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Amy James

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Showing the Heavy Horse: An Exhibitor's Guide
Showing the Heavy Horse: An Exhibitor's Guide
by Edward Hart
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £35.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Authoritative and enjoyable guide to a little-known world..., 3 Sept. 2015
In some ways this is a hard book to review because it is, essentially, the ONLY comprehensive text on the subject. That said, if there were thirty books covering this topic, I feel it is unlikely that this one could be bettered.

A complete guide to the heavy horse from a showing perspective, written by a (much missed) gentleman who had a lifetime of practical experience and observation to draw on, this is a work which can be enjoyed as a handbook and as a mini-history of this fascinating subject. The book covers basics such as breed selection, grooming, shoeing and pasture management and takes a useful (if brief) digression into the specialist topic of breeding and rearing heavy horses. The author then covers vehicles, harness and driving, before moving onto preparation for the show ring and the show itself. He also lays out the rules and regulations for ploughing matches and gives some useful suggestions for show ring photography.

The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs, diagrams and reproductions of classic paintings. Many points such as the fitting of harness and the traditional plaiting turnouts are demonstrated with clear step-by-step photo sequences and the diagrams to illustrate how the reins are held for various hitches are masterpieces of clarity.

Perhaps the best thing about Showing The Heavy Horse (other than the beautiful layout) is the style in which it is written: authoritative, anecdotal and friendly. A truly wonderful book documenting a unique and rather magical world.

Dressage: A Guideline for Riders and Judges
Dressage: A Guideline for Riders and Judges
by Wolfgang Niggli
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £30.00

5.0 out of 5 stars A unique and helpful guide..., 31 Aug. 2015
This is a beautifully produced and serious book which has a lot to offer to both competitors and judges.

The text is divided into two sections, the first of which deals with the basic breakdown of any dressage test working logically from overall impressions up through basic movements and onward to the advanced elements of piaffe and passage. Each of these chapters is illustrated with fantastic photographs and clear helpful diagrams which demonstrate not only faults but also present an ideal for imitation. The chapter covering the paces is particularly clear on explaining exactly what judges are (or should be!) looking for in each of the types of pace. This section concludes with a fascinating discussion of judging freestyle competitions, including a reproduction of an FEI marking sheet for freestyle at Grand Prix level.

Part Two of the book is a detailed history of dressage at the Olympic Games which reproduces details of all the dressage tests at each Games from 1912-2000 and illustrates them with photographs of competitors, list of participating countries and the individual scores of the medal winners and their rivals. This whole section is strangely compelling reading...

For anyone involved in dressage, either as judge or rider, this is without doubt among the most helpful explanations of the all important difference between a 7 and an 8 for any movement. The book as a whole is a lovely big chunky thing with high production values and a clean intelligent layout. It would be nice though if perhaps the first half could be produced separately from the Olympic history section as a smaller volume at a lower price for the benefit of those who are not quite as thrilled by statistics and tables of data as some of us are!

Good Food: The Family Meal Planner: Thrifty recipes and 7-day meal plans to help you save time and money (Good Food Magazine)
Good Food: The Family Meal Planner: Thrifty recipes and 7-day meal plans to help you save time and money (Good Food Magazine)
by BBC Good Food Magazine
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.94

4.0 out of 5 stars Easy to use, attractive and full of good ideas., 28 Feb. 2015
An easy to use budget cookbook with some interesting recipes. I was recommended this book by a friend and have found it to be a reliable source of inexpensive and uncomplicated meals. A good mix of vegetarian and meat based ideas; although not all the recipes are to my taste (there is a strange emphasis on curried smoked fish...), many do require further seasoning to be of much interest, and some are just too simple (do we need a cookbook to tell us how to prepare pre-packaged tortellini?) but the majority are either usable as they stand or can be used as the basis for more adventurous meals - until looking through this book it had not, for example, occurred to me that a quick simple version of moussaka could be prepared on the hob for an easy post-work dinner. The strongest dishes in the book are the soups, all of which have so far been quite delicious. The book is well illustrated with attractive photographs of almost every recipe. This would make an excellent gift for a student, an inexperienced cook or anyone who has to put food on the table with limited time and money at their disposal.

