Book Reviews (28/07/17)

Hi there - as well as being a keen blogger, I'm a bit of a bookworm as well.

So, I'm going to post reviews of the last few books I've read - as I read another one I'll take the last one of the list.

All the reviews are also posted on Amazon UK - you may care to visit the links if you think the book sounds interesting. All reviews are put up under the the name "Stewart M - Victoria, Australia".  You can find all 317 reviews here.

RSPB Handbook of British Birds - Holden and Cleeves   4.5 /5

There are a huge number of books that will help you identify British birds – and preferring one of these to another is often just a matter of personal taste and preference.

This book is in my opinion one of the better bird guide I have seen in a while.  The key problem with all bird guides is the need to balance completeness with probability.  A book that contains all of the birds ever seen in one area is likely to contain many species that, in all probability, you will never see.  For beginners, or birders new to the area, this may lead to problems where desirable rarities are conjured from common species.

This RSPB handbook clearly stated that it is based around the 270 species you are most likely to see in the UK – in other words it chooses probability over completeness.  I rather like that.

The lay out of the book is conventional, although I would have liked the ‘field mark’ arrows used in many other books to have been included around the images.  The images themselves are paintings rather than photographs – and again I like that.  The paintings are not in the crystal clear, razor sharp style – and this give more of a feel of how the bird may look in the field, rather than in a display case. 

As a first guide to the birds of the UK you really could do a lot worse than this book.


Pond - Claire-Lousie Bennett  3.5 /5

Pond is without question a rather strange and different book.  It has 20 ‘chapters’, some no more than a paragraph and some running to a dozen or more pages.  It seems to have no plot, or defined narrative, yet it manages to be engaging for most of its 175 pages.

If there is a theme that runs through the book then I would suggest that it is about loneliness or isolation.  Many of the chapters of the book read a little like stream of consciousness writing from a person recording what they see or think of as they write. And if this case this method produces some fine turns of phrase, and some moments of real comedy. While some of the chapters do have a sense of structure, I often found myself wondering ‘how did I end up here?’

The best chapter in the book is one about planning a party, which seems at odds with the general theme of loneliness.  This chapter contains a killer line about who is and who is not invited to parties, and the consequences of these invitations – and it may be worth reading this short book just for that line.

Recommended, with the caveat that you may find it all a little strange.

Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to British Birds 4/5

In many ways this is a rather old fashioned book.  By the way this is not really a criticism – it’s just an observation.

The typewriter font used for the text, the hand-drawn pictures and the ‘sticky tape’ used to hold in the photographs gives the whole thing the feel of a scrapbook.

But it’s the tone of the text – and the humor of the pictures – that give the book its most ‘old fashion’ feel.  Sometimes I feel that bird watching has become all too serious – too many lists, too many apps, to many organized tours that give you your money back if you don’t see bird X.

This book is different – the birds in this book are generally easy to see and really not that rare.  But they are wonderful to see and interesting to watch.  It seems to be a celebration of the ordinary and local – which is probably where most birder start, and seem to soon forget.

Maybe this is not a book for the dead serious birder – and maybe it’s not really a guide to birds at all, but it does catch some of the joy and wonder that comes with seeing birds around you.

Recommended for those who prefer bird watching to bird listing and those who remember that all this birding lark is supposed to be a bit of fun!

The Gathering Tide - Karen Lloyd 4.5 /5

The Gathering Tide seeks to explore the shores – the ‘edgelands’ -  of Morecambe Bay’ – that much you get from the title.

This struck me as an interesting idea – there have been a few books that look at edges such as Edgelands and The Unofficial Countryside, both of which seek to look at generally overlooked landscapes.

This book takes a similar idea and turns it into really rather good travel writing.  The edge of Morecambe Bay is trapped between two huge landscapes, the expanse of the bay itself and the well-known and much loved hills of the Lake District.

In many ways I think this book is about the value of the local and the small – and the books journey takes along a narrow strip of landscape that may otherwise be overlooked.

I was lucky enough to live in this area years ago, and really liked the feeling of local knowledge that the book provides.  Although the content does stray away from the edges of the Bay at times this can be forgiven I think.  This is a book born of short walks, long views and local history.  It also seems to rain a good deal, which matches my memories of the area rather well!

A really rather wonderful book, that I would recommend highly.

Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand 4/5

This is a pretty good field guide to the Birds of New Zealand - it's compact, seems comprehensive and the images are good enough (although not great in of themselves) to allow the birds to be identified.

There are a number of issues with this book - firstly the majority of the birds in the book are seabirds, and often rare ones for NZ at that and they are only likely to be seen (if at all!) on pelagic trips.  The same comment could be made for the waders section.

The second issue is that this version (based on the cover image) is not the most up to date version of this book.  The 'Hand Guide' is a slimmed down version of the "Field Guide' by the same authors.  The field guide, which is the up to date version seems to be cheaper than the Hand Guide!  Unless weight is a real issue I think that the larger, and cheaper version may be better!

I used the new version of the Hand Guide for two weeks and found it to be all I needed.  Just proceed with caution.

Here I am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer  - Alan Huffman  4.5/5

‘Here I am’ is an account of the life, work and death of Tim Hetherington. 

The book begins with a kind of ‘place setting’ for Hetherington’s work, which compares it to a number of other ‘war photographers’.  This is an interesting section, as the photographers used all seem to have died whilst taking pictures.  I could not help but wonder why this was the case and why photographers such as Don McCullin and (maybe even) Tim Page, who were both English and alive, were not included in this section.   I left that section of the book wondering if a message would emerge that suggests that, just like soldiers, the only way to full experience or document war, is to die doing it.  That though stayed with me for the whole book.

The book follows Hetherington through a number of conflicts, where it becomes clear that his work is not only a little different to many other photographers, but also remarkably good.  According to my reading of the book, one of his key interests was the way in which images of war – which he of course was making – alter the way in which people behave in war.  In other words, does “Hollywood” imagery end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy?

This again, is an interesting idea.

However, near the end of the book – with its inevitable conclusion – Hetherington seems to change his mind about how he should be covering a war.  Rather than taking pictures from ‘a safe distance’ – he once again returns to the front line, with fatal consequences.  Had he himself succumbed to the same ‘acting out’ of roles that fascinated him in soldiers?  Unfortunately, this question is not explored. 

Hetherington’s work was remarkable, and his death robbed the world of a great documentary photographer.  But I left this book thing he and his work needed a more complex and complete analysis.

Recommended only with the caveat that I think the book remains incomplete. 

Beyond the Fell Wall  - Richard Skelton  4.5/5

Drystone walls are a central element of many upland landscapes in the UK.  I was brought up with them on the Mendips in Somerset and they were a classic feature of the Lake District, where I lived for a while.

This little (less than 100 pages) book is a kind of homage to the walls of the Lake District.  This is not a book about how to build walls – it’s a book about the (possible) meaning and importance of walls.

With a mix of prose and poems the books explores how walls define, separate, protect and expose the living things around them.  It’s not a technical book, it’s an emotional book.

Although brief, the number of interesting ideas and turns of phrase it contains makes it more than worthwhile.

Highly recommended.

The Missing of the Somme  - Geoff Dyer  5/5

The Missing of the Somme is one of the most thought provoking books I have read in a long while. 

Just to be clear, this book is not (as one review suggests here) primarily about the Battle of the Somme.  This is a book about memory and Remembrance.  While the book does contain rather wonderful sections of ‘travel writing’ about the war graveyards of France, the power of the book comes from the sections about how do we remember, and just as importantly, how do we prepare to remember.

This may seem to suggest that the book is very academic, and while it is complex in places, it is never dry.  The role of the ‘war poets’ and war-memorials is central to the book, as they remain the most ‘visible’ aspect of our remembering this war.

A few sentences in the book seem a little dated (it was published in 1994) with reference to events that are themselves sliding into memory, but the book is still highly relevant.  In fact, given the number of wars that have occurred since 1994 I would suggest that this book is important reading for those considering the need to remember the cost of our recent history as well.

Very highly recommended.

Village Christmas  - Laurie Lee  4.9 /5

This is a really splendid little book – 150 pages of quality and (for me) a feeling of nostalgia.

This is a book that is in love with the English countryside and the things that make (or maybe made) it special.  Laurie Lee needs no introduction as an author, and certainly not one from me, but I think this book contains the elements of his style that made him well known – a love of the local combined with a willingness to look beyond if needed.

The book is split into four sections based on the English seasons, with each section being about the same length.  There is snow, rain and the falling of leaves – none of which is unexpected.  But there is also humour, anger and passion.

