Category: Review (page 1 of 51)

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer

4 out of 5 stars

When people meet my children I often hear comments along the lines of; he is just like you, your daughter reminds me so much of your wife and similar comments. And it is true, their genetic inheritance comes directly from me and my wife and the blend of our genes has made three very different and unique children. What gets passed on and how is the subject of this weighty tome.

In this very researched book, Zimmer takes us back through our genetic history to show how these fragments make up our very being. Of the trillions of cells in our bodies, those that contain our DNA make us who we are, what we look like, how our health will be and countless other factors. But there is more to it than that, our genetic code is not the only thing passed from mother to child, echoes of past event from our father and his parents can be seen in the code, we get our first immune system via the placenta and the various microbes that ensure that we can live as passed on too.

There is a fascinating chapter on Chimeras – these are people who carry more than one set of DNA. This was never thought to be possible, but after various anomalies including where a mother was witnessed giving birth to a child, the DNA test said that it wasn’t her child. The investigation into it discovered how DNA can transfer between non-identical twins after one dies in the womb. A mother can even absorb some of the DNA from the child she is carrying.

There is a wealth of information and details in this substantial, but still a very readable book. Not only does he consider where we have got to in our understanding on DNA, but he contemplates the future of inheritance and what heredity will mean in years to come. Even though I never did biology while  at school, Zimmer manages to make this fairly substantial tome a straightforward book for readers like me.

Black Sea by Caroline Eden

4 out of 5 stars

The Black Sea is a place of contrasts. Not only is it the focal point for a number of countries, but it is the meeting point of continents and a place where different cultures contrast and meld. To discover more about this place in the world Caroline Eden circumnavigates its coast.

The surf barely lapped the shore, making the Black Sea look a solid block of blue…

She travels from Odessa to Bessarabia, then to Romania, Bulgaria and onto Turkey. In each of the places she visits, she picks away at the history and culture and meets the people of that country across a table and on a plate. Memories are frequently formed when on holiday over meals and this is her eulogy to the region. It is a wonderful mix of travelogue and recipe book,  adventures as she heads from city to city, restaurant to café, stopping at stalls to sample and purchase the fragrant foods on offer.

I have read a lot of cookery books in my time, and I can recommend this one for the prose and the food and the stunning images of the places and evocative photos of the food she ate on her journey. Also, this is a visually stunning book too, even before you have picked it up. The deep black cover with the silvered waves glisten and the black edges make this a book of contrasts, just like the place.

Inventing Ourselves by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

4 out of 5 stars

The very nerve centre of the human body is the brain. Its input is our senses, the memory helps us to learn from mistakes and controls the reactions that are needed. For hundreds of years, the brain has been a mystery to all that studied it, but only in the past few decades have we begun to scratch the surface of its capabilities. Even that is unravelling; those that thought as puberty begun, the human brain was developed have been proved wrong. The brain continues to change and adapt all through the teenage years and into adulthood.

In this excellent book on why the teenage brain is different, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor in cognitive neuroscience at University College London takes us into the untidy spaces within their heads to share the latest details of what is going on. From her experiments that her team have in researching the brain we will learn about why they take risks, why some friendships can be so intense, why some behave badly and others won’t talk. This time of our lives is when we can enormously creative and also destructive, a lot of mental health issues raise their head for the first time ever in teenagers.

As the father of two teenage daughters and one almost teenage son, there are a lot of things that I can relate to that she talks about in here. The brain is at a critical point in its development in teenage years and is susceptible to all sort of external stresses. Some of these can be positive, but there are a lot that have negative implications. Like all good science books it makes you think and even though this is about our most complex organ, the prose sparkles with energy and is written with clarity. Well worth reading and a worthy winner of the Royal Science Award.


Lost Dorset by David Burnett & Barry Cuff

5 out of 5 stars

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

As the Victorian age was drawing to a close, new things and technologies were becoming commonplace and it was a time of change across the country. One of those inventions was the postcard that made use of the 1/2p stamps. The first postcards were blank both sides and then some genius had the bright idea of popping a photo one of the sides using the new camera technology. The idea took off and photographers scoured the land looking for photogenic places and people to capture.

Dorset was one of those places. The cracking set of 350 postcards reproduced in the book are from the Barry Cuff Collection which has over 10,000 in it. A few of these have been published before, but most are very rare and haven’t been seen since they were first posted over 100 years ago. It is an excellent snapshot of rural life in the county that is now my home. The photos are grouped into a variety of subjects, from railways, farming life and pubs. It is a fascinating snapshot of rural life and would be perfect for anyone interested in the history of Dorset. Some of the places pictured have changed out of all recognition and there are other places where there is almost no difference between then and now.

The Hedgehog Handbook by Sally Coulthard

3 out of 5 stars

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

Of all the wild mammals that we have in the UK the most commonly seen one now is the fox, but go back a few years and most people would have come across the spiny-backed hedgehog snuffling around in the bushes at night in their gardens. When we first moved down to Dorset we had one in our garden too, but haven’t seen it for years now. Turns out these charming little creatures have had a catastrophic slump in numbers and are seriously threatened. This is where this little book comes in.

Coulthard explains just how this prickly mammal has had a long cultural influence, and the lore that has risen around it. But more than that it is crammed full of practical advice on how to care for these creatures should you have one around the garden, what food to put out and the sort of habitats that make the difference between survival and eradication. The book takes us through the year from when a hedgehog emerges from hibernation in March and is full of practical advice. There are lots of charming illustrations by Vanessa Lubach and Sylvie Rabbe liberally scattered throughout too. Really nicely produced book.

