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Review: The Modern Shepherd by AlBaraa Taibah

2.5 out of 5 stars

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

A famous phrase in Islamic scripture tells us that ‘There is no prophet who has not tended sheep.’ The three Islamic prophets, Mohammed, Moses, and Abraham had all bee shepherds at some point in their lives. It was a phrase that MBA student AlBaraa Taibah found quite curious. How could being alongside sheep in an arid desert have any relevance to modern business skills and leadership requirements?

The only way to see what happened was to spend some time with another a shepherd in the Sahara desert and a flock of sheep to see if he could get an insight into the words of the prophets. It was a steep learning curve. He would get lost, suffer from dehydration and it took a while for the sheep intrinsically trusted their master and took a few days to begin to tolerate him.

Like other writers before him, such as Wilfred Thesiger he discovers that being in the desert is a way of crystalizing your thoughts and sharpening the senses. He learnt humility and patience from trying to manage a flock of sheep as well as finding out his limits. He does switch from his desert experiences to talking about his old school that he was parachuted in to manage far more experienced staff. He is open about dealing with those pressures and at times it is quite philosophical.

Review: Cræft by Alexander Langlands

3 out of 5 stars

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

Almost everything that you buy these days has come out of a factory, probably based somewhere in the Far East and whilst the quality is generally serviceable, it often isn’t. Quality has always come at a price, and more people are rediscovering the advantages of using a well-made basket, or correctly balanced tool. Something that has fascinated Alexander Langlands for years is looking at the way that we used to make and do things. As an experienced experimental archaeologist who has appeared on many BBC programmes alongside Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn running a farm set in different eras, he has learnt the techniques and the ways that they farmed in those days.

His fascination or borderline obsession with crafts of all sorts has led to him considering it in a wider context. He calls this cræft. He considers it more than that just being able to make a useful object with your hands that you can use, it is sometime about technique, using limited resources in an intelligent way. A scythe is a good example. For large amounts of ground to cut, a form of mechanical mower will save you time, but not necessarily money. However, if you only have a small amount of land to cut with a bit of practice you can cut it in around the same time as it would have taken with a strimmer. There are plenty more examples in her, from coracle building, dry stone walls, beekeeping and the alchemy that fire can bring to materials.

A properly made product can last for a decent amount of time, are sustainable in the materials they use and can be readily repaired, unlike most modern things that break too soon, and get slung in the bin as there are no spares. It is an interesting book and Langlands is an entertaining writer. He picks up on the themes in Why Making Things is Good for You by Peter Korn. They are both right about the process of discovering, researching and making an item with our own hands is far more fulfilling that staring at a screen. It does occasionally ventures into hipster territory I think that it suffers from the a romantic view through rose tinted hand crafted spectacles of what was for a lot of people in the past hard and back breaking work.

Review: Notes On A Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

4 out of 5 stars

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

The modern world is fast and relentless, our connection to the internet that means we have a never-ending stream of notifications, jobs that come with a phone and almost permanent on call. Our nerves are jangled constantly. It feel like you are in a race that you can never win and standing still doesn’t feel like an option. Yet in the world of 24 / 7 connections to family, friends and strangers around the world, people have never been more alone.

In this modern world, can we stay sane?

This is the follow up to his successful and what I consider now an essential book, Reasons to Stay Alive. I that he told us of his journey back from staring into the abyss. In this, he lays out the problems of the modern world that have been caused by the internet as well as the positive benefits that it has brought. He makes it very personal, telling us of the issues that he has had with obsessions with Facebook, Twitter and the slightly unreal world of Instagram and how it has affected his mental health.

Reading isn’t important because it helps to get you a job. It’s important because it gives you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape.

Like his previous book, there are anecdotes, his thoughts on the world we are living in. Woven into this is his own personal story about how his depression and anxiety has ebbed and flowed, often caused by spending way too long on the internet. Listening to the echo chamber is not good for your health, especially in this political climate, and this book is full of practical suggestions on how to cope with the relentlessness of it all, when and how to engage for an affirmative experience and when to turn the computer off, set the phone aside and go and do something else. Probably essential reading for teenagers.

