Losing Eden by Lucy Jones

4 out of 5 stars

A lot of people’s disconnect from the natural world is almost complete. They live in cities or heavily built-up suburban areas with little or no interaction with the wider world. Some cities have been removing trees making that connection to a non-human living thing even more remote. Our phones and screens provide us with non-stop notifications following the latest hashtags and rolling news.

This self-declared divorce from the natural world is affecting our psyche and wellbeing but scientific evidence is showing that its place at our heart; nature is deeply embedded within us still. It is something that Lucy Jones knows all too well, her recovery from addiction would have been a much more rocky path if she wasn’t able to get out on walks alongside the canals and Walthamstow Marshes. It genuinely saved her life.

Understanding why it saved her is the premise behind this book. To see how others are using the latent power behind nature will take her from the soils in her garden to prisons, how people in a hospital get better by having a view of trees rather than a brick wall. The benefits of outdoor learning for children and even to a secure NHS mental health unit that uses gardening to help with the patients. All of her travels and research are rooted in science as they discover just how important fresh air, trees and green spaces are for our welfare.

I realise the irony that I am sitting in front of a laptop screen typing this review about a book that advocates us getting out and about in the natural world. I spend most of the day in an office and factory and drive to and from there. But I do try to get out and about whenever I have the opportunity either by walking down to the woods or the river nearby. It may not be much some days but it is enough

This is another book that strongly advocates getting out there and using the natural world to help with a raft of mental and physical problems and this is written from the personal experience of addiction and being a new mother. I thought that the prologue and epilogue were a little wasted on me, but it is written with rigour and most of all passion for her subject. I would strongly recommend reading this especially the final chapter, Future Nature. I can also recommend The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, which is also strongly science-based.

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell

4 out of 5 stars

Durrel had been five years in Serbia and really wasn’t sure if he wanted to live in the Mediterranean anymore. He couldn’t afford to live in Athens so the next best thing after that was Cyprus. Decision made he makes his way to Venice to get the boat there. Falling into conversation with a man there, he questions why Durrell wants to go there at all: ‘It is not much of a place’, the man says, ‘Arid and without water. The people drink to excess.’ To Durrell, it sounded perfect.

As they depart, they are shadowed by a grey destroyer for a while before it turns abruptly and fades into the horizon. He opens the book that he had acquired from an overturned bookstall in Trieste, A Lady’s Impression of Cyprus by Mrs Lewis. It offered a splendid picture of the island and confirmed that he had made the right decision.

They docked at a town with a desolate silhouette, and he was overcharged portage to disembark. Passing through the customs check is an early eye-opener as to what the people of this island are going to be like. Most are surprised that he is fluent in Greek and it is in conversation with a man over the glass of the heavy red wine that he is provided with a man who could take him to the village of Kyrenia. One scary journey later and he is ready to spend his first night on the island.

Lodging with a friend, Panos, he can begin to get a measure of the people and culture. It is idyllic sitting on the terrace drinking wine before heading down to the harbour to watch the ‘sunset melt’. It was with this friend that he truly came to understand the meaning of the word ‘kopiaste’, or Cypriot hospitality. It was also the best way to see if he could really afford to buy a small place to live in. It would be.

The process of him buying a house there is one of the most entertaining passages that I have read in a while. He first charms the local rogue, Sabri, in the village into helping him. Between them, they agree on a budget and a few days later he is informed that there is a property that may be suitable in the village Bellapix. They visit on a rare wet day but the property is sound and dry but does require some work. Negotiations begin between Sabri and the feisty owner of the property and they are protracted and heated.

Eventually, it is resolved to all parties satisfaction and the essential renovation works begin. Soon after he moves in his visitors begin to arrive, Freya Stark, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Sir Harry lake. They bring wine, laughter and books and conversations that go deep into the night. AS he settles into life on the island other opportunities present themselves, he is first offered a position as a teacher and then the post of Press Advisor to the Colonial secretary is advertised. Much to his surprise, he gets the job.

