Review: Scribbles in the Margins by Daniel Grey

3.5 out of 5 stars

In these 50 short essays, Daniel Gray talks about the ways that book lovers are people of habit. We have preferred spots to read in comfortable chairs, favourite authors that you read regardless, cherished bookmarks and those little rituals that any bookworm goes through that to others seem pointless.

So if you want to know about why people smell books, the protocols behind inspecting other peoples bookshelves and if there is a right point to give up on a book then this is a good place to start. But there is more, the delights in finding a dedication from one unknown person to another, poses questions that hang in the air,  the joys of starting a crisp new book, the dilemmas and joys of choosing books to take on holiday trying to see what the person on the tube opposite you, is reading. Something that happens a fair amount in my house is trying to hide purchases from my (thankfully tolerant) another half. It is more of an art form now.

I really enjoyed this delightful little book on the things that bookworms do. It has a certain charm and is really funny at times. If you are book obsessed then you’ll smile and maybe even wince at some of the truths that he speaks. If you want to understand that person in your life who is obsessed by these rectangular pieces of sliced trees then this is a good place to start. 3.5 stars.


Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

3 out of 5 stars

The year is 1893 and the ‘White City’ has just opened in Chicago. This latest World Fair was the most spectacular so far, the landscape of white buildings set amongst tranquil gardens and canals. The man behind this was Daniel H. Burnham and to get it built was a struggle. Not only was the land basically a swamp, but he had to play the political game, battle with egos and strong personalities, and faced a never-ending stream of issues with the workers. There were up to 10,000 workers on site at any one time and no one thought that it would be built on time.


Most of it was, and as well as the huge centrepiece, the water pool, there was an 80m high Ferris wheel that could take around 40 people per car, life-size reproductions of Christopher Columbus’ three ships, the worlds first travelator and Little Egypt where Americans first saw a belly dancer for the first time. Even Buffalo Bill set up his own Wild West Show alongside after he was refused a spot inside. At its very peak, the fair drew 750,000 in one day. The fair was a massive draw bringing around 27 million people to the city from all across America and the world. Lots of people set up business hoping to gain an income from the visitors. One place was the World Fair Hotel, constructed by a handsome young doctor called H. H. Holmes. He was a charming man, and as he walked around the fair he would attract the single girls who had come to Chicago to see the bright lights and persuade them to come back to his hotel.


But his place was not a regular hotel. It was much more sinister than that.


As well as the regular rooms he had managed to get parts of it built that were not what people thought they were. Cleverly using different contractors to only do a section of the room, but not the whole thing he had constructed in this building airtight rooms, a gas chamber and a crematorium. The young ladies that entered the doors of his establishment rarely left. He was a fraud and a charlatan too, swindling people out of large sums of money, not paying for goods, claiming to be a medical practitioner and trying to stay ahead of his creditors. Whilst the shenanigans about the building of the world fair was interesting, that is merely a sideshow to the story about Holmes that is compelling as it is creepy. He was a sinister man who seemed to get a thrill from murder. He confessed to 27, but the police could only find evidence for nine but there was speculation that he could have murdered many more than that. It is something that will never be known given the way that he disposed of the bodies. Would have liked the part about building the fair to be a bit shorter, but that said, it would have been a struggle to fill any more detail in about Holmes given how secret he was. If you like true crime books then this is worth reading.

Review: Our Place by Mark Cocker

5 out of 5 stars

Britain has always liked to think of itself as a nation of animal lovers, we spend several billion pounds on our pets each year get outraged when people commit acts of cruelty towards our furry friends. This love of animals drives people who care about wildlife too. It wasn’t until 2013 that we finally voted for our own national animal, the hedgehog and there are a couple of million people in organisations such as the RSPB and the various wildlife trusts. The National Trust has now reached five million members. Programmes like Springwatch have made people far more aware of the amazing variety of wildlife in our country, they are more aware of environmental issues, try to put food out for the birds and make their gardens a little more friendly towards wildlife.

Cocker celebrates the achievements of the visionary people who have managed to save a landscape or a species, create some of our national institutions and inspire others to do the same. However, the reality is that our wildlife is suffering; species are going extinct, the whole ecosystem from the bottom up is reaching a critical tipping point that we may never return from. The numbers are pretty horrific, in the past 50 years, we have lost 50% of our biodiversity. That is the past 50 years, not since the industrial revolution. Just in the case of farmland birds, there are 44 million less now than there were in 1970. We only have 1% of our wildflower meadows left now.

