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S. Cartwright (Sheffield, England)

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State Of The Union
State Of The Union
Price: £8.42

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The sum of its (excellent) parts, 4 Jun. 2012
This review is from: State Of The Union (Audio CD)
If you know and like Boo Hewerdine's music, I can guarantee you'll like a bit more than half of this album; if you know and like Brooks Williams (probably a smaller set, at least in the UK), you'll like the rest of it. If - like me - you like both of them, you'll like all of it. And I guess that, along with the fact that it's much too short, is my only real criticism: though a fair number of these songs are co-written, I don't think they've quite developed a duo sound yet - the songs Boo sings could have come off a Boo Hewerdine solo record; those Brooks takes lead on, and the instrumental title track (which has got missed off the track list above; it should be number 3), sound like Brooks' solo albums. Since they're both superb musicians, singers, and writers, this is not exactly a major drawback. Maybe it's the result of the essentially unplanned nature of this project: Brooks' account of it is "we set out to write one song together: we ended up with six songs, an album, and a 40-date tour." Given Boo's prolific songwriting and apparent enthusiasm for collaborations, and the fact that they're more or less neighbours in Cambridge, this was probably inevitable, and they seem to be enjoying themselves hugely (I've seen them perform as a duo twice). I take last night's comment by Boo that "we're already making up our second album" as good news.

Overall, it's a fine set of songs, recorded pretty much as they're played live. I hesitate to name any particular tracks as stand-outs, but I'd agree with the previous reviewer that the cover of the Pet Shop Boys' "Rent" (sung by Boo, to Brooks' guitar) works extremely well, and Brooks' version of the traditional "Peg and Awl" deserves mention for its un-folksong-like enthusiasm for new technology, circa 1800 ("they've invented a new machine/prettiest thing I've ever seen/throw away my peg and awl, peg and awl"). Boo and Brooks themselves like "Distant Memory", not actually one of my favourites for a couple of reasons: 1, it's a fairly standard take on the theme of "my beloved has left me and I don't care, no I don't, I really don't, honest I don't" as per 10cc's "I'm not in love" and countless country & western songs (do we really need another one?) and 2, I'm a bit of a lyrical nit-picker (comes of being a physicist) and it hit my non sequitur reflex: "I don't remember you at all/you're just a distant memory" - but if she's a memory, however distant, then you do remember her, by definition of memory. (Yes, I know the whole point of this family of songs is that the singer's lying through his teeth, but at least it should be an internally consistent lie. And it is possible to do something interesting with the theme: try Cliff Eberhardt's "Memories of You" with its neat comic twist at the end.)

So, conclusion: good songs, good singing, some lovely guitar - if you're into acoustic guitar singer-songwriters (which you probably are if you're reading this, can't imagine you found this page by accident), it's well worth the money. And if you see them advertised live at a venue near you, go and see them. The good news is that the new songs, presumably destined for the second album, are even better.

The Reckoning
The Reckoning
Price: £13.23

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I reckon it's pretty good, 25 July 2011
This review is from: The Reckoning (Audio CD)
OK, I'll be honest, I've had this for a month, because I bought it from Steve's website where it was available well before the official release. So perhaps you shouldn't expect a completely unbiased review - on the other hand, I only gave his novel 3 stars, so I'm not totally besotted.

If I've got my dates right, Steve turned 60 while writing the material for this album. Birthdays ending in 0 do tend to induce a reflective mood, and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to see that in some of the songs here. We get songs that express concern over the future (The Reckoning), muse about the attractions of the past and the fallibility of memory (Memory Lane), worry about religious faith or lack thereof (Doubting Thomas - apparently Thomas really is his middle name, as the refrain claims; a gift of a title, and it's amazing he's resisted using it for 40 years!), and reflect the landscape of his adopted home (Pennine Spring). Unusually, there are no traditional songs here: "Nottamun Town Return" is a rewrite of a traditional piece, but as it has completely new lyrics (a couple of lines may have survived from the original) I don't think it counts! There is the obligatory history lesson - Rio de la Miel, a story from the Spanish Civil War - and a couple of instrumental pieces, a dance set and a tribute to the late Davey Graham, called "Ijna" on account of its being, in terms of its musical construction, "Anji backwards".

