Category: Review (Page 21 of 99)

The Story of Codes by Stephen Pincock & Mark Frary

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

One of my favourite books when I was (much) younger was the Spy’s Guidebook that was published by Usborne. It was hardly subtle for those wanting to be a spy with its bright red cover, but it was in here that I first learnt about the discipline of codes and the stick scrambler. I want to be a spy when I grew up; inevitably I didn’t…

The need to pass on information to another person without it becoming public knowledge has been important over history, in fact, they can trace the first codes back to the Egyptians where the scribes would change the hieroglyphs to convey a different meaning to anyone reading them. The Romans were also known to use them and it is said that Caesar always used a cipher anything confidential. The Greeks used cryptography too, but they used the technique of steganography for getting messages to the desired recipient. The principle behind this is to disguise the fact that there even is a message, and one of the way that they did it was to tattoo the message onto the head of a slave, let their hair grow back and send them on their way. This, as you can imagine, had several disadvantages… The primary one being the speed of the message reaching its destination and secondly that they could only be used to do this once or possibly twice.

Being able to make and deliver coded messages was one thing, but being able to break them was another step up. The first explanation of cryptoanalysis was in the 9th century by the Arabic scholar Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Sabbah Al-Kindi. Where he mentions frequency analysis for the first time. The simple substitution and transposition ciphers which changed one letter for another didn’t take much effort to crack, but others, such as the were harder to do so, but these new tools meant that it became much easier to do.

It is this mathematical arms race between the latest code and cipher techniques and methods of cracking them that was one of the key factors in World War 2. The Nazis were using a machine called Enigma that could have up to 158 million million different ways of setting up the machine. The Germans thought that it was unbreakable. It wasn’t thanks to a trio of Polish mathematicians who constructed a device they called a cyclometer using parts from an enigma machine to generate all 100,00 permutations of the rotors. They succeeded. Then the Nazi’s changed the way they set up the rotors and so the Poles devised a machine called a bomba that could automatically search for the rotor settings. It worked for a time and the Nazi’s changed their methods again. The Poles passed their machines and knowledge onto the French and the English and they ended up at Bletchley Park. It was here that the mathematical and mechanical geniuses of Turning and Flowers set about building a mechanical computer that could rapidly check the letters over the 18,000 possible rotor combinations. They broke their first code on 20th January 1940 and ultimately changed the course of the war.

The American had their own cipher system, SIGABA, which was much better than Enigma, but was little use in the field as it could take hours to code and decode messages. A man called Philip Johnson had the bright idea of using native Navajo to send messages with coded words in their own language. Virtually no one outside of their community could speak this language and it was ideal for passing highly detailed messages onto units in combat quickly.

A lot of the techniques that were developed in the war were used after for encryption and breaking during the cold war, but it was the advent of the internet that modern encryption came of age. The last time that you used some form of encryption was moments ago when you looked at a website or bought something from it. The tools that are used at the moment are factorials of large prime numbers that keep your data and financial transactions safe are very sophisticated and can only be broken using huge super-computers, of which a number of intelligence agencies across the world handily own… The is a brief chapter on the wonders of quantum computers and the uncrackable codes that this technology promises.

This is a fascinating book full of clearly written explanations of the various codes and cipher that have been used over history. There is a little bit on modern encryption, bitcoins and so on, but not much on contemporary codes as ciphers, but that is to be expected. I thought that the page layouts were really clear with extensive use of colour photos and diagrams to go with the text. If there was one flaw, I did feel that the narrative was sometimes broken up by the explanatory sections. I would often read to the end of the chapter and then go back and read those parts after. It gives a good overview, but for more detail then The Code Book by Simon Singh is probably your next point of call.

The Many Lives of Carbon by Dag Olav Hessen

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Most people know that carbon is the element that can be found in all manner of products, from the humble pencil to the rare and expensive diamond. It is also found on a number of other items too, bike frames, tennis rackets and F1 cars where it has been used for many years. Whenever I think of carbon, I think of the phrase that Arthur C Clarke used to describe the human race: carbon-based bi-peds.

The element is crucial to life on this planet. Its ability to attract and connect to other elements makes it extremely versatile and it plays its part in biological mechanisms as diverse as photosynthesis and cell respiration, it could be considered the key element for life and death. Our very being is made up from 18% carbon, less than oxygen and more than hydrogen.

