Monday, 24 July 2017

Review: Signal Failure

Signal Failure Signal Failure by Tom Jeffreys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One November morning Tom Jeffreys’ lifts his overloaded rucksack onto his back and starts walking the 119 miles to Birmingham from Euston Station with the intention of seeing for himself the effects the proposed new HS2 railway route will have on our country and landscape. High Speed 2 (HS2) is the new railway that will link London to Birmingham with further extensions planned to Leeds and Manchester. Even though the construction has been approved by parliament, the exact details of the route have not been finalised and are still open to modification and a fair amount of objection from residents. Supposedly work will begin this year…

He will pass out of the dynamic cityscape of London, onto what feels like the endless sprawl of suburbia and into the patchwork of fields and copses that make up our green and pleasant land. On the way he will meet locals who think it is a good idea, some who are so despondent with the plans that it has driven them to contemplate suicide, conservationists who are horrified with the impact on the wildlife and ancient woodland, which someone with a spreadsheet thinks can be just replanted with no ill effects… On the walk he hurts his knee, gets lost several times even really close to his home, consumes several pints in a variety of pubs, camps in fields and back gardens and gets spooked by a horse.

Jeffreys’ has blended the narrative of his walk, along with the history of the route with a contemporary view of the natural world that will be affected. He has been inspired by some fine authors, including Macfarlane and Jamie and it is written with wit and self-depreciating humour all the way through. More importantly this book is a polemic against the project that has really become a white elephant. It has reached such a momentum now that we are at the point where no one wants to stop and say – do we actually need this? Part of that is because of the vested interests of those that stand to make a lot of money from it and partly from those in charge who have a lot of political capital invested in it, was not surprised to read that some MP’s that have supported the project have managed to ensure that the route does not pass through their constituency. A sizable proportion of those he meets on the walk are not convinced that it is needed, many who are upset are those have moved out from the city to the relative peace of the countryside and are not looking forward to the construction nor the high speed trains running. However, there are some who think it is a good idea and will bring benefits. Definitely worth reading if you are concerned about the impact of the route.

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Saturday, 22 July 2017

Review: The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America's UFO Highway

The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America's UFO Highway The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America's UFO Highway by Ben Mezrich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chuck Zukowski has been fascinated by UFO’s for years. A computer programmer and geek, he has managed to persuade his family to accompany him on the trips out to Colorado visiting the locations of sightings and reports. However, things are about to take a disturbing turn as he begins to read about reports of horses and cattle that have been mutilated in very strange and inexplicable circumstances. Seeing the deceased animals on a ranch with a terrified owner adds a dramatic edge to the macabre scene.

What starts out as a weekend hobby though rapidly becomes an obsession that takes up all his free time and ever increasing amounts of his bank balance as he heads to locations across Utah, Colorado and Kansas seeking details and meeting the folks that have seen these strange lights and experienced strange things. The more he finds out the stranger things become. He starts working with the Mutual UFO Network, an organisation that his sister, Debbie, also is associated with and discovers that all suspicious sightings are reported to the Bigelow Aerospace Company, a mysterious organisation founded by Robert Bigelow to begin the private exploration of space, but who seem to have feelers into other pies now. His journey into the unknown takes us to sacred Indian sites, into forests seeking the source of strange lights in the sky, the infamous Roswell and to the very edge of Area 51.

There are moments of genuine bafflement as to what is going on; is it just government programmes or something of greater significance. He is trailed by SUVs with tinted windows and federal plates with the sinister ‘men in black’ guys who do their best to put him off continuing investigating the unexplained… I do like to read the odd conspiracy theory book, sometimes just for the entertainment factor. Mezrich thankfully lifts what could be a dull story about something that you really cannot get a handle on, to something quite readable and quite dramatic at times. Fairly sure there isn’t visitors from elsewhere, but there is definitely something happening with government heavies all over these reports and sightings.

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Thursday, 20 July 2017

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Review: Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe by Lisa Randall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sixty-six million years ago another day dawned over a Cretaceous earth. Life was carrying on as normal, but everything was about to change because heading towards the planet at an astounding speed was a ten-mile wide object. The impact of this object left a crater, traces of which can still be detected and managed to obliterate the dinosaurs and 75% of all the other species on the planet. The few that survived evolved into the huge variety that we have today and provided an opportunity for the mammal to thrive. It is now thought that this was not one of those, one in several million chance events, rather an effect of our solar system interacting with the wider universe and the gravitational influence of dark matter.

Randell has some interesting theories about dark matter, the pervasiveness of it in the universe and how the gravitational influence of dark matter causes disturbances in our galaxy and solar system. It is a substance that we know is there, but at present, we have no idea where it is, what it is or how to detect it. Quite elusive stuff, especially given how much of it there is out there. Randell writes with clarity on a difficult subject, although it is occasionally incomprehensible; but that is as much because I am fairly rusty at physics, rather than her explanations. She is well qualified to talk about this being Professor of theoretical particle physics and cosmology at Harvard, but this is one book that might be beyond the general science reader, even though they should probably give it a go.

