Nightingales in November by Mike Dilger

3.5 out of 5 stars

We don’t get many different species of birds in our garden, mostly sparrows, the odd blue tit, magpies, lots of pigeons and sometimes doves. I have seen herons on the house behind, and every now and again we glimpse goldfinches and we even had a pair of mallards once! It is a bit of a mix, but mostly we leave them to get on with it. Move away from the houses around and suddenly there are far more birds around, buzzards and the occasional kite wheeling overhead and magnificent swift scything through the air in the height of summer.

Some of what we consider our native birds are actually visitors. Some of them fly here for what we laughingly call our summer before heading vast distances to much warmer climes during our grey winters. In this book Dilger has selected twelve of our well-known birds, the Peregrine, the Blue Tit, Tawny Owl, Robin, Kingfisher as well as some of the summer and winter visitors that we have, the Waxwing, the Puffin, the Lapwing, Bewick’s Swan, the Swallow, the Cuckoo and the bird that the book is named after, the Nightingale.

Each chapter covers a month and each of the birds has a short essay telling us the sorts of things that they would be typically doing at that time of year. In January, we read about the Bewick’s Swan who are overwintering as it is much warmer than their summer haunt of the Siberian tundra. Kingfishers are keeping a low profile near the rivers and Tawny Owls starting to defend their territory. In the same month, thousands of miles away in South Africa the swallows flit catching insects around the big game.

By the middle of the year, the days are long, and most of the birds mentioned have bred and are carrying out the thankless task of feeding their young, the lapwings are fairly self-sufficient when they hatch, the kingfishers are just starting to force their first brood out to fend for themselves and the Puffin’s egg is still being incubated. The Peregrine’s chicks are just starting to flex their flight muscles and take to the air.

As the winter closes in the summer visitors will be long gone, the chicks of the cuckoos having managed to follow the parent they have never seen back to Africa, the blue tits are emptying the nuts from your feeder and the robin’s songs have returned and the nightingale is enjoying the warmth of tropical Senegal.

In all these multiple timelines are vast numbers of facts and details, stories and anecdotes about each of the birds and it makes for fascinating reading, especially about those that migrate and how the detective work has found their routes to and from the UK. I personally I would have preferred a separate timeline for each bird through their year, rather than month by month, as I would occasionally have flick back to see what they were up to in the previous chapter. That is only a minor thing though as otherwise, it is a good concept to show how each of these birds live their own separate and intertwined lives. I did love the little sketches of each bird and the beginning of each chapter/month.

The Greatest Beer Run Ever by John “Chick” Donohue

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for The Greatest Beer Run Ever by  John “Chick” Donohue and published by Octopus Books.

 

About the Book

 

A Crazy Adventure in a Crazy War is the amazing true story of a young man going to take his buddies a few cans of beer – in the heat of the Vietnam war. In 1967 – having seen students protesting against the Vietnam war, some New York City bar friends decided that someone should hop over to Vietnam to buy their various neighbourhood army buddies a beer, to show them that SOMEONE appreciates what they’re doing over there. One man was up for the challenge: John “Chickie” Donohue. A U. S. Marine Corps veteran turned merchant mariner, Chickie decided he wasn’t about to desert his buddies on the front lines when they needed him most.

Chickie set off on an adventure that changed his life forever. Armed with Irish luck and a backpack full of alcohol, he made his way to Qui Nho’n, tracking down his disbelieving friends one by one. But Chickie saw more of the war than he ever bargained for…

 

About the Author

John “Chickie” Donohue joined the United States Marine Corps at the age of seventeen and spent several years as a Merchant Mariner after his discharge. His work took him to numerous foreign ports, including Saigon during the Vietnam War. After the war, he became a Sandhog, or tunnel builder, and eventually became the Legislative and Political Director of Sandhogs, Local 147, Laborers International Union of North America, a post in which he served for over three decades. Donohue is a graduate of the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government where he received his Master of Public Administration degree. He is happily married to Theresa “Terri” O’Neil and spends his time between New York, Florida, and West Cork, Ireland.

Peter Farrelly, writer and producer of Green Book, is turning THE GREATEST BEER RUN EVER into a movie. In 2018 Green Book won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay and the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. Farrelly has also directed and produced Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, Me, Myself and Irene, There’s Something About Mary, and the 2007 remake of The Heartbreak Kid.