Steve has two strengths as a performer: he's a fantastic songwriter, and he's a technically accomplished guitarist. The latter is more to the fore in this album than in its predecessor, Ziggurat - the intricate, classical-influenced introduction to the opening track lays its cards on the table in that respect, and the same atmosphere is maintained throughout. It's not a solo record overall (though some of the tracks are), but the emphasis is definitely on Steve's words and guitar, with the additional accompaniment mostly quite understated. The instrumental tracks - a dance set and "Ijna" - are solo guitar showpieces.

This sort of music stands or falls by the quality of the songs, and these are very, very good songs: intelligent, literate lyrics complemented by catchy tunes. I don't think "Nottamun Town Return" has staying power - I can't see it being part of his live set in five years' time - but that's not a criticism of the song, just a feature of topical satire: once the episodes it's based on have faded from memory, it won't work. I will argue, gently, with the title - I guess it's supposed both to reflect the fact that this is a modern reworking of the traditional ballad "Nottamun Town" and to echo the last verse, which is about problems with trains ("the right kind of snow/but the wrong kind of track"), but it doesn't quite work, as the lyric of that last verse explicitly states "I bought a one-way ticket/there was no turning back". More of a "Nottamun Town Single", then. The only song I'm still not sure about is "Sovereign of Tides", which is a words-and-music picture of the Moon reflected on the ocean - it's intended to evoke atmosphere, but I'm not entirely convinced by it, partly because of a rare lyrical misstep: it refers to "the restless, yawning waves", which I'm afraid produced a train of thought along the lines of "Do waves yawn? Chasms yawn - but waves? Especially restless waves? Aren't they opposed senses? Does anything restless yawn? Maybe a bored theatre audience? Is that an image you want to introduce in the middle of a very slow song??" Which is a bit unkind, given that it's one line in one song - and quite likely says more about me than it does about the song: I will admit to being a bit of a purist where words are concerned.

Overall, this album is well up to Steve's high standards - a masterclass in intelligent songwriting (I'll forgive him one dodgy line!) set off by some fine guitar-playing. A beautiful collection which will stand up to repeated listening.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 11, 2011 7:46 PM BST

All for Poor Jack
All for Poor Jack
by Steve Tilston
Edition: Paperback

5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pacy historical novel which doesn't quite add up to the sum of its parts, 20 July 2010
This review is from: All for Poor Jack (Paperback)
Steve Tilston is a terrific songwriter with a fondness for historical themes and the narrative ballad format. While I wasn't exactly expecting him to write a novel, it doesn't come as much of a surprise - and certainly, given its existence, it had to be a historical novel. In fact it's a pacy, well-researched adventure story, lively, well written and enjoyable to read, which for me didn't quite come together as a coherent whole.

The basis of the story is the idea that the cod-fishing community of Bristol ca 1480, deprived of access to the Icelandic cod stocks by the Hanseatic League, discovered and began to exploit the Newfoundland Grand Banks fishery, using the adjacent coast of north-eastern North America as a staging post to salt and dry the catch before returning home. This is a perfectly plausible hypothesis, especially as the Icelandic fishermen of that era, with access to the Viking Greenland and Vinland sagas, quite probably knew there was a large unexplored land mass to the west, and the Bristol fishermen could easily have picked up this knowledge before the ban on fishing in Iceland. I know Steve genuinely believes it happened, and while I'm not quite so convinced (why would they have kept it secret? - maybe understandable in the turbulence of the Wars of the Roses, but why remain so after Henry VII established himself securely on the English throne?), it's certainly a fine peg on which to hang a novel.

