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Reviews Written by
Stewart M (Victoria, Australia)
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Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia's Changing Seasons
Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia's Changing Seasons
Price: £14.66

4.0 out of 5 stars Slightly misleading sub-title, 23 Oct 2014
This is an interesting, if slight misleadingly titled, book.

The basic idea behind the book is that the use of seasons based on the division of the year into four equally long seasons, all of which are named for the equivalent season in the Northern Hemisphere, is inappropriate for Australia (and many other parts of the world as well).

This seems to make sense from the very start of the book, and the author suggests a system of six seasons, with two new seasons - the Sprinter and Sprummer of the title - and amended dates for the other four. Generally, these new seasons as identified by the activity of plants, rather than the date on the calendar or the location of the earth on its journey around the Sun. Again, this seems to make sense - if you base the seasons on what is happening around you then the classification of the seasons may help you understand the world around you. (The converse of this is that using an externally imposed system of seasons does not help us really understand what is going on.)

Strangely, the author often uses introduced plants as part of his markers of seasonal change - which seems to be a step away from being in tune with the natural environment. Having said that, in some parts of Australia - heavily urbanised areas for example there may be little other vegetation to look at!

The book also has a slightly strange "feel" - the use of frequent sub-headings makes the book read a little like a textbook, but the relaxed and informal use of language in the text is not textbook-like at all. Equally, the lack of captions on the images in the book is a little strange. These are not "deal breakers" by any means, but I did find these aspects a little strange.

My contention that the book is misnamed comes from the sub-title of the book that is "Australia's Changing Seasons" - and while the impact of climate change on the dates of seasonal activity is examined in one chapter, a better sub-title for the book would have been "Changing Australia's Seasons".

An interesting read with relevance to more than just Australia.


Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life
Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life
by George Monbiot
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars A great place to start thinking, 20 Oct 2014
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This is a really rather good book – not perfect, but one that makes you stop and think ‘do I agree with what I have just read?’

In reality this is almost two books rather than one – the first is about developing a greater connection between people and the land on which they live. This is ‘re-wilding people’. The second is about taking a less interventionist approach to wildlife management, by allowing nature a freer hand to build new ecosystems.

The first is a reasonably well-trodden path - and is based on the assumption that people and the land do better when they are connected. Connection. Interest. Care. Passion. And in the end, survival. This all seems to make sense.

The second theme of the book – actually re-wilding landscape – is probably a little more contentious. Especially as one of the key things that the author suggests in terms of re-wilding the landscape is the re-introduction of large predators – such as wolves – to some ecosystems. While any such introduction would clearly rely on human intervention in its early stages, the idea is to re-establish the kind of ecological processes that have been removed from many ecosystems by humans.

There is little doubt that conventional conservation management is not always successful – with large areas (the book really takes most examples from the UK) being maintained in some sort of agriculture dominated state – the classic example here being the UKs uplands which are often just sheep, deer or grouse maintained habitats, which lack the diversity they once had.

I think there needs to a well informed debate about how land is managed into the future – and this book is as good a place as any to start thinking about what this debate could mean or should include.

Highly recommended.


Drift: The Hammersmith and City Line (Penguin Underground Lines)
Drift: The Hammersmith and City Line (Penguin Underground Lines)
by Philippe Parreno
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.96

3.0 out of 5 stars For completists only.., 13 Oct 2014
This is a strange addition to the set of books published to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground.

In contrast to all the other books in the series this is a picture book, rather than one based on text. The pictures all seem to be pen and ink style images, and (as noted elsewhere) some don’t seem to conform to the high level of technical excellence often seen in art-based books.

But I think a criticism of the book for its lack of artistic merit rather misses the point – I think the aim of the book is to provide some record of the authors (?) journey along the Hammersmith and City Line.

My interpretation of the images suggests that the line runs from decay (mushrooms) to open space (planes and play), via some rather darker spaces (Ned Kelly looking people and protest)

This of course may be well off the mark!

