Book Reviews (16/08/20)

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 (although I will leave some on for longer that that!)

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 338 here. (I can't do the Amazon UK reviews anymore - shame!)

If you feel like leaving a comment - there is a comment box way down at the bottom of the page. Tell me what you think. SM

The Rain Heron.   Robbie Arnott: 4.5/5

The Rain Heron is Robbie Arnott's second novel.  In sone ways it reads like a slightly toned down version of his first book, Flames.

Set in what is probably Tasmania after some form of coup the story revolves around a cast that includes strong women, mystical elements and a very strong sense of place or landscape.

The Rain Heron of the title is a strange bird like animal that may or may not be the spirt of water - it's hard to tell.  The Heron is protected by some, and sought by others.  

This is a magical, engaging tale of nature and connection.  In a time when many of us are cut off from both, it's a great read that I highly recommend.

Red Sixty Seven.   Various Authors (compiled Kit Jewitt): 4.5/5

This book is a compilation of 'reactions' and artworks drawing inspiration from the 67 Red listed birds in the UK.  It is also a fund raiser for bird conservation through the BTO. Each species is given a double page spread - text on one side, art on the other.

This book is simultaneously saddening and wonderful at the same time.  The texts are often saddening, as they almost inevitably tell a tale of loss and decline - and in some ways the word 'decline' and its synonyms dominate the book.  The attributed causes of the declines are predictable enough - climate change, habitat loss, fragmentation of habitat, reduced numbers of food insects and plants - and the suggested responses are also well known.  More green space, more messiness at the edges, less wilful damage.

The art works are very good - with none that I recall being 'field guide' images - they are more fluid and interpretive than still and scientific.

So many of the species in this book were common when I was a kid it is a shock to see them included - House Sparrows, Starlings, Yellow Hammers, Herring Gulls.

I can recommend this book for two reasons - firstly it is a wonderful piece of art, and secondly the money raised may just stop some of the 67 moving into the 'nationally extinct' category.

A Time of Gifts.   Patrick Leigh Fermor: 4/5

In 1933 the author of this book set off to walk from Holland to Istanbul.  This is clearly a long way, and on foot, it would take a long time.  And in some ways this is reflected in the book.

The journey must have been slow moving, with each day (or mile) filled with observation and opportunity to pause.  This is fully reflected in the book itself, which is slow paced (not dull, it just does not moved very quickly) and full of observation.

The book itself was first published in the 1970s, and in some ways I was surprised at the lack of 'hindsight' sections in the book - ie sections which say "I saw this - and later this'.  Of course such sections are not absent from the books - how could they be if you walked into Germany in the year Hitler came to power.

A slow moving, reflective book which only takes the reader as far as Budapest, two more volumes and a lot more words need to be read before you reach Istanbul.

Strongly recommended for these strange times.

The Three Dimensions of Freedom.   Billy Brag: 5/5

It should come as a surprise to no-one that a book by Billy Bragg has a clear left wing agenda. It should also come as no surprise (if you have heard Bragg speak) that the book is thoughtful, that it challenges the approriatness of current political and economic drivers and that it has a 'can do' tone of optimism about what could be achieved in the future.

Neoliberals will not read this book, but they probably should.

Bragg identifies liberty, equality and accountability as the (interlinked) keystones of freedom - and from my point of view creates a solid argument.

One part of the book I really liked was when he linked the current worship of 'the market' as the cure all and unquestionable authority on all things to the divine right of kings to rule without restraint.  The divine right has passed into history - but what will happen to 'the market' and those who swim in its currents?

Very highly recommended. 

Phosphorescence.   Julia Baird: 3/5

I read this book more or less by accident – the title caught my eye and the first chapter is about the benefits of connection with nature.  So off I went. Due to a lack of thinking on my behalf as I read more the book I discovered a had actually bought a self-help book of some kind – and the aim of the book was to help everyone ‘shine’.