 

My Review

Donohue was 26 years old and already a veteran. He was an ex-marine and now a merchant seaman, and he had got together with his friends in the Doc Fiddler Bar in Manhattan. They had gathered there to drink, tell jokes and stories, have a laugh and share the craic. Something that their Irish and Scottish ancestors would have understood completely. They had all seen the protestors who were making a stand against the ongoing Vietnam war, a war that a number of their friends were still fighting in.

One of the guys at the bar suggested that someone, one of the guys present here ideally, should sneak into Vietnam, find their friends, give them a bear hug, let them know they were missed back home, have a few laughs and to hand them a beer. ‘Chick’ volunteered for the mission. It’ll be the greatest beer run ever.

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

Word got around that he was going and people started to pass him names of family members and the units that they were in. He collected them together but in the cold light of day nerves were setting in. He made a promise to the mother of one of his best friends that he would find him, so he really had to go now. He managed to get a passage on the SS Drake Victory. It was leaving very soon, so he grabbed some things and hurried down to the port. He stopped at a bar to get some beers and after he explained to the barman what he was doing he gave him a great price on them. He was soon on the way in the ammo ship to Vietnam.

They anchored of Qui Nhon and he thought of a ruse to get ashore. He found the captain and told him about the family news that he wanted to pass on to his step-brother in person. The captain fumed a little and as he had arranged for the shift to be covered let him go ashore for three days. He thought that would be all the time he needed to catch up with the guys and hand them a fine New York beer. Little did he know how wrong he was.

He jumped on the water taxi that had dropped off some MP to help guard the ship. The other guys on the boat were from the 127th MP Company, Tommy Collins unit. And it turns out they knew him and the ship they were going to next he was on! If it was that easy finding his friends he would have this wrapped up in no time. To say Tommy was shocked to see him was an understatement, it was quite an emotional reunion, and he really liked the beer.

He wanted to head north to find Rick Duggan and manages to bump into another of the friends in the jeep that stops to offer him a lift. Kevin is also shocked to see him, but he knows lots of people and helps him blag a lift of a Huey Helicopter that is heading north. In fact, being in civilian clothes seemed to be helping as most of the military personnel though he was from the CIA. The ride in the helicopter was pretty scary and they don’t shut the doors, and the pilots turned off the big fan up top just to scare him. It was early evening when they landed and the guy they spoke to knew where Duggan was. Donohue was told to jump in a fox hole and they radioed Duggan to return.

He only had a day left to return to his ship though and he manages to blag a lift of a chinook, and then wangles his way onto another plane that took him to Phu Cat. That was 17 miles from his destination. He decided to walk overnight, but gave up and headed back to the camp. He was lucky not to have been captured or shot. Arriving at the port the next day he sees that his ship has already departed. He is in so much trouble.

The harbour master recommends that he heads to Saigon and speak to the American Consulate. They would be able to get his out of there. But his arrived in the city happens at the time of the Tet Offensive by the Vietcong. He is now in the middle of a war zone and he is really not sure if he is going to live, let alone make it home.

He survived. We wouldn’t be reading this book otherwise.

It was an experience that changed him and the guys to deliver the beers too and this book is a warm and generous account of his travels. I can imagine that it was terrifying at times. He is a good storyteller, the writing is full of anecdotes about the people that he meets and helps him in his task of delivering the beers to his friends. The photos that he took enhance the writing. I liked this a lot, the writing is light-hearted and conversational. Whilst he was not in the thick of the fighting, he manages to convey the tensions in the country, in particular, the descriptions of the war.

 

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour

 

Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here

 

My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Thing Tours for the arranging a copy of the book to read.

The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

4 out of 5 stars

When the Lost Words was released back in 2017 no one ever thought that it would become a phenomenon in its own right. It was conceived after the OUP dictionary removed several words relating to the natural world and Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris collaborated to produce a stunningly beautiful book that could teach children these words again. The poems or ‘spells’ from that book were put to music and there have been jigsaws and even a game.

This second book that takes the things that worked so well in the first book, the prose and Morris’s exquisite artwork and have packaged them into the more compact version here. As in the first book they have picked animals, plants and insects such as barn owls, moths, oak goldfinches and swifts and many others that have a few verses or lines of prose and then several pages of pictures.

I did like it a lot, Macfarlane’s prose has been deliberately written to be read out loud by parents and children and relies on repetition and rhythm and often onomatopoeia to bring these creatures alive in the pages of this book. It did amuse me that this is described as pocket-sized, whilst it is much more manageable than the first edition, you would still need a fairly large pocket to carry it around in. It is a stunning book, and that is mostly because of Jackie Morris’s artwork, it is so full of life. I did like the glossary at the end of the book with images of all the creatures to be found by the eager young naturalist.