Review: Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

4 out of 5 stars

The pivotal moment in Matt Haig’s life came when he was just 24. He stood at the top of a cliff in Ibiza and stared at the edge. Every element in his body was willing him to throw himself off and end the pain of being alive. Something made him stop; he had four people that loved him. Four people that even in his darkest moment meant something to him. Something did die that day, it was the thing that was consuming him from inside. For men, in particular, suicide is one of the biggest killers for those under 35 in the western world. Thankfully, Haig didn’t join the statistics that day. He turned away from the cliff and walked back into a new life.

It wasn’t an easy recovery though, he tried drugs, they didn’t work. He cried, suffer panic attacks, wouldn’t leave the house, suffered from anxiety, didn’t sleep, didn’t eat and suffered from the terrible thing that is depression. The black dog for some can be a bottomless pit and this horrible affliction affects huge numbers of people around the world now in a variety of different ways as well as affecting families and those trying to cope with them.  But a lot of the problems of this is most people don’t have any idea at all how to support their friends and family that are suffering from it.

How to stop time: kiss.

How to travel in time: read.

How to escape time: music.

How to feel time: write.

How to release time: breathe.

There are things not to say to someone with depression. But what to say though? Not much, just being with them is more important a lot of the time. Encourage but don’t force the issue. It is not an exhaustive book on the medical ins and outs of the root causes of depression, rather it is a literary response to the very real pain that Haig felt and an expression of the love he has for those that were there for him at his lowest moment. Haig puts his pain into words and if you suffer from any form of depression and anxiety then there are probably words in here that will bring you comfort and relief. More importantly, this is a book that you can give to others so they can gain some insight into the suffering that people are going through. The raw and honest writing is a mix of short chapters and longer, more thoughtful ones and are all full of helpful advice. We probably all know someone affected and in the modern world, this should be essential reading.

Review: Hello World by Hannah Fry

4 out of 5 stars

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

We rely on the computers and the internet for almost everything these days, it is the backbone of our infrastructure, our first point of social contact for friends and associates all around the world, supplies our film and music choices and is a substantial part of the economy now. As the digital world permeates our life further computers are being used as part of, or in some cases the entire part of the decision process. For all those of you who laughed at the ‘Computer Says No’ sketch in Little Britain, life might not always be so funny now. The question that Fry poses in her book is: Who would you rather decide your future – an algorithm or a human?

In answering this simple question Fry takes us on a tour of the history of the algorithm, where and how they are being used and the possible implications of our dependency on them. We learn of the first algorithms that reached the point where they could beat a grandmaster at chess and how leaving human-like pauses disconcerted him. How sat nav can be a blessing and a curse, how facial recognition can spot the suspect in a crowd and how human error can ensure a decade of misery for an individual passing through passport control.

Every click you make online is saved an analysed by the government and private corporations. The authorities are seeking the ghosts in the machine and to a company, you’re just a product that someone can make money out of. Your future might be decided by a pigeon too as Fry explains in the chapter on health and how pattern recognition is being used to evaluate biopsy’s for cancers and if you have been really bad, you may not stand in front of a judge, but be sentenced by a computer that would not care one bit about extenuating circumstances; frightening stuff. Algorithms have been used successfully to narrow down the search parameters for those who have committed the most serious crimes and are being used to predict where crimes might take place, the first steps towards Minority Report… Even a subject like art is succumbing to the computer code, what you watch or listen to, prompts suggestions of what else to watch or hear.

To say this book was eye-opening would be an understatement. Fry does not go too heavy on the computer and technology in here, rather she relies on the stories that show how we are all affected by algorithms and the way that they are shaping our lives. This thought-provoking writing has a clarity about it that will make this accessible to almost anyone who picks it up. We do need to use algorithms to our advantage; I worry that we’re not at the moment and that we may reach a point where we won’t be able to control them.