I kept reading as this type of book was a bit of a novelty to me – and generally much of what was written seemed to make sense (or at least conform to conventional wisdom about person health).  So, we should connect with nature, connect with friends, eat well, celebrate our own and others success, etc.

The main part of the book that I took issue with were the chapters on religion.  Here the author seems to suggest that organised religions are of benefit to us all and the best way to benefit from religion is to be sceptical of the dogma, but embrace the idea we are part of something bigger than just ourselves.  Well yes.   So it seems the benefit of religion is that it gives you a grounded purpose / position in life but you can give the stories associated with it a miss.  I’m not sure how that works, given the religions seem to set such story in their special stories, and all seem to claim that the only way to understand purpose is to embrace these same stories.    Maybe just doing relevant and meaningful work  - paid or unpaid – would serve the same grounding purpose, and then there seems to be less need to deal with the dogma.

An interesting enough read – but not one that will tempt me to read too many more self-help books!

Flames.   Robbie Arnott: 5/5

This is a wonderfully strange and interesting novel.  Set in a recognisably real Tasmania, it is a tale of elements, relationships, nature and above all else, fire.

In the opening paragraph a cremated women comes back from the dead, bearing the type of vegetation from where she was scattered.  She soon catches fire again.  

Clearly this is a novel with 'fantasy' elements, and it may even be magical realism (I am not knowledgeable about such classifications).  But it is wonder, with a cast of charters that could fill half a dozen other stories.

I related liked this book - and would strongly recommend it. 

The Gifts of Reading.   Robert Macfarlane: 4.5 /5

If you are reading this review, the truth is, you may not need to read this short book (essay would be a better description). However, I would recommend that you do.

Rather than just being about the gift that reading is, it is a call to make a gift of the things that you read.  Pass books on.  Give books as gifts.  Share recommendations.  Spread the word.

Can't say that I disagree with any of this, although the assumption that you have enough disposable income to buy books - lots of books - for other people may be a little optimistic, unless the author concedes that only those with disposable income read. (and I don't think this is true).

A worthwhile 20 minute read - that maybe you should give as a gift after you have finished reading it.


Among The Pigeons.   John L Read: 4.5 /5

I'm a cat owner.  I'm a bird watcher.  This book looks at the reasons why those two statements can sometimes be at odds with each other.

Cats are a prolific domestic pet, and also an abundant 'un-owned' feral animal that can have a profound impact on the populations of small (and sometimes not so small) naive animals, including birds, mammals and reptiles.

This book really has two themes - one is the impact of free roaming cats, both 'off leash' pets or feral, have on wildlife and the second is the efficacy and ethics of many 'cat control' schemes.  There are good data sets on both of these aspects - and unfortunately is seems that most 'cat control' schemes don't really have the desired impact (ie reducing the populations of unowned cats).

Some of the more effective methods for dealing with unwanted cats will pose ethical problems for some 'cat lovers', but then again so will some of the aspects of 'control' scheme that claim never to use euthanasia.

An interesting, probably controversial book.  In my opinion it should be a must read for anyone who is interested in cats in any way.  (PS: my cats are indoor cats, with access a fully continued outdoor area)  SM

Beren and Luthien.   JRR Tolkien: 4.5 /5

The posthumous works of Tolkien are probably an acquired taste, needed a little more dedication to read than LOTR and especially The Hobbit.  However, there is a kind of wonder to be found in the fact that so much more of Middle Earth exists than was shown in those books.

Beren and Luthien is one of the central tales from the pre-history of Middle Earth and this book shows how the tale evolved and changed in its writing.  For those who know how to look there are enough links to LOTRs to keep people happy and interested, but in fact this tale stands on its own.  I have recently read The Fall of Gondolin, which felt fragmented and (too) repetitive, but this book seemed to avoid that fate.  Although sections of the book cover the same part of the tale of Beren and Luthien they always seem to add to the story, rather than just repeat it with a different writing style.

I rather liked this book - and for fans of Tolkien, they will know how important this story was to him as well.