Bitesize Cakes and Slices (Bitesize chunky series) (Cookery)
Bitesize Cakes and Slices (Bitesize chunky series) (Cookery)
by Murdoch Books
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Reliable, simple and tasty, 27 Feb. 2015
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Small but mighty! Every recipe that our household has tried from this attractive little book has been very easy to follow and the results have been - without exception - delicious. Perfect for baking with the whole family.

A Modern Herbal (Penguin Handbooks)
A Modern Herbal (Penguin Handbooks)
by Maude Grieve
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Modern Herbal, 14 Feb. 2015
An extremely comprehensive guide to over one thousand plants, each entry covering medical properties and constituents, folklore, historical references and cultivation. Worth the money just to have an easy reference source where the relevant Gerard, Parkinson and Culpepper extracts are supplied side-by-side for many standard plant remedies. Although a series of illustrations are provided in the form of black and white plates this is probably not the best stand-alone book for identification but in all other aspects this is an unparalleled resource for medicinal and botanical knowledge. The book is also a fount of arcane information which has a strangely addictive quality: this is the first herbal I have encountered that mentions boiling the roots of the common daisy in milk and feeding the liquid to puppies in order to miniaturise them... Be warned that the font size in this edition is quite small.

Fire from Heaven: Life of an English Town in the Seventeenth Century
Fire from Heaven: Life of an English Town in the Seventeenth Century
by David Underdown
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Dorchester Burning, 28 Jan. 2015
The setting is Dorchester, 1600 (later to be immortalised as Casterbridge in the novels of Thomas Hardy): a quiet, unremarkable and undistinguished country market town. In 1613 a terrible fire burned through the streets, destroying that settled predictable world, a disaster interpreted by the inhabitants as a judgement from God, a 'fire from Heaven'. In the coming years Dorchester would become a centre of radical religious thought, but also a place with a robust system of organised care for the sick and the poor, a place with inexpensive schools established for the local children, and a town linked strongly with the new Puritan communities springing up in the New World.

Underdown describes the effects of these changes, recreating individual characters and places through close analysis of primary sources. We meet the quarrelsome, the foolish, the well-meaning, the hopeless. We dwell on small details in the lives of citizens and visitors portrayed not as heroes or villains, but as people wrapped up in their own small myopic concerns. The battles fought within the town over drinking, festival customs and church-going mirror and illuminate the struggles taking place in the country as a whole as England moves ever closer to the upheavals of the mid-1600s. Change both religious and political is in the air and when the Civil War finally comes there is little doubt which way Dorchester will lean.

Fire from Heaven is not a 'popular history' as such, but still an interesting read with an unfortunate tendency to get bogged down in administrative detail. The nature of the sources means that characters appear and disappear within the narrative; it would have been fascinating to see what a less 'academic' historian would have done with this material. Best for those with an existing interest in the period, but also a good read into both the psychology and the practical evolution of change in urban communities.

The Levelling Sea
The Levelling Sea
by Philip Marsden
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The sea, the sea..., 28 Jan. 2015
This review is from: The Levelling Sea (Paperback)
A confession here to not being an unbiased reviewer: I own pretty much everything Philip Marsden has ever written and I adore almost all of it. Indeed The Chains of Heaven is among my favourite books Of All Time. For anyone who has not yet encountered his work, he's an English historian and anthropologist with a particular interest in Ethiopia and the Russian borderlands and the author of one rather lovely novel set on the Cornish coast (The Main Cages). Cornwall is his home-ground and perhaps his first love, so I was very much enthused by the prospect of this book, a detailed history of Falmouth and the long relationship of Cornwall with the sea. It's not disappointing. Gorgeous turns of phrase, some truly absorbing stories and poignant detail. There are some wonderful and strange characters (not least Falmouth itself), many of whom would merit a whole book to themselves (chiefly the enchanting Peter Mundy, an insatiably curious traveller and recorder of foreign shores appx 1600-1667 and the West African musician, composer and ex-slave Joseph Antonio Emidy). Marsden succeeds quite brilliantly in creating a very local history which looks out at the wider world as much as it looks in at the particular details of his home town and his own personal relationships to places and people. Could have been longer - a rare endorsement indeed!

