Author: Paul (Page 1 of 125)

Hyphens & Hashtags by Claire Cock-Starkey

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Letters are combined to make words and sentences are the lifeblood of our language, but to make sense of things that we write we need those symbols that are scattered or frame the edges of our sentences. But there are far more than the full stops, commas and question marks that we currently use.

In this delightful little book, Cock-Starkey is on the search of the origins of thirty-eight different symbols in our language, mathematics and online world. There are essays on brackets, the copyright symbol, the equals sign and then even on some of those that are now falling out of use now.

I love the fantastically named interrobang, a symbol that is a combination of the exclamation and question marks and could frankly be often used when commenting on social media posts. Most people are aware of the hashtag # now (which as I am writing this on a Mac is always a pain to find). On Twitter and other social media sites is acts as a mini search engine that put you in contact with other thinking along the same lines. One tip I learnt recently is that for multi-word hashtags always capitalise #EachWord as some hashtags can look very rude out of context!

One of my favourite punctuation marks is the little-used semi-colon; I think that they’re great and add in that extra pause in the prose. The ampersand or & is a funny character, it looks like a number 8 that someone didn’t finish properly, but its origins can be traced back to the city of Pompei where an early example was discovered on a wall. Pi is one of those mathematical symbols that is literally infinite it goes on forever without any form of repetition forever and ever and ever… Another thing that I learnt was that I have been looking at the pilcrow for years in word documents and did not know what it was let alone what it is called.

If you are fascinated by languages then this book is a good sideways step to take to learn about some of the symbols that we use in our daily conversations. The essays are light and fun to read, they don’t go overboard with reams of information, but have enough detail to make them interesting.

How The Hell Are You? By Glyn Maxwell

4 out of 5 stars

Wandering through the library just before they shut for the latest lockdown after Christmas, I spotted this on the display table and thought I would grab a copy. I had a vague recollection that it was on my TBR and it turned out that it was.

It is a strange collection in some ways, there are poems he imagines an abandoned AI would write, poems on bluebirds and foxes, a poem about a conversation with time and another on waking. The form of each poem changes from short stanzas to long more immersive writing, some of them flow like water over rocks, in others, he has chosen words that deliberately jar against each other.


sunbeams at your fingers

are all the words you wish on me

the patterns of your dust


with nowhere to land,

no page or port or platform, no

whiteness to be seen


nor silence to be heard by,

no form on earth to catch them

as they fall, they still fall


I first read this a little while ago and have only got around to reviewing it recently. I looked a the scant notes that I had made and went back through looking at the poems that I liked and found others that when I first read it, hadn’t had an impact on me that they did the second time of dipping into the book. It is probably a sign of a good collection that each time you venture within the covers something different is revealed. I didn’t really notice it at the time, but the cover in itself is quite shocking, I find the image of a scarecrow with a gas mask has an element of folk horror; having the dog there diffuses it a little. I think that I might have to get my own copy of this.


Three Favourite Poems

The Forecast


Blank Pages Dream

Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler by Stephen Moss

4 out of 5 stars

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

As I am sitting here early in the morning writing this review I am watching a couple of blue tits feeding themselves from the coconut that is hanging outside my office window. They are fascinating little birds to watch, especially their acrobatics on the feeders. But where did their name come from? I can understand the blue part and the top plumage is a lovely sky blue However, there are also yellow and green feathers. What about the tit part? (Stop sniggering at the back). It turns out it means small.

Long time birder, Stephen Moss has been fascinated with the origins of birds manes since he first came across a bird from Africa called Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, a bird that he first came across in a weekly magazine called Birds of the World. It would drop onto his doormat early on a Saturday morning and he would spend the rest of the day engrossed in its contents. There was a clue in its Latin name, Scepomycter winifredae, it was named after someone called Winifred Moreau. But who was she? And how did she come to have a bird named after her? It was a story that he would keep returning to and it was also a bird that he hoped to travel all the way to Tanzania to see one day.

There are some birds where the common name that they have ended up with seems obvious, blackbird for example. But other birds are black, like ravens and crows, why are they not blackbirds too? It turns out that the explanation behind this is not much to do with the actual birds rather it comes from language and more specifically the melding of two languages, Germanic English and Norman French and how the meanings changed over time.

