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Chasing the Sun by Linda Geddes

3.5 out of 5 stars

The sun rises every single day and has done so for the past few billion years. This source of energy has played a pivotal part in the development of life on Earth and not unsurprising, it has been a focus of our collective attention for time immemorial. Many cultures have worshipped it or have tracked its regular path through the heavens and tried to elucidate meaning from it.

As the sun has been a central part of almost all the Earth’s inhabitants, lots of creatures have evolved in tandem with it, including us. Research has shown that the sun is key to our mental well being, sleep, immune systems and circadian rhythms. Too much sun is bad for us as it can cause skin cancers but then so is too little, those that rarely see the sun do not generate enough vitamin D that is essential for their health.

One of the biggest disrupters to our health in the modern day is artificial light. Ever since the light bulb was invented, cheap affordable light has been available to all so we have retreated indoors turning pallid in the glow of the modern screens. Office lighting is a good example. The output from the ceilings lights is fairly poor, you only get a fraction of light, around 200 to 300 lux, which is nothing when you compare it to the amount light on a bright day which can reach around 100,000 lux. All of these effects are cumulative, and if you live in northern Europe, then you are much worse off in winter because of the very short days.

I liked this book a lot, it does what a good popular science book should do, gives you a good overview of the subject and touches on lots of different subjects without becoming too academic. On certain elements, for example, on our body clocks and how to improve lighting for those on shift work, in particular, Geddes explores them in a little more depth. Worth reading

Gatecrashing Paradise by Tom Chesshyre

3.5 out of 5 stars

If you were to mention the Maldives to most people they would conjure up images of pristine beaches and luxury hotels. This champagne lifestyle comes at a price though, not only is it expensive to go there, the Beckhams were rumoured to have spent £250k on one holiday alone, but there has been a human cost to this lifestyle for the residents and workers of the island. On top of that, the Maldives is in a perilous position. It is the lowest country in the world, only nudging a few meters above the waves and will be affected by climate change as sea levels rise.

Having previously had a strong Buddhist influence, the country is a Muslim country that is not as strict as others, for example, alcohol was allowed in certain places, but it still could be quite draconian at times. The country was run by a Maumoon Abdul Gayoom for 30 years after he won six consecutive elections without opposition. It was the only country in the world not to have a political party, even China has one political party. For most visitors, all that they would have been able to see was the luxury resorts and a little of the islands they were designated to holiday on. Most would be blissfully unaware of the history of the place. This was because islands in the archipelago that were not designated ‘tourist resorts’ were off limits to any outsiders. The rules have been relaxed now and this means that Tom Chessyre had the opportunity to see what real life was like there for residents and immigrants.

Travelling between the various islands on cargo boats and other craft is a good way to meet the locals and the people that work in the resorts. He does end up in a couple of the luxury resort for the odd night or two, but most of the time he is staying in guesthouses run by the locals. It makes it much easier to tease out the stories that they have of their country. Given how draconian the regime is, some were reluctant to speak, or if they did then they have been anonymised by Chessyre. We hear of their fears and hope for the country as well as he is prepared to let people confide in him. A lot of people were affected by the 2004 tsunami, and the atolls are very vulnerable given their height; there is no high land to retreat to when the waves sweep in and the future seems bleak for some residents. I thought this was really good, insightful reportage and travel writing of the other side of an island paradise.

Life at Walnut Tree Farm by Rufus Deakin and Titus Rowlandson

5 out of 5 stars

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

Almost half a century ago Roger Deakin had made the decision to move out of London and bought a very dilapidated farmhouse called Walnut Tree Farm. If it had been left any longer it would have become a ruin, the wood had rotted through in a lot of places and the thatch was so bad it had no protection against the elements. To add to the charm, the downstairs had been used to keep animal in and was full of their detritus. This Elizabethan building was located on the edge of Mellis Green, deep in the countryside of northern Suffolk.

This building was to change Deakin’s life and be the seed for books that would become classics in the natural history genre. Before that, he had to get the structure to a point where it was safe and he could start living in it. It involved stripping the entire building back to the oak frame, repairing and replacing wood to add strength back into it and rebuilding it to a habitable home. As with all projects like this, it took much longer than expected but when finished it became a much-loved home until he died in 2006 alongside the fire.

Where it was located was one of the largest common grazing areas in the UK at the time. Deakin slowly changed the landscape, planting trees, draining and clearing the moat, and letting the land be used in a sustainable way. He had the odd run-in with neighbours, in particular over Cowpasture Lane, but this place was to motivate him in many ways. His regular swims in the moat became the book Waterlog, the love of the landscape around was key to the creation of Common Ground and because of his work in the environmental business meant that he had a light touch on the land around his home.

