Monday, 16 October 2017

Review: As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books by Alex Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

It was Alex Preston’s Aunt that foster his love of the natural world and birds in particular. But in his teenage years, skateboarding and listening to Niverna was considered much cooler by his peers than being stuck in a draughty hide. This passion was suppressed but it never went away. Instead, Preston was drawn into an avian world between the covers of books where the poetry and writings from luminaries such as Dillard and Fiennes, Hardy and Hughes. It took another decade and a half for him to feel comfortable in the things that he wanted to do and this reignited his desire to watch birds again.

Taking us through twenty-one birds as exotic as the blue streak that is the kingfisher and the inspiration for the title of the book, the tiny wren, and the speed of the swifts, Preston extols the virtues of each, weaving in poetry and prose taken from the books that made an impact as he grew up. There are personal stories too, his father with cancer, being alone deep into Russia and his wedding in December. All of these memories are written with a stark honesty.

Each of the twenty-one chapters is fronted by a breath-taking image created by the graphic artist Neil Gower. These full sizes colour plates show the bird is a typical scene, a peregrine in a stoop, the murmurations of the starlings, Skylarks float over golden fields and the silence of the barn owl. Scattered throughout are black and white sketches of the birds and other objects, even the endpapers are a thing of beauty; the kingfishers that make up the pattern are caught by Gower in that moment as they dive to fish. Whilst I have read some of the books that he mentions in the text I now have a longer list of items that I want to read. Preston has got to the very essence of what makes the natural world and birds in particular necessary to make ourselves whole. The book is so well produced, with its spectacular cover, high quality pages and tactile binding. It is a joy to hold and a delight to read.


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Saturday, 14 October 2017


Review: Exit West

Exit West Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In an unknown city in Asia, Saeed and Nadia slowly become aware of each other. Their meeting over a coffee is where their story begins, and slowly they start to see each other more. But in a city that is full of tension and with the low-level conflict threatening to erupt into full-scale war, their moments of intimacy are what keeps them sane. Inevitable their greatest fears are realised and civil war commences. Family members are lost in the crossfire, and they know that they need to escape to try and make something of their love and lives. Passing through a door, they end up in a European country. The battle is no more, but as aliens in a strange land, the violence may have ended but hate has not. Making the most of their lives they scratch out an existence before the opportunity for another life through another door beckons.

It is a strangely beautiful book, whilst also being heart-wrenching. Hamid has written a microcosm of the world’s troubles seen through the eyes of a couple who seek companionship as much as they do love and has come up with a metaphor for the current and growing refugee crisis. These people are often here because they have no choice, don’t particularly want to be here and would rather be in their home country living peacefully as they once did. It hovers on the edge of science and dystopian fiction with the ability of Saeed and Nadia pass through doors to other places and the way that the states they inhabit are full of drones and pervasive surveillance. I am a big fan of those type of novels, but this part jarred with the intensity of the rest of the prose on how innocent people are forced to makes these changes to their lives just to exist. It is thought-provoking though and I have a feeling that it will be a book that will rumble around in my subconscious for a while. 3.5 stars.

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Thursday, 12 October 2017

Review: Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past

Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past by J.M.R. Higgs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

It is easy to be complacent about the amount of history we have on this little island of ours. The layers are draped over our landscapes and towns and if you know where to look, the past is startlingly visible. Some of our roads go back to before Roman times, and these have become historical sites in their own right. These include Ermine Street and Icknield Way, the Ridgeway and of course one of Britain's oldest roads, Watling Street. This trackway can be still travelled along in its modern incarnations as motorways and A roads and reaches in a huge logarithmic arc from Dover to Anglesey.

As the path became a trackway the name of the land it passed through changed names. Invaders came and turned it into a road whilst making it straighter and at some point in the distant past, it gained a name; Watling Street. It has seen a lot of history in its time, it is the place that spelt the end to Boudicca, it has heard the chatter of machines decoding secrets and seen the landscape surrounding it change as people have sculpted it to their needs. It has seen myths and legends created and destroyed, and had the lowest in the land to the Royal bloodline travel along its route.

Nowadays it is the same as every other road, with its grey asphalt, pale lines and unnecessary amounts of road furniture, but it still carries people to places that they need to go to. As Higgs travels along it, he peels back the layers that have made us who we are, goes to the significant milestones of history along the route and contemplates how this one road can be a metaphor for who we are and who we may become in this post-Brexit age. It is a difficult book to pigeonhole too, partly history book, partly polemical, a smattering of personal memoir and a draught of nostalgia is probably the best way of describing this. He writes with enthusiasm about the places and people that he encounters on his journey with the odd funny anecdote and sharp wit. However, there is more to this book than that, it is an insightful guide to the current state of the nation and our present psyche. Higgs doesn’t have all the answers, but it is a whimsical look at our country.