The only thing I think is missing from the book is some indication of when the writing occurred – you can place the chapters to season but not to year.  I think the addition of a date would help in the interpretation of the writing – but this is both a minor and a personal point.

Highly recommended.

Climbing Days - Dan Richards  4.5 /5

There is no real shortage of books about climbing – so why do we need one with exactly the same title as a classic from the 1930s?  It’s a reasonable question to ask, and one that is answered within a few pages in this really rather good book.

In Climbing Days, Dan Richards goes in search of his great-great-aunt, who wrote a book of the same name in 1935.  Most climbing books, to a greater or lesser extent, focus on the author.  While the author is clearly present in the book, the main character is not really there, always at arms length, one pitch away from the pages.

This is not really a book about ‘why I climb’, more than why did she climb?  And given the scarcity of female climbers in the 1930s this is an interesting question -  and one which may or may not really be answered by this book.

Dorothy Pilley, the author’s great-great-aunt, climbed with her husband, and often with a guide.  Both the current and past authors acknowledge that many of the climbs she achieved would not have been possible without the aim of the guide.  Given the way that guided trips into the Greater Ranges are viewed these days I would really have liked this aspect to have been explored in rather more detail.

This book is at its best when the author is dealing with his own personal experiences and relating to them of Dorothy Pilley.  The sections sections focused purely on Pilley’s own history seemed to go rather more slowly for me.

Recommended, especially if you have had you fill of ‘hairy chested’ mountaineering books!

The Australian Dream - Stan Grant  5 /5

I suspect an aspect of the political feeling that brought Brexit to the UK, Trump to the US and Abbot and Hanson to Australia is identity.  We live in a world of change – maybe more rapid change than at any time since the industrial revolution – and we seek some form of stability by looking inwards and looking backwards.

This essay looks at a similar set of ideas, not from the viewpoint of an  ‘angry white man’ but from the viewpoint of a successful aboriginal man.

It asks questions about the meaning of aboriginality and the consequences of success.  It asks difficult questions about what it means for identity when your current story does not conform to the excepted narrative of your ‘people’.

Kafka said that ‘identity is a cage in search of a bird’ – this is a book that explores the consequence of the bird learning to fly.

In the current political climate I think this is a book that will speak to more than just interested Australians.

Highly Recommended.

Walking the Woods and the Water -  Nick Hunt 4 /5

Walking the Woods and the Water is an account of a journey east through Europe.   The route of the journey is based on one walked in the 1930s by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which was described in three ‘classic’ volumes.

I’m not sure if you need to have read the original books to fully appreciate this this book, but I have not read them, and maybe this has coloured my thoughts on this current version.

I enjoyed this book, but I did find that it developed a rather familiar structure, in that there were just a few too many trips to the pub to sample local ales and not really enough historical context beyond that provided by the original books.

A few reviews have mentioned the ‘predictable’ political stance in the book – but I have to say the event when the author needs medical attention in Germany and gets it free of charge, is a notable example of where political predictability would seem to have a benefit.  Equally, the book, which is now a couple of years old, does seem to accurately identify the similarity of some aspects of European (and now world) politics that occurred in the 30s and today: growing calls for isolationism, the blaming of ‘others’ for all the worlds ills and an inward rather than outward view of the world.

I’m not sure the book is destined to be a classic, although its timing as a journey across Europe’s open boarders may make a volume that people look back on in the future.


Mountainscape -  Greg Whitton  4.5 /5

This is a slim but rather good volume of mountain landscape shots from the UK. While this may be a rather well worn photographic subject, Greg Whitton does manage to bring something new to his images.

The pictures are generally not big glossy and expansive.  Rather they are soft, delicate images that seem to rely more on detail than grandeur.  Sure, there are wide landscapes, but they seem to remain intimate.

One of the aspects I most liked about these pictures was their locations.  These are places most of us could visit – and in many cases I have.  So, the quality of the pictures comes not from ‘remoteness’ or ‘exoticness’, but from light and land that we can all see.

I have to say I like this book and recommend it highly.

Where Song Began -  Tim Low  4.5 /5

There are at least three reasons why I would recommend this book.

Firstly, although it clearly focuses on birds, there is enough additional information in this book about the ‘non-standard’ biology of Australia to make it worth reading simply for this aspect alone.

The second reason is the lucid way in which much of the current thinking about the evolution (or possibly more actually the radiation) of birds is presented.  Data based on DNA evidence and relationships can be rather overwhelming at times, but this is not the case in this book.

