Author: Paul (Page 1 of 129)

Phosphorescence by Julie Baird

3 out of 5 stars

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

Life has been tough for lots of people over the past 18 months. The pandemic has affected people in all sorts of ways, The first lockdown was a bit of a novelty, but as the pandemic ebbed and flowed it became harder for many people. Being emotionally distraught has always been there though as we try to deal with the things that life throws at us daily or even hourly basis.

We sometimes know the things that make us happy, but those moments are often transitory, a brief internal warm feeling from having done something good before the glow fades all too quickly. But how do we sustain that feeling? In this book, Baird lays out some of her philosophies and techniques that she uses now to help her face some of the darkest periods of her life. She combats these moments she uses a combination of finding peace in the natural world and doing her best to help others who are in a much less fortunate position than she is.

Her exploration of this subject takes her from the way indigenous peoples have known the way that the world around them can act as a balm and a form of therapy for those with particular needs. She explores the use of silence especially the absence of the din that we make in the modern world. There is a chapter inspired by those who have been fortunate enough to get into space, how taking a big picture view of what we are doing and where we are intending on heading is a big help. She has been shaped by her upbringing, like all of us really, but she is trying to use that for a force for good, to call out people who are not prepared to accept anything other than a very blinkered point of view. To do this she draws deep on the things that sustain her.

I must admit this wasn’t quite the thing that I was expecting. I had hoped for more on the natural phenomena of phosphorescence, that faint light that can be seen in a variety of different places. Even though it wasn’t fully what I hoped it would be, I still think that Baird has made a readable and relatable book. She has taken the essence of this spectacle, that inner light that we have and sees how we can apply it to our own lives. A lot of what she writes about is based on personal experience and most of it is common sense too; a power sadly lacking in a lot of people these days.

Tapestries Of Life by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Tapestries Of Life by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson and published by Mudlark.

About the Book

Trees clean air and water; hoverflies and bees pollinate our crops; the kingfisher inspired the construction of high-speed trains. In Tapestries of Life, bestselling author Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson explains how closely we are all connected with the natural world, highlighting our indelible link with nature’s finely knit system and our everyday lives.

In the heart of the natural world is a life-support system like no other, a collective term that describes all the goods and services we receive – food, freshwater, medicine, pollination, pollution control, carbon sequestration, erosion prevention, recreation, spiritual health and so much more. In this utterly captivating book, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson sets out to explore these wonderful, supportive elements – taking the reader on a journey through the surprising characteristics of the natural world.

About the Author

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson is the bestselling author of Extraordinary Insects. A professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) in Ås, Norway, she is also a scientific advisor for The Norwegian Institute for Nature Research NINA. She has a Doctorate degree in conservation biology and lectures on nature management and forest biodiversity.

My Review

So far we have not found life anywhere other than this planet. And the life that we have here is in every part of the planet, from the microbes floating in the stratosphere to the organisms that are at the very bottom of the oceans 11km down. The breadth of life that is around is staggering too, almost every niche has been exploited by something that a lot of the time can only live there. It is a complex and beautiful system that is self-sustaining and abundant.

Sadly we have been trying our best to muck it for the 300,000 years or so that we have been around. We seemed to have altered almost every place on earth in one way of another, sometimes only a little, but in other places there has been wholesale destruction and obliteration. It is a sorry state of affairs, especially when you think that we are in a heavily interdependent life support system and one of the 10,000,000 or so species on this planet that has an equal right to be here.

How these systems really work is only recently being understood in more detail. Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, is one of those who is in a position to be able to understand and explain just how these complex and interdependent systems actually operate.

In this fascinating book, she takes us on a tour of the planet to show us what exactly happens and how this keeps life ticking over. We learn about the way that mycelium networks help plants grow, how insects keep us fed and how there is a cure for almost anything out there in the rainforests of our world. Sverdrup-Thygeson describes how we consume vast resources of stuff in our desire to eat everything we possibly can and buy ourselves new things all the time and how we totally depend on these resources to exist. Our physical consumption has doubled since 1980; we are stretching the resources too thinly and something will break soon. She describes how in America they use thousands of tonnes of chemicals on their lawns to clear wildflowers and insects and need thousands of tonnes of fertilizer to make the grass grow properly.

I liked this a lot. Sverdrup-Thygeson is an engaging writer with a strong belief in the natural world and how we need to treat it to be able to survive and thrive on our only planet. Using the evidence of some of the mad things that we do, she calmly advises that there is another way to move forward and not only thrive on this planet but give the other 9,999,999 species that we share it with, an equal chance of surviving too.

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

Blog Tour Poster

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 Thing Tours for the copy of the book to read.

Q&A With Lev Parikian

One of my books of 2020 was Into The Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian. It is a funny and thoughtful meander into how the British experience the natural world. It was published by Elliott and Thompson last week in paperback. As I really liked it I thought that I would tell you a little bit more about the book and then get Lev to answer some questions and tell us a little more about his new (!!!) book that is due to be published in September.

First a little bit about the book, in case you’ve not come across it:

Lev Parikian is on a journey to discover the quirks, habits and foibles of how the British experience nature. He sets out to explore the many, and particular, ways that he, and we, experience the natural world – beginning face down on the pavement outside his home then moving outwards to garden, local patch, wildlife reserve, craggy coastline and as far afield as the dark hills of Skye. He visits the haunts of famous nature lovers – reaching back to the likes of Charles Darwin, Etta Lemon, Gavin Maxwell, John Clare and Emma Turner – to examine their insatiable curiosity and follow in their footsteps.

And everywhere he meets not only nature, but nature lovers of all varieties. The author reveals how our collective relationship with nature has changed over the centuries, what our actions mean for nature and what being a nature lover in Britain might mean today.


And about Lev:

Lev Parikian is a writer, birdwatcher and conductor. His book Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? was published by Unbound in 2018. He lives in West London with his family, who are getting used to his increasing enthusiasm for nature. As a birdwatcher, his most prized sightings are a golden oriole in the Alpujarras and a black redstart at Dungeness Power Station.


