Book Reviews (05/11/14)

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 262 reviews here.


1066 - History in an hour   - Kaye Jones  - 4 /5 

It would not be hard to mount a case claiming that 1066 was one of the most important years in English history.  It may well be one of those turning points in history the effects of which we are still living.

Language changed, law changed, landscape changed. 

And for the most part, only one aspect of this year is remembered – the Battle of Hastings.  1066 was a far more complex year than that, and this book is a good introduction to the intricacies of that period.  The other battles, the family infightings and politics are all introduced, and I suspect that for many people these aspects of 1066 may be new.
Of course the book is not comprehensive - that is not its aim.  But it does show how close history came to having a very different pathway.

Recommended.



Waterloo - City, City - Waterloo  - Leanne Shapton  - 1.5 /5 

I struggled with this book – and in the end it defeated me.

While this book is part of a series of volumes about the London Underground, I really found to hard to connect this books with the specific line – the Waterloo and City Line – that the book is supposed to be about.

As far as I could tell the books was a series of disconnected conversations (presumably) lifted from commuters on the line in question.  While this ‘stream of consciousness’ style may given some idea about the conservations that occur in trains in general, this book is supposed to be about some specific aspect of the Waterloo and City Line itself. 

The book actual has two parts – which are intended to read from one end of the book or the other.  One being the journey outward, the other, inward.   I could detect no real difference between these two parts.

I think this is more of an idea than a complete book – “lets listen to conversations on an outbound and inbound train and just write them down”.

I really can’t recommend this book at all – I only read (most of) it because it was part of a boxed set.


There are much better books in this particular series, so in this case I think you should proceed with extreme caution.



The Riverbank  - Charles Darwin and Fabian Negrin  - 4 /5 

This is a rather splendid children’s picture book based on the (reasonably) well-known final paragraphs of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’.

In many ways Darwin summarized much of his thinking about variation, natural selection and evolution in that paragraph – and this book highlights a number of aspects of his thought in pictures. Having said that, the nature of the language used by Darwin will need to be explained to children - so, talking about what this book means may be as important as reading it.


The pictures themselves sit at the boundary of ‘cartoon’ and ‘naturalistic’ drawing, and are at their best when they show the small creatures that dwell in the riverbank – Darwin’s entangled bank.  The images are at their least good when they depict people – with the faces looking more than a little artificial.

As an antidote to talking mice and evil foxes this is a very good book – but I suspect it will appeal to more adults than children.

Still, a book designed for children, which starts them thinking about one of the most powerful and influential ideas anybody has ever had, cannot be a bad thing.


Recommended, but don’t expect it to become a bedtime staple.



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.



Drift - Phillippe Parreno  - 3/5

This is a strange addition to the set of books published to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground.

In contrast to all the other books in the series this is a picture book, rather than one based on text.  The pictures all seem to be pen and ink style images, and (as noted elsewhere) some don’t seem to conform to the high level of technical excellence often seen in art-based books.

But I think a criticism of the book for its lack of artistic merit rather misses the point – I think the aim of the book is to provide some record of the authors (?) journey along the Hammersmith and City Line.

My interpretation of the images suggests that the line runs from decay (mushrooms) to open space (planes and play), via some rather darker spaces (Ned Kelly looking people and protest)

This of course may be well off the mark!

Would I recommend this book to be read on its own?  Well, probably not.

Would I recommend that you read (look at?) this book if you have read most of the other 150th books – well, yes I would; if only to provide an alternative version of what thoughts railway can generate.


So, probably not book for general consumption or train buffs – but certainly one for readers who like to complete all the parts of a series!



Earthbound - Paul Morley  - 4/5

Earthbound is a rather nicely balanced account of the music that the author, then a writer for the NME, listened to and was influenced by as he used the Bakerloo Line.

While very little of the music described in this book is on high rotation on my play lists, this did not take much away from the book as whole.  This is account of at least three journeys, a musical one, a physical on the train and technological one in the way that we listen to and ‘consume’ music.   These three journeys blend rather well into a single narrative.

This book manages to combine trains and music in a rather more sensible way than the last book I reviewed in this series – Heads and Straights by Lucy Wadham.

A good balance of the history of the line, music and the author makes for an interesting read.


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.


Heads and Straights  - Lucy Wadham - 4/5 or 2/5!

This is a book that needs two separate reviews – the first being a review of the book itself, and the second being a review of the book as part of a series about London Circle Line.

The book itself is a wonderfully honest account of growing up the (almost) youngest child in a family.   Elder sisters have all kinds of adventures, many of which were neither legal nor healthy.  The book is set in the 1980’s of Punk and Thatcher, and although this is a point of embarrassment, in Chelsea.

The ‘back story’ of the family is explored and it’s clear that a certain kind of rebellion is not unique to this period of history.  The past illuminates and informs the present.  The past moves through Africa, Wales and Australia.

Its worth reading this (short) book just for this story alone – and if I read this book as a ‘stand alone’ rather than as a part of series I would recommend it highly.

But the book is part of a series – and this brings on the second part of the review.

As a book in a series about the numerous different underground lines of London the book is a disappointment.  Apart from being set partly in Chelsea, which is served by the Circle Line, the underground is almost absent from this book.  I have read a number of books in the series and they are most definitely not all factual accounts of this line or that line.  They manage to weave all kinds of histories around the rail line in a way that this book almost completely fails to do.


So, the story itself is 4 stars.  The book as part of the series is only really worth two stars.



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.



Britain - One Million Years of the Human Story  4 /5

This is a really rather good book that lays out the current thinking about the history of human habitation in the UK.

This is really a story of repeated colonisation, retreat and re-colonisation in the face of changing climate.

One million years is an unimaginable sweep of time and it is remarkable to think that people have been walking the land that would become Britain for that length of time.

The story of humans in Britain is laid out clearly and concisely, but by virtue of its brevity this book can never been more than an introduction to the subject.

An aspect of the book that I enjoyed was the way in which our changing understanding of human evolution and expansion is clearly linked to an evolving and expanding evidence base.  Knowledge changes with the acquisition of evidence, and this story is a decent enough case study of that idea.

I am not entirely sure this book stands on its own, without the need to visit the exhibition as well (hence the 4 stars), but if it does not, it comes very, very close.


I recommended both the book and the exhibition at the Natural History Museum.


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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