The timing of this is unfortunate though as this is just as there is growing civil unrest in Cyprus. Students are joining the rebellion and there are small acts of terror from grenades and homemade bombs. The British (as usual) misjudged the situation and made a bad situation much worse.

Lamplight, wine and good conversation sealed in the margins of the day so that one slept at night with a sense of repletion and plenitude, as if one were never more to wake.

This is the first Laurence Durrel book that I have ever read even though I have had a few of them languishing on my shelves at home. I thought that his writing is very evocative as he writes about the people and place of this island. It was good to see the brief appearances from Gerald and his mother, Louisa in the book too. The later part of the book turns more serious as the civil unrest grows, and it loses the warmth that is very much evident in the first part of the book. I did find that he has a traditional perspective with regards to colonialism and dealing with the local population, which I was a little surprised about. It is a book of its time though. All that said, it is a really good read and I can highly recommend it.

The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson

3 out of 5 stars

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

We know an awful lot about the planets in our solar system and the stars that surround us but if you were to look out to sea we have only explored around 5% of the oceans. There are things down there that we can barely imagine and creatures that we do know of we know so little about.

One of those creatures is the eel. It is one of the strangest creatures that has existed and even though they have been studied for hundreds of years, very little is known about it. The few things we do know about them are mere snapshots of their lives, even now it is thought that they spawn in the Sargasso Sea, it is not actually known that they actually do that. Attempting to get them to breed in captivity has met with abject failure every time.

Now their numbers are plummeting, there has been a 95% drop in the number of elvers in our streams and rivers and no one knows what to do about it or where to start looking for answers. Yet they have been a part of our culture since time immemorial. Thousands have been caught and cooked and eaten all over Europe in this time too.

One of those people who fished for this elusive creature is Patrick Svensson. It was kind of a hobby, but for his father, it was a borderline obsession. He would try the latest methods or new baits and traps in his drive to catch these creatures. But there was more to it than that, it was a welcome respite from his job as a road paver. He could come home from that hot smelly job have a short nap and then carry on for the rest of the day, but he always smelled of tar.

It began for his father in childhood, he always liked being down by the stream. It was a short distance from his home and was a slightly overgrown habitat that had its own magic. At the time it was the outer limit of his world and he fished and swam in it, skated over it in the winter, caught mice and listened to the soothing noise of flowing water when helping out on the farm. He was fond of the taste of eel too, loving the greasy gamey flavour, unlike his son. Fishing for eels became a thing that they did together and even though Svensson recalls it being the only thing that they talked of, but also remembers not talking that much at all when fishing.

Svensson is not the only one who has had a fascination with this enigmatic creature, it has been written about since Aristotle’s time and he explores what some of these people learnt and wrote about it.

It is a wide-ranging looking at some of the natural history, historical, culture and folklore behind eels but at its heart, this is a family memoir about the time Svensson spent fishing for eels with his father. He has a straightforward and matter of fact way of writing and I did like it, but the multi-faceted genres meant it lost a little bit of focus for me.

Brilliant Maps by Ian Wright

3.5 out of 5 stars

We live on a strange and beautiful planet. It is full of history, geology, people place and countries and if you’re anything like me, I find facts and figures endlessly fascinating. The best way of quantifying this data is to put it in graphical form, and Ian Wright has done this in Brilliant Maps.

He has separated the 100 maps in this books into eleven sections. The first three, People and Politics, Religion and Politics and power are very similar in scope. My favourite maps from these sections are Countries that have a smaller population than Tokyo and countries with large economies than California.

Our diversity across the planet has lead to a lot of different culture and customs, and know who drives on the wrong side of the road and writes the date wrong is useful if unimportant information.

Sadly, we do spend a lot of time arguing at personal and national levels. In Friends and Enemies, you can discover who the UK have not invaded, and who the Vikings invaded. Countries are not regular shapes, but the longest, Chile would reach from Spain to Norway and is just over 100 miles wide. There is a map showing just how many continents could fit inside the Pacific Ocean and how many roads actually lead to Rome.