So how did we reach the point where green concerns are on the rise just as the creatures people are beginning to care about fall off an actual and metaphorical cliff? In this really radical text, Cocker takes a long hard look at how we have got to this moment, what has caused this, and the people and systems to blame and boy, he does not hold back. He argues that the roots of this reach way back to almost 100 years ago after William invade with his Norman Army. This feudal system that he imposed on the country has shaped our politics and culture ever since. The landed classes manage to avoid almost all tax on their properties and still get large subsidies from the UK government and EU. They have no interest in preserving the fragile ecosystems unless it suits their narrow interests. He is prepared to criticise other organisations too, the Forestry Commission has a scathing attack on the monoculture of trees that they have imposed on regions that are totally unsuitable for them. Again they are another organisation that the elite has used for tax evasion, I mean efficient investments. The NT fairs a little better, but with its focus on maintaining the properties as the previous owners would have wanted and the continuation of their sporting activities, which mostly involves shooting, rather than making an effort to preserve the wildlife that they have on their extensive properties.

There are many other examples that make this essential reading, but as the subtitle says, is it too late? Whilst this is an intense polemic, he still manages to be lyrical, I was delighted by the writing whilst seething reading about the things that have happened. Part of his enthusiasm is driven by a small part of Norfolk that he has purchased and is slowly restoring to become a wildlife haven. Whilst he is doing his own small thing there are lots of people who aren’t. We are to blame in part too, for example, we have demanded cheaper food, meaning that agri-business has managed to make farms and fields outdoor factories that wildlife does not play a part at all. But can we make a difference? There are around 8 million of us in the RSPB, National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts, but only a handful are prepared to rattle the doors of the politicians and ask them some very difficult questions. Another problem is the small number of people that own vast swathes of the land, they have no desire to change at the moment and will fit all the way to stop this.

Would also recommend Wild Kingdom: Bringing Back Britain’s Wildlife by Stephen Moss and The Running hare by John Lewis-Stempel as must-read books in the same vein. It is not a book that you will like reading, but it demands to be read. Then acted on. Join a wildlife trust and start to make a difference.

Review: The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

5 out of 5 stars

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

If you go back millennia, the early human mind developed several elements to help it survive, fight or flight, communication and the ability to think strategically. Being immersed in the natural world all day must have had a deeper impact too as it is only over the past few years that the effects of us not having much contact with nature are becoming startlingly apparent.

There has always been a theory that being outdoors is good for you, but to prove that just being outdoors does have a real effect rather than just being hearsay. Florence Williams moved from Colorado to Washington DC and was missing the outdoors and open spaces decided to see how the evidence stacked up and to try some of these thongs out for herself. Her travels would take to the gardens of Singapore, to the Finnish forests, on a river trip with veterans suffering from PTSD, to investigate the ‘Forest bathing’ in Japan and how children with ADHD can dramatically reduce their drug intake by being outdoors for a period of time.

These are just a few of the many examples that she includes. They all have one common element though, being outdoors is good for your physical and mental health. This connection to nature is deep-rooted and as the evidence is now showing, essential. In this excellent book by Williams, she mixes solid science with a compelling narrative on all the benefits that others have gained from putting down the mobile device and getting outdoors. It needn’t be a monumental hike across the uplands either, just spending a minimum of five hours a month, even around your local parks will have a noticeable difference to your well being. This book is not just highly recommended, but I would argue requisite reading.

Review: In Search of Ancient North Africa by Barnaby Rogerson

4 out of 5 stars

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

Over the past four decades, Barnaby Rogerson has been fortunate to travel extensively across North Africa. He has visited with his family, as a writer and as a guide. He has delved into the richly complicated vein of history there, choosing six people from history that have intrigued him, that didn’t fit into a standard historical narrative and until now have been mere footnotes of history. Beginning with Queen Dido of Carthage he moves onto a well-known general Hannibal, son of Hamilcar and a Berber general Masinissa who was to prove his nemesis. We next encounter Juba II an African King before the Romans intrude with Septimius Severus. Lastly is St. Augustine a Christian saint. All of these people had a significant impact on the countries in North Africa leaving behind ruins, legacy and myths.

Woven into the six stories of the people who formed ancient North Africa, is Rogerson’s other love, travel. Details have been discovered whilst sitting on picnic rugs under the shade of an olive tree, taking groups of slightly nervous people up into the hills of Algeria to see the pyramids of Juba. Swimming off Leptis Magna, the ruined Roman city on the Libyan shore is an evocative scene, and is something that he tries to do every visit to this part of the coast, but it is also a time to catch up with old friends a uncover a little more about the place as they study the mosaics. The stories of Hannibal in North Africa, most famous for walking elephants across the Alps when battling Rome, are of a part of his life not often heard about and the tale of his final battle against the mighty Roman army that was to see the end of Carthage.