This book is a wonderful celebration of Deakin’s life and works seen through the prism of the place that he made his home. The photos of the work of the strip down, restoration and rebuilding of Walnut Tree Farm as it progressed and the extracts from the notebooks and diaries as the works were progressing really make this book special. Most of these have never been seen before. The personal insight from Deakin’s son Rufus and the current custodian, Titus Rowlandson add depth to the story of his life. Deakin was intrinsically linked to this place and in its time it became a place of pilgrimage to lovers of the natural world and still holds a place in their hearts. If you have ever read, Waterlog, Wildwood or Notes from Walnut Tree Farm then this in one for your bookshelf.

King of Dust by Alex Woodcock

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Completing a PhD is an exhausting business and as Alex Woodcock completed his on medieval sculpture, he was physically and mentally exhausted and rapidly heading towards depression. Even though he had studied the art, he had never picked up a tool and chipped away at a stone with the intention of creating something. He signed up for a course and began the process of learning the craft of stonemasonry. A few years later he had qualified as a stone mason and applied for a job at Exeter Cathedral. One of the tasks in his interview was to assemble a bench, which at the time seemed a little odd but he got the job, just. He spent his time there replacing and renovating the stonework of the building as it slowly succumbed to the elements of the years. After a decade there, he felt that he needed to cross the Tamar and make the move to Cornwall.

Fed up with unpacking, he headed to the beach for a walk and to get some sea air. A chance meeting with a man with a metal detector on the beach began a conversation that carried on in the pub over a pint. Before long they had hatched a plan for a field trip to the church at Crantock. So begins his compulsion to discover the village churches of Cornwall and look for the Romanesque architecture and carving that these churches still have. Romanesque carving dates from the 12th century and is an often overlooked form, especially when compared to Gothic. It is rounder and squatter in form and have simple geometric shapes. The carving is carried out on the structure of the building too, so when you look around you will see the patterns favoured by the masons as well as the fantastical creatures that they added, the most famous of which is the beakhead. (Very similar to the masks used by the doctors of the Black Death).

One thing led to another and this initial trip became a year-long pilgrimage looking for these early churches, their carving and their fonts. Woodcock extended his range across the South West to Devon and Dorset. At each of the churches, he uncovers the history of each, revealing details of the carving and occasionally the people that created it. He also takes time to reflect on the moments of his own life that brought him along the path he was currently walking. A chance knock on the door of Little Toller HQ when he was looking for St Basil’s led to them publishing this book and for a debut book, it is quite impressive. Woodcock has excellent attention to detail and because he is a historian and a carver knows his subject inside out. The sketches of the stoneworks that add a lovely touch to the book. The stunning cover and end papers have the sort of attention to detail that you’d expect from Little Toller. Sculpture is where art meets masonry and these works of art can be seen by anyone who wants to take a few days out to visit the same places that he went to. It is a love letter to Cornwall too, its landscapes, its coasts and most importantly it’s overlooked Romanesque architecture.

The Way Home by Mark Boyle

3 out of 5 stars

It was late one evening when Mark Boyle checked his email one last time and turned off his phone. He fully intended to never switch it back on again. In his new home, a cabin alongside a wood there was no electricity or running water, no internet or sewage connections nor was he even going to have solar power! He was going fully off-grid.

Boyle was going to have to grow and catch his own food, collect his own firewood, build and repair anything that he needed around the home and collecting water from the stream. Washing is done by hand, he catches his own food and lives frugally off the land. It was a simple life, but tough as everything that you do means that you get to live another day. He had almost no money or and his only income was from his writing. Even that was problematic as all correspondence was going to be by letter so arranging anything could take several days and more often weeks. He had consciously made the decision to completely avoid all forms of technology and was a totally committed eco-warrior.

As tough as his new life was, it was good for his mental health as he had none of the stresses of modern day life. He rose with the sun, and life around the small holding was dictated by the weather and the seasons. Some days there were never enough hours in the day to do all the things that he needed to do. On other days he had the luxury of time to pursue projects like a homemade hot tub. His partner, Kirsty is there as almost an afterthought in the text.

Boyle gives an insight into what it is like to step off-grid and make your own way in the world. It does make you think about our dependence on many things that we now take for granted, for example, electricity, internet, refrigeration and light. It also goes to show that we still need human interaction even though we may not need technology all of the time and that gaining skills in other areas may be beneficial. When writing this book he did have to hand write the manuscript which as he only had the single copy meant that he either had to copy it out again of hope that it wasn’t lost or damaged. However, he did have to type it up for submission and it reminded him why he hated computers. I didn’t think that this was a good as Deep Country. In this eloquent book, Neil Ansell undertakes a similar exercise for five years in Wales. It is still worth a read if you have ever considered walking away from the modern world. Another in the same vein is How To Live Off-Grid – Journeys Outside The System by Nick Rosen.

