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M. D. Holley (Kent, UK)

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A Buzz in the Meadow
A Buzz in the Meadow
by Dave Goulson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

5.0 out of 5 stars Endearing, 17 Oct 2014
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This review is from: A Buzz in the Meadow (Hardcover)
Some scientists ruin their books by their self aggrandising arrogance (Craig Venter surely takes the accolade here). In total contrast, Dave Goulson is very endearing. We repeatedly hear about his failed projects, dead ends and embarrassing episodes. Even as a child Goulson seems accident prone, accidentally managing to kill every animal entrusted to his care. Perhaps we get a much better idea of cutting edge science from Goulson than we do from the self proclaimed 'super heros'.

He writes very affectionately about his subject, teaching us effortlessly about insects along the way. It is so well done that you barely realise you are into serious learning. A lot of the book is occupied by steamy sex scenes among the insects, which is rather entertaining.

Yet Goulson has some really serious points to make, and impercepticly he leads us along towards his objective. He shows how all life forms are interconnected, and ends with some amazing stories about bees and environmental degradation. Here his own research has really made a difference in government policy - a wonderful achievement for such a self effacing man. Goulson remains calm, balanced and non hysterical throughout.

This is a book with an important message, and deserves the widest possible circulation. Highly recommended.

Gone Girl
Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars One dimensional, 15 Oct 2014
This review is from: Gone Girl (Paperback)
First the good points. The plot is very clever indeed. It keeps reinventing itself (you could almost say this is three different books with three different plots, wrapped into one) and is unpredictable. In this sense the novel is quite stimulating.

And now the bad points. The prose is coarse, unrefined and clumsy. Characterisations and place descriptions are not vivid. The author has verbal diarrhoea, so that 100 words are often used where 10 would have been more effective. In common with some other contemporary novels, huge doses of cynicism are used throughout, giving a one dimensional feel (cynicism is a human quality, but most humans have other qualities too). The characters are unsympathetic. The effect would have been much more chilling had any of the characters had a good side.

This plot, in the hands of a more elegant and self disciplined writer, could have been subversive, sinister and overwhelming. As it is, we are left with a very light weight book which is poorly written. A shame.

It was a real challenge to keep going. This is not a page turner. I am glad I made it to the end for the fascinating plot, but I shan't be reading any more Gillian Flynn.

Sonos PLAY:5 White - The Wireless Hi-Fi (formerly S5)
Sonos PLAY:5 White - The Wireless Hi-Fi (formerly S5)
Price: £349.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Yesterday's technology?, 30 Sep 2014
I have lived with my Sonos for about six months. With regret, I am about to stop using it in favour of a rather cheaper Sony bluetooth dock, which I have bought as a replacement. I can't help feeling that Sonos is yesterday's technology.

Good points first. Set up was dead easy. Sound quality is stunning. Reliability is first class.

My problem is that I usually buy my music as high quality FLAC files (so called Studio Master, at 24bit/96kHz). My main set up is a hi fi and you can really hear the difference with the Studio Master files. I am reluctant to buy compressed music of inferior quality now that Studio Master is available widely.

I use the Sonos for more casual listening in a different room, but sadly it wont accept the Studio Master 24 bit files.

Now I did survive for a while by downloading everything twice, once at 24 bit for the hi fi and once at 16 bit (CD quality) for the Sonos and for my phone. This was a real chore.

But recently I replaced my phone, and the new one accepts Studio Master files. Now the only reason for the double downloading chore was the Sonos - and guess what? I am finding I don't bother. So more and more of my music library plays on my phone and my hi fi but not the Sonos. Ironically, even my tiny bluetooth travel speaker can play all the Studio Master music (via the phone!).

I have also noticed another weakness of the Sonos - you are forced to use the Sonos interface to control it, even if you are playing Spotify or Quobuz. Each provider produces its own app which is as user friendly as possible, and that's how I want to control my music. The Sonos app gets between you and the original provider, and it's inevitably a bit clunky.

I am just tending to use the Sonos less and less, which is a real pity as it was expensive.

What I really want is something that plays ALL my music library in reasonable quality and which I can control via an original app on my phone. There are loads of recent bluetooth and DLNA speakers that do just that.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 4, 2014 11:41 PM BST

For Bread Alone
For Bread Alone
by Mohamed Choukri
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Gruelling, 28 Sep 2014
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This review is from: For Bread Alone (Paperback)
This little book is based on the author's own childhood. It paints a vivid picture of 1950s Morocco.

It is not an easy read, becuase the author had an extremely rough time, growing up in the Moroccan underworld. It is not for the faint hearted, for there is a lot of depravity, violence and sex.

There is some very unusual and effective use of language to emphasise the degradation and humiiations faced by the narrator.

It is good literature, but rather a gruelling read.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Every other novel will seem flat after this, 28 Sep 2014
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I enjoyed this as much as any novel I have ever read.

It is very easy to read - a real page turner. And yet it is highy original. I had no idea where it was heading to, since the plot is enirely unpredictable. In some ways reading this is like living your actual life - you never know what's coming next, nor do you fully understand what is going on around you.

Apart from the enjoyment of the story, I learned some fascinating new history about Japan, China and Russia. I feel inspied to look more into this era.

I have had some bad experiences with adventurous, arty or surreal novels, but this manages to be all of those things yet very approachable and enjoyable at the same time.