This fascinating account of his travels in this ancient landscape of North Africa is primarily focused on history, but as you’d expect, especially given Rogerson’s day job, there are strong elements of travel woven into the narrative. I am guessing that there have been some liberties with the stories that he is telling, but in certain cases, there is precious little to go on to make the stories flow so well. History is often written by the victors, but Rogerson has followed each lead tenaciously to get the answers that he wanted. This book only contains six well know people, but there must be many stories from this part f the world still to be told. There are photos of the places visited scatter throughout, but If I had one minor gripe, it would have good to read more about his own travels in these lands.

Review: How To Survive in the Wild by Sam Martin & Christian Casucci

3 out of 5 stars

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

For some, the dream is to drop out of regular life and go and live half way up a mountain somewhere. But you can’t just go off grid without any knowledge at all as you will either be back fairly shortly or have something happen to you. To minimise the nasty stuff happening though you would this handy pocket-sized guide.

The essentials of living outdoors are food, water, fire and shelter. This guide has got lots of practical advice for making campfires, making shelters including how to build a log cabin, finding safe water sources, hunting and fishing, map skills and a suggested kit list.

It was an interesting book with reasonable detail for the various subjects covered and is full of useful survival tactics for those wishing to head for the hills. If you are thinking of doing this I’d recommend reading this and several other books on the subject before turning your phone off and walking into the woods.

Book Post!!

Thank you to Faber Books for these three:

Look at that inner cover too:

Review: Into Nature by The Mindfulness Project

2.5 out of 5 stars

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

Mindfulness is a technique for improving your attention to things happening around you. It also teaches you to consider what you have seen and to reflect on your thought, emotions and sensations that happened. It aims to stop your mind drifting when trying to concentrate on something by using skills that can be learnt from meditation. This book is the Mindfulness’s team’s guide on how to respond to the benefits that the natural world can give.

It is full of outlines that aim to prompt you to think and focus on particular details or wider aspects of the natural world, for example, there is an idea on how to bring the outside world into your home, cloud spotting, meditations, poems, suggestions of things to spot and items to forage. For some people, this would be a great book, especially those that have spent far too long indoors away from the wild. There are lots of pointers for increasing engagement with the natural world. I get what they are doing here, using the mindfulness philosophy trying to remake the connection that people have lost from the natural world more accessible and not frightening or bewildering. Whilst this would be ideal for some people it is not entirely my sort of thing. A bit too head in the clouds for my liking.

Wainwright Shortlist Announced

One of my favourite prizes announced its shortlist today; and here they all are:

The Last Wilderness by Neil Ansell (Tinder Press)

Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler (Hodder & Stoughton)

Outskirts by John Grindrod (Sceptre)

The Dun Cow Rib by John Lister-Kaye (Canongate)

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton)

The Seabird’s Cry by Adam Nicolson (William Collins, HarperCollins)

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (Michael Joseph)

Review: Forest Therapy by Sarah Ivens

3 out of 5 stars

Modern lives with the never-ending distractions, endless notifications from social media, 24 / 7 email and becoming pallid from the white glare of LEDs from screens. This adds to our stress, blood pressure and the lack of exercise is detrimental to our health too. And yet there is a cure; the evidence is growing that shows that our physical and mental health can be positively enhanced by going outdoors and re-connecting to nature. The same instincts that teach us flight or flight are possibly responsible for this fundamental connection.

Beginning with some scientific facts and stats about how the just taking a walk in the natural world can help us, she takes us through the seasons and the things to look for, activities to try such as wild swimming, taking a walk in the rain and benefits of taking a walk on a crisp winter day. There are suggestions on how to get the family away from the X-Box, ways of becoming closer as a couple, foodie suggestions and even natural beauty therapies.

Natural history books and memoirs are on the rise at the moment and there are a number of books coming out that are looking to give people suggestions on how to reconnect with the natural world. I have three of them to read this week but first is Sarah Ivens. In her book she is tapping into the connections to the wider world that other cultures have, from the Japanese shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) to the Scandinavia friluftsliv (“open-air life”) and has written Forest Therapy (a much nicer phrase that Forest Bathing…) as a way of sharing how nature helped her after a hectic life in New York and a messy divorce.

There was the odd thing in the book that didn’t necessarily appeal to me, there is a good number of ideas in here for people to try and more importantly to build on, as suits them, their partners and families. The important thing in here though is the message; go outside, live, breathe, absorb. It is going to do you a lot of good.

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