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Sally Walker (Eastbourne, UK)

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Huxley: The Devil's Disciple
Huxley: The Devil's Disciple
by Adrian J. Desmond
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars On the whole a dense read, but clearly the produce of a first class intellect., 9 Dec. 2016
A very detailed account of Huxley’s life from birth up until 1875 when he was elected President of the Royal Institute.

I found this book dense on the whole and at times a bit of a trudge. It is clearly the produce of a first class intellect, and I yearn for intelligently written books, but I felt that Desmond could have made Huxley more immediately accessible to his readers, and thereby he would have emulated the man himself in his desire to make science accessible to the common man, which he achieved via his pamphlets and Sunday evening lectures. I believe that Desmond could have done this without having to dumb Huxley down.

In reading this biography I felt at times as if I was an interloper to a group of the in-crowd, but because I did not have prior knowledge of their knowledge or experience I was doomed to be forever left out in the cold. By this I mean that I think Desmond has assumed that his readers will have a certain level of prior knowledge of the kind of world in which Huxley and his peers lived in, particularly the shifting sands of power between the establishment, for which read the church and the clergy, and the burgeoning sciences of which Huxley and his crew were at the helm of putting on the map. One of Huxley’s greatest achievements was as I say, bringing science to the masses, including his creation of the South London College.

This book does convey that Huxley’s achievements were remarkable, all the more so considering he was largely self-taught. He had a mind that was never at rest, always enquiring, sufficient energy as his disposal to hold down various posts and positions at once, and a dogged determination to keep knocking on doors until they opened. On top of this he managed somehow to be a family man. In short there is much to admire.

Of course, if he is remembered at all, it is for being Darwin’s ‘bulldog’. Huxley was slow to accept Darwin’s theory of natural selection, believing at first that evidence of human occupation would be found in Silurian deposits, but once on board he became Darwin’s outspoken, (if not to say radical) and courageous mouthpiece. Whilst Darwin merely gave a mild hint at the end of Natural Selection that his theory could be applied to man, Huxley it was who did just that and in so doing put forward the theory that man had evolved from apes. Indeed he illustrated the possible transition in his now iconic image. Everybody knows of this image, but few, I wager, know that it was Huxley that drew it in the first place.

History has cast Huxley well and truly in Darwin’s shadow whereas it is probably the case that without Huxley, Darwin’s theory would have taken longer to reach centre stage. He deserves greater recognition and Desmond details all of the reasons why.

Reindeer Moon
Reindeer Moon
by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars I did not want it to end., 30 Nov. 2016
This review is from: Reindeer Moon (Paperback)
The author, in my opinion, has credibly and vividly created a Palaeolithic landscape peopled with pre-historic nomads feeding off of gathered plants and a range of hunted animals.

EMT’s writing is descriptive without being whimsical or metaphorical. It is not sophisticated or intellectual and demands little of the reader. This is not intended to be a put down. Rather, this book’s high level of accessibility combined with the powerful narrative meant that I munched through its pages. I did not want to put it down.

Yannan, a young woman is the central character and it is she who tells us in the first person, the story of her life, death and after-life, but not in linear sequence. She is feisty and brave, proud and defiant. Her hot-headedness lands her in trouble and difficulty with her peers and elders and this has far-reaching consequences.

Included within the narrative are a number of beautiful passages in which EMT depicts what it would be like to live like a particular animal. These I found to be on a par with Henry Williamson’s writing.

What I loved most about this book is that it allowed me to dive into another time and place so utterly different from urban C21st England, including all of its built-in obsolescent wastefulness, greed, and for some, feelings of isolation and dis-connectedness. Each time I read it I was transported back to a time when man had not really become a landscape shaper, but rather a species that lived within the landscape taking from it only the resources that he needed and never wasting resources. A time too when man accepted and respected the fact that he was just one kind of animal fighting a daily battle for survival. Greed had not been invented, neither had organised religion. Instead, shamans performed rituals involving intercession with the spirits of ancestors in times of need and plenty.

I found many parts of Yannan’s story and that of her fellows moving and poignant, not to say thought provoking. My thoughts led me to the conclusion that as man has ‘advanced’ he has sacrificed much that was good along the way, including an appreciation of nature and a knowledge that resources are limited. A sense of community then was hunting and gathering food together, working as a team and sitting together around a fire at night.