It is a natural thing for humans to want to label the things that they see around them each day. Because of this, bird names have not just come from language but have been named after people and places as well as their habits and how birds have also named other things, like a once-popular football game.

Moss’s writing is as good as ever. He mixes well-researched facts with personal stories and interesting anecdotes tracing the origins of the names of the birds that we see every day. Whilst it is not a comprehensive guide to every single one of the 10,000 or so species there is enough in here for the reader to begin their own searches for the bird names that fascinate them.

In Miniature by Simon Garfield

4 out of 5 stars

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

One of the places that we spent a lot of time when my children were grown up was Wimborne model town, we even bought a season ticket. They were fascinated by the tiny shop windows and the even tinier items displayed inside. There was a touch of humour for the adults if you knew where to look. This fascination with all things reduced in size is not just for children though, there are many grown-ups who share that same feeling

In this book on all things tiny, Garfield is seeking all those people that share these interests or to be franker, in a lot of cases, obsessions. Garfield travels will take him to different model towns around the country, a Blandford gentleman called Philip Warren who has built hundreds of boats out of matchsticks. The display he had at the corn exchange there was enough to fill it and that was only half the boats that he had made.

Model railways are a passion for a lot of people (mostly men) and one person who I hadn’t expected to be a fan, is 1970’s pop star, Rod Stewart. He has a massive model railway and loves the hobby so much that he takes s small layout on tour. Doll Houses can be works of art in their own right, and the one he writes about in the book was one made by Sir Edward Lutyens for Queen Mary. It is huge too, 5 feet high and 8 feet long with working electricity and pipes and even a library with 700 readable books.

Two of my favourite chapters were on books and art. There is even a convention in America for enthusiasts of these tiny works of literature. The smallest at this event measured 0.7mm x 0.7mm and had twenty-two pages. The art chapter has an image of Ronald McDonald on a crucifix, which I must admit I wasn’t expecting. This is the work of Dinos Chapman and his studio has lots of these macabre models around.

Models are often used to sell an idea, I remember seeing these in public places in 1970 as the council was trying to explain how they were going to squander your money on a swimming pool no one really wanted. It was a model that changed a lot of people’s mind on the slave trade too, Wilberforce has a model made showing the way that our fellow humans were crammed into these ships and taken across the Atlantic.

I really enjoyed reading this. Like the other books of his that I have read, this is a well researched and thoughtful exploration of his chosen subject. Like many others, me included, he is as fascinated with parts of our world reduced down to these miniature boats, houses and trains. He acknowledges the ways that it reflects something about our society and those people who use it as some form of personal escapism from the pressure of the real world.

Desert Air by Barnaby Rogerson

3 out of 5 stars

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

I have been collecting Eland books for a while now and as well as the ones that I have bought I am fortunate that they are generous enough to send me some of their latest releases too. I thought that I would pass on the poetry collections, partly as I haven’t finished collecting the other classics, but also, you know, bookshelf space… This arrived in a Christmas card from Eland at Christmas and having now read it I think that I am going to had to get some more to keep it company.

This is a nice little collection of poems centred on the deserts of Arabia and is split into two sections. The first section is the more familiar poems and verse from English poets and the second half draws from lesser-known Arabic poetry. Some of these are well known, Kubla Khan and The Song of Solomon and there are others that I have never come across before.

It is an interesting collection and as ever there were some poems that I liked a lot and there were others that I was less keen on. I did feel that some of the Arabic poems were songs that have been in poetic form and were less formal than the prose written by the Western writers. What I did find really helpful was that after each poem there is a brief resume of the writer which filled out the background nicely. It is a great little collection of poems.

Three Favourite Poems
To The Nile
Lament For The Desert

The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui

5 out of 5 stars

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

As tough as the various lockdowns have been on people this is a mere inconvenience compared to what the populace of Daraya has had to put up with. It was in this town that the Syrian Civil war began. It has been under siege for years; the Assad regime trying to starve and boom the people into submission or death. Thousands of bombs have rained down on the city reducing almost everything, including the hospitals to dusty smoking ruins. They were not even allowed basic aid from neutral independent organisations.