Thirdly, the book presents a wonderful case study of how prejudice and ‘narrow’ thinking can restrict the development of science.  In this case it was the preconception that Australia is a land of primitive and generally second-rate animals that hindered the development of our understanding of the role that Australia played in the development of songbirds.

So, is the book perfect?  Well, no its not.  At times I think that simply too many examples of biological relationships are used to make a point, so that the text feels like you are reading a list rather than a chapter. As a result I think the book may be about 20% too long.

That being said I would recommend the book most strongly:  I think it would be of interest to birders anywhere in the world, general natural history readers and in particular anybody wanting to find out more about Australian ecology.

Highly recommended.

Fairweather Eden -  Michael Pitts and Mark Roberts   4.5 /5

Fairweather Eden is an account of a long running archaeological dig at Boxgrove in Sussex.   This may sound all rather dry and academic – but nothing could be further from the truth.

The book is written in a lively (but not overexcited!) diary style that mixes the science and history of the discoveries with some small scale and international politics and inter-team jealously. 

Everybody in archaeology seems to want to be the one to excavate the oldest human remains in Europe and this book is flavoured by the competition between the diggers in the UK and the diggers elsewhere.

One of the key ideas that is explored in this book is what can we learn about the minds of our ancestors from the things that they left behind.  What do bones, or more commonly, stone axes tell us about the minds of the differing species that came before us?  This is a really interesting question, as (according to some people) it is the way we think that makes us human.

The only grip I have with the book is that some of the chapters feel strangely short – so that the narrative becomes bitty at times.

If you are looking for a book that explores how archaeological knowledge develops over time and how differing aspects of knowledge are combined, I would highly recommend this book.

Equally, if you are looking for an account of how a single dig can change the way we view some aspects of history, this this may also be the book for you.

Highly recommended.

No Thankful Village  Chris Howel  4.5 /5

Between the well known centres of Bath and Wells there is a cluster of villages and small towns that centre on Midsomer Norton and Radstock.  These places make up what must be one of the least well know (former) coal mining communities in the whole of the UK.

No Thankful Village is an account of how this community reacted to and was involved in the First World War.  Across the whole of the UK, only 32 villages regained all the men that they sent to the war – and none of these 32 villages were in the Somerset coalfields.

The story of these men (and a few women) is told in their own words and the words of the local paper.  These stories are often linked as people volunteered, and sometimes died, together.  Men from Norton, men from Radstock and men from Chilcompton – the village in which I was born.

Given my connection to this area I was surprised by how little I knew about these stories.  I recognised family names and the places where people worked, some of which were only a few streets from where I was born – but I knew little else.   I knew nothing of the stories of bravery and of the medals won.  All I knew was the stories of wasted lives and broken men.  There are always two sides to a story.

While this books makes no attempt to set the actions of the men who went to war, or the men who sent them (often) to their death into a wider political setting it does give the men themselves a powerful voice.

Which brings me to my only criticism of the book – much of the dialogue contains phonetic renderings of the almost certainly broad Somerset accents of the men who went to war.  While probably accurate, I felt it almost verged on caricature.  Do we really need to know that person X ended the word ‘India’ with an extra ‘l’ sound – I don’t think so.

Apart from this issue this is a rather special book – local, parochial, proud.

I recommend that you read it.

Orkney - A historical Guide  Caroline Wickham-Jones  5/5

I was told recently that if you cut Orkney, it bleeds archaeology – and during a brief visit I have to say I could see what this meant.

As a guidebook for an area with such a rich history, I think this book is close to being perfect.  It has a broad-based introduction to the physical environment and natural history of the islands, and then it takes a ‘period by period’ approach to the history.  While this ‘linear’ approach to history may not always find favour with academics, for visitors like me it makes a lot of sense.  The chapters on each period of history end with a list of key sites for that period.  There is sometimes a little repetition of detail between the chapters and the key sites section, but this means both parts can be read independently.

This book seems to be short enough to be manageable, yet detailed enough to be useful.

Highly recommended.  

Tribe - Sebastian Junger 5/5

Tribe is a short book – or maybe an extended essay – about the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of the lives of (mainly) soldiers from around the world.  This may seem a relatively familiar topic, as it is often in the news, but what makes this book different is the way in which it seeks to explain why some groups of veterans seem to suffer from PTSD more than others.