The Picnic Book by Ali Ray

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

There is something special about eating food outdoors, whether it is breakfast in the garden, fish and chips by the sea or a picnic alongside a river, all of these moments are good for the soul. However, this being England, you’ll have a completely cloudless sky why you lay the rug out for your picnic and 10 minutes later there is what looks like a thundercloud in the distance. And wasps. Where do they come from!

If you are brave enough to not be daunted by all that the countryside can through at you then you will need a book that suggests what to eat. The Picnic Book by Ali Ray goes one step further and has a list of places to go where you can take the food that you have just made. Split into sections for the type of picnic that you might want to carry in a backpack, cool-box or hamper. The recipes are straightforward to make and suit people of all abilities in the kitchen and are a good mix of healthy food as well as treats for your day out.

I liked the variety of suggestions, from pizza puff spirals, fig and blue cheese tartlets, marmalade chicken and various salads, snacks and desserts. There are also menus suggestions, though you can mix and match as you see fit. Having suggestions on where to go to get your outdoor fix is a good idea. They are spread throughout the country so you should find something near you, though for some reason the New Forest gets a mention twice. The photos of the dishes are nicely done too. They didn’t feel twee or made to look perfect and I think that they look more appetising because of that.

The Stopping Places by Damian Le Bas

3.5 out of 5 stars

Damien Le Bas didn’t have what most would consider a conventional upbringing. He is a gypsy and his community have always had a strained relationship with others in the UK. He spent time with various family members travelling around the countryside, selling flowers and carrying out all sorts of odd jobs. He didn’t follow the usual path for gypsies either, winning a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital before going onto study at Oxford.

This is about his travels back through his memories to the ‘stopping places’ or in their language, atchin tansthat he remembers from childhood and his attempt to find them once again. He does up his van, installing a bed and collecting a few necessary items that he can use to cook with as he hits the road with the intention of stopping over,  getting back to his roots and indulging in a little nostalgia. His journeys with take him and Candis all around the country, up to the Appleby Horse Fair and even as far as the South of France to the shrine of St Sara-la-Kali.

Not only is it a journey to his past haunts, but it is a glimpse into the world of British Gypsies, their culture and language as well as a nostalgic look back at his family’s past. He has a unique position with a foot in each community to explain the differences and the common traits and even though he is a member of this culture, he doesn’t look like a member because of his fair complexion. This occasionally leads to confrontation.  I didn’t feel that we got to know much about the man and only had a taste of what the culture is like. He is a lyrical writer too, which makes this an enjoyable read.

Take Me to The Edge by Katya Boirand

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Take Me to The Edge by Katya Boirand and published by Unbound.

 

About the Book

Five words is all it takes to provoke a chain of creation. That is what Katya Boirand discovered the first time she asked a friend for five words and then turned them into a poem, using the words and the subject as her inspiration. This spark started a movement, and soon Katya was asking friends and strangers alike for their five words of choice. Take Me to the Edge is a selection of these poems, sitting alongside a portrait of each subject, in this stunning and joyous celebration of language, connection and art. 

 

About the Author

Katya Boirand is an actress, dancer, writer and poet. She has travelled the world but now has roots in London. Take Me to the Edge is her first poetry collection.

 

My Review

This year I have been reading more poetry and aiming to read at least one book a month. Most of the poetry books that I have read this year have been slim paperback volumes, muted colours on the covers and feel like they are serious. This book, however, is very different.

The entire book is not something that you’d expect. To start with, the cover is not what you’d normally find on a poetry book, with a photo of a partially clad lady doing a handstand. The poems within though are very different too. Each poem has as its source, five words that have been provided by someone. Boirand then uses these to create a poem inspired by the words and the person who provided them.

 

Lavender mist rolls

Ardently through

Ethereal scapes

 

Boirand wrote the poems very quickly and they vary in length from a few lines to a fuller length. Sometimes the writing is sparse and transient and at other time it is deeply embedded with meaning. Each of the poems is accompanied by a quirky portrait of the source of the words taken by the photographer, Eli Sverlander. They are as eclectic as the subjects and turn this book from a regular poetry book into something quite special and greater than the sum of its parts. At the back of the book is a brief biography of the people provided the words and what their five words are. It is worth reading the words from the people and then re-reading the poems for further insight on how they were created.


 

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour and see what they thought about the book.

 

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 Unbound for the copy of the book to read. This was a Blog Tour arranged by Anne Cater of Random things through my letterbox

The Good Bee by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for The Good Bee by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum and published by Michael O’Mara Books

 

About the Book

 

Bees are our most loyal ally. These fascinating, enigmatic creatures are a key lynchpin in the working of our planet. Without them, the landscape, as well as every aisle in our supermarkets would look radically different. 