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Sunday, 16 July 2017

Review: A Moment of War

A Moment of War A Moment of War by Laurie Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Lee had made his way to Spain. After travelling around the country before being evacuated home by the navy after the Spanish Civil War erupted. Back home in Gloucestershire Lee felt drawn to those fighting the Republican cause, and makes the decision to head back to Spain. Arriving in Perpignan in Southern France he is unable to find anyone to help him get across the border so decides to take a risk and cross the Pyrenees in a snowstorm.

After somehow making it safely across the mountains, he is arrested and imprisoned for being a spy. On the day that his execution was scheduled for, a chance encounter meant that he was released. Lee quickly joins the International Brigade, along with a motley rabble of men from all over the UK and other parts of Europe who felt drawn to the anti-fascist cause too. He was then given limited training, but was arrested again as a brief trip to Morocco when he was in Spain previously had made him a marked man.

He saw very little service, but did travel around to a few locations in the back of an army truck. After the first bombing of a town where he was staying, the realities of the harshness of war, stripped away any romantic notions that he may have still harboured about the fight that he had volunteered for. He has some very near misses, and the impression that you get from the Spanish is that they were not particularly enamoured about having soldiers of other nationalities there, as this was an internal fight that they had to go through. The book is written in Lee’s distinct eloquent style again, making this a pleasure to read even though the subject is not particularly savoury and a fitting end to the series.

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Friday, 14 July 2017

Review: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The year is 1934 and the 19 year old Laurie Lee is about to leave his Gloucestershire home, to walk to London. His mother feeds him his last breakfast, standing just behind him with a hand on his shoulder. Few words are spoken, but it is an emotionally charged goodbye. As he walks up the hill out of the village he glances back and waves, before walking away from the only place he has ever known. First though, he wants to see the sea, so heads towards Southampton through the English countryside just as summer is beginning. He scratched a living out by busking with his violin, before heading east along the coast and then North to London where he was to reunite with daughter of an American anarchist, Cleo. He gets a job as a labourer on a building site which enables him to stay in London and rent a room. As the building work reaches completion, he starts to consider where to go next, Europe beckons and he chooses Spain purely because he knows a single phrase in the language. A ticket is bought and the next stage of his journey begins.

Around a year after he left the village of Slad, he sets foot on Spanish soil for the first time and he sets off to explore the country. Wandering from place to place, he joins some German musicians in Vigo before moving onto Toledo where he stays with a poet from South Africa called Roy Campbell. Following a loose plan of walking around the coast of Spain takes him to Andalusia, Málaga and a brief sojourn into the British territory of Gibraltar. He finds work in a hotel over the winter and in the evenings joins the locals in a bar talking with them about the current political turmoil. Early in 1936 the Socialists win the election and the simmering tensions boil over into acts of revolt and then into open warfare. A British destroyer arrives to collect British subjects from coastal towns and villages and Lee says goodbye to Spain.

I felt it was for this I had come: to wake at dawn on a hillside and look out on a world for which I had no words, to start at the beginning, speechless and without plan, in a place that still had no memories for me.

Lee is a happy, go lucky, young man who is prepared to venture into a world that is utterly strange to everything that he has ever known. His naivety means that he sees everything with a fresh pair of eyes and by travelling light, it means that he can move on whenever it suits. Lee writes with an innocence and eloquence that brings alive the pre-civil war Spain. For me though the book had echoes of the great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor another young man who forged his way all across Europe in the 1930’s too. Was well worth reading.

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Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Review: Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands

Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands by Ben Coates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ben Coates hadn’t meant to go to the Netherlands, a flight was diverted and he ended up in Schiphol Airport with no hope of a flight out for a few days. Somewhere at the back of his mind he recalled having a contact in the country, so he gave her a ring to see if she could put him up for a couple of nights.

He’s never left.

When people think of the Netherlands, several national stereotypes would spring to mind; windmills, bicycles, tulips and Edam and that it was called Holland. These quintessential Dutch icons are all still there, but Holland is a district of the Netherlands. This small country is only twice the area of Wales (the default geographical unit of country size), but in all manner of ways its influence and success has always had a larger global presence than belies its size. One of the lowest nations on the planet has somehow managed to produce the tallest people, they are liberally minded and gregarious, up for parties and having a lot of fun whilst on the flip side taking a stern view on minor transgressions such as putting your bin out on the wrong day.

In this fascinating book about a fellow European country, Coates sets aside his English reserve and takes us beyond the classic tourist routes to see the other side to his adopted country. He is prepared to celebrate and share with us, the reader, what makes this a great country to live in, whilst also not being afraid to examine the darker sides of the Dutch history. We learn about the way that the Jewish population suffered greatly during the Second World War, with vast numbers of them sent to the camps in central Europe, why they seem to have a desire to eradicate the natural world, how they became so good at land reclamation, why they are so passionate about their football team and why they are so obsessed with the colour orange. Just how much Coates has gone native is evident when he returns to the UK to collect a new passport where he considers the common ground and the stark differences between the two countries. I have been to the Netherlands twice once to Delft and a second time to Amstelveen way back in the 1980’s, and I remember it being a special country, reading this book though makes me want to re-visit it again.

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