Against this background then, we follow primarily the young seaman Mathew Tyrell, captured by a raiding party of native tribesmen who ambushed and massacred most of his shipmates after their ship, the Swallow, was wrecked on the American (or possibly Canadian - I'm not quite sure where we are, and there's no map) coast. With the survivors down to a manageable two, Tyrell and his older shipmate Dodds, the leader of the raiding party decides to take the two weird foreigners home to show the tribal elders instead of finishing them off. They're deep in hostile territory at this point, so the primitive firearms carried by the two Bristolians play a pivotal role in the subsequent journey (there's a lot of travelling in this book - maybe I should have mentioned that Steve also writes a lot of songs about being on the road!). This strand of the narrative is told primarily from Tyrell's viewpoint, but partly also from that of Tidesso, the leader of the raiders: Steve has clearly researched the culture of the local tribes carefully, and this mostly works, albeit with the occasional wrong note - my suspended disbelief was very nearly toppled when the tribesmen were represented as "nodding in satisfaction at the correctness of the ritual" when, after a successful hunt, the young man who's been tasked with depositing the remnants of the carcase deep in the forest comes back from completing the job. If this is your culture, you wouldn't consciously think of it as a ritual, and you certainly wouldn't be aware of satisfaction that it had been done, would you? It's the equivalent of doing the washing up! (I'm not even convinced it's all that ritualistic: in a land graced with large, dangerous predators, ensuring that the bloody remains of your meal are deposited as far as practically possible from where you're going to sleep strikes me as more common sense than ritual. I'd do it, and I'm a practising atheist.)

Meanwhile, back in Bristol, Mathew's younger brother Simon is falsely accused of murder after a football game he's playing in turns into a bloody fracas - the local constables have been instructed to clamp down, and aren't particularly worried about whether they've got the right perpetrator. Fleeing for his life, Simon winds up in the company of a disreputable band of outlaws living in the forest outside Bristol; his subsequent, not very successful, attempts to integrate with this band form a counterpoint to his brother's similar, if somewhat more challenging, problem across the Atlantic. There's a subplot here concerning the wealthy owner of Mathew's wrecked ship, who has previously encountered the Tyrell brothers when travelling on his own ship, and feels he owes them a favour. Steve used to live in Bristol, and this strand of the narrative is enriched by obvious first-hand knowledge of the topography and a clear fondness for the local people. Again, there are one or two anachronisms - why on Earth would the outlaws be concerned about people hearing their real names? There's hardly likely to be a 15th century Police National Database advising Bristol law enforcement that Cyril Hardwyke is wanted for robbery in York, and it's not as if these are solid Bristol citizens trying to conceal a double life as highwaymen - but overall there's a strong sense of place and time, and more evidence of careful research.

There's obviously a wealth of incident in this book, and most of the characters are well drawn and three-dimensional - with the unfortunate exception of Mathew Tyrell, who remained (for me at least) frustratingly elusive despite forming the principal narrative viewpoint. He's clearly an unusual man for his time and background: although an ordinary seaman, he can read and write, having spent "three years with the Franciscans", and has picked up a more educated accent which he is careful to disguise when talking to his shipmates - an intelligent man, apparently. I got all this from his cameo appearances in the Bristol strand - very little of Mathew comes across in the American narrative. Admittedly he spends most of it disoriented and terrified - not the best circumstances in which to show your depth of character, perhaps - but the same could be said of Simon with the outlaws, and he came over quite clearly.

With all due respect to Bruce Springsteen, who "learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than I ever learned in school", there are aspects of novel writing that you don't get to practise as a songwriter, and one of these is keeping structural control of a big, unwieldy narrative - even a long song's lyrics would only take up a couple of pages if typeset as prose, and that's about half a percent of this 400-page book. Multiple narrative strands and multiple viewpoints surely don't make this any easier, and this is the area where I don't think Steve has quite succeeded. The two narrative strands, Mathew's story and Simon's, are very separate, and don't want to converge: their eventual tragic collision, at the very end of the book, requires stretching coincidence well beyond its elastic limit, and feels extremely contrived. A third "stranger in a strange land" character, a Native American captured and brought to Bristol by the crew of the Swallow's sister ship (a very odd thing to do if you're trying to keep your discovery of a new continent quiet - I can't offhand think of anything more likely to excite gossip), is introduced as a prisoner, escapes (rather too easily), makes a brief cameo appearance in Simon's adventures, and then disappears never to be seen again. I can't see the point of him: he could be entirely excised without doing anything significant to the book except reducing its length by a dozen pages or so. It almost feels as though Steve invented him as a more explicit parallel to Mathew Tyrell, but then couldn't think of anything constructive to do with him. There's also the matter of the title: "poor-jack" isn't a person, but a local name for cod - which seems reasonable, except that in point of fact the events of the novel have rather little to do with the cod industry. The Swallow wasn't processing cod when she was wrecked - she was doing a bit of supplementary exploration, looking for wider commercial opportunities for her owner (he's particularly interested in a wood that yields red dye) - and of course Simon's predicament has nothing whatsoever to do with fishing. Which leaves the title slightly orphaned: if all the Swallow had been doing was indeed "all for poor jack", she'd have made it back safely, quite possibly before Simon's disastrous football game, and the events of the novel would not have taken place at all.