Fire Country.   Victor Steffenson: 3.5 /5

This is an interesting, if occasionally repetitive, book about the role that 'indigenous fire management' could play in the both the restoration of Australian ecosystems and the reduction in fire danger in the this most fire prone country.  In simple terms I think that Steffenson argues for a fire management regime that is local, small scale and timely.  His argument is that burning the vegetation at the right time both limits the spread of the fire as it would spread into 'unready' areas and provides the right type (temperature and extent) of fire for that habitat.  This contrasts with the more widespread and more time dependant 'file reduction burns' that many areas see today.  I think this all makes sense, but the book really fails to address how such a fire regime could be achieved, given that it is labour intensive and highly dependent on local knowledge that may no longer exist.

Most Australian ecosystems have evolved with fire as an important element, and fire almost certainly needs to be used in their maintenance.  However, I don't think most Australian ecosystems evolved as part of a peri-urban system with large, settled, dense populations.

This is an interesting and thought provoking book, but I dont think it holds all the answers.

Stillicide.   Cynan Jones: 3.5 /5

Stillicide is a sparse, short novel set in the (near?) future when climate change has impacted heavily on the UK.  Ice burgs are now used as sources of fresh water and the story revolves around the building of an ice dock for the burgs.

Jones always seems to use as little language as possible - but what he does use is normally brilliant - and this book in no exception.  In its origin this book was set of interlinked radio stories, which each 'chapter' being read aloud in 15 minutes.

The themes and central story - climate change and reaction to it - are important, but I found this book less engaging than other works by the same author - maybe the largely urban setting did not connect with me.

You can win them all, and for me this was not a real winning. An interesting read, yes, but probably not one I would return to.

The Cabin in the Mountains.  Robert Ferguson: 4 /5

I think many of us dream of a cabin in the woods/ mountains / by the sea.  I know I do.  And so its seems do many Norwegians.

Robert Ferguson is from the UK, but has fallen in love Norway (I can understand that!).  This is a wonderfully rambling account of how he (and his Norwegian wife) come to build a Cabin in the Mountains.

If that was really all that this book was about, I think it would be dull - but the truth is that the book is a wide range prose love poem to Norway and all things Norwegian.  Wood craft, mountain climbing, the shops of Oslo, grass roofs, literature and philosophy and music are all woven into the story of the Cabin.

I'm not sure that anything really new or startling is said in this book, but it is a wonderful journey through a culture that the author obviously loves.


The Fall of Gondolin.  JRR Tolkien (ed: Christopher Tolkien) : 4 /5

I suspect this will be the last work of JRRT that is published.  His son and long time editor of the remaining work Christopher has now passed away too - so the long history of Middle Earth may have come to an end.

In many ways this is a really low key way to end such a body or work, especially as some of the aspects of the stories told in this book echo down into the more popular tales.

In reality this is not really a story of the Fall of Gondolin, but many stories about the same thing.  The last version that Tolkien wrote is here, as are many other earlier versions.  Some stories overlap, some bring in new details - many of which were never continued, and some are more complete.  But they all tell (more or less) the same tale.

This means that (for some people) the book will be repetitive - but other (like me) will love seeing how the story changed and evolved.

Basically,  this is a book that tells and then retells the same story a number of times.

I would suggest that this is a book for already committed Tolkien readers - and that new comers would be better off starting the journey to Valinor else where.

Mudlarking.  Lara Maiklem  : 4.5 /5

Mudlarking is the process of finding things in the mud by riverbanks - most specifically the tidal banks of the Thames in London.  And Mudlarks are people who today do this has a hobby, although in the past it was a way of earning a living.

So, just as the cover suggests this is a book about finding.  But it's not just a book about finding objects - it's also a book about finding a connection to a place, connections to history and connections to people long gone.

It is a rather wonderful book,  lightly written and easy to enjoy.  Ironically, given that mudlarking requires ground to be broken by wind, weather, tides or hands, the book itself does not really break any new ground - more it looks at some established ideas that close study leads to connection in a rather novel setting.