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Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Review: Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey In Russian History

Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey In Russian History Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey In Russian History by Rachel Polonsky
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Moscow is a city with layers and layers of secrets and history. Along with other cities in Russia, there has been a level of impenetrability and this mystic has made them a source of fascination for all outsiders. Rachel Polonsky, a British journalist, was fortunate to live in Moscow for a number of years, and where she lived had previously been home to some the elite of the Soviet era. One of those was Vyacheslav Molotov, a man responsible for condemning hundreds to exile to Gulags and almost certain death. Polonsky discovers that his apartment in the block contains a substantial library full of books, some of which were written by those that he despatched to Siberia and an old magic lantern. This discovery that Molotov was a bibliophile was quite startling inspired Polonsky to voyage find the stories hidden in Siberia, to venture into the Arctic Circle, travel across the steppes and into the forests surrounding Moscow.

This is a book that is full of detail of the people and the events that made the Russia revolution and the grip that the totalitarian state had on the people of Russia. Whilst she ventures far into the past of the country and writes about the complex relationships that had developed from the iron grip that Stalin had on the country, there is not as much on her travels around Russia that I would have liked, though it does give a flavour of contemporary Russia. Her prose is incredibly dense, but this is as much from the subject matter, as it is her style. Definitely a book for those that have a fascination with Russia and its history rather than being a travel book for a wider readership. 2.5 stars.

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Thank you to Chatto and Windus for this lovely book

Sunday, 8 October 2017


Thanks to Granta for this:

Review: He Said/She Said

He Said/She Said He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The evening after a total eclipse, Laura happens upon a couple in the middle of what seems to be an intimate moment. However, things are not as they seem, as when she sees the terror on the woman’s face and as she realises what she has seen, she makes a hurried call to the police. The man runs off into the crowd and is soon lost to Kit. The police arrive and take over, soon after they apprehend the man. As key witnesses, they attend the trial and in a moment of anger, Laura tells a lie under oath to see him convicted.

The victim of the attack, Beth, started following them and befriended Laura, but there reached a point where her attention was becoming obsessive and after the fire, Kit and Laura live under assumed names. Kit is off to see an eclipse on the Faroe Isles and Laura is going to be at home as she is carrying twins; this is the time that they need to be most vigilant as Beth will try to find them once again. Things are not as they seem though as in the shadow of the eclipse you never see all the detail.

I am not a big reader of thrillers, preferring to find my excitement in real life adventure. However, I thought that this was a good page turner where the twists keep on coming thick and fast in this book right up to the final few pages. In fact, it all seemed disturbing plausible bar one scene. Wasn’t keen on the way it jumped back and forth between the different years but didn’t mind the way the story was told from Kit and Laura’s perspectives. Pretty good thriller overall.

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Friday, 6 October 2017

Review: A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea

A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea by David Vann
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

David Vann is on holiday in Turkey when he comes across a 90-foot yacht for sale. In an impetuous moment, he decides that this boat will be the one that helps him fulfil his long-held desire to own a boat of his own. He manages to raise $150,000 after begging and borrowing money from family and friends and maxing out his credit cards and sets about repairing and renovating the boat. The only problem is that the guy who runs the boatyard sees him as an easy target and ends up charging him half a million dollars for what is frankly an appalling job. With his out of control debt and the stress of everything, he wonders if he is going to follow the same tragic path as his father
But finally, he has his boat and the beginnings of a business. Sailing with a crew they are hit by a huge storm that destroys their rudder. Helpless and at the mercy of the storm, a ship comes alongside to tow them to safety. Alive but boat less, he manages to forget about anything marine for a while until another opportunity arises and he buys another boat.

There were some parts about this book that I liked and there was a fair amount that grated. You could tell he was going to be ripped off from day one on his renovations on the vessel, and whilst you need to trust those that are doing work for you, he seemed to have an unbelievable level of naivety. What salvages the book though is the description and drama of what are completely terrifying moments of almost-disaster at sea. It is worth reading just for those parts. Overall not bad, but not great.

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Thursday, 5 October 2017

Review: The Secret Life of Cows

The Secret Life of Cows The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Most people probably don’t even consider where the milk comes from when they reach to get it from the fridge for their morning cuppa. When they do venture into the countryside, the may be vaguely aware of these black and white animals in the fields as they flash past in the car. It is only when they have left the climate controlled atmosphere that they realise quite how big they are. Sadly, modern factory farming sees them as machines to either pump milk from or to be dosed full of antibiotics to grow at a rapid rate for slaughter.

At Kite’s Nest Farm, Rosamund Young sees all her animals in a very different way, and her cows hold a special place in her heart. Each cow is named and rather than being forced to stay in a single field, they are allowed to roam freely around the farm so they can find the best grass or shelter as necessary. This freedom, coupled with the fact they there are not treated as commodities, means that their own personalities shine through. Her observations have shown that they are capable of forming life-long friendships, can hold grudges, play games when younger and grieve when another in the herd dies and in their own way can communicate with us mere humans.