Q & A

Firstly are the swifts back with you?
YES! And to much excitement. They were held up by cold weather pretty much everywhere, I think, but we saw our first in rather surreal fashion during a hailstorm on the evening of 5th May. It swooped down out of the gloom, darted around frantically for a minute and then disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, as if through a portal in the sky – it felt like a visitation from another world. It was a few days before the rest of them turned up – we have three or four nesting pairs in the houses either side most years – and now they’re swifting away like anything.
Are you still lounging around on pavements looking at wildlife?
Whenever possible! My most recent ground-level experience was photographing some Egyptian goose chicks (actually they’re more like teenagers now) at Tooting Common. Getting down to the level of the wildlife you’re interested in often gives a different perspective on things, although getting back up again is sometimes problematic!
What everyday creature, would you use to show people how great the natural world is?
For me it would probably have to be a bird – it needn’t be anything exotic – and all I’d do is say ‘look at it fly’. Take pigeons – much maligned, especially our ubiquitous city types, but if you discard prejudice and watch them fly – fast, manoeuvrable, wings held in a sharp V shape as they come into land with unerring accuracy – perhaps that’s a way in to looking at things through different eyes. It doesn’t really matter what it is – everyone has their preference – but I’d say the main thing is simply to develop a curiosity about things you might once have taken for granted. It works for me, anyway!
In between all the lockdowns, have you managed to make it to any nature reserves?
I had a wonderful trip to RSPB Rainham Marshes on my birthday in late April. I love exploring my very local and very urban patch, and have had plenty of opportunity to do so during the pandemic, especially given the subject of my next book, Light Rains Sometimes Fall (see below) – but sometimes it’s good to get away, and after such a long time confined to barracks this was a particularly enjoyable visit to a place I know well.
What was your top sighting in the past year?
Possibly the little egret that flew over the house early one morning quite out of the blue. For many people, who might live near a river or estuary or any kind of wetland, that would be a fairly routine sighting, but over a suburban south London garden it caused quite the stir. And I heard a black redstart singing on Piccadilly the other day – clearly audible over the rumble of traffic and general urban bustle. Terrific stuff.
What sort of kit would you recommend for an absolute beginner to start discovering wildlife in their local area?
Eyes and ears and a keen interest. But also a good pair of binoculars – they needn’t cost the earth – and a camera. With binoculars, it’s easy to be confused by all the jargon, but if you can get to a good optics shop where you can try out a few pairs to see what feels comfortable, that’s a trip worth making. And a good bridge camera will enable you to take some decent photographs – helpful for identification as well as the intrinsic visual pleasure they can give – without the expense and cumbersomeness (if that’s a word) of the long-lens types.
When we can properly travel again, where are you heading to, to watch birds?
I haven’t yet decided, although if all goes well my work as a conductor will take me to Edinburgh, so a trip along the coast to places like Musselburgh Lagoons, Aberlady Bay and Bass Rock might well be in order.
What has been your favourite nature book of the past year?
It wouldn’t be fair to single one out, but I’ve recently particularly enjoyed reading a proof of Steve Rutt’s The Eternal Season, which is out in July. Does Josie George’s A Still Life count as ‘nature writing’? It’s a beautiful and honest memoir, and while there’s so much more to it, her observations on nature are imbued with intelligence and perception. Also, Richard Smyth’s An Indifference of Birds – a very short and fascinating look at how we’ve changed the world for birds.
What author(s) do you buy their books without even reading the blurb?
I actually very rarely read blurbs, especially for fiction – the result of a painful experience some years ago when the back cover blurb gave away (or hinted very strongly at) a plot twist that occurred on page 298 of a 330-page book. But I do rely strongly on the recommendations of people I trust. And when Unbound announced the crowdfunding of a new Douglas Adams book – a neat trick for someone who’s been dead for twenty years, and one of which he would no doubt have approved – you couldn’t see me for the clicking.
What are you currently reading and would you recommend it?
Two very contrasting books: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Richard Fortey’s Fossils, both of which get a strong thumbs-up. I’ve also just finished Eley Williams’s A Liar’s Dictionary and John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – again, they gave me enormous amounts of pleasure in different ways.
Can you tell me some more information about your forthcoming book, Light Rains Sometimes Fall?
With great pleasure! It’s the story of a year spent looking at the nature on my local urban patch in south London. I took inspiration from the traditional Japanese calendar, which divides the year into 72 very short microseasons – about five days each. It occurred to me that this was an excellent way of noticing and charting the small changes in the natural world through the year, as well as an incentive to really pay attention to my local patch. It comes out on 16th September.
Thank you to Lev for answering the questions I posed really quickly. I can recommend following his Twitter and signing up for his newsletter as his deadpan humour is hilarious.

Much Ado About Mothing by James Lowen

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Compared to the dazzling colours of butterflies, I have always thought of moths as drab, slightly uninteresting insects that you only came across around the bathroom light just as I was getting ready for bed. I had been fortunate to see the odd hawk moth too. One was resting high on a wall at the shops near me a couple of years ago and I was amazed by how big it was. Apart from that, I knew next to nothing about moths.

James Lowen was the same until a particular date, 7th July 2012. He describes it as the day that changed his life forever. Until then he had considered moths as small brown and dull, uninteresting and even slightly eerie. Occasionally he even hated them. But what he had just seen had thrown him completely, it was a Poplar Hawk-moth, and she was utterly beautiful, he had been hit by what they call in Sicily, the thunderbolt. He was now smitten.

This interest grew and grew until he reached a point where he wanted to undertake some sort of a quest over the course of a year. Similar to those that have been all around the country looking for butterflies, orchids and dragonflies. Whilst those can be a challenge, there are relatively few species of those, whereas with moths there are around 2500 different species, and from what he could see from the guide books a sizable proportion of them looked remarkably similar. Especially the micro-moths! Instead, he decided that he would try and find the scarce and rare moths from various places around the country and tell their stories.

Searching for these moths would involve many very late nights, these are night insects after all, and he would drive around 14,000 miles in total travelling from the wilds of northern Scotland to the balmy Iles of Scilly and lots of places in between. Some of the moths he is hoping to find have been seen by almost nobody and a number of them are really local, moving no more than a handful of meters from where they hatched. He will find them in Second World War bunkers, near Neolithic mines, on heathlands and in the middle of forests.

Some of the names of these moths are fantastic. For example the Hummingbird hawk moth or the Bedstraw Hawk-moth but there are the Silver Barred, the Marsh Carpet, Rosy Footman, Jersey Tiger and the Pearly Underwing. Not all of them have these fantastic names though a number of them just have their Latin names and you need to be an expert to determine which is which.

I thought that this was a really enjoyable read. I like his writing style too, he includes enough detail in the prose to demonstrate that he knows what he is talking about, but doesn’t make it so complicated that it reads like a series of academic papers. He knows that the reader may know almost nothing about the subject so he writes with gleeful enthusiasm and a passion bordering on obsession about his mothy subjects. He says that he isn’t obsessed with these amazing insects, but I think he is besotted. I really enjoyed reading it and it makes me want to go out and get a moth trap now.