Somehow they kept going, helping each other out and making sure that people were looked after. After one bombing run, one group of young men were looking for survivors in amongst the chaos and they discovered and cache of books that had survived the destruction of the building. They collect the books and make the decision to look for more. A week later they have collected six thousand volumes and in a month they have fifteen thousand. The addresses of where they find the books are written on the inside covers should the previous owners ever wish to claim them back again. They create a library for the people of the city-based in a basement of a building, it is safe from the barrel bombs and becomes a place of learning and sanctuary for the oppressed people.

I listen to these poems like you’d listen to a secret voice whispering things you’re unable to express. The way someone sings what you’re incapable of singing. I find myself in every word, in every line.

A chance find on a Facebook page showing this secret library, inspired French-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui to find out more about it. She manages to track down one of its founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad and started to ask him questions about it. Those questions become a wider conversation and in the end a friendship. She learns why they have done it, how they are using the books to further their educations and the hope that they get from the project.

They communicate via WhatsApp and Facebook, and she sees them at their most vulnerable, hunched in the basements of shattered buildings hearing the dull thuds of yet more explosions. Sometimes there was almost no communication, a message she sent would not have a reply for days until suddenly a happy or sad-faced emoji would pop up on her phone. Then nothing again. She would worry about them even though she was incapable of doing anything to help. Minoui longed to meet them, but never tough that this was going to be possible at all.

At the end of the line, he’s unable to speak. He’s lost his voice. His throat is empty. I can tell that he is beaten, depressed. From all the time I have spent talking to him over the internet, I’ve learned to read between the lines, to anticipate his responses. This isn’t a normal silence. For the first time, he’s run out of things to say about Daraya.

At times this is a heart-wrenching read. I cannot even imagine what life, such as you can call it there, was like. But in amongst all the death and destruction, there is hope; the hope that they find within the pages of the books, the hope that this time will end and the hope that they can build a democracy in the country that they love. The book conveys the reality of what life was like there at the time and the fear that every message to her would be their last. Minoui’s writing is sharp and pithy. It feels like the short chapters were written as notes after each time she contacted the men as her emotions come across as raw and reactions to the situations as they happen. It is a wonderful book about the generosity of the human spirit and however bad life is there is still some solace within the pages of a book. There is a video about the Book Collectors of Daraya, here (£)

March 2021 Review

March felt more like a more normal month than previously. It was a good reading month, with three, yes three, books of the month. But, first some stats after reaching a quarter of the way through the year.

I have read 50 books and 13682 pages. Thirty-four of the authors were male and the remaining 16 were female (34%). I have read 23 review books, 12 library books and 15 of my own. I have read books from 34 different publishers so far.

The top three publishers are:

Eland – 4 books

Saraband – 2 books

Head of Zeus – 2 books

(in fact, there are 11 publishers with 2 books read so far)

The top three genres are:

Travel – 10 books

Fiction – 9 books

Poetry – 6 books

So on to the books that I read in March

Barn Club a combination of architecture and craft and the story of a barn being built from elm for his clients using volunteers. They help with the cutting of the wood and learnt about how to cut the wood to make a self-standing structure. I really liked it

I know it sounds odd, but I read five fiction books this month. Like Fado is a collection of short stories by Graham Mort that are thoughtful, but not always cheerful. Million-Story City  is a collection of writings by the late Marcus Preece pulled together by his friends and editors Malu Halasa & Aura Saxén. There are all sorts of things in here, graphic strips, music journalism and plays. If you like something a bit different then this might be one you’d like. I have been a big fan of the late John Le Carré and I am reading the one on my bookshelves to pass to my brother in law to make space for other books! Our Kind Of Traitor is his take on the way that Russian money is swirling around the world in legal and illegal schemes and how those at the very top of our country are influenced by it. Chilling stuff.


I had read Gabriel Hemery’s previous collection of short stories loosely about woods and tree and he offered me a review copy of this. It is a diverse collection again, some of which I liked more than others, but there were a couple of great stories inside. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell is a story of murder set in the 1920s and how it affected those for years after.


Notebook is Tom Cox’s latest book and it originated from the time that his bag was stolen with a precious notebook inside. There are various musings from his other notebooks. It is quite random, but also an insight as to how he creates his wonderful books. In Minature is Simon Garfield’s exploration into those that are fascinated about replicating the real world in tiny form. Really enjoyable read. The First of Everything is a huge list of all the things that you may of heard of and who invented or discovered them first. Not bad


If you want to know about how the birds that we see around us got their names from our language, their behaviour and those that travelled all around the world trying to find new species then Mrs Moreau’s Warbler by Stephen Moss is a good place to start.