I simple terms the book seems to suggest that the variation is due to differing levels of shared commitment and community connection between the soldiers and the “back at home” community.  So, soldiers who fought in unpopular wars doe less well then those that gain community support.   This difference is highlighted in the differencing ways in which soldiers in Americas recent wars have coped compared to those from Israel.

While written in a ‘popular’ fashion, the author provides lists of references and sources to the studies he cites – which gives the book a greater feeling of authority than some straight ‘opinion pieces’ about the impact of war.

I’m not sure the book says anything remarkably, but what it does say, it says clearly.

I would think that this is pretty close to required reading for anybody interested in the consequences of modern war.  Highly Recommended.

Open Skies - Don McCullin 5/5

Open Skies is a book of dark and wonderfully atmospheric pictures.  Better known as a war photographer, Don McCullin focuses here on the landscape of Somerset. 

At first viewing the images seem too dark – but closer inspection shows that almost all of the dark areas of the pictures contain detail.  Just as very little of the images are actually solid black, very little is paper white. 

As such the pictures contain much hidden detail, only resolved in close inspection – and I suspect that this is the theme of these pictures; detail and observation.

With the exception of some distant views of Glastonbury Tor the ‘iconic’ aspects of Somerset’s landscape are not present in these pictures – this is the everyday place I remember growing up in – shaded, hidden and not always bathed in sunlight.

Maybe it’s nostalgia, but these are really arresting image – and the almost polar opposite of the bright and (often) over saturated images that have become popular of late.

If you take my advice, you should be a copy of this book and look through it slowly and often.

Highly recommended.

The Outrun - Amy Liptrot  5/5

Amy Liptrop, the author of this is honest and rather wonderful book has not tried to sugar coat her decline (and recovery) from alcoholism.  Neither has she tried to over romanticise (too much) her connection to the Orkneys, where she was raised as a kid.

And I think this is the strength of the book.  The accounts of some aspects of her alcoholism are toe-curlingly honest, and make it clear that this addiction is not something happens to ‘others’ who are not like her readers, but can engulf almost anybody.

The author’s relationship with the landscape of Orkney is something of a mirror image of her relationship with alcohol.  At first she flees from Orkney to the ‘bright lights’ of London, but in the end it is the landscape she once rejected that she most craves, and finds most therapeutic.

I think that the landscape of home is most powerful for those who have had it taken away – and here I think that Liptrop looses her (healthy) sense of place in the world to alcohol.  In this book she seems to refind it in wave washed ocean beaches, the chill of the winter air and the call of the birds.

By the end of the book she seems to be becoming healthier by the day.

The writing in the book is crisp and to the point.  The personal landscape of the book is not pretty, but the physical landscape is remarkable.

Very highly recommended.

The Fish Ladder - Katherine Norbury 4/5

The second line of the title of this book – A Journey Upstream – is a little misleading, and in some ways diminishes the scope of this rather wonderful book.

Sure, one of the key elements of the book is about a number of journeys up rivers, in search of the source.  But there is a good deal more happening in this book than just that.

A number of reviews here have suggested that the book is rather self-indulgent, and could not have been carried out by a person without some kind of external support – and while that may be true, is it not also true for the vast majority of other ‘journey’ books as well.  To my reading, this feel petty and small minded.

The journeys in this book are physical, historical and medical.  All start from, or aim at, a single point – a point that determines the direction of the journey and the flow of the stories.

I rather liked it as a meditative, if not exactly groundbreaking read and I would be confident in recommending it.

The Shepherd's Life - James Rebanks 5/5

The Lake District must be one of the best-loved areas of England.  For many it is an adventure ground, holiday destination and daydream address.  This book looks at The Lakes in a different way – as a place of work and a home.

“The Shepard’s Life’ follows the life of James Rebanks from his (Grand)fathers knee to his own farm.  It plots the many changes in attitude and circumstance that come with growth up, moving away and coming back.

In this regard this is not a very original book – many people have written about these three things - but what sets this book apart is the place where it occurs.  The Lake District comes alive as more than just a playground in this book, and the reality of the work needed just to keep your head above water is always present.

At times it’s easy to forget that the Lake District is a landscape that was formed by work, and not one that was formed for play.  The fact that so many people ‘love the Lakes’ is due to the hard work of others, who are often not given the credit they are due for the work they do.