May 2021 Review

May seemed to rush past. I didn’t get quite as much reading down as I wanted as I spent an inordinate amount of it up a ladder decorating. But we are nearly done now in the hall stairs and landing now so I can get fully back to the books. I still managed to get around to reading 16 books in May and here is a roundup of them:

I read three books that had mental health as the central focus. In Finding True North, Linda Gask tells of her move to Orkney and coming to terms with a lifetime of depression and the lessons that she learnt by helping others overcome their issues. Moving to a smallholding was supposed to be the ultimate dream for Rebecca Schiller, however, as she tells us in Earthed things didn’t go quite as planned until the medical profession finally diagnosed her condition. Phosphorescence is very different. Julia Baird has long been fascinated by the natural light that is given off by creatures and she sees that as a metaphor that we can use to inspire us to do better and greater things.


My three poetry books this month could not have been any different. One was my first Seamus Heaney and whilst I didn’t love it, I did really like the way that he crafts words into these poems about the rural culture he is steeped in. Very different is watery through the gaps, rather than the connection via the land, Emma Blas is looking for a connection via water in her prose. Different once again is Victoria Bennett’s pamphlet, To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre which is about the loss of her mother. Very moving poems.


Just two natural history books this month, one of which is my book of the month at the bottom of this post. First though is Empire of Ants which is about those amazing little creatures that have been creating societies for millions of years and the research that Suzanne Foitzik has been undertaking on them. A very interesting book,

Not quite natural history, but still very much well worth reading is Helen Gordon’s new book, Notes from Deep Time. this is a deep-time view of the forces that create and still have the power to change our planet.

Where possible I am trying to read themed books together. This month the theme was technology and I have five different books on how were are using and coping with technology in the modern world. Fred Vogelstein’s book is a bit like ancient history now as it looks into the rivalry between Apple and Google. It was an interesting read though. My now teenage kids have grown up with broadband and online access. They have never had to suffer dial up! Born Digital is a look at how this new generation is coping with the always online permanent connection to the worldwide web. Really well done and worth reading. Tracey Follows comes at this from a different angle and looks at the things we need to do and have in place to maintain a strong and balanced online presence.


Everybody Lies is about the data that we generate every time we do something online and how looking at this metadata can show trends before they are visible in the real world. More worrying are the revelations revealed in Reset, this is how the surveillance industry tracks what we are doing and how less than honourable companies are turning that to their advantage.


My two travel book could not have been any more different this month. Westering is the account of Laurence Mitchell’s walk from Norfolk to Wales. Paul Theroux’s book is about the time that he spent in Mexico finding out more about the country that borders his and the pressures that people are under to move to America to eke out a living.


My book of the mo(n)th is Much Ado About Mothing. Moths are one of those insects that have bad press but in this book, by James Lowen aims to set the record straight. He is a teenie bit obsessed by moths and he does a really good job of conveying that in the prose.

Have you read any of these? Are there any that you now want to? Let me know in the comments below

Earthed by Rebecca Schiller

4 out of 5 stars

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

Lots of people have dreamt of moving away from the city and taking over a smallholding to grow their own food and keep a few chickens and live out their version of the good life. I have occasionally considered it myself too. But it is hard work, plants do not grow with a few minutes of care each day, you need to graft to get the bountiful harvests that you see others producing.

Rebecca Schiller turned her fantasy into a reality back in 2017 when they moved to a smallholding. The stark reality of that dream became evident after a while when the list of things to do each and every day grew to monstrous proportions and with it an overwhelming sense of not being able to cope with any of the challenges that life was throwing at her.

Over breakfast something small finally tips me off that ledge – the one that I have been balancing on for quite some time.

This is the story of her life on that small plot of land and is an open and occasionally a brutally honest account of her suffering from all manner of mental health issues whilst trying to hold together a smallholding, her marriage and her family. Her mental health is something that she struggles with to a greater or lesser extent throughout the book, whether it is dealing with the mini family crisis that crops up with children or just facing the endless daily tasks. There are moments of happiness, small things that raise a smile like the first fruits or fresh eggs and the warmth of a summer day.

I need this smallholding to be a simple, easy, happy family affair with a greenhouse that has all its panes. But it is not and this kind of life has never been like that and never will be. The phrase ‘simple life’ wasn’t coined by anyone who tried to live it

Even though the subject matter might not be for everyone I thought that this was well written. I am sure we only get a flavour of her suffering and the pain that she was causing to her husband, Jared whilst she was ill. I liked the dash of history of her plot of land that is a part of the book, it helps to earth her and is a reminder that we are merely custodians of this planet. I wasn’t sure about the fictional elements as she imagined the women who once worked the land to feed their families. Even though it could be quite bleak at times, there is a positive message here too, partly that modern medical treatments can and do work when the professionals know what is wrong, but also that a connection to a landscape can keep you rooted.

On The Plain Of Snakes by Paul Theroux

4 out of 5 stars

The image that Mexico wants to portray of their country is very different to the reality that exists. It is a country that is in the grip of drug gangs who commit all sorts of murders and atrocities with little or no enforcement from the police and army; in fact, in a lot of cases, the police are another arm of the gangs. Given the violence that permeates the country and the border region in particular, there are 30,00 murders a year there, it is probably not the most sensible place to travel, but that has never stopped Paul Theroux.

He begins his journey in the town of Nogales a town of two halves. It is split by a 40-foot high steel fence that separates the United States of America from Mexico and is a microcosm of each country. The US side is prosperous and the Mexican side, run down and impoverished. It fills with people either hoping to make the crossing from south to north or who have been returned from America and have nowhere else to go now.

‘What is the meaning of Coixlahuaca?’
‘El llana de las serpientes.’
The plain of snakes.

He is not there as a tourist though, he wants to try and understand what is the pull of his country to these people and gain an insight into why they risk so much in the hands of coyotes while walking through the deserts of Arizona. To do this, he wants to meet the real people of the border towns, sometimes by taking his American plated car which has its own set of risks as he finds out when he is stopped by an overzealous policeman. He realises that this is not always the most sensible thing to do and often parks it in a secure place and takes the bus instead.

It seems that ever since the border at Reynosa, 1400 miles away, I had been travelling on a royal road through a plain of snakes.