Well, even by my long-winded standards, this has been a bit of a marathon. To summarise: it's fast-paced, with an intriguing premise and some interesting characters, exploring an aspect of 15th-century history that doesn't usually make it into historical novels of this period (most of which concern the houses of York and Lancaster and their various dark deeds), and I enjoyed reading it. However, I don't think it quite comes off structurally: as I said in the title, a bit less than the sum of its parts. This didn't bother the previous reviewers: maybe I'm a bit picky. 3.5 stars, if Amazon did decimal points.

One final point: a large brickbat to the publishers, Isthmus Books. They're based in Bristol, which may explain why this book ended up with them: a Bristol-based publisher might take a punt on a first novel because it's so strongly Bristol based itself. Anyway, the point is that this is quite the worst bit of typesetting I have ever seen in a "real" book intended for the mass market (as opposed to the technical monographs destined for university libraries that I see as a working scientist). Apparently Isthmus' typesetters don't understand that a hyphen is not the same symbol as a dash, and that apostrophes are always right-handed quotes even if they happen to be at the beginning of a word; they're also given to randomly inserting extra interword spaces. I'd say that this looks as though it was typed into a home-office word processor (as opposed to professional desktop publishing software) by someone who's a competent amateur typist with a good command of English (commendably few errors of spelling or grammar) but no knowledge of typesetting - except that every version of Word I've ever used has been bright enough to convert a hyphen surrounded by spaces into an en-dash, instead of leaving the poor lonely little thing abandoned in its ocean of white space (I'm a purist: I think punctuation dashes should actually be em-dashes, without spaces, but I'd settle for spaces and en-dashes if I had to). So it's actually worse than what the hypothetical amateur typist would expect to produce. It looks horrible: ugly, lazy and unprofessional. I wouldn't release the typescripts of my lecture notes to my students looking like that. Definitely zero stars: Steve, next time (and I hope there is a next time), pick a publisher that employs a copy-editor.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2013 12:17 PM GMT

Time Stands Still
Time Stands Still
Price: £12.52

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gentle and understated set from respected singer-songwriter, 2 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Time Stands Still (Audio CD)
The first thing to say is that Chris Smither is a wonderful live performer, and as far as I'm concerned any album is second best to seeing him live. However, since his visits to this side of the pond aren't that frequent, one has to make do with the recorded version. This one, with a pared-down band (essentially just Chris and producer Dave Goodrich) and Chris's tapping feet for percussion, has a sound very like his live act - unlike, say, "Drive Me Home Again" which has a much more "studio" feel.

I liked this album, and I liked it more on second hearing than I did the first time, but I can see where the previous negative review was coming from. There are some lovely songs on here, particularly his reflections on his father's death, "Old Man Down", and a gently entertaining account of conversations with a young child, "I Don't Know", but their charms are quite subtle, and the album as a whole feels a bit one-paced. It would have benefited from one or two more up-tempo numbers to vary the sound and catch the attention. There aren't many obvious lyrical or musical hooks here - I've listened to it twice, and I'm usually a very quick study (completely useless talent since I can't sing!), but I haven't picked up more than a line or two. That said, I think it's one that is going to repay repeated listening - and it does have to be listened to: if you're not paying attention it's sufficiently understated that it'll simply fade into the background.

If you already know and like Chris's work, I'd expect you'll like this too - just give it time. If you're not an established fan, this isn't the place to start - of his recent studio recordings, try "Train Home", which has a much more immediate impact and a more varied pace.

This may not sound like a four-star review, and I guess if Amazon allowed decimal places it might be 3.7 or something, but though the songs don't immediately grab you they do have their own gentle and slightly melancholy beauty. I think it's an album I'll still be listening to in a few years' time - and I can't say that for everything I buy!

Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World's First Computer
Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World's First Computer
by Josephine Marchant
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating story, told by the wrong person, 18 Sept. 2009
The Antikythera mechanism is am astonishing object: a system of interlocking gears, dating from the 1st century BC or thereabouts, which embodies the sophisticated geometric models of the apparent motions of the Sun and Moon, and perhaps also the planets, constructed by Hellenistic astronomers such as Hipparchus. The technology and engineering skills employed are far in advance of anything else ever discovered from this date, and are a spectacular disproof of the commonly held idea that Greek proto-scientists were only theorists and never practical men.

Jo Marchant tells the story from the discovery of the wrecked ship on which the Antikythera mechanism had been loaded up to the present day. The style is readable and engaging, concentrating on the human stories involved - and therein lies the problem. Marchant is not an astronomer, clearly doesn't understand the astronomical motions and models involved at all well, and therefore gives us ONLY the human story - and that rather simplified into a "David and Goliath" tale of the Lone Visionary vs The Establishment. Tellingly, there isn't a single astronomical diagram in the entire book, and the only schematic diagram of a reconstruction of the mechanism isn't explained. She clearly fell out with the UK/US/Greek international research team that is currently engaged in studying the mechanism, and I presume it's as a result of this that her colour plates include none of their visually stunning and scientifically illuminating X-ray images - indeed, astonishingly since X-ray imaging has been the key to addressing the whole puzzle, only one poor-quality X-ray image is included in the plates.

The historical approach that Marchant takes can be somewhat confusing: in the chapter on Price's work, she presents all his conclusions without criticism, and then in the next chapter she tells us that Price was pretty much completely wrong (the commentary on the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project page suggests that this reversal is overdone: in some cases, for example, Price recognised two possibilities for reconstruction, and the fact that he subsequently picked the wrong one for his model shouldn't completely negate the fact that he knew that the other - apparently correct - version was also a contender). She also has a tendency to attribute thoughts and motives to people that she hasn't met, and it is not always clear that there is a good basis for these attributions.

When I read the book I felt that the sharply polarised account (Michael Wright has all the good ideas, but gets no money, and everyone else is dastardly and steals the credit) didn't sound plausible, and I am not surprised to have subsequently found on the web some rather cross responses from friends and family of the late Allan Bromley, whom Marchant essentially accuses of theft of intellectual property (in her response to the criticism she says "it was not my intention to describe him in a negative way", but that's either a bare-faced lie or an admission of incompetence, since it is impossible to read her book and not get a negative impression of Bromley), and a somewhat more neutral but clearly unhappy set of detailed corrections from the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, some of which are a bit picky (the fragments displayed in the Museum are apparently on stands, not "suspended" as Marchant says: OK, she's wrong, but is it such a big deal?) while others are much more serious (repeated misattributions as to who did what, especially in relation to recent work: in academic circles such things are important, and there is little excuse for getting them wrong, as the Nature paper by Freeth et al. specifies who did what).

The unravelling of the Antikythera Mechanism (always assuming we've now got it right!) is a fascinating story, and after the recent advances in understanding now is a good time to tell it. But I don't think that Marchant is the right person to tell it, and I'm concerned that her book might have filled the available niche for a popular book on the subject. Marchant certainly knows how to tell a story, and she's done quite a bit of homework, but her book has all the faults I associate with TV documentaries: it's too keen to present all interactions as confrontational, it neglects the science in favour of personalities (I don't object to the personalities, but not to the exclusion of everything else), and it tries too hard to force a complex history into a Lone Hero vs Villainous Establishment stereotype.

I did enjoy reading the book, and hence the rather generous three stars (2.5 if Amazon allowed fractions!), but it was one of those cases where doubts start to assert themselves as soon as you put the thing down. I really hope it hasn't totally spoilt the market for books on this topic - in the hands of someone who understands the underlying science (and therefore doesn't duck out of any attempt really to explain how the thing worked), and is prepared to take a more balanced view of the personalities, there is a wonderful story to be told here.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 11, 2010 8:10 PM BST

Trades Roots Live
Trades Roots Live
Offered by positivenoise
Price: £10.28

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great advert for the club!, 11 Sept. 2009
This review is from: Trades Roots Live (Audio CD)
Hebden Bridge is a picturesque former mill town, now with a thriving tourist trade, on the Rochdale Canal in the Pennines. The Trades Club is a far from picturesque former working men's club boasting (if that's the word) a small, dark and decidedly shabby concert space which nonetheless punches way above its weight in terms of the number and quality of performers it attracts. Dick Gaughan recorded a live CD here (Live at the Trades Club), and the club regularly hosts a huge range of events from hard rock to salsa dancing.