I recall reading heated debate about the closure of footpaths during the foot and mouth outbreak -  but one small section of this book puts all that into a different perspective.

I suspect that the author was a bit of a pain as a teenager, and I am sure some things he writes here will rub people up the wrong way.  However, this is passionate writing about a much loved place.

In the end the Lakes will only survive if people can live and work there – and this book is an honest look at what that means to some people.

Highly recommended.

The Lucky Country? Reinventing Australia - 5/5

The phrase ‘the lucky country’ was first used in 1964 by Donald Horne to describe Australia.  Since that time the meaning of this phrase has been corrupted, often by the media and politicians, to mean ‘a wonderful country’.  Its original meaning, was that Australia was lucky enough to have so many spoils ‘rich and rare’ that even when run by incompetent governments things seemed to work out ok.  In this original meaning, Australia was a bit of a ‘spawny git’ that managed to get away with all kinds of mismanagement and still come out on top.

This new book re-examines many of the issue that were identified by Horne as being things that Australia needed to do better – but were getting away with through shear dumb luck.  Things like the size of the population, its relationship to Asia and the rest of the world and the nature of its society.

As I write this review we are in the second day of what will be the longest Australian general election campaign since 1969 and many of the key issues identified both by Horne and ’64 and Ian Lowe in this book are essentially absent from the political debates put forward by the major parties.  It seems that they still need to rely on luck rather than thought.

The longer the questions raised by this book go unanswered the harder it will be to find solutions to them. 

While this may sound like it is all very Australian, with little relevance to else where, but this is not the case. 

If you despair of the shortsighted nature of the government in your own country this will be a book that may feel very familiar, but will also confirm that you are not alone.

Highly recommended, especially if you already think that there is more to society that GDP numbers and military spending.

Landmarks - Robert Macfarlane - 4/5

The central ideas of this book are that language defines how we relate to landscape and that landscape comes to define language.  So, landscape and language are intimately connected.

Parallel to this is the observation that we are becoming less connected to the ‘natural’ landscape to the detriment to both language and our understanding of the language.

By splitting the landscape into broad categories the author looks at how people have reacted to landscape and each section concludes with a listing of (underused or neglected) words that describe these categories of landscape.

If you are already aware of the work of Robert Macfarlane this book will feel very familiar – dense with ideas, rich with references to other peoples work (he has a few special favourites) and often rather academic in flavour.  None of these is a weakness, but in combination they can start to produce a text that seems rather more like a university essay rather than a passionate call to arms about the need to protect the language of landscape.  (or the landscape of language)

The book is really very thought provoking, but it is not a page-turner.   I think that the content of the book is really important, but I wish the writing was just a little more accessible.  I can’t help but think of works of Richard Mabey, which are just as dense with ideas, but are not written in such an academic manner.

Despite all I have said, I would still recommend this book very strongly; I just wish it was a gentler read.

The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro  4.5 /5

This is a rather strange and wonderful book, which left me thinking that I knew what it is about, but suspecting that I may be very, very wrong!

Set in England some time after the fall of King Arthur, the storyline revolves around an old couple looking for their son in a landscape still blighted by war and yet to come into its classic Englishness.

What makes this journey rather different from how it seems in this short description is that few people in this land have memories of the past.  The past is shrouded in a mist that makes people forget even the most recent things – and the more distance past seems to have gone completely.

The landscape – and the book – are slightly fey in feel.  Knights, dragons, pixies, strangers on the road, the lingering ghost of King Arthurs lost Kingdom and the forgetful mist all contribute to this.  In terms of the books style, this ‘feyness’ is most clearly voiced in the style of the dialogue.  In the end some people may find the constant ‘husbands’ and ‘princesses’ that pass between the old couple a little annoying – but I found them a simple and central element to the book.

So, what is it about?

Clearly I think it’s about the battle between forgetting and memory – and the consequences of living a life where peace has been bought at the cost of ignorance (ie no memory) rather than an understanding and acceptance of the past.  At least one character seems to be a ‘gate keeper’ to memory and I have to wonder if this is some form off illusion to our current keepers of history who seem to think we may be better off not knowing about the past as we move into a brave new future.

The above paragraph my of course be utterly out of step with the writers intention – but I suggest you read this book to find out for yourself.

Highly Recommended.

It's what I do - A Photographers life of Love and War - Lynsey Addario 4.5 /5

Conflict photographers are a strange breed; part adventurer, part evangelist, part witness.   And as such they often seem strangely appealing to those of us who like to put an eye to a camera viewfinder.

