Book Reviews (20/04/14)

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 239 reviews here.

A Northern Line Minute  - William Leith- 4/5

While this book would take longer than a minute to read, it is rather brief – running to less than 100 pages.

The book is about anxiety (it says this on the cover) set within the confines of both the Tube network and modern cities.  The claustrophobia of the tube and the anxiety of modern living combine to make for a tense and interesting read.

I think that the “minute” of the title refers to those fleeting periods of anxiety (both justified and imagined) that can echo through days, weeks, months or even years. 

The Kings Cross fire and the Bishopsgate bombing appear to be the backdrop to this story, real causes of anxiety, blended with the fear of the unknown.

These are dark themes, but the book has a realistic feel that makes it very readable.

I can only assume the reader of the one star review has read a different book!


Dark Emu  - Bruce Pascoe - 4/5

This is a really interesting book that seeks to reevaluate the nature of pre-colonial Australia society. 

If, like me, you have been brought up on the idea of Aboriginal Australians being hunter-gathers, who embraced the nomadic life style because of variable climate, you may ask, “What’s the point?” – we know what was happening in the past.

The content of this book would suggest that this image of Aboriginal Australian culture is very far from the truth.  Early European journals contain references to villages, large stone buildings, substantial food stores, sophisticated fish traps and areas of obvious cultivation.  All of these aspects are absent from the hunter-gather story.

This book suggests two key reasons for this – one was that it was politically convenient to ignore the established culture so that it was more “acceptable” for the “advanced” colonists to take over.  Secondly, the book suggests that the sheep that always arrived ahead of the colonists destroyed many areas of cultivation.

It is claimed elsewhere that many of the markers of civilization were absent from Aboriginal culture – this book flatly contradicts this idea.

For all of its power, this book is not perfect.  Too many of the section read like lists of examples, with details of villages here, villages elsewhere.  While this is clearly an attempt to show how wide spread certain aspects of  Aboriginal culture were, it does not makes for always entertaining reading.

This is a powerful, and probably important book about how Australia looked in the past.  And equally, it may give us an insight into how we may have to manage our natural resources in the future.

Highly recommended.

ANZAC's Long Shadow - James Brown - 4/5
Most countries have some form of national myths – they are a form of short hand for the things that everyone in the country is supposed to agree upon.  Whether everybody does agree with these things or not is, of course, another issue all together.  Myths have a life of their own.

Migrants to new countries often see these myths in a different way – having not taking them in with their mother’s milk the myths may look strange, old or incomplete.

One of the most obvious Australian myths was formed through the failed literary campaign at Gallipoli.  “ANZAC” has come to stand amongst other things for bravery, toil, fearlessness and stoicism.   It is a brave man or women that seeks to ask question about this myth – because in some parts of Australia the ANZAC legend /myth is adhered to with almost religious fervor.

This book looks at ANZAC in a very clear light to ask and answer one question:  “How does the ANZAC myth impact on the ability of Australia’s armed forces to fight modern wars?”

From such a seemingly simple question, a complex and valuable book emerges.

This book does not seek to denigrate the actions of the soldiers whose actions were the foundation of the myth – what the book does is ask how valuable is this myth to the training and function of soldiers who will be asked to fight very different wars to the Gallipoli campaign.

Highly recommended.

Blackhorse Riders - Philip Keith - 3/5

It has become my habit to read some form of military history on long air flights.  With a number of exceptions this type of book tends to be fast moving enough to keep my attention during the long hours of sleepless semi- darkness.

In this regard this was a good book, in fact it was better than many.  The narrative was straightforward, but well developed and the geography of the battlefield simple enough to be able to keep a mental track of the main events.

Simply put this was a mission during the Vietnam war by a mixed infantry and armor column to rescue an outnumbered and isolated infantry unit.  During the mission there were a number of casualties and acts of bravery – which probably does not separate this battle from many other similar ones.

What seems to separate this action from many others, is that many of the acts of bravery went unrecognized by the military in terms of medals and commendation’s.

The first part of the book looks at the battle itself, the second the campaign to make sure that the soldiers recommended for awards received them.

I think it’s clear that the outcome of this second campaign may have been more influenced by the apparent shift in view of how soldiers in Vietnam had been handled in the past, rather than the actual nature of the deeds preformed.   But I acknowledge I could be wrong.

My biggest concern within the book was the voice adopted by the author in a few sections.  At times it is not clear if sentences are the words of the author or the recollections of the soldiers involved in the battle.  A lack of consideration for the nature of enemy soldiers is understandable in battle – and honest personal accounts may well include these feelings.  But when they appear to be the words of the author, I think that have no place in a book like.  Reporting what the “grunts in the bush” called the Vietnamese soldiers is appropriate; using the same terms in the author-generated sections of the book is not.

A clear, well structured, account of a battle and its aftermath, which at times becomes a little too partisan.

Birds and People - Mark Cocker - 5/5

This is a really superb book.