The sections of the text that relate to plastic and our current obsession with disposability are predictably saddening,  but realistic.

Highly Recommended.

Underland. Robert Macfarlane : 5/5

This is another wonderful book from Macfarlane.  If you have read any of this other books (and I strongly recommend that you do) this book will come as no real surprise to you.

Based on the idea of the 'underwood' - both natural and manmade - this is a book dense in ideas, connections and thought provoking ideas.

The opening chapters of the books focus on The Mendips (Somerset, UK) - which is basically where I am from - and this may have biased my enjoyment of this book.  But I dont think that is really the case.

The book turns (I think) on the idea of burial as a way of remembering and as a way of forgetting, and I think the most memorable line in the book captures this idea wonderfully.

Dense, full of references, maybe just a little self consciously academic, but I would have to say this is one of the best books I have read in the last couple of years.

Very highly recommended.

Where Poppies Blow - The British Soldier, Nature and the Great War. John Lewis-Stempel : 4/5

I suppose that the British have a reputation for being nature lovers - and while this may be a myth, it is the foundation on which this book is built.

The author looks at the connections - both good and bad - between British soldiers and nature during WW1.  Much of the content is based upon the diaries of soldiers - often officers - and the letters of a a wider selection of ranks.

Maybe some of the letters are buying into the nature myth to 'make the most of a bad job' - but the book is a wonderful exploration of the ability of people to see value in what is around them, even if the whole world seems dark.

Maybe this is book for today.

You will not come to love the rats and lice in their chapters, but I think you may end up with a greater understanding of the value of simple observation in difficult times.

Very highly recommended.

Bird, Blood, Snow. Cynan Jones : 3/5

I found this a rather odd book.

The story itself is based on one of the narrative lines from the medieval Welsh manuscript The Mabinogion.  It's a (kind of) quest story in which the central charter - Peredur - seeks to find Arthur.  In its original medieval form the battles fought on this quest may have made sense, but here they feel like senseless violence.  The arc of both stories is the same, but one seems to pit the hero against mythical figures, the other against real people.  I understand that both are allegorical - I just found the new version very unpleasant (maybe that is the intention)

The writing is tight and economical, which seem to a trademark of Jones's writing.  I have to admit that I am real fan of all the other books I have read by this author.  However, I would not really suggest that you start with this one if you are new to the author.  The Dig would be a much better place to start.

Proceed with caution.

Flight Lines. Andrew Darby : 5/5

The annual migration of birds has been a source of fascination for as long as people have noticed the yearly changes in the birds around them.  Myths were formulated, stories were told.

This book is about the discovery of the true story that underlies the migration  of shorebirds (waders) from Australia to the northern hemisphere.  Not that long ago it was know that the birds left Australian to breed, and were those breeding grounds were.  But that was it.  The space between leaving and breeding was empty.

This book tells the tale of how that blank was filled.  The story is filled with academics and citizen scientists who, piece by piece, find the truth of these birds remarkable journeys.  This is wonderful stuff.

I cant recommend this book highly enough.

The Enchantment of the Long Haired Rat.  Tim Bonyhady : 3.5 /5

Australia is famous for its marsupials, but it also has a (surprisingly large) number of placental mammals.  This is the story of the discovery and history of one such mammal- The Long Haired Rat.  This is an animal with boom and bust population levels, plague one year, almost gone the next.  Within the story of the rat are also stories of how Australia's environment has changed, and how knowledge grows.  I found the middle section of the book a bit slow as population boom after boom was described.  I think this section would have been better if it had been based on the distribution of the rat, rather than a chronology as I think the aim of the section was to examine the 'pre-colonisation' distribution of the species.

The book is an interesting read,  but possibly best suited to enthusiasts of all things Australian.

Four Seasons.    Chris Yates : 4/5

Chris Yates is a writer of gentle, yet observant, fishing tales.  This book covers his quest for carp over a four-year period.  In that time he caught a fish from a famous venue that made him as equally famous in fishing circles.  But that fish is just a tiny part of the whole book.

