Sunday, 25 June 2017

Review: The Peregrine

The Peregrine The Peregrine by J.A. Baker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Peregrines are one of the most impressive apex predators in this country, but it is one that we almost lost because of pesticides and persecution. They are bold, confident birds, fearing nothing else and can also claim to be the world’s fastest animal as they have been recorded at speeds in excess of 200mph in their stoop to kill their prey. Two things saved them, the banning of pesticides and they moved from the rural to the urban environment, skyscrapers replacing the cliff top eyries.

Half a century ago, J.A. Baker first published this book on these magnificent birds. The book is written as a diary, with him following on foot and bicycle a tiercel and a falcon pair over the winter over the fields and fens of Essex, he would note on his OS maps when he saw them, the prey that they had caught, and general notes on the weather and sky. What started as a fascination with all of the raptors in the region, rapidly became a passion before becoming a complete obsession. He learnt the peregrines habits, sought out their roosts and before long his knowledge of them grew to become an innate ability to know where and when they would appear.

This is the second time I have read The Peregrine, the first time was back in 2011. Since then I have managed to work my way through an awful lot of natural history books by a lot of authors, a lot of which have been good, all the authors have been passionate about their chosen subject, but none have had that obsession that Baker has. What also strikes me about this book though, is just how sharp it still is, Baker writes with brevity, precision and a style that is quite unique and uncompromising. It pulls no punches either, this in not a sanitised volume on the grace and power of the raptor, you will hear a lot about the remains of their meals is all the gory detail. What you do get though is an observer who completely understands his subject describing that moment when they stop soaring about the fens and start the hunt to the sheer adrenaline of the stoop. It is a snapshot of the time when the peregrine was on the edge of the abyss, somewhat abated now, but not completely safe. If you have not read this before then this 50th-anniversary edition with the thoughts of two other great writers, Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane included, is a great place to start.

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Saturday, 24 June 2017

Review: To be a machine

To be a machine To be a machine by Mark O'Connell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nowadays technology is pervasive; you are rarely more than a few feet away from a smartphone or some sort of internet-enabled device. But there are some people out there who want to take it further, much, much further. Not only do they want to embrace technology, but quite a few of them want to actually inhale it; to change their bodies, improve their minds, maybe even become immortal. These people are looking beyond humanity; these people want to be transhuman.

O'Connell poses the question; what is next for humanity? To answer this question will take him all around the world to meet the weird, the wonderful and the slightly disturbed people who are trying to answer it. He visits the DARPA Robotics Challenge to meet engineers who are building the next generation of robots that are capable of learning and have awareness of their surroundings, a frightening thought when you consider the implications. He visits a cryogenics company who will remove and store your head with the promise that it will be available should the technology reach the point where it can resuscitate you, something that no one can predict if this will ever happen at this current moment. Teenagers seem perfectly happy to be constantly holding a phone, but there are those that want the technology to be always available and who are hacking their own bodies to install home-made electronics within themselves. Some are seeking immortality and are looking for ways to postpone death indefinitely and there are those that see that immortality should be capturing the mind and uploading it as you would do with photos.

These concepts that O’Connell explores on his journey through transhumanism are starting to move from the pages of science fiction into the mainstream. We already have athletes that compete in the Paralympics that are capable of equalling regular competitors and as our trust grows in technology we are looking at ways of enhancing our humanity. We, as a species, have many limitations, but the one we do not lack is imagination. Turning those ideas that the people in this book have into practical solutions is another level up on where we are at the moment, but humanity is nothing but ingenious. As an electronics and mechanical engineer this book both fascinates and terrifies me at the same time (am I the only one who had the name Skynet pass through my mind). There is the potential of the enhancements that can change people’s lives for the good, but there are lots of very real problems that need to be addressed. No one can categorically say if these things will work, or if they will benefit us, or what the implications are of submitting our lives to the responsibility of robots helpers will be. An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us. 3.5 Stars.


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Thursday, 22 June 2017

Review: Glass Half Full: The Ups and Downs of Vineyard Life in France

Glass Half Full: The Ups and Downs of Vineyard Life in France Glass Half Full: The Ups and Downs of Vineyard Life in France by Caro Feely
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When we reach into the cupboard for a glass and into the fridge for the bottle that has been chilling, most of us never consider the amount of effort and worry that has gone to get that perfect glass of wine. Any number of factors through the year can affect the quality and quantity of grapes that get harvested, you need the right amount of sun, rain at the right time and to keep a careful eye on the vines as they flourish and grow. But a late autumn thunderstorm can bring the horror that is hail and you can see all your hard work shredded in moments.