While most books about birds focus on the birds themselves, the focus of this book is the importance of birds to humans. 

Possibly because of the way in which many birds have adapted to living in proximity to humans, they are a rich source of tradition and folk law.  This is strongly shown in this book.

Working systematically through the vast majority of bird families the book introduces the cultural importance of birds in both the modern and historical worlds.  Clearly, such a book could never be completely comprehensive – but this book comes about as close to this as is needed.

A number of reviews here have complained about the size of the book (ie it’s too big) and the font of the text (ie its too small).  While I can understand these comments, I think they miss the point of this book.

This is not a book that you are likely to read from cover to cover – you will have open next to you as you look up other things, or you will have it open on your lap as you browse through it.  It is not a book to be read in the half-light of a bedside table – it’s a very readable reference book that you will come back to when you need to look something up, or you are looking for a way to pass half an hour.

This book is full of weird and wonderful facts (hopefully not factoids) about birds – and I challenge you not to laugh about the Kookaburra called Mama Cass!

Highly recommended.

Silt Road - Charles Rangeley-Wilson - 4/5

This is a book about the loss of a river to a landscape and its people.

The River Wye is a small chalk stream that slides through an equally small part of England.  This book follows the river from its source in porous chalk to its eventual disappearance in the concrete culverts of High Wycombe.

Chalk streams are (possibly) the epitome of the southern English countryside – slight, small, managed rather wild, but still holding a vision of something larger and more grand.

This is a book that is “haunted by rivers” as Norman Maclean may have said – for while the river still exists today in some form it is the old river - the one that was lost – that dominates the book.   The physical loss of the river and the lost industry that it once supported are the central planks of the book.

We meet chair makers, millers, trout fisherman and trout themselves – all of which needed the river and most of which have been lost.

In a history of one small place, I think the author is trying to write a story that has wider application, and in many ways he succeeds.  The story of this lost river is matched in the loss of natural places world wide – when a place is no longer valued or understood, it is easier to let it be lost.  And to make sure such places are protected they need to be valued; while clearly not an original idea, this book contributes to the idea that we need to reconnect to the landscape around us to ensure its survival.  Landscape is not something that can be viewed in the same way museum pieces can be – it needs to be lived, experienced.

However, the book does seem always seem to flow comfortably from page to page. In the sections which look at the landscape of the river and the author reaches for an emotional or philosophical response, the prose seems to slow and become labored.   I found myself rereading a number of sections, where the sentences seemed to falter mid-phrase.   These sections contrasted with the more “historical” sections – especially the account of bringing trout to Australia – where the book is a real page turner – crisp, succinct and flowing.  In my opinion these were the best parts of the book.

So, in summary I found the book a little two paced – rather like the pools and riffles of a stream itself – and I suppose different readers will find charm in either part.


Badgerlands - Patrick Barkham - 5/5

There are very few creatures that capture the mystery of the British countryside better than the badger – red squirrels and otters being the only other contenders.

So, a book about the place on Earth that has more badgers per square foot than anywhere else is almost certainly going to be a winner.  The only thing that could hold back a book like this would be poor writing and dull characters.

This book has neither.

Starting with a consideration of why badgers hold such a special places in the imagination, then moving to their biology, with an entertaining section on those badger lovers who have often literally taken them into their homes. Finally (and probably) most importantly to the bovine TB issue, this book looks at many aspects of Badgerland.

Mr. Badger from Wind In the Willows is a main player in the first part, biological scientists in the second and mildly (OK, deeply) eccentric badger feeders also play their part.

We often meet the scientists again in the consideration of Bovine TB and badgers.  It must be almost impossible to write a balanced account of this issue – but Barkham comes very, very near. 

If the earlier sections on badger baiting do not make your blood boil, then the apparent way in which science (and its scientist) are being misused to bolster some form of political campaign probably will.

An excellent, sometimes saddening, occasionally amusing book.

Highly recommended.

The Barley Bird - Richard Mabey - 5/5

“Barely Bird” is the local Suffolk name for the Nightingale – so called because the bird would start singing rest as the barley crop would begin showing in the field. Of course, this connection is a coincidence brought about by human intervention in the life of a grass and the arrival of a bird from far, far south.

This seems to be the lot of the Nightingale – to be connected with and linked to things that are outside of its own biology. 

This slim volume makes the point that no other bird (in Europe) seems to have been lauded in so many ways, by so many people, in so many cultures. 

It’s a bird that has almost been swallowed by its own myths, so that the remarkable character of its life is hidden by the artistic and allegorical responses that surround it.  And it is the acknowledgement of this that gives this little book its value.

While the book does explore the many and varied responses that the Nightingale as created, its never losses touch with the fact that there is a real bird in the bushes.  A real bird for which all human responses are irrelevant, and whose purpose in singing the way it does may never really be understood.

This is Mabey almost at his best – a combination of heart felt reaction, clear eyed analysis and formidable research.

As you may have guessed by now, it comes highly recommended.