to fear; except us. The sight of the magnificent sea eagles enthralled him when Lysaght first encountered them in Norway almost twenty years ago. They used to inhabit Ireland too, and as he walks the remote coast and hills and pours over the maps he starts to see the place names that they inspired such as Crag of the Eagle and Eagle Ridge. It was time to get outside.

The best way to get a feel for the country though is to walk through it, climb the ridges and wander the rugged coastline. His walks are often undertaken alone, sometimes with Jessica, his wife, and occasionally with others. His keen eyes see the wildlife as he walks, watching the aerobatics of the ravens, tracing the gulls following the boats out to sea, finches as they buzz over the moors. He is searching for sites that could be or may once have been eyries. Every now and again a raptor lifts into the air, often he sees them being mobbed, yet they are always masters of the air.

He passes houses that have carved stone eagles on the gate posts and as he walks in the rugged landscape scoured by Atlantic, it prompts him to look back to the past to the time when eagles were often seen, collecting the stories from locals and writers that last saw eagles in the Nineteenth century. Their absence today is the result of habitat destruction and persecution. Even today raptors are still poisoned and shot and those with vested interests ensure that the people responsible do not get the punishment they deserve.

On one side, the stream ran into the moss and then re-emerged from the tips of the moss as glistening green-tinted teardrops.

Until I picked this book up, it had never crossed my mind that there were or had been eagles in Ireland too. Sadly there are still not many, there have been a few introduced and the odd one or two have drifted across the sea from Scotland. There are just about hanging on in a landscape devoid of their prey and habitat. Lysaght is also a poet and this book reinforces my own hypothesis that poets write fantastic non-fiction (Kathleen Jamie and Paul Farley to name but two) so his mastery of the language and the descriptions of the coast and hills that he walked looking for eyries is quite special. This is the tenth book in the superb Little Toller Monograph series and is another beautifully made book. It has wonderful atmospheric photos that frame the beginning of each month of walks showing the stark beauty of the land and seascape of this coastline. Loved the hand-drawn maps too, they have a certain charm. Can highly recommend this.

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Sunday 13 May 2018

Review: Hope In The Dark

Hope In The Dark Hope In The Dark by Rebecca Solnit
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For centuries people have revolted over the control that the state or other powerful individuals have tried to exert over the people. People can only be told what to do so much. I Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit concentrates on the past five decades of activism against the state about all manner of issues. Sonit acknowledges the huge political thinkers who have shaped some of the politics that happen today.

It is an interesting polemic against the vested interests and the present economic system and is written with a clarity that I have come to expect from Solnit. It is a bit dated now, but sadly almost all of the salient points that Solnit makes are still valid. The message though is still clear; never, never give up hope. The smallest actions being carried out by you can be multiplied up into the tens of hundreds of people doing the same thing does have an effect. The rise of website and action groups like 38 Degrees and Avaaz are the testimony to this; exerting pressure on corporations and governments does get through, it is an irritant that they ignore at their peril. I particularly liked the way that think global, act local, can be turned on its head; by thinking local acting global is the replication of the same protest all around our planet. I would love to see a re-write of this to know exactly what she thinks about Trump, can't imagine it will be complimentary…

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Saturday 12 May 2018

Review: Rule 34

Rule 34 Rule 34 by Charles Stross
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To call it a dead end job would be an understatement, policing the weird and sordid life of internet porn was like being in the U bend of her career as all the unpleasantness of life flowed past. This was DI Liz Kavanaugh's life now, but when a fetish nut dies on her watch, the Rule 34 squad goes from an irrelevance to high profile. This first death is just the tip of the fatberg as more start dying in the most bizarre ways possible and the more Kavanaugh finds out about the case and the links to organised crime, the less she wants to know…

This is loosely a sequel to Halting State with Kavanaugh being the only character who has made it from that book. There are all sorts going on in this future police thriller; in it, he crams all sorts about the possibilities of pervasive state monitoring, a psychopath loose and the way that the criminals work across states. The writing point of view doesn't always make it the easiest book to read, however, it is highly entertaining with some typical surreal moments and the pace varies from sluggish to fairly brisk. I liked it but didn't love it.

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This Weeks Book Post

Amzing bookpost this week. Thanks to Olivia at Jo Fletcher Books, Jamsin at Bloomsbury, Bethan, Josh at Faber  fot this small pile of books

Friday 11 May 2018

#BlogTour for Stranger In My Heart

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the blog tour for #StrangerInMyHeart. This book is about Mary Monro's father, John and his activities in World War II.  I will be reviewing it below, but first a little about the book. This is the cover:

The blurb says:

John Monro MC never mentioned his Second World War experiences, leaving his daughter Mary with unresolved mysteries when he died in 1981. He fought at the Battle of Hong Kong, made a daring escape across Japanese-occupied China and became Assistant Military Attaché in Chongqing. Caught up in Far East war strategy, he proposed a bold plan to liberate the PoWs he’d left behind before fighting in Burma in 1944. But by the time Mary was born he’d become a Shropshire farmer, revealing nothing of his heroic past. 