Chateau Feely is the vineyard that Caro Feely runs with her husband Seán. Buying the estate was a decision of the heart rather than the mind, but they have become established as an organic and biodynamic vineyard with recognition and awards for their wines as well as running a successful business with wine tours, holiday accommodation and vineyard experiences. Whilst their wine is created in balance with the environment, the strains of family life and the business and along with the added emotional roller coaster that Caro is going through begin to show. They conclude that they need their first member of staff.

Glass Half Full is the third in the series of books by Caro about the pleasure and pain of running your own vineyard. It is full of stories and anecdotes in the larger context of overall life it is as readable as the first two books. It has happy moments and sad moments, as you would expect with any book about family life. She is open about her fears and aspirations for the business in this book, and we get to read how the mental and physical effort required takes its toil; it takes long days of work to grow the business. There are positives too, living in a small community just outside Bordeaux and the delights of French cuisine are an important part of the story. She hints at another book in the pipeline, so that is something to look forward to.

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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Review: Dadland: A Journey into Uncharted Territory

Dadland: A Journey into Uncharted Territory Dadland: A Journey into Uncharted Territory by Keggie Carew
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tom Carew was quite an amazing guy; at the age of 24 he parachuted into Nazi-occupied France as part of a secret operation with the codename Jedburgh. As secret agents went, he was bold and talented and unbelievable brave and caused lots of disruption; he even managed to escape from the Germans after having been captured. Having completed a successful mission he next destination was Burma, a place that would forge his reputation, making him somewhat of a legend as ‘Lawrence of Burma’ or the ‘Mad Irishman’. His exploits culminated in the award of a Distinguished Service Order (DSO), the youngest officer to ever obtain this.

To Keggie though he was just her dad. She was proud of his record during the war, even though she didn’t always understand what he had done, nor the significance of his actions. He had a liberal view of school, taking her out to take part in activities and providing the school with dubious reasons why. Her parents then split, and with the arrival of a step-mother on the scene, it meant that the strong bond she once had with her father, had gone. This gap lasted far too long, but in 2003 her step mother passed away and they pretty much picked up where they left off. She accompanied him to a Jedburgh reunion to meet up with lots of other veterans, their attitude to life and refusal to defer to authority was quite refreshing and it prompted Keggie to start to begin to sift through the files in his loft to learn more about his wartime antics. What suddenly made this uncovering of her father’s history more urgent was that Tom had suffered a series of small strokes and was starting to show signs of the long decline into dementia. And as Tom’s memories ebbed away, Keggie began to recover them through the documents.

It is a complex story that Keggie tells about her father and family. She weaves together the plight of her father as he forgets who his children are with the drama and excitement of the behind lines war activities. He was quite an amazing man and his military achievements gained him a DSO, but after the war, he found it hard to settle into regular life as a civilian. Even in his care home, he managed to cause a certain amount of chaos. Keggie’s writing is immersive and at times dense, the section about his military work in Burma was almost as hard to get through as hacking your way through a jungle there, but she writes with a warmth and generosity about her father, a man who was a genuine character and hero.

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Thursday, 15 June 2017

Review: Walking the Nile

Walking the Nile Walking the Nile by Levison Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are a handful of rivers that are globally known, the Amazon which spans the continent of South America and the Nile which reaches deep into Africa. It is a river that has continually challenged explorers who have dared to take it on, not all of whom have mastered it, it is 4250 miles long after all. Levison Wood decided to walk its length. Not only is it an epic challenge in its own right but he would have to pass through jungles, savannahs, crocodile infested swamps, and one of the world’s hottest deserts, some of the most hostile environments in Africa as he walked north to the Mediterranean. Not only that but the seven countries that he would walk through are some of the most troubled and dangerous places on the planet.

Thankfully Wood as an ex-army officer is a tough character and he was going to need all the skills that he learnt there to keep the physical and mental strength up. As he walks we get a commentary on the state of modern Africa as seen from the people making a living there, rather than the sanitised reports that you will read here. He doesn’t walk alone as he has guides and is joined by friends at various points of the journey.

The rest of me was scattered, back across Africa, back along the river from which I had come

Wood is an amiable bloke who can make friends quickly and has a knack of diffusing tensions when they do arise. It is an unbelievably tough journey that took no prisoners full of euphoric moments and tragedy. He took a huge personal risk in undertaking this walk, the threats were real and present every single day, but all the way though the book he shows grit, determination and resilience with all the challenges that Africa throws at him. A genuine tough guy and a great adventure book. 4.5 stars

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Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Review: The Art of Losing Control: A Guide to Ecstatic Experience

The Art of Losing Control: A Guide to Ecstatic Experience The Art of Losing Control: A Guide to Ecstatic Experience by Jules Evans
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Humans have always had the desire to seek experiences out beyond their comfort zone. Some of these can be a real benefit to people; a shared experience in a crowd, commune with a greater spirit and those most intimate of moments can generate a real buzz. They can though be dangerous as individuals can become addicted and lose touch with their closest friends. The search for ecstasy had been mostly disregarded by western intellectuals as they looked to enlightenment for answers. Philosopher Jules Evans thinks that ecstasy needs to play a larger part in human emotional development and he decides to try as many ways possible in the search for that perfect moment.