In a vaguely hypnotic (some may say repetitive) style he passes from day to day, sometimes catching fish, often not, but clearly enjoying every moment of it.  

Yates is a traditionalist in a fishing sense, split cane, centre-pin reels, simple baits and leafy ponds.  Many of the fish he catches would be returned to the water un-loved, maybe even unwanted, by many carp fishers these days – and that’s a bit of a shame in my opinion. Small, but well marked fish, are welcomed.  Conversation is encouraged and tea is often brewed.

However, at times Yates can also come across as a little bit of a snob.  He listens to flute music on the bank, but others listen to (I think) Northern Noise.  There are a few asides about fishing techniques of which he does not approve of. Sometimes there is a whiff of them and us.

However, the quality of the writing and the detail of the observation come as close as I have read to really capturing the joy that a day spent fishing in good company can bring. 


Owl Sense.    Miriam Darlington : 4/5

Owls must be one of the most loved groups of birds, and I suspect that there are few mythologies or belief systems that do not make reference to them.  Owls, with their remarkable night sight and flight seem custom made to be the stuff of legend.

In some ways this is an idea that underpins this book – it is a book about a persons relationship with owls, expressed as a desire to see all the species that occur in the UK, rather than any form of scientific monograph about owls a such.

This does not mean that the book does not contain factual information – far from it. But it does mean that the author (and her family) appear in the book frequently.  Owls clearly mean a great deal to the author, and it should come as no surprise that a narrative cased on care, rather than pure scientific enquiry (if such a thing exists) expands into other areas about which the author cases too.

So, there are owls and family illness and owls and family celebrations.  Some people seem not to like the presence of the family in the book – but I think this misses the point that owls are have often been used in the past to express and build meaning with is more symbolic than scientific.

The book does move beyond its (apparent) remit of looking at owls in the UK, by travelling to a few ‘foreign’ destinations and by mentioning owls not found in the UK.

It’s a simple and charming book that does stray a little from being purely about owls, but is not really damaged by such excursions.

I don’t think this book will come to be regarded as a classic, but I do recommend it.

Landfill.    Tim Dee : 5/5

This is a book about the consequences of sorting things out.  

Fundamentally, this book is about the consequences of how we sort out (and dispose of) rubbish, but the emotional hook of the book is not rubbish, but gulls. 

In the UK at least, gulls and rubbish are very closely associated.  Rubbish tips were a paradise for gulls, when unsorted waste, rich in food scraps, was dumped in landfill.  The opportunity was there and the opportunistic birds responded. Now such waste is more thoroughly sorted, and the food content has fallen.  The gulls find their opportunities elsewhere.

The gulls that used gather on waste tips were probably better studied than any gulls in history.  Differences were spotted and recorded, and how gulls too are sorted in different ways. Old species were split and new ones identified – a process that makes no difference to the gulls, but can be significant to scientists and bird watchers.

This is a really rather good book – moving from city to country, from tips to lakes and from hobby observation to scientific discourse.

It comes highly recommended. 

Fishing for a Year.    Jack Hargreaves : 5/5

Although this rather wonderful book is firmly rooted in the past – it was originally published in 1951 – it does have much to inform, entertain and possibly challenge the modern fisher.

Jack Hargreaves was an iconic TV presenter when I was a kid, on How and especially Out of Town.  It was clear from these programs he was a country generalist, and enthusiast, of the highest order.  This book reflects this approach.

The basic premise of this book is that as the year rolls by, you can fish for different fish.  And you can fish for them in simple ways that rely on craft and cunning.  

In many ways this is very different to today, with one species specialist and heavily stocked commercial waters. 

But its not different in all ways – even today, the canny angler who keeps an eye on the fish rather than on the fishing trends will probably catch most fish.  An angler who adapts, and keeps things simple, will probably catch more fish too.

I really wish I had read this book when I was a kid – as I think it may have pointed me towards a simpler and less tackle obsessed way of fishing.  Maybe!