Morning by Allan Jenkins

4 out of 5 stars

Most mornings follow the same pattern; I wake at the angry insistence of the alarm, then ablutions, head downstairs, empty the dishwasher, make lunches and take a coffee up at 7 am to wake my wife. Then it is the fun job of waking the dead, or teenagers as they are otherwise known… That said, there is something about waking early on a bright clear day at the weekend, before anyone else in the household has woken, getting a coffee and sitting outside with a book. It is a rare treat.

 This is Allan Jenkins perspective too. He is in bed early to enable him to rise very early in the morning, sometimes as early as 4 am. In this magical time as night shifts today, he uses it to walk, read, garden on his allotment or just to enjoy the moment. He talks to others who love this time of the morning, asking the same set of questions and eliciting very different responses for each participant.  I liked the diary format, the chart of sun rises over the course of a year and the exploration of various subjects concerned with mornings and just thought that this was a really well-written celebration of mornings and dawn.

Upstate by James Wood

4 out of 5 stars

Alan Querry is a property developer based in the north of England. The company is doing ok at the moment but he has his hands full with that and visiting his mother who is in a home. What he doesn’t need is any more complications, but one of his daughters, Vanessa, Is suffering from depression again and has just broken her arm after falling down the stairs in her home in America. He decides he needs to get to America to see her and her boyfriend, Josh. He meets his other daughter, Helen, in New York and they get on the train to head upstate toSaratoga Springs where she is living with her boyfriend, Josh.

Over the next six days, they will slowly move around each other, probing for answers to questions that have not been asked, choosing not to reveal intimate details for fear of being seen as weak. They trawl through the history of the family in fleeting and shallow conversations. They talk about the divorce that Alan and Cathy went through just at the critical moment of their daughters’ upbringing, Cathy’s death a few years ago and why both daughters still dislike Alan’s current girlfriend, Candace.

It was a strange novel really. Not a lot happens in terms of action, it is really about the interaction between a father and his daughters and how the conversation circles round without any of them getting to the crux of the matter. It kind of reinforces the thing that I have heard that says children are for life, as he still worries for them and their prospects even though they are grown women and have children of their own. In some ways, it reminded me a little of Stoner, a well written, gentle viewing of family life, except this time a little more intense as it is set over six days, not a lifetime.

The Maltese Falcon

3 out of 5 stars

It had begun like a normal day, but when the charming Miss Wonderly appears in his office asking him to follow someone called Floyd Thursby. He lets his partner Miles Archer do this one and it seems straightforward. Turns out that it isn’t going to be easy when Thursby and Archer turn up dead shortly after and the police are there sniffing around for evidence.

A scared Miss Wonderly appears shortly after and begs him to help her. Turns out she is not who she said she was and the two men died because of the missing Maltese Falcon. Others are interested in this too, and Spade is visited by Joel Cairo wh offers him a large sum to find it, before threatening him and searching his office. More armed hoodlums appear, Casper Gutman and Wilmer Cook who are desperate to find this falcon too. As the intensity builds, someone is going to get hurt and Spade does not want it to be him

I am not normally a crime reader, finding a little predictable often. However, this classic private eye novel that spawned a 1000 imitations and I’d thought that I’d give it a go.  The two main characters are strong and well supported by the minor characters. I really enjoyed the twists and turns that Hammett includes in the plot and the tensions that he builds in the narrative. A short and well-executed book.

A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl Phillips

3 out of 5 stars

Gwendolen watches her husband open a letter and frown slightly at it. When he breaks the news to her she finds out that he has received an unexpected inheritance. He offers to pay for them both to head back to her home of Dominica that she left as a small girl. Her brief childhood there still inhabits her memories, but it was a place of beauty and freedom. It is a place far removed from the grey days and lonely nights of living in England.

This trip home causes her to look back on her life spent far away from home, the steep learning curve of being in an English school, how her background closed so many doors and the moments spent with those looking to take advantage of her. Her visit to the home she left stirs memories that have long been suppressed and makes her consider where her future may lead.

This is a fictionalised account of Gwen Williams, who is better known as Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea. I have not read that book yet so knew nothing of her story. There were parts of Phillips’ story that I liked, in particular, the time she spent in Dominica as a child and when she returned at the end of the book. However, there were parts in the middle that really struggled to catch my interest. Not bad overall, but didn’t feel it excelled, I would give another of his books a go at some point.

The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel

4 out of 5 stars

English Oak. That regal tree. It is our cherished national tree as well as being the most common. It is loved by many and is deeply rooted in our identity. Other countries seem to think that it is theirs though; in 2004 Congress named the Oak, America’s national tree, it was considered sacred by the Romans and the Druids and three of the Baltic States have it as their favourite too.

We are fortunate that in the UK we have more ancient oaks that all of Europe put together. For example, the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire has a girth of more than 13 meters and is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old and there are loads more like this, all with their own stories to tell. Oak trees have been here a long time too, a single oak can support hundreds of different species and creatures. It has been used to build ships of war, and cathedrals of peace. In ages past it has been used to make tables to eat from, the bark used for leather and entombed those that have shuffled off from this mortal coil. It is said that an oak tree takes 300 years to grow, 300 years to mature and 300 years to die.

Oak trees make a fine home. The wood is straightforward to work when it is green and as it ages it shrinks and gets stronger pulling the frame in and strengthening it. An oak frame will outlast all the people in it and the stones that surround the house. It can feed us, you can make coffee from the acorns and as a fuel burns hot providing warmth.

Oak has always had a strong meaning for me as my surname is originally derived from the French, Le Chêne and my wife was originally a Le Quesne; Jersey French for the oak. I was really looking forward to reading this book from Lewis-Stempel about one of my favourite trees. As usual, he doesn’t disappoint either, it is full of anecdotes and snippets of information and written in his fine lyrical way and is a fine companion to his book on owls.

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