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Review: The Earth Gazers by Christopher Potter

3 out of 5 stars

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

“The Guide says there is an art to flying”, said Ford, “or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” ― Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything

For millennia man wished he could fly like the birds, people had been up in hot air balloons since 1783, but it wasn’t until 1904 with the first powered flight from the Wright Brothers that we saw the dawn of a new era. These early pioneers of the air began to fly around America, Charles Lindbergh became the first to fly from America to Paris in his epic flight and flight changed the way we connected with others around the world. But people still wanted to reach for the stars.

It would take a World War for humanity to develop the technology that would make this possible though and it was the losing side that gave the rest of the world the rockets that would enable men to finally leave the grip of gravity for the first time. That brilliant scientist was Wernher Von Braun, a former Nazi, who spent the billions of dollars that the US government wanted to spend in the Cold War space race. This space race put men in orbit, gave us technologies that we are using today and 65 years later after the first powered flight, put the first men on the moon.

Two pictures from the Apollo missions Earthrise, taken during the first manned mission, and The Blue Marble, taken in the final one, became some of the most reproduced and influential photos of all time. It became the image that inspired the environmental movements around the world as people realised that this small blue planet was our home and that getting more than half a dozen people off at any one time was near impossible. We only have this planet. If we bugger it up, who knows what could happen

This is an enjoyable book on the rise of man to overcome gravity, rise from the surface of the earth and achieve the monumental task to stand on the surface of our nearest satellite. Good overview of the history of flight and the links that those first pilots had to the rocket men.

Blog Tour: Dear Mr Pop Star by Derek & Dave Philpott

Welcome to my blog on today’s stop on the Dear Mr Pop Star Blog tour.

The Blurb

For more than a decade, Derek Philpott and his son, Dave, have been writing deliberately deranged letters to pop stars from the 1960s to the 90s to take issue with the lyrics of some of their best-known songs. They miss the point as often as they hit it.

But then, to their great surprise, the pop stars started writing back…

Dear Mr Pop Starcontains 100 of Derek and Dave’s greatest hits, including correspondence with Katrina and the Waves, Tears for Fears, Squeeze, The Housemartins, Suzi Quatro, Devo, Deep Purple, Nik Kershaw, T’Pau, Human League, Eurythmics, Wang Chung, EMF, Mott the Hoople, Heaven 17, Jesus Jones, Johnny Hates Jazz, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Chesney Hawkes and many, many more.


My Review

3.5 out of 5 stars

Never Mind the Buzzcocks used to do a hilarious round called Indecipherable Lyrics where the panels would try to guess what the artists were actually singing. But even if you can understand them, have you ever been singing along to a song in the car, possibly even a favourite and realised that the lyrics make no sense whatsoever? You’re not the first. However, it has probably never even crossed your mind to ask the pop star just what they meant by their particular phrase, or even to gently rib them but utterly misunderstanding the significance of what they were singing.

For nearly 10 years, ‘Team Philpott’ as Derek and Dave are known, have been asking the questions that no one was really looking for an answer for. Sitting down in front of a typewriter and asking just someone like Katrina and the Waves just how she was going to be Walking on Sunshine; or if T’Pau really did have China in her hand. These letters are quite droll, often amusing, and pedantic with their tongues firmly wedged in their cheeks.

However, what is funnier still is these artists began to reply to these nonsense missives with even funnier replies in response to the letters sent over the decade. Their reputation grew, mostly because people loved seeing the responses on their website, friends of friends would ensure that the letter got to the bands in question and bands would let other bands would let others know what was going on and urge them to get involved.

Dear Ultravox,

I fear that your nonchalance towards Austria’s premier holiday destination may cause you to fall foul of the tourist board…

What you have here is a collection of the letters they wrote and the replies received. These would take as much glee in pointing out the errors in the first correspondence from Team Philpott. It is mostly about two guys writing daft things and getting equally daft correspondence back, and there are some very amusing moments. Great piece of light-hearted reading.

You can follow Team Philpott on Twitter : @DerekPhilpott

Don’t forget to have a look at the other reviews on the (humungous) blog tour:

Review: All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

4 out of 5 stars

In rural Suffolk in the 1930’s the effects of the Great War still loomed over those working the land. There was some change in the air though, modernisation was slowly happening despite the global Great Depression. For everything that was moving on, there was as much standing still too. At Wych Farm, they farm the land in the old way and everyone, including the fourteen-year-old Edie Mather, is still expected to help with the harvest.