The monthly folk club, Trades Roots, is a relatively new addition to the repertoire - I think it's been going for a couple of years now - hosted by local resident and fine singer-songwriter Steve Tilston. This CD is a sampler drawn from the first 18 months of Trades Roots' operations. The 18 tracks feature 14 artists (four are honoured with two tracks, the rest get one each), including Steve himself, so nearly everyone who played during that period is represented. Comparing the list with the guest list at my local, much longer established club (35 years under the same management; is this a record?), I think I detect a Tilston filter in operation: he's a singer-songwriter-guitarist, and so are the vast majority of his guests. In a way, Trades Roots is misnamed: if you're looking for traditional material, you're not going to find it here. What you are going to find is uniformly fine performances of excellent material, very well recorded by Ian McHarg. This is perhaps the most remarkable feature of the album: it turns out that Ian had been recording performances, not with publication in mind, but purely for his own professional development. It was only later that the idea for this CD arose, and the artists were contacted to ask their permission to make the recordings publicly available. So these are the most honest reflections of concert performances you're ever going to get - they're recordings of people who didn't know they were being recorded. The quality of the results is a credit to the professionalism of the singers (and Ian and his equipment); the fact that the profits are going not to them but towards a refit of the club shows the affection in which this little venue is held by the live music fraternity.

Perhaps because of the Tilston filter, the whole album fits together very well: though a range of influences from traditional blues to classic French chansons is on display, the whole programme flows well, with none of the abrupt changes of mood you get on some multi-artist samplers. If you recognise and like any of the performers, I can pretty much guarantee you'll like everyone else here too.

I don't come to Trades Roots all that often: it's a scenic but slow 40 miles from Sheffield, they don't finish till getting on for midnight, and I have to be awake enough the following morning to give a 9 o'clock lecture! I was at one of the concerts represented here (Chris Smither), and I've been to a couple more since; hearing this, I wish I'd made some of the others. This sampler is a splendid advert for the artists involved, and an even better one for the club - I'm hoping that in another year or two it will be time to review Trades Roots Live II!

Price: £12.58

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine singer-songwriter on top form, 23 April 2009
This review is from: Solorubato (Audio CD)
Steve Tilston is an accomplished singer-songwriter and guitarist probably best known for having written several songs recorded by Fairport Convention. This is an almost entirely solo album (there's some very understated percussion on the odd track), in which he plays both acoustic guitar and arpeggione. The arpeggione is an extinct form of bowed guitar, which looks like the illegitimate offspring of a guitar and a cello and sounds much more like the latter than the former. I'm not entirely sure why you'd want to go to the considerable trouble of resurrecting this thing, unless you happen to be a very good guitarist who likes the sound of a cello but can't play one. I suspect he's got over it now - no sign of it at the three gigs I've been to, and I don't recall it on the recent (and highly recommended) album Ziggurat either.

Weird instruments aside, this is a fine album. I don't think he knows how to write a bad song, but this set is especially strong. It got heavily plundered for the 2007 box set (four songs included direct, and three more as cover versions), and it's a measure of the strength in depth of the songwriting here that the one I ended up humming after first listen was one of the four Tilston compositions (there are also two interpretations of traditional songs) that didn't make it on to the retrospective: "Never Enough", a gentle reflection on the end of a relationship.

I really don't have anything at all to criticise on the record proper: if you like acoustic singer/guitarists, you really should buy this. I will whine a bit about the packaging: while being told the guitar tuning for each track is no doubt useful for guitarists, I was disappointed not to get any lyrics or song notes, which you do get on Steve's more recent releases on his own label (on the other hand, the gushing intros by Nigel Schofield which are also a feature of the latter are something I certainly can live without!). Aside from the better sound quality, you don't gain much from buying this on CD rather than MP3 - except that I note that the long narrative ballad "The Turncoat", which is the album's centrepiece, isn't available as an MP3, likely on account of its 11-minute running time.