All carbon is formed in stars by elemental fusion and to take us through the story of carbon, Dag Olav Hessen begins with the makeup of the protons, neutrons and electrons and just how and why carbon is so versatile and readily forms bonds with other elements. So much so that there are currently 10 million different compounds recorded. From this, he takes us on the three unique structures that it can form, as he describes them, soft, hard and round. As carbon can for single, double and triple bonds it is and goes into some detail about the way it bonds to other elements and that its ideal structure is a ring.

Most people are aware of carbon these days with the role that it is playing in the growing climate change crisis and the second section of the book is full of the science behind this. One of the key scientists who started to measure CO2 in the 1950s was a man called Charles Keeling. One of the instruments that he made was first turned on in 1958 on the top of Mauna Loa and was only turned off in 2006. There is lots of detail on how the carbon cycle works and how many different cyclic events can amplify some of the effects. The final part of the book is about the almost certain catastrophic effects that we will have from the exponential growth in CO2 levels as well as some of the measures that some countries are taking to try and combat it. It makes for pretty grim reading

You would think that a book about a single element would be so interesting, but thankfully this one is. This is a clearly written (and translated) science book that thankfully did not read like a scientific paper or textbook as some of these can have the habit of doing. Worth reading overall I thought.


(The translator was Kerri Pierce)

Among Muslims by Kathleen Jamie

4.5 out of 5 stars

It begins with Jamie meeting some Pakistani men in her town of Fife. They were seated just outside the Coop all wearing brightly coloured cloth and anoraks to keep out the Scottish cold. It bought back memories of her visit to the northern town of Gilgit a decade before. She says hello and they explain what they are doing and the next thing is that they are being welcomed into her home. They are on a peace walk and Jamie tries to find them accommodation for the night before they move onto the next town; it is sorted in an unexpected way. They spend some time with them the following morning and she passes her book on to them of her account of staying Pakistan. It had been out of print for a while and as they walk back into their house the phone is ringing. It is another publisher asking if she would like to see it reprinted and more importantly would she like to return there?

Ten years before, to get to Gilgit she had to travel along the ironically named ‘Friendship Highway’ a road built between China and Pakistan who shared little love. Passing through customs took hours as the Chinese scrutinised their passports in detail. After a long time had passed they were herded back on and continued their journey onward.

Eventually arriving in Gilgit, she heads to the Golden Peak Hotel. It used to be a palace for the Mir in its heyday but it has no elegance or beauty that you’d expect from a palace. After resting she heads out to the bazaar to get a feel for the town. She sees no women out and about, apart from one begging by the post office. It is a cacophony of noise from people, animals and vehicles along the long main street. It becomes a daily habit and Jamie becomes to get a feel for the town dynamic. This part of Kasmir is a tense place too, there had been massacres there before and she would hear the sound of mortar fire in the distance on occasion.

She gets to know the people a little and then she has an invite to stay in the home of a local family. She accepts the invitation but is nervous about being there, but slowly her fears were allayed as she became accepted by the women there. Her presence in the town though attracts attention, she is watched by someone from the security services, it offends her host tremendously and he sets about sorting it out.

The place had got under her skin and when home in Scotland, a whiff of spice would take her back there immediately. A year later she is back again. It is still an assault on the senses, crowds of people thronging as she headed to the bus station. Climbing aboard the de-luxe service bus she realises that the luxury level is determined by the gaudy paintwork and the amount of decoration. Being a lone Western woman she is allowed to sit at the front. Well away from the wandering hands. The journey was terrifying and delayed but eventually, they closed in on Gilgit. She couldn’t wait to see her friend, Rashida and settle back into life there once again.

A decade later, Jamie has changed, married now and with children too and she is wondering how all the friends that she made on those original trip have changed too. The journey there is not without its drama, but she cannot wait to be there once again. It is still the centre of Intrigue and she, according to her host, is the only Westerner in the region. The reunion with Rashida is charged with emotion and joy. It was good to be back.

I did really like this book as Jamie is a wonderful writer. You can trace the foundations of her later works quite vividly at times, partly by the warmth of her character and her attention to detail to the things happening around her as she moves around the town. Her deep curiosity is very vivid too, and the prose is such that you feel that you are standing alongside her as she observes the ebb and flow of people in the market. She is intrigued and interested in the differences and similarities between her and their cultures. She is fortunate that in a lot of this she is considered an honorary man and can spend time with male and female without any of the usual discrimination that takes place. This book is a wonderful insight into a region beset by trouble, but with a population that is trying to live its life in some form of normality.

Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian

5 out of 5 stars

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

For some people, the idea of a nice afternoon out is to drive to a picturesque place and wind the car window down and enjoy the view. The thought of venturing out into the unsanitised countryside is just too much. There are some who are the other extreme, those that think nothing of taking a long weekend to hit the hills and sleep in a ditch. Parikian is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, wanting to go and see these things for himself, striding out to get there, but also taking the time to dawdle when he has arrived. But if you were to come across him in his semi-natural environment, you are as likely to find him spending a fair amount of time lounging about on the ground. He is sometimes looking for lichens and at other times trying to take a photo of a lizard; both instances gain him some strange looks…

He is inspired by some of the great nature writers that we have had in this country and takes a bit of a pilgrimage to see their natural habitats, including Darwin, Clare, Lemon and getting really annoyed by the campervans on Skye when he visits Maxwell’s house. Like them he tries to keep a notebook that is his nature diary, it is a woeful and incomplete mishmash of all manner of things, but it is still his way of trying to keep a record of the natural world as it happens.

His first book Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear was exclusively about birds, but in this, he considers all types of nature, from butterflies and moths, mammals and trees. He still likes spotting birds though, missing a hobby by moments, even after the person that was in the hide with, runs after him to tell him about it. He goes to see the beluga whale in the Thames and after milling around for a while, is told it is 200 yards further upstream.

I really like his conversational style of writing, accessible and informative without feeling that you are listening to someone who is going to reel of vast swathes of facts. This is another really funny book from Parikian. I am not sure that natural history books are supposed to be funny, but I am really glad this one is. He has some forthright opinions, that museums are full of too many dead things, and he much prefers the great and not so great outdoors. especially in the interlude where it becomes a proper rant! It is a reminder too, that you don’t need to head to the Galapagos Islands to get your fill of nature, it is all around us, just outside your back door, down that slightly overgrown path or when you find the eight-legged arachnid that is waiting in your bath for you. Mostly this is a personal story of a man who realises that he might have come to the natural world a bit later that he really wanted to and is trying his hardest to catch up on those missed years.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

4 out of 5 stars

I first came across George Orwell when we had to read Animal Farm at school for a set text in the mid-1980s. This was around the time of the cold war and the way he portrayed the takeover by the pigs on the farm and the way that they changed the agenda each time for their own ends was quite chilling. 1984 was the year that everyone was reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, except me; I didn’t read it until 2013… I have since read a few of his books and found him a fascinating author to read, but I knew very little about him.

Before becoming an author he spent some time working in Burma, now Myanmar. Whilst he was there he was working with the Indian Imperial Police as an Assistant District Superintendent. He chose Burma as his maternal grandmother lived there. He learnt the language very quickly, but his position meant that he was responsible for the security of a couple of hundred thousand people. The imperial regime there oppressed the people and he was a part of it. In 1927 he became ill and was granted leave back in the UK and it was that here he resigned from the police force and decided to become a writer.

His short time there was to give us the books, Burmese Days and Shooting An Elephant, but as Emma Larkin finds, it was also to provide inspiration for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Myanmar is a totalitarian state ruled with a heavy hand by the military with pervasive and constant monitoring and oppression of the populace. She spends a year in the country following his trail and talking overtly and often covertly to people who call him ‘the prophet’ and trying to see the parallels in his brief stay there and how his growing hatred of colonial rule was the fuel behind these two books.

It is a fascinating study of the man and the country as she traces the ghosts of his family past whilst trying to keep her nose clean with the authorities. Larkin is a very talented writer, managing to blend travel writing, as well as the biography of Orwell, alongside her take on this country as she tries to move around with the constraints they put on her. It is clear to see that the inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four was directly linked to the oppression that he was a part of when he was there. Very much worth reading for insight into Myanmar and Orwell.

Cove by Cynan Jones

3.5 out of 5 stars

He is far away from the coast for it to be a pale line on the horizon when he notices something when sitting in the kayak; the hairs on his arms all stand on end, before lying back down again, the is a movement in the water that rushes past and the birds that were floating in the sea suddenly lift and flee.

Not long after he sees a flash, but he only realises that it is lightning out to sea when the rumble of thunder catches up with him. Another flash and he counts the gap to the thunder, the wind rises and he gauges just how far it is to the shore before the next strike seems to rip the sky apart.

That was the last thing that he remembers before coming too still in the kayak. He is injured and he has no recollection of how he ended up there. He must use every ounce of strength that he has left to try to make it back to shore as he feels that he has someone there waiting for him.

A metallic sheen comes to the water, like cutlery. Like metal touched. The white clouds glow, go a sort of leaden at the edge.