Thirty years after his death and prompted by hearing him described as a ‘20th Century great’, Mary began her quest to explore this stranger she’d called ‘Dad’. Stranger In My Heart skilfully weaves poignant memoir with action-packed biography and travels in modern China in a reflective journey that answers the question we all eventually ask ourselves: ‘Who am I?’
This is Mary's first book, but she is an accomplished writer of technical and academic articles as well as being an experienced lecturer and presenter. She is currently resident in Bath with her husband Julian and their dog, Gobi. Animals have been a big part of her life, she grew up riding horses and inevitably falling off them too, so has a raft of injuries. This has not stopped her riding though. Mary's first job was working with Cadbury's and had never shaken the chocolate habit, next came a spot of consultancy, but a career change meant that Mary now works as an osteopath treating animals and humans. 

My Review:

When her father died, Mary was only 18. She never really knew him as a person, just as a slightly remote father figure who had loved running the farm where she and her three siblings lived. She had a happy childhood, grown up fairly self-reliant, had a love of horses and freedom, but his death left a void in all their lives. Mary would never have the opportunity to ask the questions that she wanted too. It was a few years after when she was at a party an old family friend of hers said that he was one of the great war heroes, that she realised that she knew so little about him. This book is the answer to the question; who is my father.

John Monro was born in 1914, at the dawn of the Great War and was schooled in Switzerland of all places. He joined the army as a Gentleman cadet in 1932 and was commissioned in 1934. In 1937 he was posted to the British colony of Hong Kong in the 8th Heavy Brigade of the Royal Artillery and was put in command of a troop of Chinese men. He had an interpreter called Cheung Yan-Lun who was born in Guangdong. They got on so well they were to become lifelong friends. Further appointments and promotions were made and he ended up at the HQ in Hong Kong with the rank of Brigade Major. This was early in 1941 and with the war in Europe there were even more rumours about a possible conflict in the far east but nothing had happened so far.

By the end of the year everything had changed; Japan had invaded and Monro was heavily involved in defending Hong Kong, but it was to no avail and the colony surrendered to the Japanese. Monro was one of those captured and sent to a POW camp. It classic English fashion, it wasn't long before he escaped by swimming over to the mainland. This was the first in a series of dramatic events as he takes a long and convoluted route over 1200 miles to reach China’s wartime capital at Chongqing where he was once again involved again in the war effort.

All of these details Mary found out in the large envelope of letters and other documentation that was forthcoming from her mother. It was quite a job to collate and organise it, but possibly slightly harder to read his handwriting! To really get a feel for the places that he travelled through whilst evading capture would mean a trip out to China. Even though China is far more open than it used to be and there are the well-worn tourist trails to the Great Wall and the Forbidden Palace, there are parts of it that are still not easy to travel around, but thankfully she found a company and guide who were willing to help her see the place that her father once travelled through and her mother paid towards the trip as she was equally curious as to what had happened in his past life.

These personal histories of family members add so much more to history than the slightly tedious and dry military reports and official histories of events. Not only do you get to see the person in a different light, but the author's emotional involvement makes for much better reading. It is the same with this journey to uncover the stories of her father John, a private man who like so many of his generation, did his duty and thought no more of it, let alone want to talk about it.

We are all geniuses with hindsight, you can sense her regret about not taking the time when she could to get to know him and understand what he went through during the war. This story of his life is her tribute to her father for all he stood for and all that he meant to all of his family. If you liked Dadland about Tom Carew's escapades in World War II then this is another book that will appeal and that fills in the patchwork of personal stories about a war that changed the world.

Stranger in my Heart will be available from the 9th June in Kindle and paperback and is published by Unbound.

This tour was arranged by Anne of #RandomThingsTours 

Thank you for stopping by. Don't forget to visit the others on the tour to see what they had to say about the book.

Wednesday 9 May 2018

Review: The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood

The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood by John Lister-Kaye
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

For the last 40 years, John Lister-Kaye has run the Aigas Field Centre, an old Georgian manor house just to the west of Inverness and set in the beautiful highland landscape. Lister-Kaye discovered the place in the mid-1970's and since then has made this a world leading and award-winning centre for environmental education. This latest book, The Dun Cow Rib tells the story of the long and winding route that he took to get there.