He teaches a writing course for a short while and makes friends with those learning from him. In Oaxaca he becomes a student once again, this time learning Mexican Spanish alongside residents of the town who still maintain their independence from the rest of the country. It feels like a place he could live in. Travelling further into Mexico, he stops in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas where he meets Zapatistas who are trying to force political change in the region.

One of the greatest thrills in travel is to know the satisfaction of arrival and to find oneself among friends.

I have a lot of Paul Theroux’s books (including a signed one) but as yet haven’t read that many of them for a variety of reasons, the top one being that I have so many other books… So far I have read two, this and Deep South. In that book, he was travelling around the southern states of America to try to understand the people of that region in his own country. In here he has popped over the border to discover more about the country that has been the subject of quite a lot of vindictiveness from the previous administration in the White House, Mexico.

Theroux is prepared to meet the locals in the way that suits him best by spending time in their towns and mixing with them. He is a sensitive and perceptive traveller and this comes across in this book as he describes the towns, people and food he experiences each day her is there. He does not seek to judge them, it is a troubled country, that is suffering from gang violence as well as being fundamentally corrupt. Most of the population are just trying to live to support their families, even if that means earning money in America for a portion of their lives.

Atlantic Wars by Geoffrey Plank

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Atlantic Wars by Geoffrey Plank and published by Oxford University Press. This is one of the shortlisted books for the Wolfson History Prize.

About the Prize

The Wolfson History Prize is awarded annually to promote and recognise outstanding history written for a general audience. First awarded in 1972, it remains a beacon of the best historical writing being produced in the UK, reflecting qualities of both readability and excellence in writing and research.

Books are judged on the extent to which they are carefully researched, well-written and accessible to the non-specialist reader.

A shortlist of six books is announced in spring, followed by one overall winner in early summer.

The Wolfson History Prize is the most valuable non-fiction writing prize in the UK, with the winner receiving a total prize of £40,000, and the shortlisted authors receiving £4,000 each.

The Prize is awarded by the Wolfson Foundation, an independent charity that awards grants to support and promote excellence in the fields of science, health, education and the arts & humanities.


Shortlisted Books

Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust’ by Rebecca Clifford

Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh

Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe’ by Judith Herrin

Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood by Helen McCarthy

Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack by Richard Ovenden

Atlantic Wars: From the Fifteenth Century to the Age of Revolution by Geoffrey Plank


Atlantic Wars

In a sweeping account, Atlantic Wars explores how warfare shaped the experiences of the peoples living in the watershed of the Atlantic Ocean between the late Middle Ages and the Age of Revolution. At the beginning of that period, combat within Europe secured for the early colonial powers the resources and political stability they needed to venture across the sea. By the early nineteenth century, descendants of the Europeans had achieved military supremacy on land but revolutionaries had challenged the norms of Atlantic warfare.

Nearly everywhere they went, imperial soldiers, missionaries, colonial settlers, and travelling merchants sought local allies, and consequently they often incorporated themselves into African and indigenous North and South American diplomatic, military, and commercial networks. The newcomers and the peoples they encountered struggled to understand each other, find common interests, and exploit the opportunities that arose with the expansion of transatlantic commerce. Conflicts arose as a consequence of ongoing cultural misunderstandings and differing conceptions of justice and the appropriate use of force. In many theatres of combat, profits could be made by exploiting political instability. Indigenous and colonial communities felt vulnerable in these circumstances, and many believed that they had to engage in aggressive military action―or, at a minimum, issue dramatic threats―in order to survive. Examining the contours of European dominance, this work emphasizes its contingent nature and geographical limitations, the persistence of conflict and its inescapable impact on non-combatants’ lives.

Addressing warfare at sea, warfare on land, and transatlantic warfare, Atlantic Wars covers the Atlantic world from the Vikings in the north, through the North American coastline and the Caribbean, to South America and Africa. By incorporating the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Africans, and indigenous Americans into one synthetic work, Geoffrey Plank underscores how the formative experience of combat brought together widely separated people in a common history.


About the Author

Geoffrey Plank is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. His research examines early modern debates over conquest, settlement, warfare and slavery in the context of transatlantic imperialism. He is interested in the ways in which the European colonization of the Americas affected ordinary lives, and he has studied a variety of groups including French- and English-speaking colonists, Scottish Highlanders, Quakers and Native Americans. His current work explores the role of warfare in the creation of the Atlantic World.


Extract from the book:

The pervasive impact of warfare on life around the Atlantic in the early modern period becomes apparent only by examining the oceanic region as a whole. Military technologies and people travelled across the borders of states, colonies, and empires, and beyond the confines of islands and continents. Wars brought diverse people together in an intimate, shared experience. Sailors moved from private vessels to warships, sometimes voluntarily and often through mechanisms of forcible recruitment. As a consequence, during his lifetime a sailor might work and fight under a variety of captains flying different flags. People of indigenous American, African, and European descent fought alongside and against each other at sea and on land. Preparing for war and coping with its consequences involved inclusive communal efforts, drawing in women as well as men, children, and the aged from various parts of the Atlantic world. Some wars, like the Dutch wars against the Spanish in the early seventeenth century, the European imperial wars of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the wars of Revolutionary France and the Napoleonic era, directly engaged people in widely scattered regions. Even small-scale, localized conflicts were often shaped by transatlantic influences and had effects far beyond the combat zone. Wars in Africa, for example, had direct consequences for the colonies in the Caribbean and North and South America, where captives were sent for sale.

Scholars have long recognized that the lands surrounding the Atlantic have a distinct, shared history that transcends national or imperial boundaries. There has been an increase in interest in Atlantic history since the 1990s as historians have paid more attention to interactions between Africans, Europeans, and indigenous Americans. Compared to imperial historians, scholars who adopt an Atlantic perspective have a less hierarchical understanding of the relationship between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. They pay less attention to bureaucracy and imperial regulation and instead focus on migration, trade, and the exchange of ideas within a culturally diverse transatlantic environment. While good general surveys of Atlantic history exist, none concentrates on the formative influence of war.

Europeans never dominated land warfare in Africa, the Americas, or the islands of the Atlantic in the way they held the upper hand at sea. On the contrary, European colonists and expeditionary forces were frequently dependent on local allies. New ways of fighting developed as groups learned from each other. A pattern of scattered, isolated conflicts in the sixteenth century evolved into a series of large-scale transatlantic wars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. States and empires became more dominant and widespread reactions against that trend triggered revolutionary struggles in many countries around the Atlantic. In the aftermath of the Age of Revolution, old patterns of cross cultural alliance fell into disfavour, helping to put an end to the early modern era of Atlantic 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 Ben McLusky from Midas PR for providing the extract.