If ever there was a book to add a dimension of truth to the myths of this form of journalism, then it was this one.

While the three parts I list above are clearly present in this book, so much more is revealed about what it is like to get up every day, eat your breakfast and go watch disasters unfolding. This is not a book about photographic technique, it is not about ‘how I do it’ – it’s much more about ‘what it’s like to do it’.

While little of what happens in the personal and professional life of the author is much of a surprise (with the exception of one phone call!) given the places she and her colleagues work in, the honesty with which they are presented gives them power.

If you want to read a book to see what journalism is capable of, and how far below this standard most of what we see and watch falls, then you should read this book.

Very highly recommended.

H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald 5/5

Although the central character of this book is a bird – a Goshawk - , this wonderful book focuses on emotion rather than biology.

This simple fact may be enough for some people to decide if they are going to read this book or not.  This is a book that places the emotion reaction of the author to the death of her father, the English countryside and the trials and tribulations of a trying to train a hawk above pure biological knowledge. 

If you want fact and figures, weights and measures then this is not the book for you. However, if you want a wonderfully written, authentic feeling account of coming to terms with loss and finding the strength to do so through a connection with nature, then this is the book for you.

The intertwined strands of place, passion and more than a little frustration are what hold this book together.  And sitting in the background like a memory is the book The Goshawk by TH White, a volume that apparently falls in the category of ‘flawed masterpiece’.

So people have said that this book may be a little ‘over indulgent’ because of the way in which the author links her emotional life to the life of both and a bird and the countryside it which she trains and hunts with it.  I think this misses the point that nature has a power beyond just a dispassionate experience.

We make our own meanings from nature, and in this book you can follow the authors journey.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


Claxton - Mark Cocker - 4/5 

In many ways this is a fairly conventional account of the turning of the years around the village of Calxton in the Yare valley in Norfolk.  While there are a few side trips to other places, the focus of the book is the titular village.

Like many other ‘year in the life of…..’ books the daily accounts are drawn from more than one year, so while they are presented in calendar order, they are not truly sequential – I only mention this because some books seem not to be honest about this format – but this one is.

The daily entries are generally short – most are just a single page (more or less) of the book – and most end with a sort of philosophical musing which seeks to place the short piece in the wider context of the world.  This is both the strength and weakness of the book: each piece of writing is self-contained, but each also becomes rather too predictable in tone.

I think this may be due to the way in which they were originally published – weekly or at least a few days apart.  Reading them one after another compresses a week or a month into minutes and the pace (and predictability) seem too much.

Equally, I think that that the rapidity with which you can move through the book makes some of the recurring themes recur a little to often as well – the link between the soil and the rest of the world, the shape and effect of a passing peregrine and the sound of geese all occur regularly in the book.

All this being said, I really enjoyed the book and the writing is very evocative.  Its clear from this and the authors other books that he has a great eye for detail.

So, would I recommend the book?  Absolutely!

But I do suggest that you read it over a longer period of time than a few days – read a couple of days each day, so that the year in the book unfolds at a more realistic pace and I am sure you will enjoy it.

Storm - Tim Minchen  - 5/5 

This is a really interesting little book.  And two words here are important – ‘interesting’ and ‘little’.

The book is ‘interesting’ because of what it seeks to explore – belief and rationalism, which are hardly the normal stuff of comedy.  And the book is ‘little’, not because it is insignificant, but because if you just read the poem that is the core of the book, you will complete the book in 10 – 15 minutes.

If you are already aware of Tim Minchen’s work, this book will contain few surprises, but much delight.  This beat poem, with its strange rhythms and off key rhymes, is an account of the kind of ‘rant’ that many of us may have wished to unleash when exposed to hocus-pocus and pseudo-science – in this case it happens at a dinner party where we meet an Australian called Storm.

Believers in auroras, spirit healing, the therapeutic value of crystals and (possibly above all else) homeopathy will find little joy within these pages. 

This is a book for lovers of science, logic and evidence. 

It’s a storming book!

Feral - George Monbiot  - 4.5 /5

This is a really rather good book – not perfect, but one that makes you stop and think ‘do I agree with what I have just read?’

In reality this is almost two books rather than one – the first is about developing a great connection between people and the land on which they live. This is ‘re-wilding people’.  The second is about taking a less interventionist approach to wildlife management, by allowing nature a freer hand to build new ecosystems.