Publisher Profile: Bluemoose Books

For me, independent publishers are the people in the industry who are prepared to take risks on new authors and books where the larger players either don’t wish to venture, or where they can’t see there being a return on. Each month in 2018 I am aiming to highlight some of my favourite independent publishers, along with some of their books that I have loved and also to have someone from the publisher answer a few questions. This month is the turn of Bluemoose Books

I will put my hands up and admit that I have only read two Bluemoose books so far. That said, they only have twenty-three books on their list at the moment. To mash up the Shakespeare quote, though they be little, they are fierce, so they punch way above their weight for their size. Their key to success though is choosing top quality books that become critically acclaimed. The two that I read were both by the award-winning and brilliant author, Benjamin Myers. And both brilliant. The first was The Gallows Pole, a story based on real-life events about the Cragg Vale Coiners and their business is ‘clipping’ – the forging of coins, a treasonous offence punishable by death. Other thought that it was so good that it was awarded winner of the 2018 Walter Scott Prize 2018 for historical fiction as well as being the recipient of a Roger Deakin Award.  The second was Beastings, a story of a frantic chase across the moors after a girl takes a baby. It is a shocking book and it is deeply rooted in the Cumbrian mountains and the hermits, farmers and hunters who occupy the remote hillside. After these, Pig Iron went straight on the TBR.

These are only two of their award-winning books too, they even managed to get Nod by Adrain Barnes onto the Clarke Award shortlist. Given that their catalogue is so small, I will probably end up reading all of them, but two that have a lot of appeal after looking at their website are Seaside Special – Postcards from the Edge and The Hardest Climb.

Kevin, the powerhouse behind this Northern publisher, was kind enough to answer the questions below:

Can you tell me a little about the history of Bluemoose Books?

I won a national writing competition and was whisked down to The Ivy in London to meet the head of Macmillan and a top literary agent. It didn’t go well. 12 months later, after reading that all the big money advances were going to Irish writers, I changed my name to Colm O’Driscoll and sent off the first three chapters of a novel called ANTHILLS AND STARS to one of the biggest literary agencies in London. I had to be Irish for a year, and they signed me up. They sent it round to all the big publishers but nobody thought they could sell 20K copies and it sat on a shelf for 2 years. I started moaning about and moping around so Heth, my wife said do something about it, so we re-mortgaged the house and started Bluemoose Books, publishing my book and The Bridge Between by Canadian author Nathan Vanek. We made enough money to keep publishing and here we are 12 years later still publishing award-winning books.


How is the company organised today and how many people work for you?

I am the only full-time employee and we have 3 brilliant freelance editors. All the typesetting is done by Carnegie who are based in Lancaster and our printers are based in Devon. The artwork is always sent out to various designers we use. We are a family of readers and writers and all publishing decisions are done collectively.


What is the company philosophy when it comes to selecting for your catalogue?

Everything is based on the quality of the writing and our mission statement is to fine great new writers, nurture their talent and publish brilliant stories.


How do you go about choosing the titles to be included in your portfolio?

Writing that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and won’t let go until the last word.


Tell me about your process after selecting a book for publication

We designate a lead editor to work with the writer, line by line for 12 months, getting the book into structural shape and then two more editors will come in to oversee the proof stage, polishing and honing it for 3 months. At the last stage, we have four sets of eyes proofing to make sure everything is as it should be before sending it to the typesetters.


How much effort goes into the design of the book, for example, the cover design, font selection and so on?

We spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources to make sure we have the right jacket that stands out from the crowd. When competing for bookshelf space it is imperative you book stands out and catches the casual browsers eye.


Are there any up and coming books that you are publishing soon that we need to look out for?

LEONARD AND HUNGRY PAUL by Ronan Hession, which we publish in March 2019. It is one of the finest debuts I have read in 20 years of publishing. Writing that catches your breath in its power and simplicity. A stunning, stunning book from a very gifted writer.


What debut authors are you publishing this year?

 RAISING SPARKS by Ariel Kahn.


How did you come across them?

I was judging PULP IDOL, a writing competition organised by Writing OnThe Wall in Liverpool and Ariel came second. I spoke to him afterwards, and asked for the full manuscript, read the day after and offered him a contract the next day. Unbeknownst to me, that day was also his birthday.


What title of yours has been an unexpected success?

THE MAN WITH A SEAGULL ON HIS HEAD by Harriet Paige. Short listed for debut of the year by the Authors’ Club, considered a ‘Bona Fide gem,’ by The Guardian and it will be published in North America this October.


What would you say were the undiscovered gems in your catalogue?