Extract Text is © Geoffrey Plank

June 2021 TBR

It is already June. How did that happen? Anyway, the gloom and horrible weather seems to have cleared and the sun has come out. Sadly I have been stuck inside decorating the past few weekends and haven’t got as much reading as I would like done. So the TBR this month is even more ridiculous than the one in May.


Finishing Off (Still!)

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

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


Blog Tour

Tapestries of Life: Uncovering the Lifesaving Secrets of the Natural World – Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson


Review Copies

Did manage to read 11 review copies in May, but the list grows ever longer each month

Astral Travel – Elizabeth Baines

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

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

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

Fox Fires – Wyl Menmuir

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

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

Elites: Can you rise to the top without losing your soul? – Douglas Board

Trimming England – M.J. Nicholls

The Fugitives – Jamal Mahjoub

Spaceworlds: Stories of Life in the Void – Ed. Mike Ashley

Slow Trains Around Spain: A 3,000-Mile Adventure on 52 Rides – Tom Chesshyre

The Others – Raül Garrigasait

Burning The Books: A History Of Knowledge Under Attack – Richard Ovenden

The Four Horsemen: And The Hope Of A New Age – Emily Mayhew

The Spy who was left out in the Cold: The Secret History of Agent Goleniewski – Tim Tate

The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion – Gwen Adshead, Eileen Horne

When Quiet Was the New Loud: Celebrating the Acoustic Airwaves 1998-2003 – Tom Clayton

Letters from Egypt – Lucie Duff Gordon

The Heeding – Rob Cowen & Nick Hayes

The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds – Jon Dunn



Lots of library books to read this month because of other people reserving them and me neglecting to get them read before. Might end up paying the fines as you can’t return and renew at the moment.

The Lip – Charlie Carroll

Lev’s Violin: An Italian Adventure – Helena Attlee

Summer In The Islands: An Italian Odyssey – Matthew Fort

Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific – Christina Thompson

Superheavy: Making And Breaking The Periodic Table – Kit Chapman

On The Marsh: A Year Surrounded By Wildness And Wet – Simon Barnes

Pie Fidelity: In Defence Of British Food – Pete Brown

Another Fine Mess: Across Trumpland In A Ford Model T – Tim Moore

The Living Goddess: A Journey Into The Heart Of Kathmandu – Isabella Tree

The Odditorium: The Tricksters, Eccentrics, Deviants And Inventors Whose Obsession Changed The World – David Bramwell & Jo Keeling

Ciderology – Gabe Cook

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind The Myth Of The Scandinavian Utopia – Michael Booth

Elephant Complex: Travels In Sri Lanka – John Gimlette

Tweet Of The Day: A Year Of Britain’s Birds From The Acclaimed Radio 4 Series – Brett Westwood & Stephen Moss



Only intending on reading one this month give the vastness of the rest of the list…

The Heeding – Rob Cowen & Nick Hayes


20 Books Of Summer

Cathy at 746 books is running this again and my post about it is here. I am not going to get to all of these this month, but they are here so I can start ticking them off the list to read.

An Affair Of The Heart – Dilys Powell

Wyntertide – Andrew Caldecot

The Con Artist – Fred van Lente

Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History – Sam Maggs

Water Ways: A Thousand Miles Along Britain’s Canals – Jasper Winn

The Night Lies Bleeding – M.D. Lachlan

Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls – Tim Marshall

The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist – Tim Birkhead

The House of Islam – Ed Husain

Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age – Fred Pearce

Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion – Humphrey Hawksley

Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth – Adam Frank

Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do – Wallace J. Nichols

21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari

The Restless Kings: Henry II, His Sons and the Wars for the Plantagenet Crown – Nick Barratt

The Kindness Of Strangers: Travel Stories That Make Your Heart Grow – Ed. Fearghal O’Nuallain

To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope – Jeanne Marie Laskas

The Secret Network of Nature: The Delicate Balance of All Living Things – Peter Wohlleben

What We Have Lost – James Hamilton-Paterson

Bloody Brilliant Women: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries and Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot to Mention – Cathy Newman


These lists never seem to get any shorter, do they? 🙂

Any that you have read or are there some above that take your fancy?

20 Books of Summer 2021

After the truly bloody horrible May that we have had, the past few days of heat and sun have meant that it almost felt like summer. Not convinced it will last though. And as it is summer then it must be time for this challenge once again.

It was dreamt up by Cathy at 746 Books, it is a challenge for bloggers and anyone else and the aim is to try and read through 20 books that are on their TBR. I have tried for the past two years. In the first year, I read 18 and last year I only managed 12. I almost didn’t do it this year, but I like the idea of it and It is good to support another blogger in what they are doing to promote reading. Follow the hashtag #20booksofsummer21 to follow those who are taking part this year.  I like to pick themes normally. Last year it was travel and this year the theme is trying to read through some of the review books that I have had around for way too long. So without further ado, here is my list of books:

An Affair Of The Heart by Dilys Powell

Dilys Powell’s love affair with Greece and the Greeks began on a sun-baked archaeological dig in 1931. Joining her husband the archaeologist Humfry Payne on the remote peninsula of Perachora, she came to know the villagers who laboured on the site, camping beside them year after year, for months at a time.

Despite personal tragedy, the occupation of Greece and civil war, Powell’s affair of the heart continued. She returned time and again through the ’40s and ’50s, and with each visit there was a reconciliation with her idyllic memories of the country. Both with Humfry and without, she explored remote mountains in the company of shepherds, isolated stretches of coast and island with local fishermen and olive-dotted hillsides with the subsistence farmers who worked them. Out of this she has fashioned a gem of a travel book.


Wyntertide by Andrew Caldecot

Welcome back to Rotherweird, where an ancient plot centuries in the making is about to come to fruition – and this time the forces of darkness might actually win . . .

The town of Rotherweird has been independent from the rest of England for four hundred years, to protect a deadly secret.

Sir Veronal Slickstone is dead, his bid to exploit that secret consigned to dust, leaving Rotherweird to resume its abnormal normality after the travails of the summer . . . but someone is playing a very long game.

Disturbing omens multiply: a funeral delivers a cryptic warning; an ancient portrait speaks; the Herald disappears – and democracy threatens the uneasy covenant between town and countryside.

Geryon Wynter’s intricate plot, centuries in the making, is on the move.

Everything points to one objective: the resurrection of Rotherweird’s dark Elizabethan past – and to one date: the Winter Solstice.