Would I recommend this book to be read on its own? Well, probably not.

Would I recommend that you read (look at?) this book if you have read most of the other 150th books – well, yes I would; if only to provide an alternative version of what thoughts railway can generate.

So, probably not book for general consumption or train buffs – but certainly one for readers who like to complete all the parts of a series!


Earthbound: The Bakerloo Line (Penguin Underground Lines)
Earthbound: The Bakerloo Line (Penguin Underground Lines)
by Paul Morley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A good balance of trains and music, 6 Oct 2014
Earthbound is a rather nicely balanced account of the music that the author, then a writer for the NME, listened to and was influenced by as he used the Bakerloo Line.

While very little of the music described in this book is on high rotation on my play lists, this did not take much away from the book as whole. This is account of at least three journeys, a musical one, a physical on the train and technological one in the way that we listen to and ‘consume’ music. These three journeys blend rather well into a single narrative.

This book manages to combine trains and music in a rather more sensible way than the last book I reviewed in this series – Heads and Straights by Lucy Wadham.

A good balance of the history of the line, music and the author makes for an interesting read.

Recommended.


Goodbye to All That (Penguin Modern Classics)
Goodbye to All That (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Robert Graves
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Straightforward, horrific and honest, 25 Sep 2014
This is a book with a slow beginning, a somewhat draw out conclusion and an absolutely riveting core.

Written in wonderfully straightforward prose this is an account (mainly) of Robert Graves’s experience of the First World War. I say ‘mainly” because it is only the core of the book that deals with the war. The first part of the book deals with the authors background, and in many ways helps inform the core, but this section never as arresting as the account of life at the front.

The conclusion of the book also seems to lack the urgency of the middle section – this is hardly a surprise given the intensity of the experiences of combat.

As a result this slightly uneven book seems to take a while to become the classic it is thought to be, and then eventually winds down to a slightly unremarkable finish.

But there is not question that this book is worth reading for the better middle section alone. There is the meeting of well known names – Sassoon, Owen, Rivers – that make many of these accounts (factual and fictional) feel strangely overlapping.

Straightforward, stunning in its portrayal of the damage done, this is an honest account of life and death at the front. (Just don’t be put off by the slow start)

Highly recommended.


Heads and Straights: The Circle Line (Penguin Underground Lines)
Heads and Straights: The Circle Line (Penguin Underground Lines)
by Lucy Wadham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Needs Two reviews really, 22 Sep 2014
This is a book that needs two separate reviews – the first being a review of the book itself, and the second being a review of the book as part of a series about London Circle Line.

The book itself is a wonderfully honest account of growing up the (almost) youngest child in a family. Elder sisters have all kinds of adventures, many of which were neither legal nor healthy. The book is set in the 1980’s of Punk and Thatcher, and although this is a point of embarrassment, in Chelsea.

The ‘back story’ of the family is explored and it’s clear that a certain kind of rebellion is not unique to this period of history. The past illuminates and informs the present. The past moves through Africa, Wales and Australia.

Its worth reading this (short) book just for this story alone – and if I read this book as a ‘stand alone’ rather than as a part of series I would recommend it highly.

But the book is part of a series – and this brings on the second part of the review.

As a book in a series about the numerous different underground lines of London the book is a disappointment. Apart from being set partly in Chelsea, which is served by the Circle Line, the underground is almost absent from this book. I have read a number of books in the series and they are most definitely not all factual accounts of this line or that line. They manage to weave all kinds of histories around the rail line in a way that this book almost completely fails to do.

So, the story itself is 4 stars. The book as part of the series is only really worth two stars.


Grendel
Grendel
by John Gardner
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Earth rim walker seeks his meals……, 10 Sep 2014
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This review is from: Grendel (Hardcover)
Earth rim walker seeks his meals……

At first glance, a book that casts the monster from Beowulf, Grendel, as the central character may look like just another “revisionist” tale, or even one of the current crop of modern day / classic mash-ups.