I found this book entrancing; I did not want it to end; always the sign of a great read.

Richard Trevithick: Giant of Steam
Richard Trevithick: Giant of Steam
by Anthony Burton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A highly informative biography of an unsung hero, 14 Oct. 2016
A highly informative biography of the life of a previously, to me, unknown and unsung hero. Burton has done Trevithick a great service in revealing to us all that he achieved in one highly readable chronological account of his life. In addition Burton lays bare Trevithick’s personality foibles that in large measure prevented him from standing centre stage along with the likes of Robert Stephenson, James Watt, Thomas Telford and I K Brunel.

Trevithick is revealed to be a physical giant with an overactive mind that was forever coming up with new inventions, not just the inventor of the first locomotive steam engine, but many other things, but steam was what he loved the most. Inventing steam engines that could be used in a variety and at times, multiple ways, was his passion, his raison d’etre, which propelled him, amongst many other things to spending ten years of his life in South America. Here he lay down the foundations of the Peruvian and Costa Rican economies by his involvement with silver and gold mines. At times his life reads like a C19th Indiana Jones. He thought little of his personal safety and little of securing for himself and his family their just financial rewards for his various endeavours. He came tantalisingly close on more than one occasion to making a fortune, only for sometimes his stubbornness and irascibility to get in the way. At other times, events completely outside of his control prevented the money from flowing in. So many times, others who came after him developed his initial brain storming ideas and reaped the rewards because Trevithick could never stay with one idea long enough to consolidate his intellectual property.

My only criticism, if I have one of this biography, is that at times the descriptions of the steam engines, and in particular their operating mechanics, I found difficult to keep up with, not being at all mechanically minded. More simplistic descriptions for the ‘lay’ readers may have been helpful.

I thoroughly recommend this book.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir
Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir
by Chris Packham
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.03

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quite simply remarkable, 11 Sept. 2016
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One word – remarkable.

This is a remarkable book because: of its uniqueness; of its raw honesty; the bravery of Chris Packham to lay bare the machinations of his troubled soul; and of the sheer brilliance of his descriptive prose about nature and the wildlife that he has encountered and enjoyed.

I bought this book expecting one thing and found myself reading something completely different. No ordinary autobiography is this – no linear account of a person’s life and doings. Chris, cleverly, by each chapter having an extract of a session with his pyscho-therapist from the autumn of 2003 into the spring of 2004 ? gives us snapshots of the ultimate void that he was to reach in his life and the events of his young life that contributed to the void well before he writes in detail about those events. He leads you on to what you know will be a cataclysmic event.

Chris wrote this book not with the intention of publishing it and indeed it reads more, as what I hope proved to be for Chris, a cathartic outpouring of all of the resentment and bitterness and at times hatred that had built up in him really since he first developed a memory when a young child. It is about his growing up and his development as a person and as a wildlife enthusiast. It is clear that the two are intrinsically linked, so take away the wildlife and there is no Chris.

I agree this does not sound like an attractive and enjoyable read, more a reason not to read it than to read it. For sure if you like your life and the things that you engage with, to be sugar-coated then Chris’s book will definitely not be for you. So this is not a book all about the fluffy animals that Chris has known. But, if you like to dive below the surface veneer of life, and want to read about what is really going on underneath, in one human being’s soul then this book is most definitely for you. There will be much in Chris’s life that will inevitably get you thinking about your own life and what it is to be human and the struggle that dealing with human emotions and feelings can represent for all of us, if we are honest with ourselves.

Chris’s salvation has been his love, to the point of obsession, of nature and wildlife, including creatures now extinct. But it is birds that are his greatest passion and it is Chris’s relationship with one bird in particular, a kestrel that he raised, that was a defining point in his life, if not the defining point. This is a stream that runs throughout his memoir.