Wynter is coming


The Con Artist by Fred van Lente

This illustrated mystery will appeal to comic book fans and anyone who appreciates an unconventional whodunit.

Comic book artist Mike Mason arrives at San Diego Comic-Con, seeking sanctuary with other fans and creators—and maybe to reunite with his ex—but when his rival is found murdered, he becomes the prime suspect. To clear his name, Mike will have to navigate every corner of the con, from zombie obstacle courses and cosplay flash mobs to intrusive fans and obsessive collectors, in the process unravelling a dark secret behind one of the industry’s most legendary creators.


Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History by Sam Maggs

A modern girl is nothing without her squad of besties. But don’t let all the hashtags fool you: the #girlsquad goes back a long, long time. In this hilarious and heartfelt book, geek girl Sam Maggs takes you on a tour of some of history’s most famous female BFFs, including:

• Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the infamous lady pirates who sailed the seven seas and plundered with the best of the men
• Jeanne Manon Roland and Sophie Grandchamp, Parisian socialites who landed front-row seats (from prison) to the French Revolution
• Sharon and Shirley Firth, the First Nations twin sisters who would go on to become Olympic skiers and break barriers in the sport
• The Edinburgh Seven, the band of pals who fought to become the first women admitted to medical school in the United Kingdom
• The Zohra Orchestra, the ensemble from Afghanistan who defied laws, danger, and threats to become the nation’s first all-female musical group

And many more! Spanning art, science, politics, activism, and even sports, these girl squads show just how essential female friendship has been throughout history and throughout the world. Sam Maggs brings her signature wit and warmth as she pays tribute to the enduring power of the girl squad. Fun, feisty, and delightful to read—with empowering illustrations by artist Jenn Woodall—it’s the perfect gift for your BFF.


Water Ways: A Thousand Miles Along Britain’s Canals by Jasper Winn

For a hundred and fifty years, between the plod of packhorse trains and the arrival of the railways, canals were the high-tech water machine driving the industrial revolution. Amazing feats of engineering, they carried the rural into the city and the urban into the countryside, and changed the lives of everyone. And then, just when their purpose was extinguished by modern transport, they were saved from extinction and repurposed as a ‘slow highways’ network, a peaceful and countrywide haven from our too-busy age. Today, there are more boats on the canals than in their Victorian heyday.

Writer and slow adventurer Jasper Winn spent a year exploring Britain’s waterways on foot and by bike, in a kayak and on narrowboats. Along a thousand miles of ‘wet roads and water streets’ he discovered a world of wildlife corridors, underground adventures, the hardware of heritage and history, new boating communities, endurance kayak races and remote towpaths. He shared journeys with some of the last working boat people and met the anglers, walkers, boaters, activists, volunteers and eccentrics who have made the waterways their home. In Britain most of us live within five miles of a canal, and reading this book we will see them in an entirely new light.


The Night Lies Bleeding by M.D. Lachlan

The world is at war again. London is suffering from the German Blitz. For one immortal werewolf, the war means little. He knows he will soon have to give up his identity once more, begin a new life. Before the wolf emerges.

But a chance conversation leads him to the scene of a gruesome murder, and the realisation that another war is being fought. The runes want to be together, and the when they are the wolf’s story will end.

And in Germany, one weak-willed doctor finds himself caught up in the Third Reich’s fascination with the occult and the Norse myths. They believe that the runes will bring them power, and wish to abuse them for their own ends.

And if they succeed, Ragnarok will come.


Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls by Tim Marshall


We feel more divided than ever.
This riveting analysis tells you why.

Walls are going up. Nationalism and identity politics are on the rise once more. Thousands of miles of fences and barriers have been erected in the past ten years, and they are redefining our political landscape.

There are many reasons why we erect walls, because we are divided in many ways: wealth, race, religion, politics. In Europe the ruptures of the past decade threaten not only European unity, but in some countries liberal democracy itself. In China, the Party’s need to contain the divisions wrought by capitalism will define the nation’s future. In the USA the rationale for the Mexican border wall taps into the fear that the USA will no longer be a white majority country in the course of this century.

Understanding what has divided us, past and present, is essential to understanding much of what’s going on in the world today. Covering China; the USA; Israel and Palestine; the Middle East; the Indian Subcontinent; Africa; Europe and the UK, bestselling author Tim Marshall presents a gripping and unflinching analysis of the fault lines that will shape our world for years to come.


The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist by Tim Birkhead

From the author of Bird Sense, a biography of Francis Willughby, the man who pulled the study of birds out of the dark ages and formed the foundations of modern ornithology.

Francis Willughby lived and thrived in the midst of the rapidly accelerating scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Travelling with his Cambridge tutor John Ray, they decided to overhaul the whole of natural history by imposing order on its messiness and complexity. It was exhilarating, exacting, and exhausting work. Yet before their first book, Ornithology, could be completed, Willughby died in 1672. Since then, Ray’s reputation has grown, obscuring that of his collaborator. Now, for the first time, Willughby’s story and genius are given the attention they deserve.

In his too-short life, Francis Willughby helped found the Royal Society, differentiated birds through identification of their distinguishing features, and asked questions that were, in some cases, centuries ahead of their time. His discoveries and his approach to his work continue to be relevant–and revelatory-today. Tim Birkhead describes and celebrates how Willughby’s endeavours set a standard for the way birds–and indeed the whole of natural history–should be studied. Rich with glorious detail, The Wonderful Mr Willughby is at once a fascinating insight into a thrilling period of scientific history and an authoritative, lively biography of one of its legendary pioneers.


The House of Islam by Ed Husain

‘Islam began as a stranger,’ said the Prophet Mohammed, ‘and one day, it will again return to being a stranger.’

The gulf between Islam and the West is widening. A faith rich with strong values and traditions, observed by nearly two billion people across the world, is seen by the West as something to be feared rather than understood. Sensational headlines and hard-line policies spark enmity, while ignoring the feelings, narratives and perceptions that preoccupy Muslims today.

Wise and authoritative, The House of Islam seeks to provide entry to the minds and hearts of Muslims the world over. It introduces us to the fairness, kindness and mercy of Mohammed; the aims of sharia law, through commentary on scripture, to provide an ethical basis to life; the beauty of Islamic art and the permeation of the divine in public spaces; and the tension between mysticism and literalism that still threatens the House of Islam.

The decline of the Muslim world and the current crises of leadership mean that a glorious past, full of intellectual nobility and purpose, is now exploited by extremists and channelled into acts of terror. How can Muslims confront the issues that are destroying Islam from within, and what can the West do to help work towards that end?

