Book Reviews (09/04/15)

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 272 reviews here.

The Great War - 10 Contested Questions - Hazel Flynn

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 Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes

This is the third Julian Barnes book I have read in recent months – the other two being ‘England, England’ and  ‘Metroland’- and this is by far the best.

It may be a coincidence, but a couple of themes reappear in these three books:  the behaviour and relationships of bright schoolboys, broken relationships and the nature of memory/reality and how we can come to terms with these.

Of all of these books, The Sense of an Ending seems the most well balanced, complete and plausible from a character point of view to me.

Tony Webster, the main character and a bright (but not the brightest) school boy in the past, looks back at the memories of his life and tries to make sense of them after a surprise inclusion in a will. 

Maybe there are couple of coincidences and connections that may not feel 100% authentic, but they do not stretch believability to far. 

This is a short book – about 150 pages – and it may only take a couple of hours to read, but I would recommend it far more confidently than the other two I have read.

For once, I book that seems to live up to its dust jacket quotes.

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.

Amnesia - Peter Carey

If you decide that you are going to call a book Amnesia, it really does need to be better than forgettable, otherwise the reviews are already written.

Unfortunately, in many ways this book lives up to its title.  The central story line is about a computer hacker and the impact of what the hack does.  But most of the book itself is set before this event, and much of it reads like a social history of disgruntled Labour voters. 

Now, this is clearly not a problem in any way – the book is about forgetting and (possibly) a loss of way/ direction.  And anybody who knows much about the Australian Labour Party may see as being a bit of allegory.  However, if you are not well versed in all things ALP these parts of the book become somewhat (sorry about this) forgettable.

The development of the stories central characters is slow and detailed, but at times I felt I had no real idea why I needed to know some of the detail I was being provided with.  And when the book rushed to its conclusion I still felt that way. 

Maybe I missed most of the cultural references – and hence the humour that the book is supposed to contain – but this book just did not happen for me.

To slow for most of the time, too fast in the last five pages and just a wee bit forgettable all in all.

This may not be the best way to start reading Peter Carey.  Proceed with caution.

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 Bush - Don Watson - 4/5 

The role that the bush – a general term for much of Australia’s rural areas – has played in the shaping of this modern nation is the both a source of pride and mythology for many Australians.

The bush – or more importantly the people who live in or come from it – is better, more Australia, more practical and generally more worthy than the latte sippers and book taught intellectuals that live in the cities.  The bush is the real Australia.

The problem with this is that almost 90% of Australians don’t live in the bush.

This book looks at the Bush though both of these lenses, although the first, the mythic lens, predominates. 

It’s a reasonable claim that much of the history of modern Australia can been better understood by learning how people used, abused and viewed the bush.  This book gives a good, and although individual, overview of these changes.

But I still think the book missed an opportunity. And I think this is omission is flagged by the book’s sub-title ‘Travels in the Heart of Australia’.  If we already know from the front cover that the bush is the heart of Australia, do we really expect to find that it is a heart of darkness?

The key omission seems to be a clear analysis of how the myth of the bush impacts on modern Australia.  If the Bush produces ‘real’ Australians, where does that leave the rest of us, the 90% who live outside of it?  Somehow less Australian I assume.

In the past Watson has written clear-eyed materials about both society and place.  While this is a very enjoyable book, and I would recommend it highly, I do think it is a bit of an opportunity lost.

England, England - Julian Barnes - 3/5 

This is a book that reminds me of many England cricket matches – it starts with real promise, slows down in the middle and ends up with you wondering what all the excitement at the start was about.

The first section in this shortish novel is the best part of the book – it deals with memory and authenticity; how do we remember? Do we really remember at all? Or are we just recalling the stories that are told about things that people think we should remember?

This section of the book links clearly to the central, and longest part, of the book.  The Isle of White is converted into a ‘theme park’ version of England, where everything that people think of as England is available in one place.

This seems to be a reasonable extension of the idea of authenticity, but soon even this idea seems to be so overplayed as to be rather obvious.  People are not what they seem, relationships are not what they seem, reputations are not what they seem.

In the end the central protagonist of the book returns to something, which may or may not be authentic – and then the book ends.

I really liked the first part of the book – and even the start of the section where the IOW is converted is interesting because of the way it plays with the idea of what people want to see, and what they want to experience.

But then the middle order collapse sets in, and the innings limps to a disappointing end.

I think the book is worth reading for the first part alone, but in the end I was pleased when it was all over.  3 stars.

American Sniper - Chris  Kyle - 3/5 

This is book that I think demands to be viewed in two ways – firstly as a story about a person and secondly as a story about a person who we ‘asked’ to do things by his community.

In the first aspect it’s clear that the author is pretty unpleasant.  His casual disregard for any human life that does not happen to be American is clear, as is his disregard for the person he claims to love.

The descriptions of his military training as a SEAL are par for the course in this kind of book – and in fact the author deliberately leaves out sections of the training, because he is sure his readers will already be familiar with these things.  

However, once the author is deployed the story line becomes full of obvious racism and bigotry – the way in which he describes his ‘enemies’ does not show the attitudes of so called elite troops.  I found these sections of the book hard to read.

The second aspect of the story, where the author is doing what he is trained to do, at the behest of a democracy (well sort of) are equally unsettling.  His basic task is to kill and keep killing until the declared enemy have had enough and give up.  (In many ways this seems to be an echo of the ‘kill ratio’ argument of the Vietnam War).  If this is really what he was asked to do, do we really have the right to suggest that he should be a monk as well as a killer and to suffer agonies of guilt for doing what he has been asked to do?

I think it will become increasing hard to differentiate this book from the film it spawned – but they seem to be very difficult.

This is an ugly and difficult book.  But I also think it is shockingly honest.

It is clearly a book that should be described as ‘informative’ rather than ‘entertaining’. 

Nobody does well in this account of a modern war.

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!

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.

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.


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.

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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