Highly recommended, especially for those with old school or traditionalist leanings!

The Light in the Dark - Horatio Clare.   5/5

This is a wonderfully honest and observant book.  Based in Yorkshire and contained by the weather it is an account of one season in the author’s life.

While there is beauty in the chill of winter, and the author freely admits this, this is also darkness and difficulty.  In some ways it is the darkness that defines this book – although the narrative is more one of struggle than despair.

I think many people will find this book to be personally familiar: the ball and chain of depression and the guilt of how much energy it takes just to move forward: leaky roofs in winter storms: the joy of a warm house and a family welcome: the slight adventure of a power cut.  But maybe most of all, a longing for spring, even on days of winter beauty.

Moving, painfully honest, occasionally bleak – but most of all, wonderful.

Very highly recommended.

The Library of Ice - Nancy Campbell.   5/5
People seem to be drawn to the cold places of the world – adventure, art and science are only some of the reasons that are explored in this book.

The author of the book seems to be drawn to the north or south by art, but the stories she tells are often of adventure and science.   

In the past the cold regions of the world seem to have drawn men (and most of them were men) seeking to expand their dominion on Earth – explorers, adventures, fortune seekers.  The places they went gave them a chance to show their dominance over the world.

Today, the cold regions of the world are where we go to find evidence of the damage this dominance has done.

This rather wonderful book is informed by both of these narratives, and underpinned by a shared reverence for all that the cold can bring.

The reasons why people seek out the cold may have changed, but the importance of these regions to the world has not.

Very highly recommended.

The Dig - Cynan Jones  5/5

This is a brutal book that focuses on a lonely and isolated sheep farmer, and a brutal and violent badger baiter.  They both inhabit a wonderfully realised landscape, but seem to live in very different worlds.  

From the very start this is not a book that pulls it’s punches, seeming never to shy away from an accurate description of what’s going on, even if that means describing scenes of almost unspeakable cruelty.

The language of the book is sparse and simple, even if the issues that the book raises are complex.  This may be why it is so successful – there are no unneeded passages, no unnecessary punctuation and very few (if any) frills.

I suspect that some people may find the descriptions of the way the badgers are treated almost unreadable – but in the end it’s the sheep farmer’s lot that stayed with.  

Difficult, shocking and moving.

Very highly recommended.

The Lost Diary - Chris Yates  5/5

In some ways, the ‘large is not always best’ ethic runs through the whole of the book.  The diary starts in the April of 1981 and end in September of the same year.  Days, evenings and afternoons of fishing are described in simple, but wonderful terms and its clear that the author loves being the bank (and nipping off for a pint) almost as much as he does catching fish.

This is just as well, as many of the fishing trips remain fishless. If ever there was a book to help people understand that fishing is called ‘fishing’ and not ‘catching’ then this that book. 

The approach to fishing – and the nature of many of the waters described – is distinctly un-modern (it is the early 80s after all), but there seems to be a palpable joy simply in the catching of fish that seems to have be lost in modern fishing.  Carp that would today be returned to the water un-weighed and (probably) un-appreciated are celebrated.  Simple things matter.  Tea needs to be brewed.

Maybe its nostalgia for an age I recognise, or maybe its just mighty fine story telling, but I enjoyed this book hugely.

Highly recommended.  

A Short History of England - Simon Jenkins  4/5

Starting in 410 and ending in 2018 this a rapid, but rather good, account of English history. 

For me the book has two distinct sections – the first is the history up to the time of Queen Victoria, and the second is the history that follows.   The marked difference between these two sections seems to be the speed at which time passes in the book.

In the first section time passes quickly, Kings and Queens come and go, wars are fought, alliances formed and fractured all in the space of a few pages.  The relevance of these sections to today may still be real – especially in regards to English relationships with Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and possibly even the wider area of Europe – but they feel too distant to connect with.