They are all gems but it sometimes takes a bit longer for books to be recognised. BLACK NEON by Tony O’Neil is one, Irvine Welsh is a big fan and A MODERN FAMILY by Socrates Adams which is being published in France this October too.


How do you use social media for promoting books and authors?

I’m on Twitter most days putting out photographs and telling book people about events.


Is working with book bloggers becoming a larger part of that process now?



What book do you wish you had published?

Gods in Alabama by Joshlyn Jackson


What does the future hold for Bluemoose Books?

The future is good and we have some absolutely cracking books coming out in the next 3 years.


Thank you to Kevin once again for taking time out of his hectic schedule to answer those questions for me. I really appreciate it. Their books are available from all good bookshops. I would urge you to buy them from an independent bookshop if you can as this supports them, the publisher and of course the author with one purchase.

Previous Publisher Profiles:

Review: The Unexpected Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke

3.5 out of 5 stars

Everything that you thought that knew about cute penguins, adorable pandas and the utterly chilled out sloths, was probably wrong. When you see photos or videos of animals doing human type things we tend to put human personalities and our morals on animals and it really doesn’t work. They have their own tales to tell us and in a lot of cases the truth is much much stranger than the fiction.

Cooke is the founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society and they make an appearance in here as she dispels the myths about them being lazy and explains the crucial part they play in the ecosystems in the forests that they live in. We will learn why vultures crap on their own legs, which animals partake in prostitution and necrophilia. How pandas are not as sex adverse as we think that they are and what happens when they stop being cute. Lots of animals were considered to appear from out of the mud at the bottom of ponds, including frogs and eels and swallows were though to stay at the bottom of ponds over winter and appear each spring. Migration was only properly discovered when a stork turned up with a spear from an African warrior in its neck. If you want to know why an African Hippo is making itself at home in Columbia and what they are actually closely related to and also to find out if moose are actually drunken reprobates then this is a good place to start.

I am not sure that science books are meant to make to laugh out loud and chuckle away to yourself, but this did. Cooke dispels lots of myths and uncovers secrets about her selected animals so of which have been suppressed for almost 100 years. It is an enjoyable popular science book that still has its foundations in serious research in seeking to understand just what makes animals do what they do.

Review: Exactly by Simon Winchester

5 out of 5 stars

Engineers are probably some of the least appreciated people in the UK and yet if you think about it everything is dependent on them. If there were no engineers you would not have items like your phone, your car, bicycles, kitchen gadgets, computers, electricity and even the very infrastructure that means that you can live life in the modern way. Things are much better built now too, compared to even twenty years ago, that extra precision we have got makes for better quality products. But, what is the difference is between accuracy and precision? And how is that making a difference in our modern world.

Beginning with the machines that started the industrial revolution off, steam engines and the rapid improvements that were made in the tolerance and efficiency of them, to the world’s first unpickable lock, and the precision engineering from horologists that made clocks and timepieces more accurate, and people much later than ever before. All of these incremental advances made the things that people were buying a better each time and coupled with new inventions by the likes of  John `Iron-Mad’ Wilkinson and Joseph Whitworth made making things so much easier and made repeatable manufacture possible.

His stories of the way that engineers have made the modern world moves from the open road, where we learn how the Ford Model T was more precisely made than a Rolls-Royce. Each Rolls-Royce was handcrafted and when the men assembling it came across the odd part that didn’t fit they would file and adjust to ensure that it did. Ford did not have the luxury of time to make things fit, each part had to fit, first time, every time. Cars are easy though, compared to aeroplanes, just to get several hundred tonnes of plane, passengers and luggage and off the ground requires another level of engineering expertise. Form the earliest planes that were held together with rivets, modern aircraft are glued together and the jet engines that can lift the great weights into the sky are some of the most powerful machines ever made. The finest engineers have developed turbine blades that can operate in an environment that is actually hotter than the melting temperature of the single crystal titanium alloy that they are made from. Each blade produces more power that an F1 car and they are spinning at around 10,000 rpm. They are reliable too, only very rarely does one of these engines fail, and he describes a flight that had to undertake an emergency landing when one component that was a fraction of a millimetre out self-destructed.

