Book Reviews (04/07/16)

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 291 reviews here.

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.

The Woodhen - Clifford B Firth  - 4/5

Lord Howe Island is a tiny patch of land in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and New Zealand.  It’s a remarkable place and has wildlife to match.

The Woodhen is endemic to LHI and at one point in recent history there were only about 30 of them left on the island.   This book is both a history of the recovery of the Woodhen and the island in general.

While the book is a good read, I would be surprised if it has wide enough appeal to be read by anybody other than those fortunate enough to be going to the island.  (I went twice!)

So, maybe a book for bird completests or those flying off to this wonderful little speck!

Engel's England - Matthew Engel  - 4.5/5

This book is rather splendid, county by county account of the variation and regional eccentricity for which England in (rather) famous.  Each chapter is based around the ‘traditional’ counties of England – not mention here of Avon or Bath and North East Somerset, or for that matter Cumbria.

First and foremost I think I need to say that I really enjoyed this book, finding it through enough so I felt at home in the counties that I knew and not so detailed that I became bogged down in areas with which was I was less than familiar.  In other words the book feels comprehensive, but it does not feel like you are reading an encyclopaedia.

The pattern of travel around England seems essentially random, which I rather like, so the book never becomes ‘stuck’ in a region of England.  A few themes do appear – such as the demonic rise of Tescos and the impact that this has on local, smaller business.  Equally, many places are defined by their relationship to London – which for much of the SE (and an increasing area of the rest of the country) seems fair enough.

I can’t help but compare this book to the latest Bill Bryson book – The Road from Little Dribbling  - which I happened to read a few weeks before this one.  Firstly this book seems far more authentic, without some form of concentrated journey at its heart.  Secondly, this book seems to be a book about England rather than a book about an author.

Given the scope of the book – ie a decent chapter on each county – it does feel a wee bit long, but the quality of the written and the texts hidden humour makes me willing to forgive it this minor quibble!

In the end, all I can do is recommend this book highly.  It’s a great read.

The Salty River - Jan Bauer  - 4.5/5

This is a rather wonderful ‘graphic novel’ about a journey along the Larapinta Trail in central Australia.

The drawings are simple but beautiful, and somehow they manage to capture a huge range of detail, most of which is not immediately apparent.

In essence this is a love story, but it is also a story about self and place.  At the end of the book there are two definitions, one for a story that is true and one for a story that is made up.  I get the feeling that this story sits in the fertile ground between the two of these.

This is not a long book – I read it in less than an hour – but I would still recommend it highly.

The Road to Little Dribbling - Bill Bryson  - 4.5/5

Notes from a Small Island is a classic of it’s type so there was always a risk associated with writing a follow up to a much loved book – and it’s clear from some of the reactions here that The Road to Little Dribbling is not considered up to the mark. 

However, I do not share that opinion.

Trying to find something different to do in travel books is not that easy, especially in a place as well travelled as the UK.  Here the idea of travelling along the longest straight line in the UK is used – this is termed the Bryson Line – and is as good a construct as any other.  The only problem with this idea is that it is essentially absent from the book, and is basically ignored for most of the time.  The only section of the book in which it seems to be become relevant is near the end, when short of time the author has to take a few ‘short cuts’ to make sure the line is traversed.  The whole structure of the book could well have been based on the idea of an extended Sunday afternoon drive, and it would have been basically the same.

But this is not the aspect of the book that some people seem to object to, it’s more the books tone.  Bryson is not adverse to calling a spade and spade – and sometimes calls it a Fu**ing Shovel – which I seem not to recall from his earlier books.  However, this honest approach seems, well, honest to me.

The UK is not a land of milk and honey where an undeniably wonderful landscape can make up for (what appears) to be a growing culture of rudeness, vandalism and political disrespect in both directions.

I left the UK 20 years ago, and this book came as a wonderful summary of how I felt about the place in my last two return journeys – the bones of the place as still the same, but it seems to be wearing clothes that I don’t recognise. 

I think this book is probably just a little too honest about some of these ‘new clothes’ for some readers, but for me I found the tone to be just right: funny, sad, angry, confused but always in awe of the wonder that can be found just around the corner – even if that corner may have more litter than in the past and be mined with dog turds!

Highly recommended.  

Gut - Giulia Enders - 4/5

Gut is an easy to read, and often entertaining journey through the digestive system.  The fact that some people may not think that such a journey can be interesting, makes a kind of point that the author stresses throughout the book – that we have come to ignore the gut and would rather not think about the messy processes that occur there.

The central idea of the book is that the gut is far more than just a processer of food and a manufacturer of noxious wastes.  The book identifies the gut, and as importantly, the microbial community within it as central to many areas of health.  The book also points the finger of guilt for many ‘modern’ illnesses at changes to this microbial community.

This book is clearly in the ‘human body ecosystem’ field of thinking, rather than a reductionist ‘set of organs’ approach – and I have to say this is a very appealing idea – however, this does not make it true, and it does not make the contents of the book some kind of recipe for health and happiness.

What this book does do is pose a great many questions and float a great many ideas, some of which may could to be important and some of which may fade away.  It will be down to medical science to work out which is which.

One part of the book that did find rather disappointing, was the number of clear typos that made their way through the translation from the original German.  In a number of cases there were sentences that did not seem to be in tune with the rest of the book, and I was left wondering if this was due to my failure to understand something, or if it was due to a translation / type setting issue.

Apart form the last issue I would recommend this book rather highly, but it may be less revolutionary than some reviews seem to suggest.

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! :-)