This is a sparsely written novella about a man who is fighting for his very life having just survived a lightning strike. In this brevity, Jones manages to convey the menace of the sea that takes as much life as it gives. He also somehow manages to encompass in such few words the emotional and physical trauma of this man’s experience. I didn’t quite like this as much as Stilicide, but I am very impressed by how Jones can be so descriptive about the seascape and the trauma of the situation with so few words.

The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Atlantic Ocean has shaped us as an island nation as much as the North Sea did. As the petrel flies there are 800 miles between the tip of Cornwall to the very northern point of Shetland, Out Stack. This coast though is not straight by any means, as that short distance of our planet is a complex blend of beaches, cliffs, inlets, coves caves, headlands and makeup around 10,000 miles of staggeringly beautiful coastline.

The communities that face this mighty ocean rely on it for income and livelihoods and have grown used to its changing moods from balmy summer days to the fiercest winter storms that pummel the coast. The best way to explore these places is on the water and that is exactly what the historian and nature writer David Gange sets out to do over the course of a year. He wasn’t there to just to paddle it over the shortest routes, rather he wanted to experience the coastlines, feel the swell of the Atlantic, explore the towns and villages along the shore and soak up some of the histories along the way.

Being that close to the sea all day paddling slowly past and sleeping wild on the shore means that Gange develops an intimacy with these places that he passes, so much so that he starts to become one with nature. He sees countless seabirds, giant basking sharks, countless seals and watches otters from his kayak many times. As well as the swell that comes of this ocean, he occasionally feels the full power of the Atlantic storms as they hit the coastline. Where this really works for me as a book though is the in-depth knowledge of the history of places that he writes about as he passes them.

His journey begins in Shetland just as spring turns to summer. He sits watching the sun gleam off the back of fulmars as it barely dips below the horizon. Three hours later he is awake and being watched by a skua. He first journey is across the water to Out Stack with the North Sea on his right, turning left he is going to be at the mercy of the Atlantic now. It is not a constant journey, rather fitted in via work and other commitments, so his next journey is past the Islands of Orkney in late summer. It is here too that he starts to see the power of the ocean, taking photographs of waves that would warm a surfers heart.

Later September finds him in the Western Isles as he paddles down from the Butt of Lewis to Barra Head, stopping in at Taobh Tuath to get a feel for the history of Lewis. The journey from Balnakiel to Ullapool take him past the magnificently named Cape Wrath and onto the mainland of Scotland for the first time. December’s forecast had promised storms, so the journey headed inland for the first time, heading from mountain to Bothy whilst savouring the wildness of the landscape. The New Year finds him paddling around the beautiful Isle of Skye. This was much more geared to the tourist than he had so far been used to, and the weather was beginning to worsen. It wasn’t until Gange got to Argyll and Ulster that it fully turned and he was hit with snow.

It takes two separate journeys to paddle the West Coast of Ireland and it is here that he considers just how much we rely of the sea to provide for us as a species and just how little with know about the secrets of the deep. The next journey is technically in the Irish Sea, but going from Bardsey to the Bristol Channel is still facing the Atlantic, before returning to the ocean for the last stretch along the Cornish coast.

I really enjoyed this book about our Western seaboard. Gange’s writing doesn’t feel that you are jumping from one subject to another, rather he has has a way of neatly wrapping the layers of history, natural history and travel up in his prose. It also shows that history and life do happen outside the south-east and London and always has done. It doesn’t feel rushed either, the important thing about this book is the places he passes on his journey. Time spent Life at the pace of a kayak means he can absorb the seascape and mull things over as he bobs about. This book has the best maps I have ever seen in a travel book. Why can’t every travel book have them this well produced? Glad to see some photos in the book, but there are a lot more of his journey here.

Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers by Peter Marren

4.5 out of 5 stars

If you were to stop someone in the street and ask them to name three butterflies then you would probably get Cabbage White and Red Admiral before they’d be struggling to name a third. There are some people that know more, but there are not many people who would be able to name a large proportion or even all of the 59 species that we have in the UK. It is the same with moths, they are attracted to your lights at night, but which of the 2500 species could it be?

And where did these beautiful insects get their names unusual and creative names from? Well if you go back to several hundred years you’d find the first butterflies appearing in print in Theatrem Insectorum by Thomas Moffat. Even though he was the author, the majority of the work has been completed by Edward Wotton and Thomas Penny, by Penny had died and passed the manuscript to Moffat. It finally appeared in English in 1658 and in the 241 pages dedicated to insects or lesser living creatures. The woodcut drawings within didn’t help the identification, but the watercolour paintings that inspired the woodcuts made the identification of the species very easy. But they still didn’t have any names.