Before Chris took his book to a publisher he showed his draft to a friend and said do you think I should try and get this published and she replied: you must. She was right. She was right because I believe fervently that we sell ourselves and in particular our mental health short, by striving to maintain our public veneers of being in control and making sure at all costs that we do not expose any weaknesses and insecurities. Chris lays his bare for all to see and I admire him greatly for doing this. I end up not thinking any the less of him but so much more. Mental health is gradually becoming less of a taboo subject and Chris’s book will become, I hope, a stimulus to make us talk more about it, so that we begin to drop our reinforced facades.

In short this is an intense, moving, at times poignantly amusing a beautifully and highly intelligently written book. A must read for all deep thinkers. Now in my top five books that I have ever read!
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 27, 2016 7:03 PM BST

Have I Got A Story For You
Have I Got A Story For You
Price: £4.07

4.0 out of 5 stars A perfect Sunday read, 28 Feb. 2016
This is a pleasant read. It comprises a string of stories simply told by, in many ways an ordinary man, ordinary in the sense of being identifiably one of us. However many of the stories have been told to the author because of his extraordinary, because he is one of a dying profession and indeed may be the last to undertake this profession: a mobile sewing machine repair man. Some of his customers are elderly and have lived all their lives in Sussex and it is from them that he gains the stories that comprise the bulk of this book. He also recounts events from his own life, principally from his childhood in Eastbourne and surrounding areas.

Whilst all of the stories are of Eastbourne or elsewhere within Sussex, they will have a universal appeal. As the author himself says in his epilogue, people love the stories that he tells because they make them feel good. I believe this is because most of his stories are about events, some of them extraordinary that have been experienced by ordinary people. Askaroff has rustled up for us a plateful of nostalgia and nostalgia is very attractive to people because it takes them back in time, oftentimes to lives lived more simply and less technologically involved than our lives are today.

I recommend this book to anybody with an interest in history, social history and nostalgia. I would say a perfect Sunday read when you can leave this modern world behind for a few hours.

The Secret Garden (Vintage Children's Classics)
The Secret Garden (Vintage Children's Classics)
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.49

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A lovely way to escape the trials of the modern world, 19 Jan. 2016
I have literally had this book on my bookshelf for in excess of thirty years and on a whim decided to start reading it – what a treasure. Although it is a child’s book there is much for an adult reader to enjoy. Not least because you can put down your adult thoughts & feelings that are stimulated by coping with living and working in our modern world. Instead the reader is transported back to a different period of time when life was lived at a slower pace – this book was published in 1911, so just pre-WW1 and all of its horrors. I therefore found this book to be something of a stress buster.

The secret garden that has been neglected for ten years provides a much needed sanctuary for two of the main characters of the book: Mary and Colin. Both are ten years old and therefore born at the time that the garden was locked up; both by the time they have lived out their first decade of life, are in desperate need of love. Mary it is who first discovers the garden and she begins to bring the garden back to life, at first alone but quickly she is joined by Dickon, the younger brother of a maid who works in the manor in whose grounds the secret garden is situated. He is something of an animal charmer, deeply connected to nature and although himself also ten years old, plays something of a parental role to Mary and later Colin, the son of the owner of the manor. Both Mary and Colin with Dickon’s help, by their bringing the garden back to life, themselves blossom and heal.

The narrative very clearly sets before the reader the joys and positive outcomes that can be derived from gardening and an appreciation of nature. This was the source of my joy in reading this book.

I am left wanting to know about the author and what her life was like that made her want to and be able to write a book like this. A biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett beckons.

I heartily recommend this book to all children of an appropriate age, so that they may learn to find delight in nature and gardens and to all adults of any age who want a soothing read that lets them forget about all of the technology of our modern world and get back to basics.

The White Tiger
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly brilliant, 19 Jan. 2016
This review is from: The White Tiger (Paperback)
So you want to know about India. So the author says then I will tell you. And he says: “Forget the glossy travel brochures or the perfectly crafted videos, instead I’ll grab you by the throat and stuff your face into the real India, the India that lies behind the veneer of democracy. By the time I have finished with you, you will be able to smell all of the smells of India, you’ll have seen all of the dirt, mud and grime, the abject poverty personified in people living their entire lives on the pavements. As a consequence of the tearaway journey that I will take you on you will cease to take for granted, if only for a short while, while your memory of our journey remains in your mind’s sight, all of your possessions and comforts and you will come to appreciate your western democracy despite all of its ills.”

