Category: Review (page 1 of 66)

The Three Dimensions of Freedom by Billy Bragg

4 out of 5 stars

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

There are a lot of things wrong with our political process at the moment, pedlars of lies and half-truths seem to have the upper hand, algorithms threaten our democracy as they target people of a particular political persuasion. Social media doesn’t always help either, it has become an echo chamber as people hear only what they want to hear and reinforce their prejudices. Money is pouring into these organisations and they are growing in influence. It feels like we are living a political version of groundhog day and 1984 as the tyranny grows.

In this short concise book on the three elements that make up a modern democracy, liberty, equality and accountability. After the wars in the 20th century, society grew well under the Keynesian economic policies but the Thatcher / Regan assault of the state has led us to where we are today. He explores the way that the neoliberal movement and overly powerful corporations have hollowed out our democracy and governments and how the systems is geared to deliver power and wealth for an exclusive and select band of people and misery for the rest.

What can we do though? He argues that accountability is the key. Past concentrations of power do (eventually) lead to change, as the population realises what is happening and that they have to effect change. People and organisations need to be held to account, and to do this we need a strong rule of law where no one is above it.

Bragg really nails exactly what is wrong with our country at the moment, and while he provides some of the answers to what to do, he doesn’t have all of the answers. Whilst that is a shame, but then I don’t think anyone has those answers at the moment. We do need a strong constitution though and we are lacking that at the moment. Worth reading, if a little short.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury

3 out of 5 stars

Moving to a new home in Brighton was a little bit daunting for Kate Bradbury, but it was the right time in her life to do it. The only problem was that space outside her back door was a barren and lifeless decked yard. The decking wasn’t in that great a condition either, so one day she decided that the whole lot had to come out and ventured out with her screwdriver.

Removing it took a little while and it revealed the stuff that had been left underneath that needed clearing, but in the end, it is gone and she has a blank canvas to create her own garden. As she wrestles the man-made elements away, her neighbours are in the process of covering their gardens with hard landscaping. Enriching the long covered soil means that she is finally able to put plants in that are going to attract insects and other wildlife. Bird boxes and feeders and bee hotels start to have the desired effect, turning a lifeless place into one that gives her pleasure every day.

This book proves what you can do if you don’t cover your outdoor spaces with decking or paving and think of your garden in wildlife terms and have the vision to change things for the better. Can you imagine what would happen if everyone did this? Wouldn’t solve all the problems that we have, but would go a little way to redressing the balance. Overall I thought it was an enjoyable book, Bradbury is a reasonable writer but what comes across in this is her enthusiasm for her six-legged friends who find her garden an oasis in the modern concrete jungle.

The Science of Fate by Hannah Critchlow

3 out of 5 stars

There are those that believe that star signs determine our fate, that very moment that you were born your destiny was set by the heavenly bodies. Others think that we are completely free to determine and set our path in the world. It looks like both of these are wrong, as according to the science free will doesn’t exist.

Our neuroscience probes deeper into our grey matter, it is revealing the processes that we use to make our decisions, how we form the reality that we see around us and just how much effect that the subconscious mind has over our day to day life. The DNA that we have inherited from our parents plays a key role too, certain character traits, such as phobias, addiction and depression are hardwired into us before we emerge from the womb. The unconscious mind has all sorts of tricks up its sleeve. Certain processes become automatic after a while, it plays as much of a part in selecting our partner as much as visual cues and personality do.

Critchlow has lots of example of human behaviour and why some things are easy for us to keep doing and why other changes need much more effort to have an effect. She has some good ideas in here and I thought that it was written well, but it didn’t quite have that extra something that would lift it to great.

Six Impossible Things by John Gribbin

3 out of 5 stars

If you want the strange then you need not venture between the covers of a science fiction book, there is a world that is equally unreal, where particles can be in two places at the same time, they are sometimes a wave and could be a particle, it all depends when you look. It exists in our world and universe, it is the quantum world, a place that has been baffling the brightest physics minds for a century or so.

At the moment there are six explanations of what could be happening in this surreal world. The names of them are as strange as the theories, there is the Copenhagen Interpretation, the Timeless Transactional Interpretation, The Not so Impossible Pilot Wave Interpretation, the Ensemble Non-Interpretation the Excess baggage Many Worlds Interpretation and my favourite titled one, the Incoherent Decoherence Interpretation.

This is a very strange and surreal world, even Einstein couldn’t really explain what was going on and called it spooky action at a distance. As soon as physicists think they have defined a set of rules that this crazy world conforms to, something is discovered that proves them wrong, but not fully wrong, just enough for a new set of theories to evolve, hence why we have these six concepts in this little book.

I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics – Richard Feynman

And can assure you that I am still one of them… In some ways, I feel enlightened by what I have read in here, in other ways I am still utterly baffled by some of the concepts that Gribbin explores. That said he writes about this incredibly complex subject and highlights the significant people who have been thinking about this for a long time. I liked the way that each of the interpretations is summed up in a single sentence with a wry humour.