In these uncertain times the appearance of Constance FitzAllen from the heady heights of the capital looking for stories in the rural economy and hoping to capture the old ways before they disappear for good. For all her glamour, FitzAllen brings with her ideas that seem quite innocent at first, yet have deeply sinister and radical roots.  As Edie finishes school and has to decide what she does next, the appeal of heading to London grows on her and she hopes that it will take her away from the unwanted attention she is getting from a lad from a nearby farm. Things are coming to a head as FitzAllen starts to push her agenda to the villagers in the pub one night.

As with her previous books, the natural world is the very bedrock of this story, but this time she has woven in the hardship of farming the 1930’s as well as the alarming rise of nationalism in the UK that had certain parallels to Germany. Draped over all of this is the story of Edie as she reaches a crossroads in her life, unsure of what to do, wanting to not be the baby of the family anymore, but fearful of the future. There is something about Harrison’s novels that resonate with me and in All Among the Barley, her writing is lyrical and eloquent without feeling rose-tinted and sentimental; there is proper drama within these pages. It feels authentic too, the research that Harrison must have undertaken to get the details right for the season, the region and the language spoken at the time. It evokes standing in that field feeling the late summer breeze brushing the barley. There are beautiful maps by Neil Gower too! I can highly recommend this book from Melissa Harrison, her stature with words increases with every book she writes. It is timely too as it feels that history is repeating itself at the moment.



Review: No Limits by Nightscape

3 out of 5 stars

London is an amazing city, it feels very organic with streets that ebb and flow rather than being in a tedious grid pattern. It mixes the very old, The Tower is over 950 years old, with the sharpest new architecture. Unless you are fortunate to live or work in the newest skyscrapers, you will rarely see the layout from above.

Nightscape is one of those who prefers to discover the delights of looking down over the city for himself and has become a  YouTube sensation for his videos of him and his friendsYouTubeing on the roofs of some of the highest buildings in the capital.

It is illegal and he has had several run-inss with the authorities, been arrested, had all his electronics siezed and he still does it. The prose is not why you’d get this book, but what you do get is some amazing pictures of the skyline of London with Nightscape and friends standing quite relaxed over some death-defying drops. She has been invited to other cities where the authorities were more than happy to assist him in hitting the city heights. One for the pictures, though if you like this can also recommend Bradley L. Garrett’s books Subterranean London and Explore Everything.

Another nice touch was when you tilted the pages:

Monthly Muse: September

It’s October! How did that happen? It feel like it has arrived a month too early. Had my hernia operation on the last day in August and the surgeon signed me off for three, yes three whole weeks! The MD at work wasn’t particularly enamoured about it and has extended my probation to cover the time I had off. Fingers crossed that I pass it soon. With that amount of spare time, I had hoped to read loads of books and more importantly, catch up on my reviews. managed to read ten books in those three weeks and ended up doing some work from home in the end. Got through 16 books by the time the end of the month rolled around. I read a varied selection, as you have probably come to expect now and he they are.

First up was The Rings Of Saturn: An English Pilgrimage. This was part of the summer reading book that Robert Macfarlane was running on Twitter (search for (#ReadingtheRings). Had got it out of the library, but then found a copy in a charity shop. In some ways this wasn’t a bad book, I particularly liked the narrative about his walk through the Suffolk countryside, but it veered off too far around the world in his various interests as he discovered facts about the places he was passing through. Some of the writing was very good though, and the translator had done a top job.


I was on the blog tour for my next book, Ladders to Heaven: The Secret History of Fig Trees. It was almost everything a good non-fiction should be; informative, a well-written narrative and properly researched by a scientific expert. If it had one fault, it was too short! Would have loved to have learnt about the use of figs in the pre-Christian Mediterranean and more of the wider history. Otherwise highly recommended.

Bloomsbury had kindly popped The Dark Interval: Letters for the Grieving Heart in the post to me. This beautiful hardback has been translated by Ulrich Baer and is compiled from the letters written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke to friends and associates who were grieving after losing family, loved ones and friends, it is a collection that will comfort people these days in moments of loss. I passed this onto someone who had just lost a friend in truly tragic circumstances and they said it was a huge benefit.