In the second section the rush of time slows – the cast of 1000s becomes more familiar and the objects and events mentioned seem far more accessible.  We still use Victorian railway tunnels and England’s industrial geography (if it still has one!) is defined by the use of resources that are no longer prized.  So, for me at least, this second section was about a lived history – either my own, those of my more elderly relatives – rather than a recalled history.

I read the first sections not entirely enjoying the rush of history, but embraced the second section whole-heartedly for its clarity and its sense of story.


Rain - Melissa Harrison   4.5/5

I’m not sure that the English talk about the weather more than other people, but I am sure that English weather gives more opportunities for conversations should you be minded to have one.

This delightful, if slim, volume is a conversation about walking in the rain.  Based on four walks in (generally) gentle English countryside this is not so much a book about places as a book about a set of unified experiences – walking in the rain, making sure that despite of the rain you don’t get (too) wet and possibly most importantly knowing that only walking in fine weather robs you of some of the varied experiences that walking and landscape can bring. 

A walk without a rewarding view is not less than a walk that provides one – its just a walk that provides opportunities to see different things, feel different things and find different experiences. 

Some of the reviews here suggest that the writing in this book fails to create a sense of place or location – and while I can see what these reviewers mean – I think it misses the point of the book.  I think the book is about processes rather than place, ie the walking and the raining are more important than the location.

I really liked this book and its delicate voice – I would strongly recommend it.

The Fly Trap  - Fredrik Sjokerg   5/5

At first glance, a book about the Hoverflies of a small Scandinavian Islands would seem to hold little attraction.  How can this subject, so small and so specialist, be of interest to anybody but the more most ardent entomologist?

Well, the truth is, this book manages this with ease and flair.  To take a line from elsewhere, to actually say this is a book about Hoverflies is the same as saying Moby Dick is a book about whales.

While the author does spent time talking about Hoverflies, they are just a vehicle to explore beauty, fascination and the knowledge of place.  Some people travel far around the world to find these things, but others (including the author) find such things in the local and the small.

This is a really wonderful book about how close observation can lead to a larger understanding and a greater appreciation of the things around us.   

For those not fond of insects, there is actually far more to this book than just the consideration of Hoverflies – but I’m not going to talk about those.

Go read the book. Go find out for yourself.

Very Highly Recommended.

Uncommon Ground  - Dominick Tyler   5/5

Uncommon Ground is a simple book, with a grand purpose.   The underlying idea of this book, and a number of other recent publications, is that to be able to know a place you have to be able to describe it – and this means that unique places need unique words to describe them.

It’s a simple idea that was embraced unconsciously in the past in the development of dialect and vernacular.  Today, language seems more unified and less distinctive – and (according to the idea of this book) less able to describe the world in which we live.

Based on broad regions of the UK, the words in this book are drawn from a number of sources – history, geography, industry and even humour.

You may be able to tell, but I really liked this book – it’s a book that rewards browsing, but can also be read from cover to cover in a couple of evenings.  I started with the first and ended up doing the second.

I would suggest that if you are interested in the unique and varied nature of landscape, then this is a book you should read.  I would also suggest that if you don’t find the section on plastic bags in trees funny, you may need help!!

Highly Recommended.

The Gathering Tide - Karen Lloyd 4.5 /5

The Gathering Tide seeks to explore the shores – the ‘edgelands’ -  of Morecambe Bay’ – that much you get from the title.

This struck me as an interesting idea – there have been a few books that look at edges such as Edgelands and The Unofficial Countryside, both of which seek to look at generally overlooked landscapes.

This book takes a similar idea and turns it into really rather good travel writing.  The edge of Morecambe Bay is trapped between two huge landscapes, the expanse of the bay itself and the well-known and much loved hills of the Lake District.

In many ways I think this book is about the value of the local and the small – and the books journey takes along a narrow strip of landscape that may otherwise be overlooked.

I was lucky enough to live in this area years ago, and really liked the feeling of local knowledge that the book provides.  Although the content does stray away from the edges of the Bay at times this can be forgiven I think.  This is a book born of short walks, long views and local history.  It also seems to rain a good deal, which matches my memories of the area rather well!

