Category: Review (Page 1 of 88)

Vickery’s Folk Flora by Roy Vickery

5 out of 5 stars

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

The convention of naming species was invented by the Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist, and physician Carl Linnaeus. He developed the formalised binomial nomenclature, the modern system of naming organisms. The system called plant taxonomy is a way of identifying and classifying the plants of the world. You need to have a good grasp of Latin, but the advantage is that you can tell someone else that exact plant that you saw on your walk.

It is a little bit elitist, having this knowledge sets apart those who have an almost academic way of finding species from those that just want to know the name of a particular plant that caught their eye. Thankfully people have been making their own names up to describe the plants that they see on a day to day basis. These common names have been known to the people of this country for hundreds of years in some cases. Thankfully this habit has not stopped. Vickery’s Folk Flora tells us what people have called these plants in the past, but more importantly, it shows that people are still naming the plants in their locality. Plant folklore in the British Isles is flourishing and adapting today.

The book is arranged in alphabetical order by their common names, and each entry has the Latin name (no getting away from it, sorry) a brief description of the plant concerned, details on the folklore, beliefs and traditional uses of the plant and how people have used them and other anecdotal details that Vickery thinks might be of interest. Also are included are all the local names for that particular plant that he could find. Some of these lists are fascinating, for example, the plant goosegrass, or as my wife called it, cleavers is a sticky stemmed plant. I remember I used to attach to the back of other children when they weren’t looking. This has around 90 other very local names, from sticky balls in Somerset to cleggers in Yorkshire and goose-cleaver in Lanarkshire

Looking through these common names is endlessly fascinating. I like the way that similar common names do not respect country boundaries. You can see the way that the name changes subtly as you move across the landscape and also when it has a very specific name used nowhere else in certain areas. It is startling how many different names there are in a single county for example Bull’s eyes, Crazy betty and Livers are all the same common name for the same plant, Marsh Marigold, in the county of Dorset and there are countless other examples of this.

It is quite the reference book that Vickery has compiled here. It is a good companion volume to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica. It took me ages to read it all, so daunting is its size and I read it the wrong way, ploughing through from front to back. This is a book to be dipped into and savoured rather than devoured in vast gulps. But I am glad I did get through it in the end as it is magnificent and should be on any natural history bookshelf.

A Tomb With A View by Peter Ross

4 out of 5 stars

Some people are spooked by graveyards, but I have never found a graveyard spooky or creepy. They are places where time stands still for those at rest. Words and numbers inscribed into a stone tell so much history too, of people who left early to miss the rush and those that evaded the walk across the black sands for a long time.

Uncovering those histories has been something that has captivated Peter Ross and in A Tomb With a View, he finds the stories of the people who inhabit graveyards and the people that still care about them. His journey will take him from the natural burial site of Sharpham Meadow in Devon where he meets Bridgitt and the resting place of her late husband Wayne where she is picking leaves off the discreet stone with his name on.

In Dublin, he goes to the graveyard of Glasnevin to discover its history. It was first known as Prospect Cemetery and the tragic tale of Shane MacThomáis who once told the stories of the people within its walls and took his own life on a tree in the grounds. He is now with his late father in the same plot. Getting married in a graveyard would probably be too much for some people, but for Liz and Shawn, it was the perfect place for a Halloween wedding.

It is not always about the place, sometime it is about the ritual and respect that the dead deserves. Death has been banished to a certain extent, gone are the days when the children in villages would want to see the recently deceased and all trooping up to the bedroom to pay those last respects. Ritual is important to those with faith too, and Ross spends time with a Muslim funeral director who has to collect a prepare a body for burial the following day so the soul can move on.

“Name the different kinds of people,’ said Miss Lupescu. ‘Now.’
Bod thought for a moment. ‘The living,’ he said. ‘Er. The dead.’ He stopped. Then, ‘… Cats?’ he offered, uncertainly.” ― Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

I thought that this was a really good book about how we as a modern society are coping with death and how it differs to the way that we treated the dead in the past. It is not morbid or grim to read, rather it has a strong narrative and is sensitively written about those that have departed but not left us. I am slightly surprised that he didn’t go to Brookwood Cemetery, the enormous place of rest just outside Woking; it is quite awe-inspiring walking around there; it does get a mention though. Well worth reading.

Time Among the Maya by Ronald Wright

4 out of 5 stars

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

The Maya were a people who inhabited a large chunk of central America. In their time they from 2000 b.c. to the late 900s, they had a highly developed culture and were known for their art, astronomical system and calendar as well as their architecture, art and their sophisticated writing system known as the logosyllabic script. After the collapse there were still people living in the region, even though some of the cities were still in use, many were abandoned. In the early 1500s, the first Spanish arrived and after a number of battles, they finally succumbed to the Spanish in 1697.

