Book Reviews (1/06/15)

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 277 reviews here.

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.


Birthright - People and Nature in the Modern World - Stephen R. Kellert 3/5

Birthright focuses on the need to understand that the relationship between human and the natural world is an important part of the health of both individuals and communities.

The book outlines the idea that because we evolved in natural environments, the emotional and (possibly deeper) physiological responses that such environments create are both adaptive and healthy.  In other words, because the environment shaped us and we still need it to be truly whole.

There are many aspects of this argument that are appealing, and the wide application of this idea to things like urban design, architecture and even health care seems to make sense.

An important part of the book suggests that emotional responses to the natural environment are vital if we are to truly understand the places in which we live.  This idea is compared to (what the author seems to see as) dispassionate science.  Again this idea has some appeal.

So, it is strange that so much of this book seems to have been written in way that strips the passion from the prose.  The author seems to acknowledge this by inserting section he calls ‘interludes’ into the main body of the text.

Rather than being interludes (ie a time away) in the book, they seem to be the main part where the ideas of the book come to life. 

In some ways this book falls into the awkward space between textbook and popular ‘science / philosophy’  - and ends not being a particularly good example of either.

So, this is a strangely low-key book about a subject that may have best been covered in a more passionate fashion.


Interesting, but possibly not too exciting.


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.

  

The Wild Wood - Jan Needle  4/5

This book is a cracking re-telling of the classic, The Wind in the Willows. 

If Wind In the Willows is a view from the river, then this book is a view from the wood.  The strength of this version comes from the simple believability of the humanised characters and the voice of Baxter then main narrator.

Some of the tricks of the original remain – such has the (unacknowledged) change in size of the animals depending on need.  In the original Toad becomes a washer-women and deals with ‘gypsies’ and similar things happen in the new version.

What is really wonderful about this book is the way that both the original characters and plot lines remain intact and only motivation and purpose change.  We don’t have to un-learn anything from the original for the new version to make sense.

And this I think leads to the only issue I have with the book – I really do think you need at least a working knowledge of the plot of Wind in Willows to see how wonderful this book itself is. Which, I suppose leads to the recommendation, that you should read both of them!


Highly Recommended.


The Great War - 10 Contested Questions - Hazel Flynn 4 1/2 - 5

This is a timely book. 

Given the upcoming (and misnamed) ‘celebrations’ about the First World War, a book at looks at some of the received truth about this conflict and asks ‘is this what really happened’ is a worthwhile addition to the huge number of books which will be published on this subject in the next few years.

However, the title of the book is a little misleading in some ways – for not all of the questions in the book are ‘contested’.  Some, such as how did the military cope with the treatment of huge numbers of wounded that the battles caused, and why did the British War Poets rise to such prominence at the expense of other forms of literature, are questions that are not asked very often (if at all) in the popular debate on the history of this war.

But of course, there still are the contested questions of history – why did the war start in the first place?  Why did it not stop sooner?  Were the Generals really as incompetent as we have been told?  How much difference did the arrival of the Americans make to the outcome of the war?  In some ways these are the familiar debates of history.

Some of the question are less familiar – were conscientious objectors traitors? What role did religion play in the war? and where are the voices of the soldiers from ‘the colonies’ (other than Australia/NZ and Canada).

This is not a long book – but it is a very worthwhile read. 

Given the kind of certainty that seems to be come when politicians start telling tales of history, I think this is a thought provoking and, possibly, important antidote.


Highly recommended.


A Place in the Country - W.G. Sebald

I first encountered Sebald’s wonderful rhythmic prose in The Rings of Saturn. This book is an account of six writers or artists who inspired him.

If anything, this book is more hypnotic and engaging than even the ‘The Rings of Saturn’.  Here the prose (or, to be honest the translation of the original German prose) is so wonderfully complex, yet so readable that it did not really matter that I had no prior experience of any the six artists.

There seems to be a theme of social disconnection in the six, but a disconnection that resulted in a longing for place.  This could in some way help to explain Sebald’s own fascination with the sense of place that shines through in The Rings of Saturn.

If you wish to read a book that shows just how artful non-fiction can be, then I would recommend this book.

Feral Dilemma - Michael Anderson - the life of a range on sub-antarctic Macquarie Island

I think this book should be read by anybody considering a carrier in either field biology or practical conservation management.

I don’t think I have read a clearer or more levelheaded account of just how demanding this kind of work can be.  The mud, sweat and (possibly) tears of working for 18 months on a sub-Antarctic island, Macquarie, as part of a team removing feral cats is well laid out in this book.

The moral dilemma of killing an animal, which though no fault of its own, is considered a pest, is not overlooked. And it is clear that the author has both affection and respect for the animals he is changed with killing.

The writing is straightforward, but at times a little repetitive, and there is just the hint that each chapter may almost have been written as a stand-alone piece, rather than as a part of a whole.


Recommended more for its thoughtful contents than its literary style.

This book does not seem to be available on Amazon - so you may have to look a little wider for it if you want to read it (which you should!)


The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard  Flanagan - 4/5 

I think this book is likely to suffer because of two things – firstly in won the Booker Prize, and secondly the main thrust of the narrative  - the treatment of POWs by the Japanese during WWII – is fairly familiar.

Its prize wining status would suggest that the book is truly remarkable, and this is a hard preconception for a book to carry.  The truth of the matter is that the book was considered the best of the 2014 entrants, and I think this is a much better way to view it.

The second consideration – that the subject is well worn – may be true, but it does not mean that the book has nothing new to say.

The book centres around one major character, his loves and losses and his struggle to understand his place in the world.  If ever there was a flawed hero, Dorrigo Evans is one.

