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Reviews Written by
Stewart M (Victoria, Australia)
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   

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Come Rain or Shine: A Weather Miscellany
Come Rain or Shine: A Weather Miscellany
by Storm Dunlop
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.98

3.0 out of 5 stars Dull, with occasional sunny intervals, 7 Jan. 2016
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the English are more than a little obsessed with the weather.

And (unfortunately) this book is a rather clear piece of evidence that this universally acknowledged truth is in fact true.

The main issue I had with this book is its tone. It’s really rather too factual (dry?) to be really entertaining general readers like me, and seems rather too lightweight (breezy?) to appeal to those hard core weather nuts we all try to avoid when we go out for a pint.

Now, it’s not that this book is unreadable – far from it – it’s just that I don’t understand whom the book is targeting (apart from the English!).

There are a few gems in the book – finding out what happened to the Ferrybridge cooling Towers in 1965 and the scathing assessment of William McGonagall’s poetry are almost worth the price of the book alone (almost) – but beyond that I did not really find much entertainment here.

In the end I can’t resist the idea that this book is more or less like a typical assessment of the British weather – ‘Dull, with occasional sunny intervals’.

Proceed with caution.


Engel's England: Thirty-nine counties, one capital and one man
Engel's England: Thirty-nine counties, one capital and one man
by Matthew Engel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful journey, 1 Jan. 2016
This book is rather splendid, county by county account of the variation and regional eccentricity for which England in (rather) famous. Each chapter is based around the ‘traditional’ counties of England – not mention here of Avon or Bath and North East Somerset, or for that matter Cumbria.

First and foremost I think I need to say that I really enjoyed this book, finding it through enough so I felt at home in the counties that I knew and not so detailed that I became bogged down in areas with which was I was less than familiar. In other words the book feels comprehensive, but it does not feel like you are reading an encyclopaedia.

The pattern of travel around England seems essentially random, which I rather like, so the book never becomes ‘stuck’ in a region of England. A few themes do appear – such as the demonic rise of Tescos and the impact that this has on local, smaller business. Equally, many places are defined by their relationship to London – which for much of the SE (and an increasing area of the rest of the country) seems fair enough.

I can’t help but compare this book to the latest Bill Bryson book – The Road from Little Dribbling - which I happened to read a few weeks before this one. Firstly this book seems far more authentic, without some form of concentrated journey at its heart. Secondly, this book seems to be a book about England rather than a book about an author.

Given the scope of the book – ie a decent chapter on each county – it does feel a wee bit long, but the quality of the written and the texts hidden humour makes me willing to forgive it this minor quibble!

In the end, all I can do is recommend this book highly. It’s a great read.


The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island
The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Same bones - different clothes, 1 Jan. 2016
Notes from a Small Island is a classic of it’s type so there was always a risk associated with writing a follow up to a much loved book – and it’s clear from some of the reactions here that The Road to Little Dribbling is not considered up to the mark.

However, I do not share that opinion.

Trying to find something different to do in travel books is not that easy, especially in a place as well travelled as the UK. Here the idea of travelling along the longest straight line in the UK is used – this is termed the Bryson Line – and is as good a construct as any other. The only problem with this idea is that it is essentially absent from the book, and is basically ignored for most of the time. The only section of the book in which it seems to be become relevant is near the end, when short of time the author has to take a few ‘short cuts’ to make sure the line is traversed. The whole structure of the book could well have been based on the idea of an extended Sunday afternoon drive, and it would have been basically the same.

But this is not the aspect of the book that some people seem to object to, it’s more the books tone. Bryson is not adverse to calling a spade and spade – and sometimes calls it a Fu**ing Shovel – which I seem not to recall from his earlier books. However, this honest approach seems, well, honest to me.

The UK is not a land of milk and honey where an undeniably wonderful landscape can make up for (what appears) to be a growing culture of rudeness, vandalism and political disrespect in both directions.

I left the UK 20 years ago, and this book came as a wonderful summary of how I felt about the place in my last two return journeys – the bones of the place as still the same, but it seems to be wearing clothes that I don’t recognise.

I think this book is probably just a little too honest about some of these ‘new clothes’ for some readers, but for me I found the tone to be just right: funny, sad, angry, confused but always in awe of the wonder that can be found just around the corner – even if that corner may have more litter than in the past and be mined with dog turds!