Even though they were defeated the people still survived and the remnants of their great civilisation slowly fell into ruin. The region is now separate countries, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, but there are still seven million people that speak the old Mayan languages and whilst hey have suffered suppression for hundreds of years they still maintain their unique culture. This place and people have long fascinated Wright, he read every book he could about them prior to going there and from that made a list of places that he wanted to go on his travels there and he was soon on his way to Belize.

Heading south over the Hondo River in a battered old school bus he watches as the people change from the smaller Mexican people into colossal black matrons in floral bonnets. Pausing at Orange Walk Town, the police grab a passenger and march him off, wright heads to the Vietnam Bar for a drink before getting back on. The sugar plantations give way to wilder country and the radio on the bus is playing calypso. A little while passes and they enter the outskirts of Belize Town, driving through rusty corrugated iron corridors. Splashing through muddy puddles. It was time to find his hotel.

Moving on from Belize he heads over the disputed border into Guatemala. The officials are not the slightest bit interested in his luggage but do take the opportunity to charge him five quetzals for the tourist card that is clearly marked with a price of one quetzal. He crosses the bridge to the slightly seedy town of Melchor de Mencos with the hope of getting the camioneta. The bus is smelly and packed, he gets some fresh air when they are stopped are various checkpoints but the journey stops when they stuck. He hitches a lift with two American preachers from Florida and they drop him at a checkpoint where he decides that the next bus along will determine his destination for the day.

At the end of the vee rear the perfect cone of Volcan Agua, framed like the foresight of a rifle with a gun barrel of straight tarmac running towards it. The sky is clear, a deep steel blue, and the volcano wears a wreath of vapour that forms at the summit and streams from its leeward side the way a comets tail flees from the sun.

The third section of the book takes place in the southern part of Guatemala. He arrives in the city in an old 1950s Fokker that flies through the mountains rather than over them. He looks down on huts covered with pine shingles on the roofs. This is the fourth city, the others having been flattened by earthquakes volcanos and the Spanish. It is still a troubled country, a place where the native Indian have been oppressed by the white elite and it is in constant political turmoil. He is there for the ruins though and is being joined by a friend to see the structures of Quiriguá nestled amongst the bananas.

Finally, he ends up in Mexico, weary from the journey and then unable to sleep because of the maids crashing and banging and the squawking of the three parrots in reception. After a breakfast of Huevos rancheros, he heads to the New World Archaeological Foundation. He is meeting Suzanne and she shows him the various artefacts they found before leaving him in the library to lose himself amongst the books. In some of the towns, almost everyone is in the local dress, and the markets are an orderly bustle. In Chamula, for example, all the properties are owned by the Maya, and outsiders are banned from living in the centre of town. In the ruins of Bonampak that were rediscovered in 1946, he is there to see the murals. Even though they are covered with scaffolding they shine bright with colours and energy; just being in the presence of them is enough to generate a physical tingle.

When we get back to the lookout with the nine verses, the sun is about to drop off the edge of the world. Silver light pours from a chink in the overcast, painting fans between tiers of charcoal cloud.

He is primarily in the region for the archelogy and to absorb the history of the places, but what you, the reader, actually end up learning the most about is the people that live there now. His heart really is at home in this place and with the Maya. His conciliatory manner and endless curiosity draw out the best stories that they have to tell. It is beautifully written too, his extensive knowledge of the history of the places that he visits, helps add the extra depth to the prose. Well worth reading.

The Gardens Of Mars by John Gimlette

5 out of 5 stars

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

Having been a frequent visitor to Jersey and the zoo there for the past thirty years, the first thing that always comes to mind when I hear about Madagascar is lemurs. These fine creatures are a relative of the monkey that were separated when the landmass drifted away from the African continent and they evolved separately. The other thing that comes to mind is that exotic fruit of the orchid, vanilla. Apart from that, I knew almost nothing else about the place.

It is a unique place and huge too. It is the fourth largest island on the planet and if it was overlaid on Europe, it would stretch from London to Algiers. It had split from the Indian subcontinent around 88 million years ago and a lot of the creatures and wildlife evolved in isolation so over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on our planet. It is largely undeveloped at the moment and only has a small number of metaled roads, the rest often end up as quagmire.