If by some miracle you've managed to wind up here without already owning some of Steve's work, I'd suggest starting with Ziggurat rather than this, if only for the entertainment value of track 2, a theme song for the credit crunch. But of the three other Tilston albums I've acquired (as a fairly recent convert) since the start of 2009, this is my favourite. And it isn't one he seems to carry around to gigs, so you might as well buy it here!

Price: £37.97

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars World-class songwriting, 5 April 2009
This review is from: Ziggurat (Audio CD)
Despite 35 years' fondness for singer-songwriters and over a decade's regular attendance at a very good local folk club, I must confess Steve Tilston had entirely escaped my notice until last year. I'm still trying to work out how. Anyway, last year the closest Chris Smither got to Sheffield was "Steve Tilston's Trades Roots" at Hebden Bridge. From the prominence of the host's name on the website, I was clearly supposed to have heard of this Tilston chap; I hadn't, but Chris is a must-see so I trundled off up the A61. Steve did the opening set and sat in on a couple of songs with Chris (turns out they're personal friends, which probably explains Smither's presence in a town I doubt most Americans could find on a map). I was mightily impressed. By fortunate coincidence, a couple of weeks later Steve was the headline act at my local club, so off I went to hear a longer set. Good voice, great guitar playing, and not a duff song in the lot - I bought Ziggurat in the interval and it's been more or less permanent in-car entertainment ever since.

Tilston is an intelligent, literate and versatile songwriter, and the songs on Ziggurat reflect this. He clearly has a lively interest in history, and big historical narrative ballads are something of a trademark (I know more about him now - I bought the big retrospective box set); the example here is "The King of the Coiners", a piece of local history from Hebden Bridge. There's sociopolitical comment - "The Spoils of War", on Iraq, and "A Pretty Penny", an anthem for the credit crunch ("I wrote this a year ago," he said at the Smither gig, "I'm not just jumping on the bandwagon" - if that's so, it was uncannily prescient!), which is a terrific song and probably the stand-out track for me; a couple of love songs, one set to a Chopin prelude; some autobiography; and even a cheerful blues in praise of an Australian tree. He's a very fine acoustic guitarist, and the other featured musicians are equally good - the whole thing is just very well put together.

I'm never quite sure if it's worth reviewing CDs by people way down the Amazon sales ranking list - if you're reading this, chances are you know what you're looking for. But I liked it so much I felt the urge to say so - and Steve, if you're curious enough to check your own reviews (I think I would be), I am planning to make more contributions to your royalty income in the future!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 16, 2011 6:58 AM BST

New Worlds in the Cosmos: The Discovery of Exoplanets
New Worlds in the Cosmos: The Discovery of Exoplanets
by M. Mayor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £38.86

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lively account by a main player in the field, 23 Sept. 2008
Michel Mayor's claim to astronomical immortality is that he is the co-discoverer of the first confirmed planet orbiting a Sun-like star other than the Sun itself. Consequently, this lively account of the discovery and properties of extrasolar planets is a partially first-person narrative and gives a real insider's view. There are some interesting insights to be had as a result - I had never realised how important Roger Griffin (author of countless indistinguishable papers on spectroscopic binary stars in Observatory magazine) was to the development of the high-precision spectroscopy techniques used by Mayor and rival groups in planet searches. This sort of personal touch lifts the book above the many other "discovery of exoplanets" titles to be found in the popular astronomy literature. The book also has the advantage of being written slightly later than the rash of books which came out immediately following Mayor and Queloz's discovery, and therefore has a clearer view of the properties of exoplanets (for example, Ken Croswell's Planet Quest, while a fine and thoroughly researched book, was written when we had discovered only a handful of planets, and so cannot say much about the general properties of the breed). It's not a long book, but has enough detail to make its explanations clear to the non-specialist and is pitched at the right level for a popular account.

Downsides? Well, in this fast-moving field some sections are already outdated, despite the book's comparative youth: in particular, the chapter on future space missions makes sad reading, with several of the missions discussed either cancelled (Eddington) or failed (Beagle 2), and most of the others suffering from the usual space-mission schedule creep. The last section on prospects for life is pedestrian compared to the rest of the book - this is not his field of speciality, and the personal insights are missing. I guess he felt he had to cover this material, because his readers would expect it, but there's nothing here that you won't find equally well discussed elsewhere.