In this gently written, quirky and charming little book, Young sets about rewriting everything that you thought that you knew about cattle. In telling the stories of her animals, there are amusing anecdotes, moments of sadness and examples that show just how highly intelligent they can be. They seek out the plants that can help them when they are ill, and many of them know when to approach the family for extra assistance. This a book that is strangely moving and shows what can be gained from treating animals with the respect that they deserve and is a compelling case against the horrors of factory farming. 3.5 Stars

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Wednesday, 4 October 2017


Thank you to Picador, Eland and Elliot and Thompson for these wonderful books

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Monthly Muse – September

Had been hoping to read quite a lot of books in September, but only managed 17. Quite a lot, but still have somewhat of a backlog! Bar the single book, they were all really good this month. Here they are in all their splendour:

September is the month where the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2017 is announced. I had already read two from the shortlist of six, read one in August and that left three to read. First was Beyond Infinity by Eugenia Cheng an exploration of the mathematics behind the largest numbers that humanity can imagine. For a maths book, it wasn’t bad, but she didn’t have the clarity of someone like Marcus du Sautoy. In Pursuit of Memory by Joseph Jebelli is his personal and professional story about the debilitating disease that is Alzheimer’s. In Other Minds, (thanks to William Collins for helping me out with a copy) Peter Godfrey-Smith looks at the way that our minds have developed when compared to an Octopus and how evolution has solved the same problems in two different ways. I thought that the best of the shortlist was In Pursuit of Memory, but the prize was won by Cordelia Fine and her book, Testosterone Rex and the exploration of gender.

I had quite a UK centric month in September. Mychael Barratt has compiled a book full of facts in London: Maps of Days. Each day of the year has an event or anecdote that has taken place and all are accompanied by his artworks. From Source to Sea by Tom Chesshyre is an account of his walk from the first place that the Thames emerges from the ground to the edge of the estuary where it empties into the North Sea. Surrounding London and other cities is an area of land that has been designated Green Belt. In Outskirts, John Grindrod looks at the way this has been developed from a Victorian idea to a fundamental part of our built environment. Woven in this social history is Grindrod’s own family history and the memories of his childhood growing up on the edge of urban Croydon.

I joined Jonathan Bennett on his surfing journey in Around the Coast in Eighty Waves. I can’t surf but really enjoy reading about the lifestyle and the vibe. That was one of my #WorldfrommyArmchair reads. The other was Travels in a Dervish Cloak about Isambard Wilkinson’s time spent in Pakistan. It is a wonderful set of stories as he tries to find if the original culture is still present after the draping of Islam over the country.

Coronet kindly sent me Megan Hine’s first book, Mind Of A Survivor. She is an outdoor adventurer who has scaled mountains and survived jungles and worked as a consultant on some of Bear Grylls TV series. In this book, he looks at the ways that a learning survival methods at a weekend can be applied to everyday situations in the home and office. Ruth Fitzmaurice has her hands full. Not only does she have five, yes five children, but her husband suffers from Motor Neurone disease and is wheelchair bound and can only communicate with his eyes. I Found My Tribe is a poignant account of her family life and the tribe of women that she swims in Greystones, Co. Wicklow with to maintain some semblance of balance in her life.

Only managed to read two fiction books this month. The first was sent to me inadvertently by Granta (thank you) and was the debut novel by Eli Goldstone, Strange Heart Beating. Seb loses his wife Leda in a freak accident and in the process of grieving realises that he knew less about her than he thought. He travels to Latvia to uncover her past and find the man who sent her the letters that she never opened. Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent is a story about an author who is not the person people think he is. The book starts with a brutal attack, and from this savage event, his own personal life unravels as we discover the history behind his deception.

Managed to read three natural history books. A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Wild Gatherings by Matt Sewell is an art book combined with the collective names we give to all sorts of animals. So if you want to know what a load of crows or sparrows is called, then this is the book for you. Every Little Toller Book that I have read so far has been with it for the time invested and the reprint of Island Years, Island Farm by Frank Fraser Darling is no exception. For each seaon on the equinox or mid summer and winter I have been starting the series of season books published by Elliot and Thompson. They are delightful collections of themed writings of classic and contemporary work edited by Melissa Harrison. On the 21 st September I started Autumn and it met all my expectations again. Buy them if you can.

The Internet Is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen is an an interesting take on the state of the net and some of the subjects reported in the book are quite eye opening, worth reading. My miss of the month was A Mile Down by David Vann, though the description of the two storms he went through read like a thriller, but his naivety was quite shocking.

Solid month of reading there, and October is shaping up to be great too and I am endeavouring to work my way through my massive backlog of review books (and the odd library one).