A really rather wonderful book, that I would recommend highly.

Beyond the Fell Wall  - Richard Skelton  4.5/5

Drystone walls are a central element of many upland landscapes in the UK.  I was brought up with them on the Mendips in Somerset and they were a classic feature of the Lake District, where I lived for a while.

This little (less than 100 pages) book is a kind of homage to the walls of the Lake District.  This is not a book about how to build walls – it’s a book about the (possible) meaning and importance of walls.

With a mix of prose and poems the books explores how walls define, separate, protect and expose the living things around them.  It’s not a technical book, it’s an emotional book.

Although brief, the number of interesting ideas and turns of phrase it contains makes it more than worthwhile.

Highly recommended.

Village Christmas  - Laurie Lee  4.9 /5

This is a really splendid little book – 150 pages of quality and (for me) a feeling of nostalgia.

This is a book that is in love with the English countryside and the things that make (or maybe made) it special.  Laurie Lee needs no introduction as an author, and certainly not one from me, but I think this book contains the elements of his style that made him well known – a love of the local combined with a willingness to look beyond if needed.

The book is split into four sections based on the English seasons, with each section being about the same length.  There is snow, rain and the falling of leaves – none of which is unexpected.  But there is also humour, anger and passion.

The only thing I think is missing from the book is some indication of when the writing occurred – you can place the chapters to season but not to year.  I think the addition of a date would help in the interpretation of the writing – but this is both a minor and a personal point.

Highly recommended.

Walking the Woods and the Water -  Nick Hunt 4 /5

Walking the Woods and the Water is an account of a journey east through Europe.   The route of the journey is based on one walked in the 1930s by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which was described in three ‘classic’ volumes.

I’m not sure if you need to have read the original books to fully appreciate this this book, but I have not read them, and maybe this has coloured my thoughts on this current version.

I enjoyed this book, but I did find that it developed a rather familiar structure, in that there were just a few too many trips to the pub to sample local ales and not really enough historical context beyond that provided by the original books.

A few reviews have mentioned the ‘predictable’ political stance in the book – but I have to say the event when the author needs medical attention in Germany and gets it free of charge, is a notable example of where political predictability would seem to have a benefit.  Equally, the book, which is now a couple of years old, does seem to accurately identify the similarity of some aspects of European (and now world) politics that occurred in the 30s and today: growing calls for isolationism, the blaming of ‘others’ for all the worlds ills and an inward rather than outward view of the world.

I’m not sure the book is destined to be a classic, although its timing as a journey across Europe’s open boarders may make a volume that people look back on in the future.


Where Song Began -  Tim Low  4.5 /5

There are at least three reasons why I would recommend this book.

Firstly, although it clearly focuses on birds, there is enough additional information in this book about the ‘non-standard’ biology of Australia to make it worth reading simply for this aspect alone.

The second reason is the lucid way in which much of the current thinking about the evolution (or possibly more actually the radiation) of birds is presented.  Data based on DNA evidence and relationships can be rather overwhelming at times, but this is not the case in this book.

Thirdly, the book presents a wonderful case study of how prejudice and ‘narrow’ thinking can restrict the development of science.  In this case it was the preconception that Australia is a land of primitive and generally second-rate animals that hindered the development of our understanding of the role that Australia played in the development of songbirds.

So, is the book perfect?  Well, no its not.  At times I think that simply too many examples of biological relationships are used to make a point, so that the text feels like you are reading a list rather than a chapter. As a result I think the book may be about 20% too long.

That being said I would recommend the book most strongly:  I think it would be of interest to birders anywhere in the world, general natural history readers and in particular anybody wanting to find out more about Australian ecology.

Highly recommended.

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.

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. 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! :-)

  2. Great series of reviews, Stewart. No doubt you will wish to send me a copy of each book so that I may benefit from your excellent vetting. I will be keeping my eye out for a large parcel to arrive soon!