The main fault, as far as I'm concerned, is that Mayor is let down by his translator. I don't think Boud Roukema is a native English speaker, and that's always a mistake - when translating, it's essential that you have a complete command of the language you're translating INTO, otherwise the result won't sound natural. And this doesn't. The most obvious and (to anyone with some interest in astronomy, which is anyone likely to read this book) annoying fault is that he has not properly translated any of the proper names. In English, the Latin constellation names are correctly inflected for star names: star 51 in the constellation Pegasus is 51 Pegasi. In this book this is rendered "51 Pegasus" - it's just wrong, and it looks wrong. I think in French there is a tendency to translate the constellation names from Latin to French, which obviously loses the inflections: Roukema knows English doesn't do this (we talk about Taurus and Virgo, not the Bull and the Virgin), but he doesn't know what English does instead. For a translator of an astronomy book, this is a bit of a problem! There are also some wordings which I'm sure sound better in French than in English, and should have been "naturalised": Mayor uses nationalities a lot, so you get "The German's contribution..." or "the Briton's approach". Again, this just sounds wrong: it is probably literally what Mayor wrote, but a competent translator would have made adjustments. There's even the odd wrong word - I'm really not sure what the original French was that got rendered as "primordial discovery" ("original"? "initial"? "critical"? "pre-eminent"?), but certainly "primordial" makes no sense. My own French is very rusty (an 'A' in Higher French circa 1975), but I could have done a better translation than this. How much it interferes with your enjoyment depends very much on how sensitive you are to niceties of language - I know I'm a bit of a fusspot in this respect - but really the book deserved better from a reputable publisher.

So, summary: fine book, shame about the translation. If you read French, I'm sure you should get the original!

The Infinite Cosmos: Questions from the frontiers of cosmology
The Infinite Cosmos: Questions from the frontiers of cosmology
by Joseph Silk
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Far from his best, 4 Aug. 2008
Joe Silk is a very distinguished cosmologist, an experienced writer of cosmology books for the popular audience, and (from my fairly limited acquaintance with him) a nice guy. I bought this book with a view to including it in the "directed reading" exercise of my introductory astronomy course, where students have to read a good popular book on some aspect of astronomy and answer questions on it. A book on a topical subject, by an acknowledged expert who is an experienced populariser - what could be more suitable? I expected it to be a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, it won't be on the list. The subject is fine, but the execution has fallen far short of what I would have expected. The reason is partly that Joe has been very badly served by the editors at Oxford University Press: the book is riddled with minor errors, some of which are typos ("10 billion megaparsecs" for "10 billion parsecs", some simply careless (he twice says that melting ice RELEASES, instead of REQUIRES, energy - which would mean that adding ice to your cold drink would warm it up!), and some a consequence of overconfidence (I know he's not a stellar astrophysicist, but he really should NOT have said that the Sun will become a red giant when it starts burning helium - that's the end of the red giant phase, not the beginning). A decent scientific copy-editor should have spotted most of these. The publishers should also have insisted on a bibliography, and some decent references - not just sources for direct quotes.

However, this isn't the only problem. The book also has structural faults: things get introduced in the wrong order (when the COBE experiment doesn't get discussed until 60 pages after the ground-based experiments that followed it, you know something's gone wrong), there is too much repetition, and the level is inconsistent: he explains that a billion is a thousand million, but expects his readers to be happy with entropy and ergs, neither of which is defined. It is also, I regret to say, not really very well written. I defy anyone who doesn't already know about it to make sense of the discussion of baryogenesis (the origin of the matter-antimatter asymmetry) in chapter 12. Chapter 19, on God, is disconnected from everything else, in the wrong place (if you must have it at all, it should be an epilogue), rambling, and poorly argued.

I think this book was written in too much of a hurry. It reads like a first draft, not a finished product - perhaps he had unwisely agreed to too stringent a deadline for the copy. I know that Joe can write much better than this: indeed, his previous popular book, "On the Shores of the Unknown" (published by the opposition, Cambridge University Press; on this showing, Cambridge win this particular varsity match by a very large margin), written I think for a slightly more knowledgeable audience, is very much better, and has some nice colour pictures in it as well. Buy that one - don't buy this one.

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