The Ancient Woods of the Helford River by Oliver Rackham

4 out of 5 stars

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

When you think of the Cornish coast, images of sandy beaches being pounded with surf that has crossed the Atlantic spring to mind. Or secluded bays that have echoes of smugglers on the or dramatic cliffs still standing tall against the waves. Helford River on the east-facing coast of the Lizard peninsular is very different, strictly it is a tidal inlet, rather than a beach, but what lines it is ancient oak woodland, giving it an otherworldly feel.

The whole area was a much-loved spot for Oliver Rackham, and this book published after his death from his draft manuscript is his eulogy to the place. There are twenty-five woods in the area that have wonderful and evocative names, such as Merthen, Grambla, Tremayne and Bonallack. A lot of these are classified as ancient, but they all have a long history of human activity and use.

Each chapter concentrates on a particular element, for example, ecology, archaeology and a detailed look at each individual woodland with notes on the exact makeup with respect to the trees and vegetation growing there. He walked through all the woods seeking the coppice stools that reveal so much about the use and age of the wood, follows holloways from the fields down to the quays, finds the charcoal heaths that provided fuel for the tin industry and discovers the internal boundaries of the woods when they were under different ownership.

The book is full of images of the woodlands, from inside and along the shoreline where oaks that reach out from the shore and dip their boughs in the water. For the map addicts out there, it is packed with both recent and Victorian maps and details of places that have changed little since the Norman arrived. It is a fascinating book, full of two of my favourite things, sea and woodlands. The editorial team have done a great job of making the book from the draft manuscript by Rackham and is full of the detail that I’ve come to expect from him.

How To See Nature by Paul Evans

4 out of 5 stars

The closest some people get to nature now days is the motorway verge seen at 70 (ish) mph. Some people don’t even have that opportunity at home, with gardens becoming an outdoor space that the wilder aspects are banished from. It is not a recent problem though as back in the 1940s, Shropshire naturalist and photographer Frances Pitt also wrote a book called How to See Nature, that was aimed at helping evacuees who were encountering the countryside for the first time. Evans, who is the Guardian nature writer, was asked by the same publisher as Pitt, to write a modern version of the book to appeal to people who are as nature deficient as those eighty years ago.

The best place to start looking for the natural world is your back garden, or if you aren’t fortunate to have a garden a local park is a good place. Evans is here to accompany you on the journey back to connect back to nature. He will take us from our local area where you can see all manner of creatures at night if you take the time to look, right up to the wild moors via our hedges, verges and woodlands in the search on our national wildlife. A glimpse of a small mammal that could have been a pine marten, the reality was it was probably a polecat, but Evans had that glimmer of hope. Pine martens were supposed to be only living in the wilds of Scotland but were actually right under peoples noses in select spots in England and Wales.

The point of the book is to get you to reset the way that you look at the world, take the time to step away from the modern distractions and get outside. I liked the list of flora and fauna that you could find in most locations in the UK. It is not an exhaustive list, but enough variety to give you a range of things to see with a small amount of effort. He has similar goals to Simon Barnes in Rewild Yourself, which would be a good companion volume to read with this. Evans has a lovely way of writing, evocative with an eye for the detail in the bigger picture. It has a stunning cover by Harding (The Salt Path Cover) and artwork inside by Maria Nunzia, so will look good on your shelf too.

The Hen Harrier by Donald Watson

3 out of 5 stars

The hen harrier is a ground-nesting raptor that you can find in our upland landscapes such as Scotland,  Wales, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. The males are grey in colour and the larger females, known as ringtails, are brown with a banded tail. There are sadly very few left birds left in the landscapes of England as this bird suffers tremendous persecution from gamekeepers on large estates where they keep grouse for shooting.

Beginning with a chapter on harriers from around the world and how to identify them, Watson moves on to the history of the bird in the UK with lots of detail on their life cycle from pairing up to the chicks fledging and where they migrate to. The second section of the book covers observations of harriers in the southern part of Scotland on moorland and the few that live in forests. These detailed studies on breeding, nesting, roosting and hunting were undertaken by Watson and other from the 1950s up until 1975.

The book was first published in 1977 and is the culmination of several peoples observations taken over a number of years. This distilled knowledge did get very detailed at times with precise notes on the observations undertaken replicated in here. However, as these were such a long time ago now, it does feel a bit out of date. He is not quite as lyrical as J A Baker, who to be frank, is in a class of his own, however, the narrative is very readable and his enthusiasm for the subject is evident.

I loved the little sketches of the birds he has drawn of the birds that they were observing. Even though the Hen Harrier is a protected species, the issue of them being illegally killed is still an issue, 42 years after this was first written. It is something that Mark Avery, who writes the forward in this edition, is extremely passionate about, so much so that he wrote a book on it, Inglorious, which is in my TBR pile and will be read soon. There are also lots of campaigns to get this practice stopped, and more details can be found here.