Born in 1959 to John and Helen, he was the latest member of an ancient family were landowners in Yorkshire with active financial interests in mining and quarries. He had a fairly happy childhood playing in the local countryside and keeping pigeons until he was sent to boarding school. He really could not get along with the head there. After a couple of incidents, one of which was a prank, the other of which was nothing to do with him, he was asked to leave, much to his father's fury at the school and the head in particular. This meant that he had to go to another school and fortunately he ended up at Allhallows School on the Devon and Dorset border. For Lister-Kaye this was a lucky break as he was right on the doorstep of Lyme Regis and the wilderness that was the undercliff. He joined the natural history society and by the time he finished at the school, he was totally and utterly in love with the natural world.

He longed to do something in the natural world, but his father lent on him heavily to accept a post at a steelworks as a management trainee. He did go and hated it, turning more against working in unsustainable industries after the massive oil spill in the Isles of Scilly in 1967. Shortly after that, an opportunity arose to work with the now famous author Gavin Maxwell on a book on mammals and opening a zoo on Skye; he quit and moved to Scotland. Both projects were abandoned after Maxwell was diagnosed with cancer and died after a short illness. The thought of going by to a desk job was too much to bear, so he stayed in Scotland and wrote The White Island, a book about the short but intense time spent with Maxwell. From the book came another opportunity and Highland Wildlife Enterprise was formed with the help of Richard Frere and this was what was to become the Aigas Field Centre.

I quite liked this book, he writes in an interesting and entertaining way about all the events in his early life and it is full of amusing anecdotes and snippets. He had a privileged upbringing, he is a baronet after all, and he loved growing up with his grandparents at the manor house where the Dun Cow Rib was always hanging from a chain. He had a distant relationship with his father but was much closer to his mother. She suffered from severe health problems with her heart, caused by an illness when she was a child and exacerbated when she gave birth to John and managed to live much longer because of the efforts of Paul Wood and Russel Brock, two cardiologists who worked at the cutting edge of heart surgery, this book is a tribute to her from him. Having read the Douglas Botting book in the last month, it was useful to find out his side of the story of his brief work with Gavin Maxwell too. I have only read one other of his, The Gods of the Morning, and will be adding some of his others to my reading list.

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Tuesday 8 May 2018

Review: The Salt Path

The Salt Path The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

The bad news came fast, Raynor Winn's husband had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, they had just lost a court case even though they had the evidence that they were not liable for debts and now the bailiffs were hammering on the door to take their farm and livelihood away. Their only income would be £48 per week. It is at times like these that some people would have a breakdown or consider a more permanent end to the problems, they didn't; inspired by the book 500 Mile Walkies by Mark Wallington they decided that as they were homeless anyway they may as well walk the south coast path.

With the precious little money they have, they buy a new lightweight tent, a couple of sleeping bags and new rucksacks and drive the van to Minehead in Somerset as that is where all the guidebooks begin. Moth's condition of corticobasal degeneration or CBD, meant that the doctor had advised him to take it easy and not to overdo it; probably not attempt a 630-mile walk around the spectacular coastline of the south-west. The first part of the footpath is probably the toughest section with the high cliffs and steep paths and it is a struggle for both, but Moth in particular. They have no money for official campsites, so wild camping was the way to go, ensuring that they found a place out of sight, and were packed up before they could be discovered in the morning.

They met all sorts of people of the walk, but telling those that they met that they were homeless would a lot of the time cause a lot of prejudice and they would be shunned, called tramps or worse. Sitting eating a shared pack of budget noodles when other are stuffing pasties and ice creams in, is quite soul destroying. However, there were others who would be prepared to help, providing hot drinks, paying for food, and even a millionaire wine importer who wined and dined them for an evening. One man they met on a cliff path told them about salted blackberries, picked right at the very end of the season just before they turned when the flavour was most intense and dusted with the salt from the sea they gorged on them whenever they could find them. They had completed a fair chunk of the route, before stopping and staying with a friend, earning a little money and starting to plan a future once again. Rather than head back to where they had stopped, they came to Poole and started from the other end walking through the Jurassic Coast back to the place that they had stopped a few months previously.

This is a heartwarming and inspiring story of a couples fight back against a life-changing legal decision that left them totally penniless. Winn writes with an honesty that is quite moving, she is open with her feelings and her thoughts about the people she meets on their walk and the events that led to them walking. There are some moments in here that may make you cry as well as some amusing anecdotes that will have you chuckling. What does come across throughout the book is the inner strength of Raynor and Moth, to overcome a financial situation that most could not recover from, the way that Moth manages to use the walk to improve his health and that being in the right place at the right time can offer an opportunity that can be life-changing. If there is one thing that can be taken from this, it is that there is nothing that human optimism can't overcome. 4.5 stars

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