Highly recommended


Instructions for American Servicemen in Australia, 1942 (Instructions for Servicemen)
Instructions for American Servicemen in Australia, 1942 (Instructions for Servicemen)
by Bodleian Lib
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Brief, but interesting, 30 Nov. 2015
This is a remarkable and very short little book, that is well worth reading.

At less than 60 pages it is a very short read, and it’s size and length may remind readers of a certain vintage of the Ladybird Book series.

This book is a facsimile of one given to American servicemen to help them understand the wild and woolly land of Australia.

Generally it’s an entertaining read, as it presents such a dated version of normality in both countries. However, for Australia at least it still seems to have some relevance.

Issues such as the role of Aboriginal people in Australia, the relationship between the ‘bush’ and the city and the role of women are front and centre in this book – and in many ways aspects of these issues are still the currency of modern debate.

Recommended as a brief historical read.


The Road
The Road
by Cormac Mc Carthy
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Bleak to say the least., 24 Nov. 2015
This review is from: The Road (Paperback)
There is no question that this post-apocalypse novel is beak from start to finish. The writing is sparse, and made more so by the lack of many forms of conventional punctuation. Many facts that would have crowded other book are absent – what exactly was the cause of the apocalypse, what are the names of the two central character, where exactly are they – but they are not needed,

The world that is portrayed in this book is stripped down to the bone, and so is the writing. But still the story manages to be a ‘page turner’ – the sense of tension and desperation in the book are palpable.

That the relationship between the two central characters is so well drawn, with so few words is remarkable.

I assumed I may find the book hard work, but that was not the case. It is not ‘easy to read’ in the normal sense – ie ‘light weight’ - but I found myself turning the pages far more quickly than I had anticipated.

A wonderful, bleak and stunning crafted book. But also a very good and well-told story.

Highly Recommended.


Gut
Gut
by Giulia Enders
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.49

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Down the tubes we go!, 28 Aug. 2015
This review is from: Gut (Paperback)
Gut is an easy to read, and often entertaining journey through the digestive system. The fact that some people may not think that such a journey can be interesting, makes a kind of point that the author stresses throughout the book – that we have come to ignore the gut and would rather not think about the messy processes that occur there.

The central idea of the book is that the gut is far more than just a processer of food and a manufacturer of noxious wastes. The book identifies the gut, and as importantly, the microbial community within it as central to many areas of health. The book also points the finger of guilt for many ‘modern’ illnesses at changes to this microbial community.

This book is clearly in the ‘human body ecosystem’ field of thinking, rather than a reductionist ‘set of organs’ approach – and I have to say this is a very appealing idea – however, this does not make it true, and it does not make the contents of the book some kind of recipe for health and happiness.

What this book does do is pose a great many questions and float a great many ideas, some of which may could to be important and some of which may fade away. It will be down to medical science to work out which is which.

One part of the book that did find rather disappointing, was the number of clear typos that made their way through the translation from the original German. In a number of cases there were sentences that did not seem to be in tune with the rest of the book, and I was left wondering if this was due to my failure to understand something, or if it was due to a translation / type setting issue.

Apart form the last issue I would recommend this book rather highly, but it may be less revolutionary than some reviews seem to suggest.


Landmarks
Landmarks
by Robert Macfarlane
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but rather formal, 1 Aug. 2015
This review is from: Landmarks (Hardcover)
The central ideas of this book are that language defines how we relate to landscape and that landscape comes to define language. So, landscape and language are intimately connected.

Parallel to this is the observation that we are becoming less connected to the ‘natural’ landscape to the detriment to both language and our understanding of the language.

By splitting the landscape into broad categories the author looks at how people have reacted to landscape and each section concludes with a listing of (underused or neglected) words that describe these categories of landscape.

If you are already aware of the work of Robert Macfarlane this book will feel very familiar – dense with ideas, rich with references to other peoples work (he has a few special favourites) and often rather academic in flavour. None of these is a weakness, but in combination they can start to produce a text that seems rather more like a university essay rather than a passionate call to arms about the need to protect the language of landscape. (or the landscape of language)

The book is really very thought provoking, but it is not a page-turner. I think that the content of the book is really important, but I wish the writing was just a little more accessible. I can’t help but think of works of Richard Mabey, which are just as dense with ideas, but are not written in such an academic manner.

Despite all I have said, I would still recommend this book very strongly; I just wish it was a gentler read.