This is a magnificent book. After the first few pages, it mutates from one thing into quite another with a punch in your face. It is one lower caste Indian man’s story, told over the course of seven late nights in a letter that he writes to the president of China. He exposes the chasm between the haves and the have-nots in his country and his particular journey from the one to the other. The degradation, the humiliation, the cruelty that is exacted upon the have-nots, those from the Darkness, by the haves, is all laid bare and picked over as if you were witness to a gruesome post mortem. So too is the corruption, the greed and the shallow lives that are led by the masters. It exposes the truth that the haves are in reality no happier than the have-nots; they just get to live their lives in comfort. However, this is not a grim read because the narrative is told with guile and wit.

Adiga educated in the west tells us how the inculcation of western ideals and business into India has fashioned a greater, or perhaps just a different form of exploitation of the servants by their masters. He cleverly gives us a story in which one servant gets even with his master, so that he becomes the master of his own destiny; he gains his freedom from the rooster coop.

Clearly, Adiga is a deep thinker and he has presented his thoughts in an accessible parcel of brilliance. His book is all the more astounding because it is his first novel. If he had not won the Man Booker prize in 2008 for this book it would have been a travesty.

In short an absolutely must read.

The Fair Fight
The Fair Fight
by Anna Freeman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A good debut in historical literature, 10 Jan. 2016
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This review is from: The Fair Fight (Hardcover)
A novel I would say in two parts: the first setting the scene for the action of the second part. It was during the second part that I gradually began to care about the characters. I have given this book four stars instead of five, because I would have liked to start caring about what happened to the main protagonists from the outset. Whilst the first part I found a little slow, the later part became a page- turner. I had to know what happened next. It is in the second part that I came close to understanding why Sarah Waters, author of Tipping the Velvet and her more recent masterpiece The Paying Guests, gave a review for this book which included the statement: ‘hugely exciting’.

It is a many layered book and cleverly structured in that the same narrative is told by different players. This means that you do not just get one character’s perspective.

It is a Georgian upstairs and downstairs because it traces the lives of the well heeled in Bristol and surrounding countryside and that of the down at heel in the seedier parts of Bristol. These two separate walks of life become intimately mingled because of prize fighting. If you do not like to read descriptions of two people trying to wound and incapacitate the other then this book is probably not for you. I must admit that at times I found such passages heavy going, the more so when they related to one of the main protagonists: Ruth fighting other women and on one occasion a man in the ring.

A comparison with Dickens can be made not in the writing, although I like Freeman’s writing style, but in terms of her descriptions of depravity and poverty. This too can be heavy and raw, but I feel such images should not be turned away from. Many thoughts and realisations arise from such reading.

For example I found the lives of the female characters thought provoking in terms of what pitifully few choices they had whether well heeled or down at heel. Freeman’s descriptions of women un-dressing certainly made me appreciate the freedom that my body has within modern dress. Whichever way women turned they were confined and constrained by tight fitting corsets, which were physical synonyms for the limited lives that most led. I did not find this an overtly feminist piece of fiction but at times it certainly got me thinking and any book that achieves that in me is worthy of praise.

Reading Freeman’s acknowledgements at the back of the book it is clear that the writing of this book has been something of an epic undertaking requiring confidence boosting from others along the way. I think the end result is something that she should be proud of and I hope will prove to be a platform for further books. I think she is a fine addition to the catalogue of historical fiction writers.

Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania
Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania
by William Blacker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.38

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gem of a book in which you enter a different way of living, 10 Jan. 2016
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One popular review of this book says that it puts Patrick Leigh Fermour’s work into a cocked hat. When I read this I thought that this could not possibly be true, but now having read The Enchanted Way I can see where the reviewer was coming from. I would say that in terms of enchantment meter readings and romanticism it is on a par with either ‘A Time of Gift’s or ‘Between the Woods and the Water.’ Blacker has created a modern day companion to these books and in addition provides a contrast to them. Whilst in Romania PLF spent much of his time with the gentry and aristocracy, Blacker spent all of his time with peasants or gypsies; he has given a real account of what it was like to live in Romania amongst them.