Talking About Detective Fiction
Talking About Detective Fiction
by P. D. James
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Murder at the Vicarage, 17 May 2014
Oh, the wonderful, guilty enjoyment that is to be had in the consumption of detective novels! Delicious bite sized snacks, bursting with nostalgic delights, the page-turning thrills of the plot, the discovery of the vital clues, the characters lining up one by one. To be frank, I could exist very happily on a pretty much unvaried diet of Golden Age detective fiction and yet inwardly I know I Should Not. My moral compass is against it. It would be like confessing one reads only Heyer... a perfectly reasonable (and delightful) thing to do, but a behavioural trait apt to be harshly judged by other people. Although I cannot see exactly why: it's difficult to envisage many serious crimes being committed by a person living entirely in a world of Regency Romance...

In any case, there is much to be said for this slim but reassuring volume, a serious, incisive but friendly guide to the lures of the detective novel and the history of the genre, punctuated by reflections on her own experiences as a writer. With a sly sense of humour and a deep appreciation of her field, James leads us from the early days of Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle up to the present day, stopping off to admire the hard-boiled American stylings of Chandler and Hammett and, in the chapter Four Formidable Women, the great female writers of the Golden Age. She is perhaps at her best in her analysis of the very British 'country house murder', not only in investigating the ways in which writers have brought life and vitality to their intellectual puzzles, but in explaining their immense popularity:

"...they are novels of escape. We are required to feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy for the falsely accused. For whomever the bell tolls, it doesn't toll for us. Whatever our secret terrors, we are not the body on the library floor."

For James the success of the detective genre lies in the satisfaction of witnessing reason and rationality restoring order to a complicated world. Her book is packed with tempting recommendations for further reading and has the reassuring feeling of settling down for a cup of tea and a chat with a well informed and witty companion: her assessment of Jane Austen's Emma as a novel worthy of being numbered among the earliest works of detective fiction is both amusing and compelling. Who, I ask you, could resist a re-read with this new game in mind? I should add that later in the book James refers affectionately to Austen's works as Mills & Boon written by a genius...

The unabridged audio version, read in authoritative tones by Diana Bishop, is a dry, entertaining delight and well worth a listen even for those who have already tasted the pleasures of the book.

Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants
Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants
by Richard Mabey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Shrubbery of Unexpected Delights and Also Triffids, 17 May 2014
Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature is a book stuffed to the gunwales with endlessly re-tellable stories and factlets. An excellent representative of Mabey's brilliant non-fiction output, the narrow remit of Weeds perfectly suits his skills as a writer of beautiful entertaining prose and as an unparallelled linker of apparently unrelated trifles. By turns witty, informative and dazzlingly well read, Mabey is the perfect companion for this cultural odyssey into the natural world.

Full disclosure: As a lazy and economically challenged gardener with a tendency to embrace the appearance of weeds in my patch (all that ground-cover reduces watering on hot days, attracts beneficial wildlife and fills in the gaps where the plant budget runs out... right?) I am naturally delighted by arguments in their favour. And make no mistake, this is a book which comes out cheering on the side of the thistles and the tares. Lovers of hoed bare soil between regimented clumps of begonias should look away, or at least attempt to approach with a (wide) open mind.