A Bird A Day by Dominic Couzens

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

In the first lockdown this year, people started to become more aware of the wild world around them, helped by the drop in traffic, wildlife that you may not have seen or heard before would suddenly become more visible. Some of the easiest wildlife to see is birds and this book is aimed at those who have discovered that watching them can be endlessly fascinating.

In this new book out, Dominic Couzens has picked a bird for every day of the year. Some of them are obviously linked to that day in particular, so there is naturally a robin in December and birds that are more common in the summer appear in those months in the book. Quite how you only pick 366 birds from the 10,000 or so species that we still have is quite something, but Couzens has managed to get the familiar, the exotic the rare and the unusual in a really nice mix.

The first thing that I did when receiving this was to look up the bird that is on my birthday. That bird wasn’t one that I had ever heard of but it was fairly unique in one of its habits.

It is a beautifully produced book, it is printed on quality paper and feels heavy. The stunning photographs and artworks accompany all of the chosen birds, along with a small piece of text with facts and anecdotes about their behaviour or habitat or unique trait.

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

3.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

A tiny scrap of a bird had fallen from a tree in a road in London and if someone hadn’t of picked it up it would have been dead by the following morning. Thirty years earlier another bird had fallen from a steeple and that was found and picked up. The bird in London was a magpie and was taken to a man called Charlie Gilmour by his girlfriend. The other was a jackdaw and it was given to his father all those years ago when he was living in some squalor in a Cornish stately home.

Charlie’s father was a man called Heathcote Williams a poet, writer and anarchist who abandoned him and his mother when he was two years old. Williams work was prolific as his life was turbulent. He has almost nothing to do with Charlie as he grew up, and he became the adopted song of the Pink Floyd guitarist, Dave Gilmour.

Charlie was fortunate that his adopted father was a stable presence, but the genes that tormented his father had a similar effect on him. He had issues with drugs and whilst at university was arrested and imprisoned for violent disorder after an incident at the Cenotaph in London. He was slowly returning to stability with

Both of these corvids would profoundly change the men in their own way.

This book is about that tormented relationship and so much more. He had been estranged from his stepsisters, but after a fleeting contact with one of them, he builds it into a healthy relationship with them both. It does feel that he is trying to replicate the chaos and anarchy that his father brought to many people’s lives. Somehow the presence of the Benzene, the name he gives to the magpie and his partner Yana is a big help with his mental stability.

It is richly layered with the complex relationship that he has with his real father. At one point in the book he is reading through Heathcote’s papers (he never calls him dad) he suddenly realises that they are very alike in the way that they react to situations, some of the things that drive him affected his father in a similar way. He makes the decision to get appointments and get the proper professional help he needs to get better.

Having read Corvus by Esther Woolfson recently, you could see some parallels to her book. In particular the stories about the magpie around the home and its daily habits and rituals and how these intelligent birds are hugely opportunistic. It was interesting to see the way that a wild bird changes and becomes partly tamed whilst living in their home and the way a tiny scrap of the natural world can calm and change a person. Overall it isn’t a bad book, there are some moments of brilliant writing in here, but for me, there was that extra something missing to make this really special.

Blood Ties by Ben Crane

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Who we are, defines how we interact with others. Crane is one of those people who has always struggled with relationships and friendships. A relationship in the past left his with a son who he hasn’t seen in a while. A later diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome goes some way to explaining the difficulties that he had. But he still prefers his own company, hence why he lives in a remote cottage. One thing that he is passionate about though is raptors he is a self-taught falconer, learning from the book and practical experience.

It was this obsession about falcons that would take him to Pakistan. He is there to buy some of the simple but beautiful handmade bells that are made by the craftsmen there. It was a chance find online with a craftsman, that put him in touch with one of these men and after he expressed an interest in their manufacture, he was invited to visit. The trip expanded and he stayed to see the villagers fly the local goshawks, and to see first hand how they train them and seeing how the knowledge of falconry is passed from father to son.

Nine years later he has two sparrowhawks in the aviary attached to his cottage. They are called Boy and Girl, naming them would create too much of a bond as he has been training and rearing them for rehabilitation and release back into the wild. He was training these two birds at the same time that he heard that his son wanted to get back in contact with him. Both situations, he needs to think carefully about what he is doing as it would be so easy to ruin the beginnings of the relationship with his son and harm the birds as their strength builds.