Desert Air is a collection of poetry set in and about the deserts of the world drawn together by Barnaby Rogerson. It is a great little collection and pocket sized too.

Two of the travel books that I read this month were written about the same place at the same time but two guys who were there at the same time. It was interesting seeing how Gavin Young and Gavin Maxwell’s experiences overlapped in their books.


Humanity has a habit of mucking things up and leaving them. But what happens after they have been left? In Cal Flyn’s fascinating book, Islands Of Abandonment, she travels to these places to see how the natural world is claiming them back. Highly recommended.

And now for my three books of the month. I am a big fan of Stephen Moss’s writing and Skylarks with Rosie is his lockdown diary of the natural world that he sees in his garden and the loop that he walks around every day. Wonderful piece of writing. Springlines sadly is out of print now, but I managed to pick up a copy second hand. It is a wonderful collection of art and poetry by Clare Best and Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis. Finally is  The Book Collectors of Daraya a wonderful story of a few men who set about collecting books from the rubble of the town and making a library from them. Books helped them face the horrific bombing they were subject to on a daily basis. It is a wonderful story.


Any here that you have read?

Any here that you’d now like to read?

Let me know in the comments below.

Skylarks With Rosie by Stephen Moss

4 out of 5 stars

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

On the 23rd March 2020, the UK entered lockdown. Overnight everything changed for the country. Travel for essential items was only permitted, everything except food shops and a handful of others deemed essential were open. We were allowed an hour of exercise per day outside but we were to stay and work from home.

Even though Stephen Moss mostly works from home now, but in normal time there are events in bookshops, Birdfair and other foreign trips that were all cancelled as the pandemic swamped out lives. Whilst he has seen many birds on his local patch, he would normally be of look elsewhere for all manner of different birds. Life for the foreseeable future would be different.

Written in a weekly diary form, this is his account of life under lockdown and the rediscovery of his local patch and accounts of the many walks and rides that he took around what he calls the loop, a three-mile. After a week of lockdown, he noticed that the volume and intensity of birdsong whilst cycling around the loop. But he didn’t know whether it was that the regular distractions of modern life would normally stop him noticing or that the silence of planes and cars made their songs sound louder. He was not the only one to notice this and he appeared on the Today programme to talk about how the dawn chorus was soothing the nation.

After a couple of weeks he had developed a routine, he would emerge from his garden office having completed some work and join his wife, Suzanne, and their dog, Rosie for morning coffee in the garden. They would scan the skies for raptors and they would often see them in the distance wheeling around on the thermals. A few days later he heard a tawny owl hoot just as he was going to bed, something that he wasn’t sure he’d hear again after finding a dead one nearby.

Being confined to his locality was becoming special in lots of ways, rather than passing things by in the rush to get somewhere else, he was taking the time to get to know his local patch intimately and gain that deep-rooted sense of place that naturalists like John Clare experienced. As lockdown begins to ease, he is able to move further afield and meet up with friends elsewhere on the Somerset levels. But it is the regular trips around the loop that he grows most fond of. Moving at a slow walking pace with Rosie he starts to learn individual birds habits, when and where they will be singing from as well. It is a tonic for his soul every day.

It has been one of the strangest periods of my life, and whilst it feels that we are getting back to normal, there is still a way to go. Moss’s book on how he coped with the pandemic is a wonderful response to this strange time and I really enjoyed this book. Moss is on top form in his prose as ever when writing about the wildlife that he sees on his walks and cycle rides. It is probably his most political book too; he gets really angry about the response from the government to the pandemic fairly often! Highly recommended.

April 2021 TBR

After posting a ridiculously long TBR for March I thought that I would have cleared a few off the list, but no, so some of these have rolled over from April (quite a few, please don’t count them!) So here we go again, equally long:


Finishing Off (Still!)