Ed Husain expertly and compassionately guides us through the nuances of Islam and its people, contending that the Muslim world need not be a stranger to the West, nor its enemy, but a peaceable ally.


Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age by Fred Pearce

Environmental journalist Fred Pearce travels the globe to investigate our complicated seven-decade long relationship with nuclear technology, from the bomb to nuclear accidents to nuclear waste.

While concern about climate change has led some environmentalists to embrace renewable energy sources like wind and solar, others have expressed a renewed interest in nuclear power as an alternative source of carbon-neutral energy. But can humanity handle the risks involved?
In Fallout, Fred Pearce uncovers the environmental and psychological landscapes created since the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Traveling from Nevada to Japan to the UK to secret sites of the old Soviet Union, he explores first the landscapes transformed by uranium and by nuclear accidents–sites both well-known and little known. He then examines in detail the toxic legacies of nuclear technology, the emerging dilemmas over handling its waste, the decommissioning of the great radioactive structures of the nuclear age, and the fearful doublethink over our growing stockpiles of plutonium, the most lethal and ubiquitous product of nuclear technologies. How, Pearce asks, has the nuclear experience has changed us? Is nuclear technology indeed the existential threat it sometimes appears? Should we be burdening future generations with radioactive waste that will be deadly for thousands of years?
Fallout is the definitive look at humanity’s nuclear adventure, for any reader who craves a clear-headed examination of the tangled relationship between a powerful technology and human politics, foibles, fears, and arrogance.


Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion by Humphrey Hawksley

Few territories are as hotly contested as the western Pacific Ocean. Across the 1.5 million square mile expanse of the East and South China Sea, six countries lay overlapping claims that date back centuries. China, Vietnam, Korea and Indonesia assert their right to trade routes, deploying military garrisons to defend disputed territories while Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines resist their expansion. But no single government can face a superpower such as China alone, and as the country extends its reach, less powerful states look to the US for diplomatic mediation creating an American security umbrella that stretches across the Asia-Pacific nicknamed the “American Lake”. These conditions produce an unstable cocktail of competing interests and international tensions poised for conflict.

BBC foreign correspondent Humphrey Hawksley has been following this increasingly precarious situation in East Asia for decades. Reporting on years of political developments, he has witnessed China’s rise to become one of the world’s most powerful trade entities, elbowing smaller markets out in the process. In Asian Waters, Hawksley draws on his experience as a veteran journalist to portray the region in all its complexity and delivers a compelling account of where it is heading. Will China continue to rise to power peacefully or will its ambition prompt a new world war? Will Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan create a multi-lateral alliance similar to NATO to pre-empt further encroachment? Asian Waters delves into these topics and more as Hawksley presents the most comprehensive analysis of the region to date.


Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth by Adam Frank

Light of the Stars tells the story of humanity’s coming of age as we awaken to the possibilities of life on other worlds and their sudden relevance to our fate on Earth. Astrophysicist Adam Frank traces the question of alien life and intelligence from the ancient Greeks to the leading thinkers of our own time, and shows how we as a civilization can only hope to survive climate change if we recognize what science has recently discovered: that we are just one of ten billion trillion planets in the Universe, and it’s highly likely that many of those planets hosted technologically advanced alien civilizations. What’s more, each of those civilizations must have faced the same challenge of civilization-driven climate change.

Written with great clarity and conviction, Light of the Stars builds on the inspiring work of pioneering scientists such as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, whose work at the dawn of the space age began building the new science of astrobiology; Jack James, the Texas-born engineer who drove NASA’s first planetary missions to success; Vladimir Vernadsky, the Russian geochemist who first envisioned the Earth’s biosphere; and James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, who invented Gaia theory. Frank recounts the perilous journey NASA undertook across millions of miles of deep space to get its probes to Venus and Mars, yielding our first view of the cosmic laws of planets and climate that changed our understanding of our place in the universe.

Thrilling science at the grandest of scales, Light of the Stars explores what may be the largest question of all: What can the likely presence of life on other worlds tell us about our own fate?


Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do by Wallace J. Nichols

Why are we drawn to the ocean each summer? Why does being near water set our minds and bodies at ease? In Blue Mind, Wallace J. Nichols revolutionizes how we think about these questions, revealing the remarkable truth about the benefits of being in, on, under, or simply near water. Grounded in cutting-edge studies in neurobiology, cognitive psychology, economics, and medicine, and made real by stories of innovative scientists, doctors, athletes, artists, environmentalists, businesspeople and lovers of nature – stories that fascinate the mind and touch the heart – Blue Mind will awaken readers to the vital importance of water to the health and happiness of us all.


21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

In Sapiens, he explored our past. In Homo Deus, he looked to our futureNow, one of the most innovative thinkers on the planet turns to the present to make sense of today’s most pressing issues.

How do computers and robots change the meaning of being human? How do we deal with the epidemic of fake news? Are nations and religions still relevant? What should we teach our children?

Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a probing and visionary investigation into today’s most urgent issues as we move into the uncharted territory of the future. As technology advances faster than our understanding of it, hacking becomes a tactic of war, and the world feels more polarized than ever, Harari addresses the challenge of navigating life in the face of constant and disorienting change and raises the important questions we need to ask ourselves in order to survive.

In twenty-one accessible chapters that are both provocative and profound, Harari builds on the ideas explored in his previous books, untangling political, technological, social, and existential issues and offering advice on how to prepare for a very different future from the world we now live in: How can we retain freedom of choice when Big Data is watching us? What will the future workforce look like, and how should we ready ourselves for it? How should we deal with the threat of terrorism? Why is liberal democracy in crisis?

Harari’s unique ability to make sense of where we have come from and where we are going has captured the imaginations of millions of readers. Here he invites us to consider values, meaning, and personal engagement in a world full of noise and uncertainty. When we are deluged with irrelevant information, clarity is power. Presenting complex contemporary challenges clearly and accessibly, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is essential reading.


The Restless Kings: Henry II, His Sons and the Wars for the Plantagenet Crown by Nick Barratt

In The Restless Kings Nick Barratt presents the tumultuous struggle for supremacy between the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, and his four sons – a drama that tore apart the most powerful family in western Europe and shaped the future of two nations.

As well as exploring the personalities and crises facing these extraordinary people as a family, The Restless Kings follows them as they raced around western Europe, struggling to hold together a vast conglomeration of lands – often through force of arms – whilst constantly harried by the their nominal overlord and arch rival, Philip Augustus, king of France.