I thought the comparison between travel time from London in the modern-day compared to 1914 where days have been replaced by hours was fascinating as well as the size and scope of the Roman and Mongol Empires when compared to modern countries such as China. It also shows in stark detail just what we have lost in our relentless expansion, especially with the map showing the current verses the old distribution of lions.

There is something satisfying in finding the differences between ourselves and other countries around the world, but not as satisfying as finding our common habits. Graphically these are excellent, clear maps about some interesting and entertaining subjects. There were a couple of flaws though. I think I would have preferred them to be split over the page rather than disappear into the middle and I would have liked more contrast on some of the colours as there wasn’t always that much difference. Stats in graphical form are so much more pleasing on the eye and this is a really nicely produced book. You can see more on his website here.

How To Make Curry Goat by Louise McStravick

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

How to make Curry Goat is probably the most unusual title for a poetry book that I have read in a while, and the title poem of the book is a meld of ingredients, instructions on how to make it, the eager anticipation of the food and the nostalgic look back at the culture that gave her this recipe.

This theme of multi-cultural poems carries on throughout the book. She is the daughter of the Windrush generation and whilst she does not fully belong to that culture, she an many others have carved out their own multidimensional and faceted life in this country.

But he does not realise that constellations
are stories we tell when the nights
are too dark and we need to
k
now we are not alone.

The poems are wide-ranging and are about her friends and family as well as many subjects such as braces, Earl Grey Tea, life on the sugar plantations and the first impression of England as the take the train from Southampton to Paddington.

Some of the stories that she is telling through her verse deal with quite emotive subjects and she tackles them sensitively and yet doesn’t hold back on her thoughts and emotions. The form of each poem varies which I liked as you never quite knew what you were going to get each time. Worth reading if you wish to immerse yourself in another culture.

Three Favourite Poems
Spices
Postcards From England
Move On

Dark, Salt, Clear by Lamona Ash

4.5 out of 5 stars

Lamorna Ash has headed out of London to Cornwall to Newlyn, a fishing town near Land’s End. The idyllic place of holidays past seems very different when you are living there. The Cornish are not very receptive to incomers, in particular those who want to buy properties there for a second home, driving the prices up so locals are not able to afford to live in the places that they grew up.

She is there because she is feeling lost and disconnected in London and is hoping that being back in the county her mother grew up in will help re-root her once again. She is welcomed by Denise wearing a similar blue striped top at Penzance Station. They have a slightly nervous conversation over tea and she heads up to bed, lulled to sleep by the booms of the waves against the harbour wall.

It is the same sound that wakes her in the morning and there is a waft of bacon cooking so she heads downstairs quickly. That day is the Newlyn tradition of the Lamorna Walk, where pretty much the whole town walks up the coastal path to the Lamorna Cove for a rowdy piss up at the Lamorna Wink pub and staggers back after. She knew she was named after a part of Cornwall, but didn’t expect to be taking part in something like this. She ends up drinking all day and by the end has made some firm friends.

What she really wants to do though is to secure a berth on a trawler. She is told that doing this is nigh on impossible. There are various superstitions to do with fishing, one is not being allowed to mention the word rabbit whilst aboard for some reason, the other is the presence of women on fishing vessels. It seems that Ash’s plan to be a crew member of a fishing boat may fall at the first hurdle. But she gets lucky, she talks to someone called David who has a share in a boat called the Crystal Sea and he is more than happy to have other along for the ride, even if they are there to liven the trip up a bit if they are ill.

Her first trip out to sea is cut short after a force 8 gales sweeps in, but even those few days are enough to light a fire inside to want to do this again and again. She bumps into Don, skipper of the Filadelfia and arranging a trip out on his boat is as straightforward as arranging a beer in a pub. Don is quite a character and so are the rest of his crew as she meets them on board. She will be away for seven days and night with these men and she is quickly accepted into their circle. Seasickness looms in the background but she is there to work for her board and is helping out with gutting the fish.