Weeds has the merit of being both refreshingly funny and charmingly enthusiastic about the characters (both human and plant) that fill its chapters. Organised around individual plants, although always prone to digression, the book is beautifully produced and illustrated. It's also the kind of book that frequently sends the reader scurrying to the internet or home library in search of illustrations of the plants referred to in the text or pursuing more elusive quarry: Janet Malcolm's burdock portraits or Simon Starling and his Island For Weeds.

As Mabey observes, the names of weeds have the character of found poetry: rosebay willowherb, scarlet pimpernel, green alkanet, fuller's teasel. In his monumental Flora Britannica he collected the common names of many of the British species of wayside plant; names that reflect historical uses and forgotten customs as well as the sense of place and familiarity created by a local weed population. Here he speaks of the fondness people feel even for invasive foreign plants such as Indian balsam (perhaps more commonly known as policeman's helmet) and quotes the lovely Ann Stevenson poem (Himalayan Balsam) likening the scent of the plant to that of "a girl's breath through lipstick".

As Mabey outlines in his opening chapter:

"How and why and where we classify plants as undesirable is part of the story of our ceaseless attempts to draw boundaries between nature and culture, wildness and domestication. And how intelligently and generously we draw those lines determines the character of most of the green surfaces of the planet."

Confidently covering the criss-crossing trails of botany, gardening, farming, art, religion and popular culture, Weeds opens up the paradox of our own attitudes to weeds while allowing the plants the dignity of their own eloquent histories. From Culpeper to Ruskin to John Wyndham, this is a smart, wise and fascinating look into a world both foreign and familiar.

The Butterfly Isles: A Summer In Search Of Our Emperors And Admirals
The Butterfly Isles: A Summer In Search Of Our Emperors And Admirals
by Patrick Barkham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars A Noble Quest, 17 May 2014
The Butterfly Isles is the intertwined narrative of the history of Britain's butterflies, the people who have studied, pursued and conserved them, and one man's quest to see every species in the UK over the course of one summer.

At heart the book is a sweet affectionate story about a man and his father coming together in a very British manner - on the further shores of a mutual obsession with their butterfly nets and binoculars in hand. On some levels the book could equally well have been about steam trains or plane-spotting. Butterflies lend themselves particularly well to this format because the list of British species (59 in total with additional migrants) is so seemingly manageable and offers up such a self-contained challenge for the author.

On his journey Barkham meets a delightful collection of enthusiasts, naturalists and scientists, both past and present; who could resist the image of Siegfried Sassoon wobbling dangerously atop a chair attempting to capture a Camberwell Beauty in the eaves of his attic? The butterflies themselves become larger than life characters, each with a personality of their own, from the cheerful, friendly Hedge Brown to the rough, tough (and massively endangered) Duke of Burgundy.

It's an enchanting record of the lovely, romantic, wild places in the countryside where butterflies can be found, but also a book which delights in the sight of a Painted Lady flying through central London and the (once extinct) Large Blue thriving on sun-baked railway embankments. Barkham has the rare gift of being able to talk lucidly about conservation and climate change without preaching, and of inspiring other people to give greater value and worth to these fragile insects.

Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of the book are the coloured plates illustrating each of the butterfly species found in the text, making it easy to visualise each animal as you read, along with a selection of the author's own photographs. It should also be noted that there is a quite wonderful annotated bibliography which is a real pleasure to linger over and something many books of this kind either lack altogether or offer in only the most basic form.

Touching, funny and informative: my only real regret is that so many of the delicious books he quotes from in the text, particularly those of the Victorian butterfly collectors (Philip Allan, after getting drenched on a cycling tour of Devon: "So I lay naked in bed until a pretty young maid came in with my clothes... I told her not to be in a hurry to go...", Alfred Russell Wallace getting so excited over the capture of a giant Birdwing butterfly that he took a funny turn and had to go and lie down, Henry Guard Knaggs literally letting the (very dead) cat out of the bag in an attempt to nab a Purple Emperor...) are out of print.

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