Although the key events took place over 800 years ago, their significance still resonates today. Whether you’re looking for the root causes of Brexit or tension in the Middle East, their origins can be found in the actions of the Angevin kings of England.

The Restless Kings will challenge everything you assumed you knew about the medieval world. Above all, it brings to life some of the most remarkable, complex, flawed and brilliant monarchs ever to have sat on the English throne.


The Kindness Of Strangers: Travel Stories That Make Your Heart Grow by Ed. Fearghal O’Nuallain

Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer

Travel opens our minds to the world; it helps us to embrace risk and uncertainty, overcome challenges and understand the people we meet and the places we visit. But what happens when we arrive home? How do our experiences shape us?

‘The Kindness of Strangers’ explores what it means to be vulnerable and to be helped by someone we’ve never met before. Someone who could have walked past, but chose not to.

This is a collection of stories by accomplished travellers and adventurous souls like Sarah Outen, Benedict Allen, Ed Stafford and Al Humphreys, who have completed daring journeys through challenging terrain, adventuring from the Calais Jungle to the Amazon, from Land’s End to the Gobi Desert, from New Guinea to Iran and many other places in between. Each has a story to tell of a time when they were vulnerable, when they were in need and a kind stranger came to their rescue.

These are stories that make our hearts grow, stories that will restore our faith in the world and remind us that, despite what the media says, the world isn’t a scary place – rather, it is filled with Kind Strangers just like us.

All royalties go directly to fund Oxfam’s work with refugees.


To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Every day, President Obama received ten thousand letters from constituents. Every night, he read ten of them before going to bed. This is the story of the profound ways in which they shaped his presidency.

Every evening for 8 years, at his request, President Obama received a binder containing ten handpicked letters from ordinary American citizens — the unfiltered voice of a nation — from his Office of Presidential Correspondence. He was the first to President to save constituent mail, and this is the story of how those letters affected not only the President and his policies, but also the deeply committed people who were tasked with opening the millions of pleas, rants, thank yous, and apologies that landed in the White House mailroom.

Based on the popular New York Times article, “To Obama,” Laskas now interviews the letter writers themselves and the White House staff who sifted through the powerful, moving, and incredibly intimate narrative of America during the Obama years emerges: There is Kelli, who saw her grandfathers finally marry – legally — after 35 years together; Bill, a lifelong Republican whose attitude toward immigration reform was transformed when he met a boy escaping M-16 gang leaders in El Salvador; Heba, a Syrian refugee who wants to forget the day the tanks rolled into her village; Marjorie, who grappled with disturbing feelings of racial bias lurking within her during the George Zimmerman trial; and Vicki, whose family was torn apart by those who voted for Trump and those who did not.

They wrote to Obama out of gratitude and desperation, in their darkest times of need, in search of connection. They wrote with anger and respect. And together, this chorus of voices achieves a kind of beautiful harmony: here is a diary of a nation. To Obama is an intimate look at one man’s relationship to the American people, and the the intersection of politics and empathy in the White House.


The Secret Network of Nature: The Delicate Balance of All Living Things by Peter Wohlleben

Did you know that trees can influence the rotation of the earth?
Or that wolves can alter the course of a river?
Or that earthworms control wild boar populations?

The natural world is a web of intricate connections, many of which go unnoticed by humans. But it is these connections that maintain nature’s finely balanced equilibrium.

Drawing on the latest scientific discoveries and decades of experience as a forester and bestselling author, Peter Wohlleben shows us how different animals, plants, rivers, rocks and weather systems cooperate, and what’s at stake when these delicate systems are unbalanced.

The earth’s ecosystems are too complex for us to compartmentalise and draw up simple rules of cause and effect; but The Secret Network of Nature gives us a chance to marvel at the inner workings and unlikely partnerships of the natural world, where every entity has its own distinct purpose.

And the more light that is shed on relationships between species, the more fascinating nature’s web becomes.


What We Have Lost by James Hamilton-Paterson

Between 1939 and 1945, Britain produced around 125,000 aircraft – to take one example – and enormous numbers of ships, motor vehicles, armaments and textiles. We developed radar, antibiotics, the jet engine and the computer. Less than seventy years later, the major industries that had made Britain a global power industrially and militarily, and had employed millions, were dead. These industries had collapsed within a mere three decades. Had they really been doomed, and if so, by what? Can our politicians have been so inept? Was it down to the superior competition of wily foreigners? Or were our rulers culturally too hostile to science and industry?

James Hamilton-Paterson, in this evocation of the industrial world we have lost, analyses the factors that turned us so quickly from a nation of active producers to one of passive consumers and financial middlemen.


Bloody Brilliant Women: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries and Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot to Mention by Cathy Newman


A fresh, opinionated history of all the brilliant women you should have learned about in school but didn’t.

In this freewheeling history of modern Britain, Cathy Newman writes about the pioneering women who defied the odds to make careers for themselves and alter the course of modern history; women who achieved what they achieved while dismantling hostile, entrenched views about their place in society. Their role in transforming Britain is fundamental, far greater than has generally been acknowledged, and not just in the arts or education but in fields like medicine, politics, law, engineering and the military.

While a few of the women in this book are now household names, many have faded into oblivion, their personal and collective achievements mere footnotes in history. We know of Emmeline Pankhurst, Vera Brittain, Marie Stopes and Beatrice Webb. But who remembers engineer and motorbike racer Beatrice Shilling, whose ingenious device for the Spitfires’ Rolls-Royce Merlin fixed an often-fatal flaw, allowing the RAF’s planes to beat the German in the Battle of Britain? Or Dorothy Lawrence, the journalist who achieved her ambition to become a WW1 correspondent by pretending to be a man? And developmental biologist Anne McLaren, whose work in genetics paved the way for in vitro fertilisation?

Were it not for women, significant features of modern Britain like council housing, municipal swimming pools and humane laws relating to property ownership, child custody and divorce wouldn’t exist in quite the same way. Women’s drive and talent for utopian thinking created new social and legislative agendas. The women in these pages blazed a trail from the 1918 Representation of the People Act – which allowed some women to vote – through to Margaret Thatcher’s ousting from Downing Street.

Blending meticulous research with information gleaned from memoirs, diaries, letters, novels and other secondary sources, Bloody Brilliant Women uses the stories of some extraordinary lives to tell the tale of 20th and 21st century Britain. It is a history for women and men. A history for our times.


So there we go. Is there any that you’ve read? Or now want to read? Let me know in the comments below

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