It is a place that John Gimlette had been to before, but he was here again for three months to see what made the place tick. He arrived in the capital, Antananarivo in the middle of an outbreak of bubonic plague. It was sobering stuff, but he then hears that it is a regular occurrence and doesn’t affect many people and then other rumours saying that it was nothing and the government had done very nicely out of the donations from other countries. The city is 4000 feet up in the highlands and to him, it sometimes feels like a slightly sleepy town in the middle of France and at other time a bustling Asian slum. He heads out every day into a different part of the city, walking the streets to get a feel for the character of the place. He is not trying to get lost and if he is a little disorientated then glancing up to see where the Rova, the burnt-out palace, helps hi find his way again.

Heading out of the city, he is keen to see more of the countryside, though it is described as being like the 12th Century is certain places. It is not quite the badlands out there, but he hears stories of the Vazimba, the super ancestors and ghosts that blur the lines between history and myth and are said to inhabit every dark corner, waiting for revenge. Like the people who first inhabited this island and how they got there from across the Indian ocean, it is a mystery that makes little sense.

I was suddenly very happy to be here, wherever I was. All In knew was that I’d reached the very end of Madagascar (although at that moment, it felt like the end of the earth).

The south-west of the country feel like the wild west, it is sparsely populated and ahs been under the control of various warring tribes. There is only one town of any size, Toliara, and it suffers from droughts, scorpions, locusts, termites and even the plants are spiky. He was warned about going, but it seemed to be the right thing to do. The people in the town seemed remarkably happy, probably as the rainy season had finished and they had dry weather for the next six months. They do suffer from raids by the malaso, gangs that steal everything from the locals who had precious little to start with anyway.

Back in the 1680s St Mary’s Island, just off Madagascar was home to around 1000 gangsters and criminals; under normal circumstances, it would be full of Europeans sitting on the beach until it was time to travel back home again. It doesn’t quite feel like the mainland either, he is one moment eating a roast crab and is then whisked off to visit the dead with his guide, Fidele or to see a shrine of several hundred pens, created by students seeking luck in their exams.

It is a strange country. He had got used to it after being there for a while, but when his is joined by his wife and daughter on the wonderfully named island of Nosy Be. They watched in silent disbelief as hey passed fishermen singing as they worked and saw naked men cupping their balls in one hand whilst waving with the other. It never seemed to make sense, but then neither did it have to.

Sometimes in Madagascar you wonder whether it is you going mad, or everyone else.

I have read Wild Coast by John Gimlette a while ago now and thought it was an excellent book about Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. This is a part of the world that very few people know little about. He takes on Madagascar in a similar way, taking the time to get to know the places, history and most of all the people of this vast island and this book is as excellent as Wild Coast. He does not pass judgement on the people and their activities, rather choosing to observe and then try to make sense of things as he writes them down. He writes in such a way that you feel alongside him being bumped along in the same car, walking the dunes as the sun sets, or chuckling at the street names in the town together. It is a beautifully produced book too, scattered throughout are excellent photos of the island landscape, significant places that he visited and most importantly the people of this fine country. The cover is stunning and I must say it had superb colour maps of the regions that he visits helping put it all in context. A must-read book on Madagascar.

Toast by Nigel Slater

4 out of 5 stars

Like many people, some of my strongest memories are about some of the foods that I used to enjoy when growing up. Inevitable they are the sweetest and least healthy ones, the penny chews, blackjacks, sherbet dib dabs, Marathons lemon bon-bons, my mum’s Yorkshire puddings and salty chips by the seaside. Just w whiff of one of these can take me right back.

Nigel Slater is another of those who looks back on the foods of their childhood with nostalgia and a very fond eye. He loved helping his mother to cook and was growing in proficiency in the kitchen helping her when she was taken by cancer when he was nine. He was distraught, as was his father and they took a long time recovering emotionally. His father was a successful businessman, who saw that Slaters’ interests were not going to make a man of him, and the cold and distant relationship that they had, grew further apart.

It was not helped by the appearance on the scene of Mrs Potter, a housekeeper. He had been employed by his father, to do things around the house. She wasn’t a bad cook, but slowly Slater came to realise that she was there for more than the cooking and the cleaning. She became the wedge that drove his and his father further apart again. She didn’t like most of what Slater was doing, but she did have moments of kindness and warmth.

He does not judge the way they treated him, knowing with hindsight that these things are often easier to understand through the prism of time. But that difficult relationship formed his character and drove him to do the things that he really wanted to do, which was cook.

I have read a lot of his food writing, but even though I have had this for ages, it is the first time that I have picked it up. It is a memoir that made me laugh fairly often and occasionally wince. Losing his mother when he did was devastating, it was the biggest contributing factor to the dislike, and almost hatred of his father and his controlling ways. It is a very open account too, it is all in here, the wanks and the walnut whips, that sit alongside some very emotional moments, like when he opens his later mother’s wardrobe and all he can smell is her. Might not be for everyone, but I really liked it.