Lone Survivor: The Incredible True Story of Navy SEALs Under Siege
Lone Survivor: The Incredible True Story of Navy SEALs Under Siege
by Marcus Luttrell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Lightly recommended, but do not expect a classic., 1 Aug. 2015
This is a book in two parts – the first, which deals with the authors training as a Navy SEAL is rather mundane; the second (if taken at face value) is remarkable.

Its clear that anybody who can survive the kind of training described here is a remarkable individual, but the way it is described here converts it into little more than a series of runs and swims, interspersed with the need to get ‘wet and sandy’. While this part of the book is probably necessary as a ‘scene setter’ it does seem to go on for rather too long.

The second part of the book is an account of an ill-fated mission that the author and three other SEALs undertake in Afghanistan. If you don’t already know the story, the title of the book is a bit of a give away.

Two aspects of the book flow through each section of the book – and both of which I found annoying, but neither is surprising. Firstly, there is the ‘All the way with the USA’ tone, which given that the author clearly seems himself (and his comrades) as a true patriot is not a shock. The second – and more frequently occurring theme is the ‘SEALs as Gods that walk among us’ kind of thing. Again, its clear that people who are trained as special forces need a high degree of self confidence, but the repeated SEALs can do anything kind of assertions get rather tiresome in the end.

But what separates this book from some of have read – and American Sniper comes to mind here – is that the author, while clearly disliking the people he has to fight, at least acknowledges that they are good at what they do, and in his relationship the villagers who come to his aid, understands that they are in fact remarkable people. While the book is clearly not a classic of anthropology, the local people are drawn in a far more complex way that in some books – they are far more than just targets and religious fanatics (although the author does call them that as well!)

If the details of the second part of the book are correct and I have no reason to think they are not, then the author is very lucky to be alive.

In the end, it is the actions of the villagers that is the most remarkable part of the book – with the humanity they show being a part of the terrible story of the wars in Afghanistan that is seldom told.

As normal I read this book on a plane, and it passed the time. But in the end it was the villagers that stayed with me rather than the soldier.

Lightly recommended, but do not expect a classic.


The Buried Giant
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Of forgetfulness and memory., 20 Jun. 2015
This review is from: The Buried Giant (Hardcover)
This is a rather strange and wonderful book, which left me thinking that I knew what it is about, but suspecting that I may be very, very wrong!

Set in England some time after the fall of King Arthur, the storyline revolves around an old couple looking for their son in a landscape still blighted by war and yet to come into its classic Englishness.

What makes this journey rather different from how it seems in this short description is that few people in this land have memories of the past. The past is shrouded in a mist that makes people forget even the most recent things – and the more distance past seems to have gone completely.

The landscape – and the book – are slightly fey in feel. Knights, dragons, pixies, strangers on the road, the lingering ghost of King Arthurs now lost Kingdom and the forgetful mist all contribute to this. In terms of the books style, this ‘feyness’ is most clearly voiced in the style of the dialogue. In the end some people may find the constant ‘husbands’ and ‘princesses’ that pass between the old couple a little annoying – but I found them a simple and central element to the book.

So, what is it about?

Clearly I think it’s about the battle between forgetting and memory – and the consequences of living a life where peace has been bought at the cost of ignorance (ie no memory) rather than an understanding and acceptance of the past. At least one character seems to be a ‘gate keeper’ to memory and I have to wonder if this is some form off illusion to our current keepers of history who seem to think we may be better off not knowing about the past as we move into a brave new future.

The above paragraph my of course be utterly out of step with the writers intention – but I suggest you read this book to find out for yourself.

Highly Recommended.


It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War
It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War
by Lynsey Addario
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.59

5.0 out of 5 stars It's what she does., 20 Jun. 2015
Conflict photographers are a strange breed; part adventurer, part evangelist, part witness. And as such they often seem strangely appealing to those of us who like to put an eye to a camera viewfinder.

If ever there was a book to add a dimension of truth to the myths of this form of journalism, then it was this one.

While the three parts I list above are clearly present in this book, so much more is revealed about what it is like to get up every day, eat your breakfast and go watch disasters unfolding. This is not a book about photographic technique, it is not about ‘how I do it’ – it’s much more about ‘what it’s like to do it’.

While little of what happens in the personal and professional life of the author is much of a surprise (with the exception of one phone call!) given the places she and her colleagues work in, the honesty with which they are presented gives them power.

If you want to read a book to see what journalism is capable of, and how far below this standard most of what we see and watch falls, then you should read this book.

Very highly recommended.


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