But on many levels this also seems a very realist view – we seem to give people who have achieved what we believe we could not, super-human powers.  The truth, and their motivations, may be more prosaic. 

I was struck that the book did seem to turn around a number of coincidences that seem so unlikely that I had a hard job believing them.  Some occur early and dominate the book, and others cast a new light on things that happened in the past.  But when they occur, I could not help but think ‘really?’ I have not read many ‘generational’ novels, and maybe such things are typical in them, but just did not find some of the plot twist convincing.

Having said this, I found that many sections of the book – especially the scenes in the POW camps - griping, if unrelentingly grim.  Equally I found the sections where people struggle with the morality of their actions far more convincing than the plot twists.

So, this is a good four-star book.  

Imperfect? – certainly (but what is not?). 
Self consciously clever? – a little.
Worth reading? – absolutely

Recommended?  - yes.



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!


Sprinter and Sprummer  - Timothy Entwisle  - 4 /5 

If you feel like leaving a comment, either about the reviews or about books that are similar, I have turned on the comments section at the bottom of the page.

This is an interesting, if slight misleadingly titled, book. 

The basic idea behind the book is that the use of seasons based on the division of the year into four equally long seasons, all of which are named for the equivalent season in the Northern Hemisphere, is inappropriate for Australia (and many other parts of the world as well).

This seems to make sense from the very start of the book, and the author suggests a system of six seasons, with two new seasons – the Sprinter and Sprummer of the title – and amended dates for the other four.  Generally, these new seasons as identified by the activity of plants, rather than the date on the calendar or the location of the earth on its journey around the Sun.   Again, this seems to make sense – if you base the seasons on what is happening around you then the classification of the seasons may help you understand the world around you.  (The converse of this is that using an externally imposed system of seasons does not help us really understand what is going on.)

Strangely, the author often uses introduced plants as part of his markers of seasonal change – which seems to be a step away from being in tune with the natural environment.  Having said that, in some parts of Australia – heavily urbanised areas for example there may be little other vegetation to look at!

The book also has a slightly strange “feel” – the use of frequent sub-headings makes the book read a little like a textbook, but the relaxed and informal use of language in the text is not textbook-like at all.  Equally, the lack of captions on the images in the book is a little strange.  These are not “deal breakers” by any means, but I did find these aspects a little strange.

 My contention that the book is misnamed comes from the sub-title of the book that is “Australia’s Changing Seasons” – and while the impact of climate change on the dates of seasonal activity is examined in one chapter, a better sub-title for the book would have been “Changing Australia’s Seasons”.


An interesting read with relevance to more than just Australia.


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.



Goodbye to all that - Robert Graves  - 4/5

This is a book with a slow beginning, a somewhat draw out conclusion and an absolutely riveting core.

Written in wonderfully straightforward prose this is an account (mainly) of Robert Graves’s experience of the First World War.  I say ‘mainly” because it is only the core of the book that deals with the war.  The first part of the book deals with the authors background, and in many ways helps inform the core, but this section never as arresting as the account of life at the front.

The conclusion of the book also seems to lack the urgency of the middle section – this is hardly a surprise given the intensity of the experiences of combat.

As a result this slightly uneven book seems to take a while to become the classic it is thought to be, and then eventually winds down to a slightly unremarkable finish.

But there is not question that this book is worth reading for the better middle section alone.  There is the meeting of well known names – Sassoon, Owen, Rivers – that make many of these accounts (factual and fictional) feel strangely overlapping.

Straightforward, stunning in its portrayal of the damage done, this is an honest account of life and death at the front.  (Just don’t be put off by the slow start)


Highly recommended.





Grendel - John Gardner - 5/5

Earth rim Walker seeks his meals……

At first glance, a book that casts the monster from Beowulf, Grendel, as the central character may look like just another “revisionist” tale, or even one of the current crop of modern day / classic mash-ups.

But this book is far more than that.

Here Grendel is cast as a thinking monster, reacting to the myths spun by a harper – The Shaper – about him and the nature of the world. 

The duality of fate and free will is what drives Grendel to do the things he does – violent things, terrible things, things The Shaper expects him to do.  And while this happens, Heorot (the main target of Grendel’s rage) slays and slaughters his way to power.  Here, again the duality of violence comes to the fore.

Now, if this sounds all a little too serious, the tone of the book is often (deliberately) punctured by Grendel’s turn of phrase, where he cynically comments on the world of men.

This is a splendid book, looking as it does at the power of myth and persuasion, and how these can impact on our view of the world.


Highly recommended.



The World of Birds - Jonathan Elphick - 5/5

This is a truly splendid book, which is probably the best single introduction to the general biology of birds I have seen.  I can’t claim to have read it from cover  – its not that kind of book.  But I have read the sections about my favourite groups of birds and dipped into many to the other parts in passing.

The book comes in three unequally sized parts – the first eight chapters are about broad aspects of bird biology, the 9th chapter is about “Birds and Humans” and the 10th chapter is an account of the bird families of the world.  This final chapter makes up about ½ of the book.

If chapter nine – ie the interactions between humans are birds is you key interest you may be batter off looking at Birds and People by Mark Cocker.

However, the rest of the book is superb.  Sure, a few of the pictures may be rather small, and they do need to be looked at in good light due to their size, but that’s a minor point.  Equally, the book is rather too big to read in bed – although I tried – but (again) I don’t really think it’s that kind of book.

I would recommend this book highly, especially to birders who are more interested in the birds themselves rather than the length of lists.


A great addition to any birders library.


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.





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