I give it highest possible recommendation.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
by Yuval Noah Harari
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insights on every page, 27 Sep 2014
Beautifully written, this book contains one incredible idea: that the success of homo sapiens derives from our inclination to believe in imaginary (i.e. non existent) things, and to act on those beliefs. This insight alone is worth the price of the book.

Harari has a very original way of thinking, and the book turns up gems on virtually every page. His thoughts on the role of empires and religion and science are invaluable.

The scope of the book is immense. As well as covering a vast time span from the most distant pre history to a science fiction future, Harari ranges far and wide in science, engineering, politics, religion and biology. I particularly like the way he concludes with a brief picture of homo sapiens passing into the future, and into successor species.

In a work of such scope and originality, it is inevitable that errors and hair brained ideas will creep in. Harari is fearless in tackling every subject, yet he cannot be expert on them all. For example, while he has interesting things to say on economics, he is not really secure in his understanding. His description of humanism is almost unrecognisable. The section on why women would make good military generals is not thought through. These flaws did undermine my confidence in him a little. He also sounds like he has an axe to grind on vegetarianism. While I tend to agree with him, I felt he lost his objectivity whenever this subject came up.

Overall though this is a huge achievement, and I sense that Harari's one big idea will stick. Highly recommended.

Ukraine Diaries
Ukraine Diaries
by Andrey Kurkov
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Raw emotions illuminate the Ukraine crisis, 25 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Ukraine Diaries (Paperback)
This book comprises recent diary entries by someone who is living through very dramatic events in Ukraine.

Don't expect a profound work of art. There are raw emotions here (and very one sided at that). Don't expect a detached historical analysis either. But these shortcomings are also the book's strengths. They are only to be expected in a freshly written diary.

The context pages at the end are useful (I had always thought Stalin invaded Poland in 1939, rather than Western Ukraine - but Kurkov's way of looking at that period helps to explain a lot of the otherwise baffling propaganda currently coming out of Moscow).

In the end this book helped me to understand the current events in Ukraine much better. It is very easy to read and never less than illuminating.


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.00

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Le mal du pays, 25 Aug 2014
Oh I wish I could have made this book last longer! It was over all too soon. It's just too hard to put down.

Murakami takes a rather ordinary story (on the surface), and makes it completely gripping. I remember the scene where Tsukuru is waiting to meet his Finnish friend for the first time in years. How does he create such suspense and anticipation from something so simple?

I liked the musical references. I downloaded Listz's 'Le mal du pays' (I had not heard it before) and listened to it as I read. For me this became the soundtrack to the novel, and I found this added another dimension to it. The stickers were really good fun too!

There is a lot to ponder over and the novel stays with you afterwards. I wish I been able to read something like this as a teenager - it might have helped.

Just a note on the translation - it is very colloquially American in style. For a non US reader this is quite jarring as it creates a dissonance with the Japanese context. A more generalised form of English would have been preferable, and I hope Murakami can insist on something better for his future novels.

Thoroughly recommended. I agree with those who say Murakami is one of the greatest living novelists.

Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction
Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction
by Robin Dunbar
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A 'male brain' book, 11 Aug 2014
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The title of this book is misleading. The book is about two models Dunbar devised (a 'time budget model' together with 'the social brain hypothesis'), and their application to human evolution. It is not a summary of human evolution itself, but more a discussion of the application of the chosen models.

The models themselves are interesting (especially the social brain hypothesis), and I found the introductory chapters which set out the models fascinating. I even made a list of all my friends to see if the number came to 150 (it did).

Dunbar comes up with a simple set of mathematical equations (the inputs seem to be brain size; time taken feeding, travelling and grooming; type of food available) and we can then reconstruct every stage of human evolution with precision. Or can we?

Illuminating though the models are, Dunbar goes off the rails in the attempt to apply these to situations millions of years ago. He needs to make heroic assumptions at every stage, and over reliance on his cherished models to the exclusion of other factors blinkers him.

The idea that a complex system, (such as the interaction of a hominin species with its environment) can be reduced to a few equations with minimal inputs is really rather silly. The great difficulties economists have in analysing contemporary human systems shows the extent of the challenge - and the economists are here to observe what's going on in minute detail.

There is a danger of applying mathematical modelling to complex systems - it can give the user a false sense of security and a fair degree of over confidence. The author does not seem to be aware of these limitations.

Dunbar exhibits what I would call a strongly male brain. He evidently feels the urge to put everything into tidy boxes that can be summed up in a few elegantly simple equations. But real life is not like that.

That is not to say that there is nothing of interest to be gleaned from applying Dunbar's models. But these models on their own cannot provide anything definitive, and I am surprised that a book with such a narrow viewpoint is being marketed as a general introduction.

The Summer Book
The Summer Book
by Esther Freud
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Strong emotional pull, 27 July 2014
This review is from: The Summer Book (Paperback)
A life enhancing read, this little book. There is no plot as such - more a series of short stories about life on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland over one summer.

The two main characters (Grandmother and Sophia) are exquisitly drawn. They are both incredibly real - I can't remember reading any other book where the characters are so believable. They are each quirky, argumentative and highly attractive too.

The language is rather unusual, in that it is extremely economical and understated, yet powerfully conveys the landscape as well as the unfolding emotions of the protagonists. There is not a word out of place, or which is superfluous.

The Moomin books were the first I ever read as a child, and they still have a strong emotional pull for me. So it was a delight to find this adult novel having the same qualities.

By the way, I am now planning a holiday on an island in the Gulf of Finland. It's that type of book.

Highly recommended!

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