Another blog tour ( I try and only do two a month) and this time it was the new science fiction door stopper from Peter F. Hamilton called Salvation. Set in an ultra-connected future world where transport is through quantum entangled portals and energy is almost limitless from the sun. Humanity has encountered one set of aliens, but the revelation is the discovery of another ship 90 light years away that has humans held in stasis. Very fast paced and a mash between a space opera and a spy thriller.

Little Toller are a Dorset based publisher and new books from them are always something to look forward to. Cornerstones is no exception to that. This book is a compilation of essays written by a variety of writers about their favourite rocks, hence the subtitle, Subterranean Writings; from Dartmoor to the Arctic Circle. There is not a bad essay in here and there are some exceptional one too and sits well with their Arboreal compilation released a couple of years ago. Thoroughly enjoyed this and it is my book of the month.

I am not sure what category The Devil’s Highway sits in. Three stories, one historical, one contemporary and one set in the future are in this book. The common thread here is that the three sets of characters all inhabit the same piece of Surrey Heath, just with millennia in between them. The book is laid out with a chapter from each time and then cycles round again. I would have preferred it if they had been three blocks, but when reading you can sense that the common threads of landscape that are present all the way through. Struggled with the language in the final part, but the message of this environmental warning is very clear.

Next up were a couple of fantasy books that were the third and fourth in a series by MD Lachlan. Gollancz were kind enough to send me the fifth and I fully intend to get that this month. First up was Lord of Slaughter. They draw heavily on the Norse and werewolf mythology, that he has brought out of North and into other countries. In this Constantinople is plagued by sinister sorcery and magic is threatening the world. All paths lead to the squalid prison deep below the city, where a man who believes he is a wolf lies chained. Valkyrie’s Song takes some of the characters from the previous book that carry the runes within their souls and puts them in the north of England currently being harried by the Norman invaders. These are dark, bloody tales with a razor-sharp supernatural edge.


The Royal Society shortlist always has a great selection of books on it, and the first from those that I got to read was Liquid by Mark Miodownik. His previous book, Stuff Matters, had won it a few years before, so was really looking forward to this one. It didn’t disappoint either, through the narrative of a flight to America, he takes us through the science of liquids in his unique and entertaining way.


Second from the shortlist was Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created The Modern World by Simon Winchester. An excellent book on the way that engineers have utterly changed the world that we live in from the first screws that fitted things together to the fact that the phone in your pocket is many more time powerful that the ship that took men to the moon.

Third from the shortlist was The Unexpected Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos And Other Wild Tales. This book by Luck Cooke sought to explain the real truth about animal behaviour and separate fiction from the real facts. Highly entertaining and I frequently laughed whilst reading it.


I had been sent this ages ago from Faber, but I finally got round to reading Cræft by Alexander Langlands. In this book, he is exploring how Traditional Crafts Are about More than Just Making, themes that are finding traction elsewhere. I liked the book but did feel that he was heading into hipster territory far too often.

The fourth book from the Royal Society Shortlist was Hannah Fry’s Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine. Almost everything that we do, online or not, has some sort of algorithm, that ‘helps’ us make the choices that are presented. However, there is a sinister side to all this and Fry makes it very clear that a lot of the algorithms we encounter have some (or a lot) of flaws. A really good book that even people who aren’t computer savvy could engage with.


Another review copy that the people at The Book Publicist had sent me was The Modern Shepherd. Written by AlBaraa Taibah it details his time spent shepherding sheep in the Sahara and the lessons he learnt and could apply in his business life. Very short book and only thought it was ok overall.


The final two this month were by the genuine and humble author Matt Haig. In Reasons To Stay Alive, he tells us his story of standing at the top of a cliff in Ibiza seriously contemplating suicide and taking the brave decision to turn around and face the demons that were plaguing his life. It is a truly heartfelt, raw and emotional book on the issues of mental health and how he dealt with them. More importantly, he gives suggestions that others suffering from the terrible affliction of modern life could use. Even if you don’t suffer from mental health, then you should read this as the insights in here could help you help someone else. Then read Notes From a Nervous Planet. This is about our addiction to social media and the benefits that it can bring, but also the things to be wary of and the best time to step away from the computer and go and do something else. I would say that this is an essential book for teenagers.

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.

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