Others have criticised Blacker for not painting a balanced picture of life in Romania, in particular the restrictions, restraint and resultant deprivations imposed upon the populace by the Ceaucescu dictatorship and what it was like to live under them. However, he spent a lot of his time in one of the more remote areas of the country which seems to have largely been left to its own devices during the communist years and indeed by Blacker’s account seems to have actually benefited from it. Moreover, he is writing of his experience of Romania which began immediately after the execution of the Ceaucescus and the people that he spent most of his time with, and therefore who figure largely in his book, did not experience great adversity. His objective was not to write an expose of peasant life lived in the communist era but simply to tell us what he experienced, the things that he saw, the people he met and spent time with and how he felt about it. I therefore think it is inappropriate to criticise him for a lack of something that it was never his intention to include. How could he when he had not come up against it?

Blacker does not flinch from laying bare the appalling experiences of the gypsies or the Saxons at the hands of the Nazis and in the case of the former, in addition by the Romanians themselves, including corrupt and brutal police officers.

I therefore believe that The Enchanted Way is a balanced memoir of his time in Romania.

It is certainly a book that you can lose yourself within. It is quite easy to develop fantasies of following in his footsteps and experiencing the last grains of sand remaining in the top half of the hourglass of the medieval way of life that he found in Maramures. A way of living that was dictated by the changing seasons rather than the modern commercially driven life that is dictated by advertising. Heart breaking to read of the rapid changes that are taking place in Maramures as the villagers become entrapped by the often false promises of the benefits of modern life. The contrast between the two ways of life could not be more stark and Blacker succinctly shows us how in many, many respects how we have all been sold off down the river; the river in Breb soon becoming clogged with plastic packaging, killing off the fish.

There is so much of interest in this book and it is multi-layered: in no particular order it tells of the traditional peasant life tracing it through one revolution of the seasons, of folklore and witchcraft, weddings and funerals, courting rituals, tragedies and cruel injustices, of idyllically happy times and Blacker’s own love affair with a gypsy girl.

My only negative comment is that one of the photos is of a funeral and in this photo two young mourners are facing away from the ceremony taking place in front of them and instead are looking directly into Blacker’s camera situated directly behind them. This photograph makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Blacker at the time lived in the same village, as one of them, but yet before he left to attend the funeral he must have thought “I’ll take my camera with me to take some photos which might be useful for a future article or a book.” In that moment of taking the photograph Blacker ceased to be one of them and instead became a journalist who would use the photograph later for financial gain. I think it is not surprising that his book was published after Mihai the man who came to regard Blacker as his son, he being childless, had died. You can’t help wandering that if he had published it whilst he was alive he would have felt to some greater or less extent betrayed. This is obviously my personal opinion about a tiny part of the book and should not be used as a reason not to read this book, because you would be missing a gem.

Waterland (Picador Classic)
Waterland (Picador Classic)
by Graham Swift
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A cleverly constructed narrative, 10 Jan. 2016
A cleverly constructed narrative in which a middle-aged history teacher who is about to be pensioned off in the early 1960’s, looks back over his life, laying bare before us why he is being pensioned off and much more besides. Including a highly interesting section on the natural history of eels, which the author weaves seamlessly into the narrative. There is much musing on the meaning of history, the importance of history, its cyclical nature and how often it is ignored at individual and even whole nation’s peril. If you like history you will definitely like this novel.

The majority of the story is set in the Fenlands of East Anglia where Tom the to be history teacher was born and bred, only leaving it to fight in the later stages of WW2. Swift provides us with brilliant descriptions of the landscape and an interesting resume of how this landscape was created by man, one in particular, who kicked off the drainage programme to create agricultural land.

Rather like some detective dramas of recent years in which right at the beginning you are given split second images which reveal part of what happened in the murder of the victim, so too Swift gives us from the outset snapshots of the calamitous events which would happen a few years later or indeed decades later. So the reader does not really have to guess what tragedy is going to befall Tom’s menopausal wife, but this in no way detracts from the narrative. Swift ably pulls the reader through his book: he gets you wanting to know what intervening events and actions occur to bring her to her particular brink.

I would call this a must read book because of the cleverness of the construction of the narrative and the high degree of skill that Swift exhibits as a writer.

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