But this book is far more than that.

Here Grendel is cast as a thinking monster, reacting to the myths spun by a harper – The Shaper – about him and the nature of the world.

The duality of fate and free will is what drives Grendel to do the things he does – violent things, terrible things, things The Shaper expects him to do. And while this happens, Heorot (the main target of Grendel’s rage) slays and slaughters his way to power. Here, again the duality of violence comes to the fore.

Now, if this sounds all a little too serious, the tone of the book is often (deliberately) punctured by Grendel’s turn of phrase, where he cynically comments on the world of men.

This is a splendid book, looking as it does at the power of myth and persuasion, and how these can impact on our view of the world.

Highly recommended.


The World of Birds
The World of Birds
by Jonathan Elphick
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £26.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great addition to any birders library., 8 Sep 2014
This review is from: The World of Birds (Hardcover)
This is a truly splendid book, which is probably the best single introduction to the general biology of birds I have seen. I can’t claim to have read it from cover – its not that kind of book. But I have read the sections about my favourite groups of birds and dipped into many to the other parts in passing.

The book comes in three unequally sized parts – the first eight chapters are about broad aspects of bird biology, the 9th chapter is about “Birds and Humans” and the 10th chapter is an account of the bird families of the world. This final chapter makes up about ½ of the book.

If chapter nine – ie the interactions between humans are birds is you key interest you may be batter off looking at Birds and People by Mark Cocker.

However, the rest of the book is superb. Sure, a few of the pictures may be rather small, and they do need to be looked at in good light due to their size, but that’s a minor point. Equally, the book is rather too big to read in bed – although I tried – but (again) I don’t really think it’s that kind of book.

I would recommend this book very highly, especially to birders who are more interested in the birds themselves rather than the length of lists.


The 32 Stops: The Central Line (Penguin Underground Lines)
The 32 Stops: The Central Line (Penguin Underground Lines)
by Danny Dorling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars From West to East., 26 Aug 2014
This book examines how a whole range of “social indicators” – such as life expectancy and GCSE results – vary as you travel along London’s central line.

This is a rail line that runs in an arc from West to East through London. Taken as a (presumably mythical) journey over a single day, the aspects of life that vary along the line – and often between stops are looked at in two ways!

Firstly they are illustrated by dialogues between people who live in the area of the relevant tube station and secondly by brief reference to actual statistics.

I had a small problem with both of these – in the dialogues I did loose track a couple of times (no pun intended!) and felt like I was just ploughing on to find out what was going on.

The issue with the statistics is that the author admits that a few random events can alter the average of some of these values significantly for one year – in other words the stark differences between one place and another could actually be due to chance – but then never seems to tell us what time periods the statistics represent. If the statistics are long-term averages, they probably represent real difference – but the way they are presented leaves this open to question.

Now, I am not some form of stats geek – but I do know my way around a graph and I have to say I found this element of the book disappointing.

Equally, this is not to say that I did not enjoy reading the book – but I just kept having a little nagging question popping up at the back of my mind!

Recommended (just).


Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story
Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story
by Rob Dinnis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Living through the past, 19 Aug 2014
This is a really rather good book that lays out the current thinking about the history of human habitation in the UK.

This is really a story of repeated colonisation, retreat and re-colonisation in the face of changing climate.

One million years is an unimaginable sweep of time and it is remarkable to think that people have been walking the land that would become Britain for that length of time.

The story of humans in Britain is laid out clearly and concisely, but by virtue of its brevity this book can never been more than an introduction to the subject.

An aspect of the book that I enjoyed was the way in which our changing understanding of human evolution and expansion is clearly linked to an evolving and expanding evidence base. Knowledge changes with the acquisition of evidence, and this story is a decent enough case study of that idea.

I am not entirely sure this book stands on its own, without the need to visit the exhibition as well (hence the 4 stars), but if it does not, it comes very, very close.

I recommended both the book and the exhibition at the Natural History Museum.


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