Book Reviews (08/09/14)

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 253 reviews here.

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.

The 32 Stops  - Danny Dorling - 3/5

This book examines how a whole range of “social indicators” – such as life expectancy and GCSE results – vary as you travel along London’s central line.

This is a rail line that runs in an arc from West to East through London.   Taken as a (presumably mythical) journey over a single day, the aspects of life that vary along the line – and often between stops are looked at in two ways!

Firstly they are illustrated by dialogues between people who live in the area of the relevant tube station and secondly by brief reference to actual statistics.

I had a small problem with both of these – in the dialogues I did loose track a couple of times (no pun intended!) and felt like I was just ploughing on to find out what was going on. 

The issue with the statistics is that the author admits that a few random events can alter the average of some of these values significantly for one year  – in other words the stark differences between one place and another could actually be due to chance – but then never seems to tell us what time periods the statistics represent.  If the statistics are long-term averages, they probably represent real difference – but the way they are presented leaves this open to question.

Now, I am not some form of stats geek – but I do know my way around a graph and I have to say I found this element of the book disappointing.

Equally, this is not to say that I did not enjoy reading the book – but I just kept having a little nagging question popping up at the back of my mind!

Recommended (just).

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.

Ice Station - Matthew Reilly  2.5 /5

Right from the start I want it to be clear why I bought this book – it was to pass the time, in a reasonably entertaining, brain-light kind of a way, on a flight from Australia to the UK.

In that regard the book was a success.  There were no periods of introspection from the characters, there was very little character development from the author, and there was an almost never-ending supply of action.  In my opinion this is near perfect aeroplane fodder.

On almost any other level the plot of the book is ludicrous.  

The central character is a Capt. Indestructible US Marine, sent on a mission that is uncertain and rapidly compromised.  Once the mission goes pear shaped it’s an almost endless firefight.

The most interesting part of the book – those about the less than honest relationship on a strategic level between the USA and her allies – is never fully explored.  I assume that could because of the lack of gun-play in diplomatic meetings!

If you are prepared to forgive some rather silly plot develops and some even sillier “science” then this is a fast paced read that neatly ties up all of the loose ends and does not deal with anything vaguely ambiguous.

On a different note, I was struck by the apparent similarity between the plot of the opening section of the book and the film “Aliens” – and I would interested to find out if anybody noticed this.

Having said all this – the truth of the matter is I may well buy another of the books in the series the next time I have a long flight, as it did the job I bought it for.

World War One - History in an Hour 4/5

As would be expected from the title, this book is a simple and straightforward account of the history of World War One.

Any historical account that renders years of complex conflict into one hour of reading is, by definition, going to have to take a few short cuts and render the complicated simple.

But is this a problem?

In this case I think not.  The aim of this book seems to be to provide a simple narrative that allows the reader to grasp the way in which the events of the war developed, without have to wade through pages of fine print analysis.

In my opinion, this book would be an excellent “first read” about WW1, giving the reader enough of a framework to move on to move complex studies. If you are like me, I much prefer to know (vaguely) where I am going when I read history – and I wish I had read this book before I had ventured into some of the longer ones I have read.

In summary, a simple introduction, which given the current memorial events deserves to be widely read.

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.

A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line - John O'Farrell - 4/5

On the Jubilee Line our author faces a life-threatening situation – the collapse of the world order, or perhaps the collapse of a section of tunnel, or maybe both.

In order to escape, the author – and his fellow passengers - needs to make a decision about which way to go to reach safety.  Although constrained by a tunnel they need to choose a path defined by either the Left or by the Right.

So begins a (sort of) debate about the way forward and which political light should guide it.  The cast of characters in the tube train is drawn from the heroes and heroines of both sides of politics, as well as members of the public.

Much of the detail of the financial comings and goings that built the new parts of the Jubilee Line occurred after I left the UK, but even from the distant shores of Australia there was enough detail in the book for me to follow the lines of argument and disagreement.

It’s reasonable to say that this books reaches no firm conclusions on its central debate, but it does entertain on the way to a point of no conclusion.

I have to say that the end of the book is rather predictable, using a device beloved of Soap Operas when an unlikely plot line needs to come to en end.

A brief and generally entertaining read.

Watcher in the Shadows - Geoffrey Household - 4/5

Set in the mid 1950s this is a story of revenge, honour, violence and revenge.

Charles Dennim, an expert in small mammals, finds himself the target of an assignation attempt.   His wartime past prevents him seeking the normal police protection, but also arms him with the skills he needs to protect himself. 

For much of the book you know little of his foe, except that he also has a past well suited to revenge.

In some ways, Dennim is the perfect Englishman; quiet and skilled, with a deep interest and expertise in a seemingly small field.  If it was not for his past he could pass for a village vicar.  But this, of course, is not what he is.

However, it is in the “perfect” English countryside of the Cotswolds that he seeks protection.   He may not be English, but he hides in the most English place he can find. 

This is really a book of three parts – the opening and closing thirds are excellent, fast paced, with out being frantic, and delightfully detailed.  The middle third – while necessary to the plot, drags a little, but does seem to reinforce the “middle England” feel of the characters.

As in Household’s most famous book – Rogue Male – the English countryside this book is as much a character as the humans, and (in my opinion) is a huge factor in the quality of the story.  There is a detail in the landscape that allows the human plot to feel far more believable.

I rather enjoyed this book, and while it did feel a little familiar after reading Rogue Male, I would still recommend it.

What we talk about when we talk about the Tube - John Lancaster - 4/5

This is a really good little book.  While it does focus on the The District Line, much of what the book has to say is about the way in which The Tube (or maybe The Underground) developed around London and the way London developed around The Tube.

Rather than being just a celebration of The District Line, I think this book is a celebration of the possibility of public transport.  So many cities (including Melbourne where I live) seem to have forgotten than public transport is not only for the poor, or those who do not have a car.  It’s a central part of city life that should be planned with the growth of the city, not just bolted on when all the car parks are full and the roads clogged.

Some of the other reviews here suggest that there are factual errors in this book – and that may well be true.  But this again missed the point.  Errors about what is the first train of the network or what sequence of trains can be caught, are “rivet-counter” criticisms – i.e. ones based around an interest in spotting the numbers on trains, rather than understanding their social, economic or even environmental importance.

This was an interesting read that I would recommend to anybody; especially those who wonder what a world without cars may be like.

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.