They did start to appear about a century later in a book by Petiver. He was the first to use words like fritillary, and argus. Many of his names have faded from memory now, but his Brown Meadow eye is now called as the Meadow Brown, and his Admiral is now known as the Red Admiral. Interest in these insects grew when artists started to paint accurate images of them. Maria Sibylla Merian portrayal of butterflies was so good that she was described as the godmother of modern scientific illustration, thankfully they have included some examples of her work.

In the first part of the 1700s, the Aurelian society was formed. The membership of this group was a collection of artists, merchants, poets, and unusually for the time, even took in member from what were considered the lower classes. It was a little while after the Linnaeus started to apply his newly invented naming system and spilt them into five groups,  which were used for a fair time until the Victorians made the study of insects, or entomology, a thing.

The second part of the book is a very detailed A to Z of the weird and wonderful names of butterflies and moths. There are short essays on how names have been inspired by things as diverse as carpets, hair, architecture, Manchester, spices and even something called wainscots. This is where the real detail is as Marren teases out the reasoning behind the names that these ornamental insects have ended up with, for example how the goat moth got its name, the original name for the deaths head moth and how many are named after thieves.

This is the first of Little Toller’s field guides, and if this is anything to go by then it is going to an excellent series. It is beautifully produced, as with all their books and Marren’s writing as he flits from fact to fact, just like a butterfly, is both informative and captivating without feeling academical, But you know it is backed up by solid research. If there was one thing, not a flaw, just a preference, I would have liked a few more colour plates as some of these creatures are magnificent.


Three Favourite Butterfly Names

Lulworth Skipper


Clouded Yellow


Three Favourite Moth Names

Dark Arches

Cinnabar Moth

Transparent Clearwing

July 2020 TBR

This month is mostly going to be travelling the world via books, so here is my TBR for July:


Finishing Off (Still!)

Vickery’s Folk Flora – Roy Vickery

Hollow Places – Christopher Hadley

Lotharingia – Simon Winder


Blog Tours



Review Copies

Thank you to the publishers (and one author) that have sent me these review copies:

Tall Trees Short Stories – Gabriel Hemery

Rock Pool – Heather Buttivant

Into The Tangled Bank – Lev Parikian

American Dirt – Jeanie Cummins (still wavering on this one a little with all the publicity about this)

The Many Lives of Carbon – Dag Olav Hessen, Tr. Kerri Pierce

The Maths Of Life And Death – Kit Yates

So You Think You’ve Got Problems? – Alex Bellos

The Story of Codes – Stephen Pincock, Mark Frary

Fibonacci’s Rabbits – Adam Hart-Davis


Library Books

Read hardly any library books in June, so still aiming to read these:

Lone Rider – Elspeth Beard

Sea People – Christina Thompson

The Way To The Sea – Caroline Crampton

A Beginner’s Guide To Japan – Pico Iyer

Pie Fidelity – Pete Brown

The Bells of Old Tokyo – Anna Sherman


Challenge Books

As well as a dusty shelf challenge that I am running on Good Reads, I am joining in with #20BooksOfSummer run by Cathy at 746 books.

The Way Of The World – Nicolas Bouvier, Translated By Robyn Marsack

Warriors – Gerald Hanley

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus – Lawrence Durrell

Jungle – Yossi Ghinsberg

Mirror to Damascus – Colin Thubron

From Rome to San Marino – Oliver Knox

Among Muslims – Kathleen Jamie

Naples 44 – Norman Lewis


Own Books

Water and Sky – Neil Sentance

Ridge and Furrow – Neil Sentance



Flèche – Mary Jean Chan

Reckless Paper Bird – John McCullough


Science Fiction

Didn’t read any last month (again!!!) so this is still on the list:

One Way – S.J. Morden


Depth Charge by Chris Emery

3 out of 5 stars

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

This is Chris Emery’s first collection since Departure and he has a variety of themes from the natural world to the contrast of modern life on the part of the country that he lives in. His poems on the natural world are about the bittern, seals and snowdrops and his poems on the region concern the way that the place has changed as the years past.

To stand and see beyond motionless blackthorn
The sweet chestnuts sweeping our silent blue,
The far gold hills, a single jay
A single buzzard blithely turning where
I will ask you to forget this white hour

Even though it is very short, there are only ten poems in here, Emery has a rich imagination. His form changes in each poem moving from the longer style to a shorter style add to the interest. That along with the imagery that he can conjure with the words adds to the charm of this collection.

Depth Charge has been privately published in a limited edition of 100 signed and numbered copies. It may be purchased from the author here

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