Onshore she is absorbed into the social life of the town, mostly because the couple she is staying with, know so many people. She plays pool badly in the Legion and contributes to the swear jar often. She manages to blag a trip on a crabber and finds it hard heavy work moving the pots around on the boat. The sea has got a hold on her now as it has with the other fishermen.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Ash has a lyrical and distinct voice as she writes about the real side of Cornwall and the people that live there. And it is those people that she shares pints with, stands alongside in a fishing boat gutting fish that make this book. They are rich and complex characters who tell her their anxieties, fears, hope and dreams as she gets to know them better and settles into life in the town. Highly recommended.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

4 out of 5 stars

It had all the hallmarks of a classic friendship, Roommates, Victor and Eli were both fiercely intelligent, rebellious and have a fascination with the people ExtraOrdinarys. These people were rumoured to have special powers, there were videos of people lifting cars and performing other small miracles. Eli has a theory that these have been acquired in near-death experiences and who have successfully be revived to live again. Eli wants to try it himself to see if he can get the same powers by coming as close to death as possible. Victor wants in on this too. They survive the experience, just, and they have both gained small but significant powers. A mutual friend doesn’t survive and Victor is accused of murder.

A decade later these two men have very different goals, Eli is determined to eliminate all of the people who have suffered trauma and have these small superpowers. All expect himself and a lady called Serena who has the power of control over people with just her voice. Victor has just broken out of prison and has revenge on his mind and wants to stop the unnecessary slaughter of his fellow ExtraOrdinarys. He is helped in this by Serena’s sister, Sydney who has a very special power.

There is going to be a showdown between these two men soon; will the hero or the villain win, and who is the hero and who is the villain…

I must admit I am not a huge fan of the superhero genre, I have seen a few of the Avenger and other movies and whilst they are pretty good action films, they really don’t do it for me. The only ones that do are the Dark Knight Batman series but that is as much about the cinemaphotography in those. As I hadn’t read the blurb, it was a little surprising that this was that genre. I was pleasantly surprised by it though, the superhero elements are very much present in the story and are really key to it, but they don’t feel too overbearing. The plot is written in such a way that you don’t really know what side to come down on in the first part of the book, but it is something that you some decide on. The two main characters and their sidekicks seem a little two dimensional at times but then it is such a fast-paced book that there is not the space in the plot for them to develop. I found this a bit of a page-turner and pretty much read it in a day and it has a cracking ending. Will definitely be reading the sequel.

Cut Stones and Crossroads by Ronald Wright

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Just out of university having studied archaeology, Ronald Wright had a whole world that he wanted to explore, but what piqued his interest was the history and architecture of Peru. It seems like the place to go and he could then find out about the ancient civilisations of the Incas and go and see royal cities of Cusco and Machu Picchu.

It wasn’t quite as was he was expecting though, what he found was a land of contrasts. They may have been suppressed by the Spanish invaders, but the spirited character of the people still shone through. He avoided the tourist routes, instead, taking the local transport or caging a lift in some very dubious cars and trucks, staying in seedy hotels and at other times camping.

He is endlessly fascinated by the ancient buildings and towns that are still visible in the landscape, spending time in amongst the stones to gain the most elementary of understandings as to why they are built. His descriptions of these places are very detailed and almost academic at times, but he is careful to link what he is seeing to the cultural and historical records of the people. His passage on the Saywite Stones is an excellent example of this.

The shadows lengthen now as evening approaches; around me the oblique lighting brings more and more of the strange, half natural landscape to life.

What really makes this book for me is the way that he takes to the people he encounters on his travels. His curiosity is boundless and it doesn’t matter if he is talking to a blind musician, crushed in a bus with 42 other people and a variety of animals watching two passengers slowly chew their coca leaves. I another moment, he is feeling ill and starts swaying from side to side, so sits down. Then he notices that the Land Rover is swaying too, it is a gentle earthquake.