The first is a reasonably well-trodden path  - and is based on the assumption that people and the land do better when they are connected.  Connection.  Interest. Care. Passion. And in the end, survival.  This all seems to make sense.

The second theme of the book – actually re-wilding landscape – is probably a little more contentious.  Especially as one of the key things that the author suggests in terms of re-wilding is the re-introduction of large predators – such as wolves – to some ecosystems.  While any such introduction would clearly rely on human intervention in its early stages, the idea is to re-establish the kind of ecological processes that have been removed from many ecosystems by humans. 

There is little doubt that conventional conservation management is not always successful – with large areas (the book really takes most examples from the UK) being maintained in some sort of agriculture dominated state – the classic example here being most UK uplands which are often just sheep, deer or grouse maintained habitats, which lack the diversity they once had.

I think there needs to a well informed debate about who land is managed into the future – and this book is as good a place as any to start thinking about what this debate could mean or should include.

Highly recommended.

Waterlight - Selected Poems - Kathleen Jamie - 5/5

I am not a natural reader of poetry.  I came to this book through the wonderful prose books of the author.

Her prose is marked by a remarkable ability to see and render detail in clear and precise language. 

If anything, the poems take this ability even further. 

As the book progressed the poems became longer and more complex and I missed the simple, but accurate word picture painting of the shorter verses.

Maybe I was not ready for multi-page poems, but the early pages of the book are filled with remarkable images and turns of phrase.

If ever a book was to direct me towards more poetry, I think it could be this one.

Highly recommended.

Four Fields - Tim Dee - 5/5

This is a wonderfully dense, slow moving and thought-provoking book. 

In may ways everything else I am going to say will be just an extension of that opening line – if you are in a hurry I recommend you stop reading this and buy the book.

For those of you with a little more time I will expand my comments a little.

Fields are a strange combination of nature and human control – and the fours fields of books title show varying degrees of these two aspects.  The Fens fields of East Anglia and the abandoned fields of Chernobyl are mostly, but not entirely, human.  The fields of Africa and North America are mostly, but not entirely, still shaped by nature. 

The fen fields of East Anglia are returned to in a conventional seasonal approach, but the content of these four chapters goes far beyond the normal “it was winter and I saw this type of bird” narrative that dominates so much nature writing.  Water flows through the fens and the movement (and control) of water are central themes in these chapters.

The ideas encountered in the other fields are as divers as their locations – but ideas of control (or the loss of it) are also present.

One of the things I most liked about this book was its clear sense of ending – many books of nature writing seem to stop only when the author runs out of things to say (or the year has turned full circle). Here the book has a wonderful concluding feel, where themes come to an end in a way the feels natural.  The book comes to an end, rather than simply stopping.

While it’s clear that the author is a bird watcher – and most of the encounters with wildlife in the book are with birds – this book has a far wider range (field?) of reference than just birds.

This is one of the best books in this general area I have read in a number of years and it comes very highly recommended.

1 comment:

Marie C said...

I can't thank you enough, Stewart for telling me about these book reviews. I had never noticed them on your Pages section. Sometimes I am so far behind commenting on people's posts I don't take the time to really LOOK at their blogs! This list is wonderful, and I have found many here that I would love to read. I enjoyed reading all of the reviews this morning, and look forward to the new ones you will add. Do you belong to the online site, Goodreads? You can post reviews there, and also make a list of books you want to read, and have read. It's a nice way to keep track and to find new titles.

With your permission, I would very much like to include some of your reviews on our book club site from time to time. I will also post a link here as well in my next review. I am hoping for many different kinds of books to be included there, but I find that many avid readers tend to stick to contemporary or historical novels and read nothing else. Those people do not fit well with our group, I don't think....BUT, having said that, I anticipate a fair sprinkling of these types of works in our reviews. I also expect, and HOPE for deeper works, biographies and historic accounts as well. Right now we have so few contributors, the reviews are mostly my Mom's (Latane, who started the book club blog) and Marcia and myself. We have received maybe two or three reviews from other readers who happily joined in the beginning but who are not really participating with any regularity. I do hope that changes. But I think many of your books will be ones that I will read, and I hope to include several in our reviews. If that is OK with you, I would love to do that! Thanks again. This was a great way to spend my morning over coffee! :-)