I have read a fair few books on individuals using nature as a crutch or support for the troubles that they are having in their life at that particular time and this book is similar to those in many ways. Where it differs though is that Crane is mostly happy with his lot, he knows so much about raising sparrowhawks that whilst they will be a challenge, it is not out of his comfort zone. Where he does struggle though is his limitations with regards to other people, in particular, his ex-partner and their son. He finds a determined boy who knows his own mind and who has a rare perception for someone so young. I particularly liked the descriptions of his travels to Pakistan and Kazakhstan and I thought this was a well-written book that links nature and family ties together.

Music to Eat Cake By – Lev Parikian

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Music to Eat Cake By by Lev Parikian and published by Unbound

About the Book

Today’s reader has choices: books about love, about life, about death – and everything in between. The variety is overwhelming, bewildering.

But what if the reader could play a part in producing something different, something about everything, about nothing, about everything and nothing at the same time? What if the reader could tell the writer what to write about?

Lev Parikian asked his readers those very questions, gathered their responses and then set out to write that book. Music to Eat Cake By is the result, a collection of essays exploring everything from the art of the sandwich and space travel to how not to cure hiccups and, of course, his beloved birdsong. Lev considers each subject with his signature wit and warmth, inviting the reader to wonder: what might we ask him to write about next?

About the Author

Lev Parikian is a writer, conductor and hopeless birdwatcher. His first book, Waving, Not Drowning, was published in 2013, and his second, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? followed in 2018. His numerous conducting credits include the re-recording of the theme tune for Hancock’s Half Hour for Radio 4.

My Review

If you were to walk into any bookshop you would be able to find books on most subjects and the bigger the shop the more specialist and wider the range of books available. Most of the time you can find what you are looking for, but what if you had the opportunity to tell a writer a subject that you would like him to write about? And it could be an obscure a subject as you wanted to pick. Foolishly, Lev Parikian has done just that, funding his book through Unbound he gave people the opportunity to suggest things for him to write about.

To add a twist to this concept, he set each of the essays or musings a particular word length starting at four thousand words and dropping by 100 words each time down to the final chapter of 100 words with a subject suggested by his wife, Tessa. Asking people for subjects to write about has given us a book that mines a rich seam of Parikian’s life and background.

To say the subjects are diverse is an understatement, there is a longer essay on Where’s the cue ball going, allotments, scars gelato (most definitely not ice cream) and the link between chocolate, Wombles and musical theatres. There are a few chapters on some of his favourite subjects; cricket, music, and of course birds.

Like Lev himself, this is quite a unique book. He has a way with writing that will mean that you will be falling around laughing fairly soon into the book. I was with his description of just how bad amateur musicians can sound and a handful of pages in. This humour is a common thread in each of the chapters, whether it is him trying to remember the people whose wedding that he went to, the delights of getting older, how to stop hiccups and how to tell what species of elephant you are looking at.

They are very diverse subjects and I am fairly sure that one or two have been deliberately picked to be super difficult. Can’t think why that is… That said, he has risen to the occasion magnificently and each essay is entertaining, opinionated, full of snippets of his life and he often heads of on tangents, mostly because he can. He does manage to sneak quite a bit of cricket in too. As with all his other books, I thoroughly enjoyed this.

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour

Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here

My thanks to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for arranging for a copy of the book to read.

The Secret Life of Fungi by Aliya Whiteley

3.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The biggest single living thing on earth is not a blue whale or a redwood tree, rather it is a simple fungus. I say simple, this particular specimen of honey fungus is huge, mind-boggling huge. It is the Malheur National Forest in the state of Oregon. It was found because it was killing trees in this forest and when the DNA was taken from trees around 2.4 miles apart, it was found to have the same DNA. Overall it was calculated to be 3.7 square miles and the guesses at its age vary between 1,900 – 8650 years old.

They are some of the strangest living things that we have found so far on the planet. Bizarre is only part of it. They live all around us and sometimes even on us. They can work in harmony with the natural world or their mycelium can suffocate the life from its host. Those looking for a high, can try and source magic mushrooms, but where they choose to grow makes them less than appealing. They can be a wonderful source of food, from the ubiquitous button mushroom to the very hard to find, but exquisite truffle. They have even named one, the porcini, after me…

Aliya Whiteley is one of those with a fascination, or to be more honest, an obsession with all types of fungi. It began in her childhood trying to take pictures on her camera on the ones she found on Darkmoor that always ended up a little out of focus when the film came back from the chemist. These specimens though were just the visible part, to learn more about them she would have to delve much deeper. Looking through the guide books she found that some of the names given to them were quite wonderful, who would not want to find a fairy sparkler? Others names though have a much more sinister vibe, who can fail to have a chill run down their neck at the thought of a death cap.