Silicone is immensely important to the modern world. Not only has it been used to fill the gaps in the wall so we can see through them, but its use in lenses have opened up miniature worlds and the wonders of the solar system to us. You are probably carrying around a lot of silicone too; its use in electronics has revolutionised the modern world and the machines that are used to make these ubiquitous microchips that are found in almost everything from coffee machines to watches that can tell you exactly where you are on the planet. These work from the GPS system, a technology that relies on the accurate time as measured using caesium clocks. It is time too that defines our most common measurements like the metre and the kilogramme and rendering the finely made platinum standard items a relic of the museum.

I may have a slight bias in reading and reviewing this as I am an engineer who is qualified in both electronics and mechanical engineering and I have designed things as varied as defence equipment to lighting to speaker cables. I thought that this was a really well-written book about the engineers that have made modern society what it is nowadays. It is well researched and full of interesting and anecdotal tales such as how we can now measure light years to within the width of a human hair that add so much to the story of precision over the years.  I liked the way at the beginning of each chapter the tolerance increases for each change in technology and the precision required to achieve the next level up. Excellent book and can highly recommend.

Review: Liquid by Mark Miodownik

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

The amount of stuff we consume these days is staggering, but there are some things that we use day in day out that barely get our attention, the water that comes out of the tap that goes into the kettle to make your coffee. The liquid soap that you use to wash your hands, the ink that stays in the pen until you scribble on a notepad, the glass of something cold that helps you relax at the end of a busy week. All of these are liquids and they all lubricate our lives in one way or another.

But, if someone was to place three glasses full of clear liquids in front of you, which could you drink that is essential to life, which would power an aircraft and which would kill you if you knocked it over?

Mark Miodownik is best placed to explain all of these things being a materials engineer and Professor of Materials and Society at UCL and in this highly entertaining journey from London to San Francisco on a plane he describes and enlightens us about all the liquids that we use in the modern world. Beginning as he passes through security, and why we can’t take more than 100ml of fluids on board now, on to the pre-dinner drinks, the oceans that he is flying over and what liquids hold the plane he is on together.

The film he watches after diner allows him to explain liquid crystals and the way that most modern TV’s work before he nods off and wakes up dribbling on the passenger alongside him. From a discussion on body fluids, he moves swiftly onto the delights of coffee and tea and why they don’t taste quite the same over the Atlantic. A wash and brush up and then onto the history of inks, musings about clouds and liquids that sometimes think that they are solids, liquids that can flow uphill and new modern technologies like self-healing roads.

I thought that was a great companion volume to Stuff Matters and another very well written book by Miodownik. He has used a fair amount of artistic license to ensure that the narrative flows and to give him plenty of subjects to discuss as he travels from the UK to the United States. I do like the way that he talks about science in an engaging manner and the whole book is stuffed full of facts and interesting anecdotes, but there is only so much you can do from the viewpoint of an airline seat and he does veer a little off course occasionally. Well worth reading.

Review: The Lord of Slaughter by M.D. Lachlan

4 out of 5 stars

The citizens of Constantinople seem to have reached the end of days. Mysterious things are happening, the sky is darkened, wolves are gathering outside the city and howling. People are terrified so the ruler of the city calls for a Christian scholar to find the evil that is causing this and eradicate it. He arrives with his expectant wife, fleeing from her angry father.

The dark events keep building; the cult of the wolf grows more each day, a boy with a snake-like pupil in his eye has a growing influence over those in power, the Norsemen camped beyond the city walls talk of the legends that tell of a wolf who will kill the gods, and the spirits of the dead are stirring. All these dark elements lead to a cell deep below the city, where a man sits in chains, a man who believes that he is a wolf.

Ragnarok is coming; even for those that don’t believe.

This is the third in the series following on from Wolfsangel and Fenrir and like those, it is filled with lots of pagan and Norse references as well as being set in a historical context. On top of that, Lachlan has layered his own werewolf story that is dark, violent and bloody. Mostly is a very readable fantasy, that has compelling story threads that draw the main characters together for the finale. Occasionally there are scenes that get a little confusing, the one I am thinking of did take place in the dark caves under the Numera, but it added greatly to the drama.

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