Throughout all of this book you never feel that you get to know the man writing the book, he is to a certain extent elusive, reporting on events and interactions as he sees them and describing the people with empathy and places and architecture with an expert eye. He can see through the culture that the Spanish draped over the society and glimpses the strong spirit of the people that still shines through. I liked the way he has selected songs and poems from the people there and included them in the book, they add a touch of authenticity that you don’t always get in other travel books. Well worth reading and highly recommended.

Dancing With Bees by Bridget Strawbridge Howard

4 out of 5 stars

It wasn’t quite a eureka moment, but there came a day when Brigit Strawbridge Howard realised she knew more about the French Revolution than she did about her native trees. And birds. And wildflowers. And bees. Rather than ignore it, she made a decision to find out as much as she could about these plants, animals and invertebrates that were all around her North Dorset home.

This reconnection with the natural world moved quickly from an interest to a passion as she discovered just how fortunate she was to live where she could see all manner of things around her. One creature though became a borderline obsession, the bee. Her husband is a beekeeper, so she is used to having honey bees around, but she fell in completely in love with the solitary and bumblebee species. Her enthusiasm for the bees in her garden knows no bounds and she set about planting and growing as many plants that were suitable for these pollinators.

As she discovers more about these creatures, she starts to be able to identify more and more species around her garden and in the lanes near her home, such as the buff-tailed bees, cuckoo bees and even has a trip up to the Outer Hebrides to find the Great Yellow Bumblebee on the island of Balranald. There is more to this book than just the bees though, Howard is fascinated about all shapes and sizes of wildlife and the book is as wide-ranging as it is detailed. She is rightly concerned about the effect we are having on wildlife with our blanket use of pesticides and soon realises that each species is interdependent on lots of others in the ecosystem.

It is only when we realise that we are a part of nature, rather than apart from it, and behave accordingly that real change is likely to happen.

I really liked this book, she writes with warmth and boundless enthusiasm for all of the subjects and creatures that she chooses to write about in the book. Howard goes to prove that amateur naturalism is alive and well, we just need more people to be like her, start to care about their local patch, populate their garden with plants that pollinators adore. I love the little illustration at the beginning of each chapter and scattered throughout the book, and the endpapers are gorgeous. Highly recommended.

Fibonacci’s Rabbits by Adam Hart-Davis

3 out of 5 stars

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

It has been a long while since I took mathematics at university when I studied mechanical engineering. Compared to some of the other subjects on the course, like stress mechanics, which was just, stressful, it has always been a subject that I enjoyed. However, that was many years ago and I am a bit rusty at it, to say the least.

Maths has been a subject that has intrigued people going back hundreds and thousands of years, in fact, the first evidence of people counting was found on a bone in a cave between South Africa and Swaziland and is estimated to be over 40,000 years old. From this early beginning, Hart-Davis explains why people count using base 10 and base 60, something that we still do even today, before moving onto the mathematics that the Ancient Greeks did with squaring the circle and Pythagoras famous theorem.

They had bigger ideas though about what could be done with numbers and soon they were considering infinity, how to calculate Pi and how many prime numbers there were. The baton was passed to the Islamic world who gave us our numbering system that is still in use today, taught us how to solve quadratic equations and borrowed the concept of nothing from India.

Hart-Davis moves onto the Europeans with chapters on probability, imaginary numbers, the roots of calculus and Fibonacci sequence before covering game theory, the complexities of flow and the three-body problem. As the understanding of mathematics increased so the variety of things that it could describe, this was the era of statistics, Venn diagrams and chaos theory.

The final sections of the book have chapters on more modern mathematical solutions that describe how our modern communications systems work and some of the complex geometries that can be achieved with a little mathematical nous.

I thought that this was an approachable maths book that might even appeal to those that normally turn pale at the thought of a quadratic equation. Hart-Davis writes with a wry humour and it has clear and concise explanations of mathematical discoveries that have changed the way that we see the world and is laid out with lots of pictures and diagrams to make it feel a lot less like a textbook! I did spot the odd typo which baffled me on one of the chapters until I realised where the error was. Apart from that tiny omission, I thought that this was a nicely produced book.

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