All fungi are edible. Some fungi are only edible once.” – Terry Pratchett

Whiteley has packed this book with hundreds of facts about fungi, you can learn which species ejects its spores at 20,000g, which mushrooms the mummy that emerged from the ide in the Alps was carrying, which species she found a carpet of yellow mushrooms in a woodland walk on the way home from a club and which fungi that have the names Toxic Ooze and Clint Yeastwood. I rather liked this. It is not supposed to be a rigorous study, rather, Whiteley’s writing is fun to read as you follow her looping connections of all things mushroomy. It doesn’t read like a science paper either, her attention to detail is a countered with a dry sense of fun and lots of anecdotes of her fungi forays.

Mancunian Ways Edited by Isabelle Kenyon

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

There are certain cities in the UK that have a lot of character, London of course, but there are others including Newcastle, Bristol, Liverpool and of course, Manchester. They all have a particular thing about them that makes them distinctively different from other cities.

This distinctiveness can be seen in all elements of the city, from the language to the culture and Manchester is unique in their own special way. One of the publishers in this city is Fly on the Wall Press. They are a social enterprise company and a not for profit publisher who looks to publish short stories and poetry on the pressing issues of our time. This anthology was collected after a call to the creative people of this city.

The anthology is mostly poetry, but there are photographs and some of the art that can be found around the city. It is split into six sections, Northern Dream, Modern Manchester, Northern Spirit, Mancunian History, Northern Grit and Northern Culture and each of the poems for that section, fit the theme.

The sky above Manchester that night,

Beaten to a thin gleam as if

Some brawny northern god

Had hammered a path to the stars

I do have a small confession, I have never been to Manchester, but know a little about it by reputation and music and so on. The thing that I like most about this collection is the diversity of views. There are poems on commuting, rain, cranes that puncture the sky, the homeless and even a love story. Rather than having photos of the main sites of Manchester the photos and artwork show slightly gritty urban streets and locations, i.e. places and people that you will see if you were to walk around the city. One day I will have to visit.

Three Favourite Poems
The Portico
Let There Be Peace
Hale-Bopp

Inglorious by Mark Avery

4 out of 5 stars

The news about the Glorious 12th has always been very much on the periphery of my knowledge. I have vague recollections of hearing it on the news over the years and knew it was to do with shooting grouse. What it refers to is the ‘sport’, and that is a very loose definition of the word, of driving the red grouse that have been artificially raised on out moors and uplands towards lines of guns so they can shoot them. Great, eh?

The grouse have very little choice as to where they can go and this ‘spot’ is not hunting where it is the hunter versus the hunted, where the odds of getting a kill are much lower. Rather this is where people drive the birds towards a line of guns where they can pick the low flying birds off, with little or no effort. To take part in this ‘sport’ you need deep pockets for the day and the shotguns. Or you just need to know someone who has a suitable moor in their vast estates…

The people that run these claim that the ‘sport’ is economically important to the area that it takes place, bringing employment and income to an area that has precious little else. It is true that it generates an income, however, when you look at the figures it is a mere drop in the ocean compared to our GDP. They would make more money from wildlife tourism. The other thing that they do is to eradicate all threats to the red grouse chicks. This means illegally killing all predators from eagles, wildcats and most importantly, hen harriers.

Avery has come from a conservation background and for years has sought to find a way to allow these magnificent raptors to survive and ideally thrive on the moors and uplands. But the shooting lobby and organisations do not really do compromise and the scant concessions that they are prepared to make are almost nothing compared to the concessions they expect others to make.

Some of the facts that Avery revels in here are really quite shocking. This is about powerful people, who often haunt the corridors of power on both sides of the houses of parliament and who are used to getting their own way regardless if it is illegal or not. Most distressing is the lack of prosecutions of people who deliberately seek to kill hen harriers and eagles and other wildlife. I feel that it should be the perpetrators and the landowners that should face fines and or jail.

As grim a read as it is, it is worth reading. Very much ‘Inglorious’ and more of a national tragedy. Avery is well informed and has targeted his fury at the practices of the shooting lobby into this book and other campaigns to get a ban of this ‘sport’.

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