Behind the Enigma: The Authorized History of GCHQ, Britain’s Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency – John Ferris

Lotharingia: A Personal History Of Europe’s Lost Country – Simon Winder



None this month


Review Copies

Wyntertide – Andrew Caldecot

Stroke: A 5% Chance of Survival – Ricky Monhan Brown

Astral Travel – Elizabeth Baines

The Germans and Europe: A Personal Frontline History -Peter Millar

Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society – Ronald J. Deibert

Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit – Philip Stephens

How to be Sad: Everything I’ve learned about getting happier, by being sad, better – Helen Russell

Touring the Land of the Dead – Maki Kashimada Tr. Haydn Trowell

The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st-Century Technology? – Tracey Follows

Finding True North: The Healing Power of Place – Linda Gask

Hyphens Hashtags*: *The stories behind the symbols on our keyboard – Claire Cock-Starkey

We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption in an American City Justin Fenton

Born Digital: The Story of a Distracted Generation Robert Wigley

Fox Fires Wyl Menmuir

Invisible Work: The Hidden Ingredient of True Creativity, Purpose and Power John Howkins

Shearwater: A Bird, an Ocean, and a Long Way Home Roger Morgan-Grenville

The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an English Forest Neil Ansell

The Power of Geography: Ten Maps That Reveals the Future of Our World Tim Marshall

The Spirit of the River: A Quest for the Kingfisher Declan Murphy

Finding True North: The Healing Power of Place Linda Gask

Gone: A Search For What Remains Of The World’s Extinct Creatures Michael Blencowe



A Beginner’s Guide To Japan: Observations And Provocations – Pico Iyer

Constellations: Reflections From Life – Sinéad Gleeson

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time – Anna Sherman

Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are – Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Road Trip – Paul Theroux


Books to Clear

Symbols: A Universal Language- Joseph Piercy

Battle of the Titans – Fred Vogelstein

Where My Heart Used to Beat – Sebastian Faulks



Watery Through the Gaps – Emma Blas

Of Mutability – Jo Shapcott


Challenge Books

From Rome to San Marino: A Walk in the Steps of Garibaldi- Oliver Knox

Hokkaido Highway Blues- Will Ferguson


Stanford Award

The Winner was the book below! Didn’t get to read any of these in March sadly!

Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul- Taran Khan

Without Ever Reaching the Summit- Paolo Cognetti

The Border – A Journey Around Russia: Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, … Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage- Erika Fatland Tr. Kari Dickson

Travelling While Black- Nanjala Nyabola

Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl- Jonathan C. Slaght


Science Fiction

None this month; have you not seen all the books above ^^^

That is quite another list. I know that I am not going to get to them all. But I can dream

Barn Club by Robert J. Somerville

4 out of 5 stars

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

Twenty years ago I remember seeing a Grand Designs programme for a stunning property. Known as the Cruciform House, this amazing building was a perfect marriage between oak and glass. It sparked an interest in oak framed buildings, learning how they were built, that some of the techniques used in building these structures are having to be relearnt. One day I would love to be able to afford to build my own, but it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

When craftsman, Robert Somerville moved to Hertfordshire, in the home counties, he discovered by accident an ancient barn nearby in a place called Wallington. He was fascinated by the way the pre-industrial revolution craftsmen had made and constructed this barn and it had a literary link too, it was the inspiration for Animal Farm by George Orwell.

He was commissioned to make a small barn in a traditional way, but his clients had an unusual request. They wanted this to be a hand raised barn. They had been involved in a previous barn project and wanted this to be a project where volunteers could also join in and learn some life and practical skills. Somerville was as committed as they were to the project.

Until I picked this book up, I didn’t realise two things; one, that you could build a structure with elm, second, that there are still elms tree left! But Somerville knows where to look in the vicinity and manages to source the trees that he needs to start the project. They are going to have lots of volunteers with very different skill levels working on the site, they made the decision not to use any power tools for safety reasons. It is a decision that has lots of benefits, the biggest of which is that it becomes a social event as people can talk over the sound of hand tools, something that they would be able to do with power tools.

I thought that this was a really enjoyable book, Somerville takes you through every step of the processes of making a tree into a barn. He shows what trees to choose, and how to select the component parts from the trunk and branches and there are outline plans, details on how to build the plinths, how to make the frames and details on how to make the joints all done with delightful line drawings. I thought that It was very well written, he is generous with his knowledge with all the people that volunteered and us the reader. The structure that they build is beautiful and looking at it makes me want to find out if there is anything similar to this going to be happening in Dorset. If you have any interest in architecture or traditional crafts then you would probably like this. It is well worth watching the video on YouTube here

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