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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
Price: £7.99

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: £6.29

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: £6.99

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.


The Life of an Unknown Man
The Life of an Unknown Man
by Andreï Makine
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The Wisdom of Simple Happiness, 17 May 2014
A story within a story, Makine's short novel opens in the Parisian garret of the struggling writer Shutov, a Russian exile wallowing in his descent into self pity and caricature (his young beautiful French girlfriend is leaving him for another man, his writing has stultified, his career is only afloat on the reputation of his early works and he has become crippled by homesickness). We follow Shutov as he travels back to Russia, in search of Yana, the girl he once loved, and his rose-tinted memories of a country that he realises no longer truly exists. Even Yana herself has changed: from an idealistic student into a brash confident business woman, a partisan of the modern St Petersburg and the new capitalist Russian ethos.

While staying in the communal flat that she is renovating into a spacious modern apartment for herself and her family, Shutov discovers that the last of the original tenants is still in his old room, waiting to be moved out to a housing project. As a favour to Yana's son Shutov agrees to babysit the bedridden old man for an evening and it is then that Volsky, this supposedly deaf-mute Red Army survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, tells his story and the story of the love of his life, Mila.

Volsky and Mila are survivors and their love story is both brutal and tender. Every detail of their relationship is unflinchingly described, from their days as carefree young people nibbling pastries before the War, through the bleak horrors of starvation in the siege of Leningrad, the March on Berlin and their attempts to build themselves a life after the War ends. There are moments of extraordinary happiness and beauty mixed with the most terrible descriptions of human suffering. Death "ceases to surprise". Through it all they find each other and in each other a quiet strength.

The novel is in its own way a history of 20th century Russia, wrapped up in an extraordinarily affecting love-story. It's also a carefully plotted parable: a clever trick played on the reader. The tone of the opening section, the distaste we feel for Shutov's trivial, endlessly tedious self-obsession, is re-imagined in our (and Shutov's) understanding that in the darkest hours of human existence joy is still possible.

A special book, simple but haunting.


The Devil's Beat
The Devil's Beat
by Robert Edric
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars The Crucible in Nottinghamshire..., 17 May 2014
This review is from: The Devil's Beat (Paperback)
The Devil's Beat is a short historical novel set in Nottinghamshire, based around a legal inquiry into the tales told by a group of girls who claim to have seen the Devil in the local woods. The story is told from the point of view of an outsider, a professional investigator who is sent to oversee the work of the court and interview the people involved.

It's an interesting set-up; a mixture of police procedural and supernatural thriller, with an unusual prose style and a strong introductory section. After that... well, it rather peters out, being neither spine-tinglingly scary in the supernatural dimension of the tale, nor particularly gripping in the crime drama aspect. There are some disappointingly predictable outcomes to parts of the story and the plot is slowed down by some awkward dialogue. Not dreadful, but it did feel rather a waste of a great idea for a unique take on the urban modernity meets superstitious rural backwater theme.


Cross-Train Your Horse: Simple Dressage for Every Horse, Every Sport Bk. 1
Cross-Train Your Horse: Simple Dressage for Every Horse, Every Sport Bk. 1
by Jane Savoie
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Basic Flatwork For All, 16 April 2014
Cross Train Your Horse is an lovely simple introduction to flatwork schooling for any discipline. Although the book is American in both terminology and outlook the British rider shouldn't be put off - as the cover says, 'Any Horse, Any Sport'. The majority of the exercises and the illustrations are reassuringly classical.

Savoie concentrates on both the horse and the rider, providing helpful hints for lungeing and useful positional exercises for the rider. Her introduction to flatwork commences with a quote from Alois Podhajsky: "straighten your horse and ride him forward", and the remainder of the book keeps this aim firmly in mind: I found her discussion of 'straightness' and 'correct bend' genuinely enlightening. The photography illustrating the text is superb, and the margins are filled with useful line drawings and occasional cartoons which memorably illuminate the images provided in the text. One of the most useful aspects of the book is the 'helpful hints' and 'common problems' sections which accompany the description of each exercise, particularly once the book starts to move into lateral work.

Cross Train Your Horse is basic enough for a interested beginner to learn a great deal from - the coverage of the basic paces and of the aids for bending and transitions is unusually clear and well-presented. For the more experienced rider the book contains a brilliant trouble-shooting section and a collection of the most helpful lateral work exercises I have yet to find.

An excellent companion to schooling between lessons and one which deserves to be better known - I look forwards to getting hold of Book 2!


Cross Train Your Horse: Simple Dressage for Every Horse, Every Sport
Cross Train Your Horse: Simple Dressage for Every Horse, Every Sport
by Jane Savoie
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Basic Flatwork For All, 16 April 2014
Cross Train Your Horse is a lovely simple introduction to flatwork schooling for any discipline. Although the book is American in both terminology and outlook the British rider shouldn't be put off - as the cover says, 'Any Horse, Any Sport'. The majority of the exercises and the illustrations are reassuringly classical.

Savoie concentrates on both the horse and the rider, providing helpful hints for lungeing and useful positional exercises for the rider. Her introduction to flatwork commences with a quote from Alois Podhajsky: "straighten your horse and ride him forward", and the remainder of the book keeps this aim firmly in mind: I found her discussion of 'straightness' and 'correct bend' genuinely enlightening. The photography illustrating the text is superb, and the margins are filled with useful line drawings and occasional cartoons which memorably illuminate the images provided in the text. One of the most useful aspects of the book is the 'helpful hints' and 'common problems' sections which accompany the description of each exercise, particularly once the book starts to move into lateral work.

Cross Train Your Horse is basic enough for a interested beginner to learn a great deal from - the coverage of the basic paces and of the aids for bending and transitions is unusually clear and well-presented. For the more experienced rider the book contains a brilliant trouble-shooting section and a collection of the most helpful lateral work exercises I have yet to find.

An excellent companion to schooling between lessons and one which deserves to be better known - I look forwards to getting hold of Book 2!


The Complete Book of In-hand Showing
The Complete Book of In-hand Showing
by Alex Fell
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A Comprehensive and Entertaining Guide to In-Hand Showing, 16 April 2014
A beautifully illustrated volume which provides instruction for the amateur without talking down to the professional.

Fell works through the basics of showing in-hand, covering turnout, ring-craft and training and then moves into the specifics of each class, offering the breed guidelines for the native ponies and the definitions of the various hunter/hack.cob groups. Perhaps the most interesting (if slightly dated) sections of this book are the breed-by-breed (and type-by-type) interviews with producers and judges. The book also broadens out to a discussion of European breeds, American showing technique and covers production and presentation of the heavy horse breeds for the ring. The many excellent colour photographs (taken by the author) and clear line drawings are well positioned in the text and illustrate various points with great clarity: the comparative side-by-side presentations of the same Arab horse stood up in the British style and stood up in the American style are fascinating.

Entertaining to read (I especially enjoyed the exasperated judge who commences his section with the words "In-hand showing is a waste of time and should be forbidden..."!), full of valuable information from experienced people and one of the few showing books to take ethics seriously, this book is an excellent addition to any equestrian bookshelf.


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