And we’re not just talking about honey bees. There are more than 20,000 species of bee worldwide and only a handful make honey. Some live in colonies and others are solitary. We can all help protect them – and they desperately need protecting – but you can’t save what you don’t love. And you can’t love what you don’t know. 

The Good Bee is a celebration of this most vital and mysterious of nature’s wizards. Here you’ll discover the complexities of bee behaviour – as well as the bits that still baffle us – the part they play in the natural world, their relationship with us throughout history, how they are coming under threat and what we can all do about it.

Beautifully produced, with hand-made illustrations throughout, it is a story for our times and a book to treasure.

 

About the Authors

Alison Benjamin

Alison is the co-founder of Urban Bees. She is a Guardian journalist and co-author of Keeping Bees and Making Honey, A world without Bees and Bees in the City; an urban beekeepers’ handbook. In her spare time, she assists Brian in a voluntary capacity by writing blogs, giving talks and developing partnerships to improve forage and habitat for bees and pollinators in towns and cities. She tweets @alisonurbanbees

Brian McCallum

Brian runs Urban Bees. He is a qualified teacher and works part-time as a seasonal bee inspector for the government. He is also a member of the Bee Farmer’s Association and the co-author of three books on bees, Keeping Bees and Making Honey, and A World without Bees and Bees in the City; an urban beekeepers’ handbook.

Brian provides tailored beekeeping training for a number of corporate clients and other organisations. He educates children, young people and adults about bees, writes blogs and tweets @Beesinthecity. He’s part of a team that’s designed a bee trail app to count bees, and raise awareness about bees and forage in King’s Cross.

Brian and Alison live in Hackney, east London.

 

My Review

Bees and almost all other insects are in deep trouble. There has been a catastrophic collapse of insects in the past few years, some species are down 40% and it is not getting any better. They are an essential part of the natural world, almost everything relies on them for food, either to eat or to pollinate plants that then feed us. Supermarket shelves are going to be much more sparse if we were to lose them, especially the bees.

When you mention bees, people generally think of honey bees, the subtle coloured insects that buzz lazily around the flowers in the summer or the huge bumblebees that defy gravity with their tiny wings. In total, all round the world thought there are 20,00 species and they are all pollinators. Some live in colonies but most are solitary, finding little holes to live in. The fact is that a lot of these solitary bees are much better pollinators than the regular honey bee. Most importantly they all need our protection.

In this charming little book, Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum take us on a journey in the world of the bee. In here you can learn about the body parts of the bee, some of the species that you can see around your garden and the wonderful names that they have, like Buff Tailed and Pantaloon. There are details on how they make wax and honey, their lifecycles and some of the history of the partnership we have had with them.

Most importantly, there are details on what you can do to help them, for example, the best plants to fill your garden with and how to make bee hotels for the solitary bees. It is a timely book too, as it is slowly dawning on people that we need to look after the whole ecosystem because of the interconnected links between everything. There are schemes like this here that are aiming to get as many gardens with the right plants for insects. Get involved and make a difference.

 

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

 

 

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

My thanks to Bethany at Michael O’Mara Books for the copy of the book to read.

Solitude by Michael Harris

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

We live in a hyper-connected world. If you have a smart phone then you can probably only go a few minutes without having to look at it. There is a constant stream of notifications from emails and social media app that clamour for your attention every time you pop it back in your pocket. The flip side of this is that there are more people today who are incredibly lonely, ironic given that we have a whole world at our fingertips.

Solitary confinement is often used as an extreme form of imprisonment, and the book begins with the story of Dr Edith Bone’s who was locked away for seven years and 59 days. She managed to stay sane by mentally walking through cities she had visited and survived. Our modern life means that the distractions can end up taking over far too often. (Twitter, I am looking at you). However, what Harris wants to concentrate on in this book is the positive effects of solitude. That by taking time away from life means that we can fully concentrate on the matter in hand and possibly even recapture some of our own sanity.

I also realised I was getting angry. Angry because part of my life had been stolen from me. So I set myself looking for those lost pieces of solitude in every corner of the world.

Solitude is something that companies want to erode as profits lie in getting you to consume time and their product or service. However, you can turn it around if you choose to do so. Solitude is the process of removing external distractions and concentrating on the matter that is important to you at that moment. Having time alone to allow your mind to wander will bring forth fresh ideas and direction before you re-engage with the world again. My favourite part was when he spent a week at the family cabin on an island off the coast of British Columbia and lived out the premise of the book. It takes him a few days and then he starts to notice things, that while they have always been there, he has never noticed before. I think he writes well, the book is well researched too, he handles the subject matter well, keeping it interesting and the narrative flowing. Lot of things to think about after reading this and that is a good thing.

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