Evans decides the best way of exploring how people react to ecstasy is to experience all of these things for himself. Starting with Holy Trinity Brompton, he undertakes an Alpha course in the search for religious joy, moves onto the thrall of the mosh pit and musical enlightenment, discovers the allure of the silver screen, takes time to consider his position in the universe, seeks harmony with nature, before tentatively venturing into the tantric love temple in Dorset of all places. The future does not escape either, whether it is seeking a transhumanist philosophy and become immortals or to lose themselves in the binary worlds or cyberspace where no one knows you’re a cat.

As the search for the ecstatic experience grows, Evans has provided the closest that we have got to a guide to losing control. He argues that it can be beneficial to us as individuals as well as society as a whole but that there are caveats. He comes from a philosophical background making parts of the book occasionally quite esoteric, but there are some funny moments in the book and generally it is well written and understandable. By undertaking these series of strange and occasionally enlightening experiences gives him a greater authority to provoke a discussion in this book and gives us plenty of food for thought.

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Monday, 12 June 2017

Monthly Muse – May


Where are the days going? I though at the end of May, I’ll write this in a few days after the 31st and bang we are all of a sudden on the 11th June! Anyway here we are again. Managed to read 16 books in May. The majority of what I read was natural history, two or three travels books some memoirs and the odd fiction and science fiction thrown in for good measure. These are the quite beautiful covers:
















For me best of the bunch was Wild Kingdom by Stephen Moss. Written in his engaging style he takes us around the UK looking at the state of the wildlife and the success stories and where things hang in the balance. Chris Packam’s memoir was a very intense read indeed, as an Asperger’s sufferer he was never really fully understood, which made for a sometimes traumatic childhood. Petley had a very different childhood growing up in post-war Kent, one that formed the person that he is today. Gurdon was a seventies child, and his obsession was with cars of any colour make and type, it did make for very funny reading though.

The Clocks in This House all Tell Different Time is Xan Brooks debut novel. Reading it was a surreal experience as you get further in you realise just what is happening to the main characters and was set in Epping Forest, tied in nicely to Strange Labyrinth which I read last month. Empire Games was one of those books that messes with your head, as all good sci-fi should do, with parallel worlds and sophisticated spy agencies. I also finished my second Anne Dillard book that I had been kindly sent by Canongate. She is a wonderful, perceptive and eloquent author and I cannot wait to read more of her work. Norman Lewis was a discovery too, I had not read any of his, and this one provided by Eland was quite special. Really enjoyed Pedal Power, a summary of all things cycling, and the Swordfish and the Star provided a very different perspective on the Cornish coast.

Where Poppies Blow was a different take on the horrors of World War One as Lewis-Stempel writes about the comfort that the soldiers took from the natural world around them. The Nature of Autumn is the second of Jim Crumbly’s books that I have read, he is a fine author as also Matt Merrit is as he takes us around the country in search of the spectacular bird displays that we have in the UK.

Favourite covers were Island home and A Sweet Wild Note, both beautifully done and stunning foil blocking to make them sparkle. Overall a great month of reading, not a single bad book amongst them.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Review: Orison for a Curlew

Orison for a Curlew Orison for a Curlew by Horatio Clare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the world’s rarest birds is the Slender-billed curlew. It breeds in Siberia in the brief summer and then heads south across the vast landscape to over winter in the much warmer Mediterranean region. It used to be a common enough bird, being seen often in Italy and Greece as well as the Balkans on the wetlands and estuaries. Then within a few years it stopped being a regular sight and almost vanished completely, just the odd speculative glimpse, but nothing confirmed. Horatio Clare wants to see if this fine bird has become extinct, or if there are the still some around. He travels from its wintering sites across Europe meeting conservationists who are trying their best to save habitats and creatures across a landscape undergoing dramatic changes.

Too much certainty is a miserable thing, while the unknowable has a pristine beauty and a wonder with no end.

Clare is engaging with all those he meets as he crosses Europe looking for these elusive birds and talking to those that remember them returning in the winters. It is quite a moving book as he searches for the elusive curlew and considers the reasons behind the decline. There are echoes of his book, A Single Swallow, and it is written in the same lyrical style, making this a joy to read. If it has one tiny flaw it is that it is very short, it felt like it took no time at all to read. 4.5 stars

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