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

4 out of 5 stars

Every single thing on this planet is interlinked and intertwined and often the thing that links them is fungi. They are everywhere and they bring life and death to every living entity on this planet. They can source life-giving nutrients from all manner of things, including plastic, oil and even explosives. Almost every living thing on this planet relies on them. We use them to make bread and beer, plants use them to extract nutrients. He even grows mushrooms on a copy of his book and then cooks and eats them. Their mycelium links trees in a forest in what has been called the Wood Wide Web and they can live in all manner of places from rocks to oceans.

But what exactly are fungi? The most common answer to this question is ‘we don’t know’.

However, Merlin Sheldrake sets about telling some of the fantastic and at times almost unbelievable stories of how they live, and their exploits. There are stories about how spores infect ants and take over their tiny bodies and get them to climb to a very specific height on a plant and bite it. Soon after their heads sprout fungi and the life cycle is complete. He joins hunters and their dogs searching for the elusive and expensive truffle. Slime mould is fairly unpleasant stuff, but it has a knack of finding the most efficient routes or its way out of mazes, or even Ikea… Lichens are fairly simple forms of life and yet they are made up from photobionts and fungus and they are somehow greater than the sum of their parts.

It wouldn’t be a book on fungi without magic mushrooms being mentioned. Sheldrake takes part in an LSD trial to measure just how these chemicals can have positive effects for those suffering from mental health issues. He takes a look back at the historical uses of these mind-changing mushrooms and how they have played their part in shamanism over the ages. Then there is the future, as we start to understand their capabilities we are finding uses for them that go far beyond the (very yummy) mushrooms on toast.

The mycelium world is so very strange and unlike everything else that scientists have studied in the past. The little that they do know is so different to the rest of biology that they just don’t know how and where to start explaining it, but it is slowly changing as they realise that dependency that we have on them. Sheldrake’s book takes us on a magical mushroom mystery tour and makes for fascinating reading. For a debut book, this is very good indeed.  He has a light touch in his writing style, expanding on subjects without the book feeling like an academic paper. I liked that the art throughout the book is originally made from the ink of the shaggy ink cap mushroom. Well worth reading.

One Day In August by David O’Keefe

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

On the 9th August 1942 over 6000 infantry launched an attack on the French Port of Dieppe. They were supported by a regiment of tanks as well as naval and air cover. They were to capture the port and hold it for a short period of time, test various landing operations and gather intelligence on German defences. On leaving they were to cause damage by destroying buildings.

It turned out to be a bit of a disaster though, after 10 hours around half of the men had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The naval and air support was not as effective as it was hoped and they lost 106 aircraft and 33 landing craft and one destroyer. Whilst they learned important lessons that would serve them well when they came to invade in the Mediterranean and later in Normandy, the raid was a complete disaster.

For the past seventy years, no one has really understood why it took place at all. The horrific losses of the Canadian, American and British Troops have left a bitter taste with those who did make it back and there has been much speculation bordering on conspiracy theories at the time as to why it ever went ahead.

David O’Keefe has long been fascinated by the reasons behind this raid and it was the chance find of some comments in some declassified documents that piqued his attention. The first said: The party concerned at Dieppe did not reach their objective. It was then followed by: ‘No raid should be laid on for SIGINT purposes only. The scope of the objectives should always be sufficiently wide to presuppose normal operational objectives.’ The document concerned was talking about pinch raids, small scale operations that had the aim of obtaining cipher and code bodes and ideally a new four rota Enigma machine.

As clever as the boffins were at Bletchley Park, they could only do so much. To fully be able to understand and be able to reverse engineer the messages that had been coded using the four-rotor Enigma machines they needed to get their hands on one. This is where Commander Ian Fleming’s Intelligent Assault Unit came in. They would assess various targets and see if they were viable places to get their hands on the equipment that they desperately needed. Was these statement in the document the real reason behind the raid? It was the beginning of a search that would take O’Keefe another two decades to completely tease the story out from the secret documents.

This book is that story. It is a multi-layered story and convoluted as you would expect from the rummaging around in the secret world. He writes about each of the people involved in the raid, From Fleming to Lord Mountbatten and of course, Churchill and how they did their best to shape the direction of the war at the time. There is a monumental amount of detail in the book and quite a lot of build-up the actual raid in Dieppe, which is only detailed in the final two chapters of the book. It does occasionally lose the narrative in all this detail, but it is still worth reading, in particular for the very powerful last paragraph.

Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Campbell is fascinated by the White Stuff; her first book, The Library of Ice was about exploring the solid yet impermanent nature of ice. This is sort of a sequel to that book, and she was inspired to write it after that book and the time she spent in Greenland at the most northerly museum on the planet. It is always thought that the Inuit had at least fifty words for snow, but that has been proved to be a bit of a myth. They do have more words than English though.

What Campbell has done though is trawled through all sorts of languages to discover what their words are. She brings to life words from places that you’d expect, Japan, Scotland, Russia and Sweden. But there are words from places that I wasn’t expecting, Hawaii, Isreal and even Thailand, a place where you’d never expect it to snow.

Each word is prefaced by the wonderful photographs of Wilson Bentley who was the first know photographer of snowflakes. And there are some wonderful words in there too, so if you want to know the what kunstschnee, tykky and sniegas mean. Or you can learn what language needs a word for sharp ridges on the snow, what wind transported snow is, or what they call a snowman in Danish then this is the books for you.

Sadly, we rarely get snow here in Dorset, but as I sit here writing this review I have been updating a weather account that I follow on Twitter tracing the flurries of snow on New Years Day 2021 as it crosses Dorset. It didn’t quite make it from Blandford to Wimborne though, so we sadly had none. Not only is this a fascinating list of words, but it is a beautifully produced book, with a stunning cover and endpapers as well as the white and blue images of snowflakes all the way through.

Buzz by Thor Hanson

3.5 out of 5 stars

Bees have been revered by humanity for generations, they have provided honey but most importantly have been key pollinators for the plants that we rely on for foods. Not just honey bees, but other pollinators that we rely on are the more solitary bees that we don’t notice as much. It is these bees that Thor Hanson concentrates on in this book, beginning 125 million years ago, when a wasp first dared to feed pollen to its young.

There are around 20,00 species of bee in the world today and even in the UK, we have 270 different species. Even though we most commonly see honey bees and bumblebees around, 250 of the bees in the UK are solitary bees, diggers, miners, leafcutters, and masons. If you know where to look then finding then isn’t difficult. I have found leafcutter bees in our garden, making homes in the holes in the brickwork of our garage.

Hanson is fascinated by them and is passing that fascination onto his son. He looks at how we have evolved with the help of these insects and how we are dependant on them for the food that we eat, going as far as to dissect a fast food meal to show what would be left if we didn’t have them pollinating flowers. There are photos of some of the species that he covers in the book, I never realise that there were iridescent blue bees, having always imagined them in the usual brown and yellow stripes.

It is an engaging book, Hanson is passionate about his little subjects and that is very evident from his prose. It is very US-centric, and if you want to read more about UK bees then I would recommend Dancing with Bees by Brigit Strawbridge Howard or any of Dave Goulson’s books.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Rogers

3.5 out of 5 stars

Siberia is a vast place, in fact, 13 million square kilometres of bitterly cold tundra and has the briefest of summers. It has fifteen mountain ranges but is best known as the place where Russia has banished its people who for whatever reason didn’t fit the current political climate. It is a bleak and uncompromising landscape and has a grim history with what seems like almost countless deaths.

Even though the Soviets tried to eliminate the indigenous peoples some survived and people do choose to live there. Those that were banished to the Gulags never returned home to their home cities and brought some of their cultures with them. Sophy Rogers first came to realise that traces of their culture that they bought with them still existed in homes all over the landscape after a conversation with a talented pianist in a tent in Mongolia who didn’t have an instrument to play.

Until then, it hadn’t crossed her mind that people would have had the time or energy to play music, but it is something that runs deep in the Russian culture. She began looking for these pianos, and treks back and forwards across the continent from Khabarovsk to Sakhalin Island, Kamchatka to the Yamal Peninsula and even into the Siberian part of China

Some of these pianos have been long abandoned other which are still treasured possessions of their owners. The earliest pianos date back to the late 1700s and there are other more recent Russian made examples that she finds. Each of them has a story to tell, some about how they ended up in that part of the world, some about the people that first bought them there and other modern-day stories of their current owners, or perhaps custodians is the right word.

Some of the books that I have read about Siberia have been pretty tough going, one called the Road of Bones, in particular. This book has some of those stories, it has to really, the tragic loss of life permeates the landscape, but this is mostly about the people that tried to bright a little light, life and music to this place. What I liked the most about it was her tracing the stories of the people that made the very best of what they had there and how music can take away from some of the stresses. She has split her search into pre- Soviet, Soviet and post Soviet instruments. Even though it was written as a one-off trip, in actuality, it was a series of trips there and it felt a little disjointed at times.

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