Epitaph for the Ash by Lisa Samson

4 out of 5 stars

First, it was the elms, ravaged by Dutch Elm disease their magnificent frames that had punctuated the British countryside, vanished. Now it is the turn of another of our trees that hols a special place if our woodlands; the Ash. These trees are being ravaged by Chalara fraxinea or ash dieback.

The disease was first seen in Poland in the early 1990s and moved across the continent before being spotted in the UK in 2012 in a nursery and a year later was spotted in the wild in the UK. The spores travel easily in the wind and it has spread across the countryside, killing small trees completely and affecting larger trees significantly. It is thought that it will affect all ash trees in the end. There are a few glimmers of hope though, some trees are less affected than others and these are being used to breed resistant specimens.

Way back in 1978, Gerald Wilkinson wrote Epitaph for the Elm, a eulogy to the tree and his niece thought that with what was happening to the ash, she would write a book with a similar premise and that is why we have this book. Her journey around the UK will take her from the aptly named, Ashwellthorpe, the first place the disease was found to ancient forests in Scotland, a visit to Hardy’s Ash and Wenlock Edge to see the ash trees there before the spores blow over. As well as the visits to the notable copse’s of ash, there are cultural and folklore elements to the book too.

Part of the way through writing this book, Samson is diagnosed with a brain tumour. When it was diagnosed, she realised that it explained a lot of the symptoms that she had been suffering from. She came very close to death and even had to stop writing for a long period of time before she was well enough to begin travelling and writing again. Part of this book is about her battle with her tumour but does not take over the narrative, rather it adds a small, but no less significant parallel story, as she fights her own personal battle as the trees succumb to the disease.

Her illness knocked her for six and on the later trips, she is much less mobile and is often accompanied by her husband. I really liked her gentle style of writing, it has a certain amount of anger at the loss of these trees to a disease that could have kept out of the country. The ash coppices are there to comfort her and she uses them for healing and to bring her peace. I can also recommend, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham and The Man Who Made Things out of Trees by Robert Penn is a book to read to see the number of different objects that can be produced by a single tree if you’re wanting to find out more about these trees.

The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham

4 out of 5 stars

Even though Ash got into the top ten of trees in a survey a couple of years ago, it is not the one that springs to mind for a lot of people. This is why you often find books and prose on the magnificent oak, beech, elm and yew. We don’t as much take them for granted, rather the ash is not visible in our day to days lives, so we tend to never think of it. It has been one of the most common trees, but with the arrival of Ash dieback, this could all change in the coming years.

The tree has a number of qualities that have made this an appealing tree to use since way back in the Neolithic time. It can be coppiced and pollarded and because of its versatility, ash has been used for tool handles, bowls, fodder for livestock, to warm our homes and you can even find it on the back of a Morris Minor Traveller. It is very rarely used in construction. An ash will support a number of species, hosting bats, lichens, and the bark even is a food for all sorts of animals and there are a lot of plants growing in the ground under the trees. In 2012 the first case of dieback appeared in the UK; it was inevitable as it had been tracked across Europe for a number of years, but it has the potential of killing all the ash trees in the country.

Rackham’s book covers all sorts of information about the uses of ash over the past millennia, as well as lots of detail on the disease that they are starting to succumb to. The greater threat though is from the Emerald Ash Borer, another insect that has been brought in to the UK as a side effect of the globalisation and international trade. He writes in a matter of fact style that belies that amount of research that has gone into the detail in the book, but his plea to those that read this book is that we take proper precautions to restrict items that are moved around the globe without any care for the possible damage and also that we start taking the protection of woodlands seriously.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

3.5 out of 5 stars

Just of the latest boat from the UK in 1746, New York is a Mr Richard Smith. Gaining entry to a counting-house,  he presents the proprietor, Mr Lovell, with a demand for £1000. Staggered by the amount, he is not helping his cause by refusing to explain any details as to why he needs that amount of money and what the purpose of it will be for. Lovell initially doubts its legitimacy but a little more research seems to prove that it is a genuine order, helped by Smith claiming that proof will be following on the next ship due, so they decide not to honour it until that point.

His arrival adds fuel to the fire that there are spying and other nefarious things happening and Smith quickly becomes the centre of attention for all the citizens of the city. This notoriety means that he begins to get into lots of scrapes and suffers the misfortune of being robbed, almost killed, be challenged to a duel and be arrested for fraud. As well as falling in love…

There are several layers and subplots in this 18th-century story. Spufford seems to manage to keep each of the plates for these spinning well, making it quite readable and fairly fast-paced. Smith is an entertaining character, his boldness and naivety make for entertaining reading and he frequently sparks of the other main character, Tabitha Lovell. Liked the setting, New York feels fresh, edgy and slightly dangerous at this time. Very different to his non-fiction which I have read in the past and maybe a book for someone who wants to give historical fiction a go for the first time.

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