Shearwater by Roger Morgan-Grenville

4 out of 5 stars

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

I have not yet been fortunate to see a Manx Shearwater, but they are a fascinating bird from all that I have read about them. They are moderately sized birds with a wingspan of around 80cm and weigh approximately 400g. They nest and breed on islands on the west coast of the UK that are free from rats. After breeding they abandon the chick in the burrow and make the 8000-mile journey to the South Atlantic just off Argentina.

Morgan -Grenville first came across them when he used to stay with his grandmother at her croft on the Island of Mull. While they were staying they were expected to help around the place in the mornings, pulling ragwort, hefting sacks of seaweed and equally hard but necessary jobs. That done the afternoon was time for adventure; climbing hills, swimming and having tea with some of her eccentric friends. One special treat was being taken out in a boat to see the puffins. It was on one of these trips that he noticed this bird just above the water and wasn’t quite sure what it was. The skipper of the boat told him it was a shearwater and his life was never quite the same again.

Thirteen years later and he is on his way to South Georgia for military duty. He has just stepped out from the bridge as he felt rather nauseous. He thought about the letter he has just received from his grandmother, he always saved it until last when he noticed a bird in the distance, his first albatross and a veteran bird too by the looks of it. He had the same feeling when he saw the shearwater and it set a question in his mind that he would spend the next thirty years answering: What happens with those ocean birds when they go out of sight?

This book is his story to seek the answers to that question and it will take him back to the places of his childhood, the tiny island of Lundy and all the way to South America. He helps with the research team on the Island of Skomer and sits waiting in a bar in Ireland waiting for a storm to pass.

I thought this was another step up from his previous book, Liquid Gold. This is part memoir, part travelogue and you can tell that this is a bird that he is obsessed with, from the story that he tells within the pages. The prose is rich and full of personal moments that do not detract from the book at all. Not quite a funny as his previous book, the narrative is a fitting tribute to these amazing birds and his fiercely independent grandmother.

April 2021 Review

We for a short month that ended up a really good month for reading. I didn’t get anywhere near the number of books that I wanted to read but did manage to clear another 17 from my TBR and had three, yes three five star reads. Mor on them at the bottom of the post.  And here they all are.

I read four books about Japan this month and first up is a translated book, Touring the Land of the Dead. It is two novellas by Maki Kashimada and translated by Haydn Trowell, one story is about a couple who have been surviving on his wife salary after he could no longer work. The second is about a family of four sisters who have always been close and then one finds a man and the bond is tested and loosened. Both slightly surreal in that very Japanese way.

I had heard a lot about, How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and had managed to get a copy via the library. I liked the premise of this book, that we are constantly distracted by all of modern life and Odell’s philosophy of how to resist it. In the end, it didn’t really live up to my expectations.

I am trying to read books that have a theme where possible and these three are on health. Stroke is a fairly obvious title, and it is the story about Ricky’s survival following a stroke that almost killed him. Sinéad Gleeson’s book won our Wellcome Prize Shadow Award last year, and these are a series of essays about the various and numerous health problems she has had. She is quite some writer too! Finally in this little section is How to Be Sad which is Helen Russell’s take on how to be sad properly, how to get through it and how to use that to enjoy the better times when they come.

         

Another theme and this time it is symbols. Hyphens & Hashtags is a wonderful little book about the characters that you find on keyboards and the second a wider look at symbols that we come across in our modern lives.

     

The first two of the six natural history book that I read in April, are The Spirit of the River by Declan Murphy and Save Our Species by Dominic Couzens & Sarah Edmunds. Murphy’s book is about the summer he spent watching the dippers and kingfishers in a local river and Couzens’ book is ways that we can practically help the endangered species in our country.

    

Gone is about the animals that we deliberately or accidentally chose not to help and are no longer with us. Michael Blencowe has written a fascinating tale of his search for their remains in museums around the world. Roger Morgan-Grenville has a thing about shearwaters and this rather good book is the story of his obsession with them.

   

Only read one poetry book this month. In a strange bit of book serendipity, Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott was mentioned in Constellations and it was going to be my next book to read. It is not a bad collection all about her mortality

My travel reading this month was all centred on Japan. First was Pico Iyer’s  A Beginner’s Guide To Japan, a series of though and muses about his life in that country. In Hokkaido Highway Blue, Will Ferguson decides to follow the cherry blossom from the South West of the Country right up to the northernmost island. He hitchhikes his way of getting to see the country and meet the people that are not on any tourist trail at all.

   

I have three Book of the Month for April. First is the sublime The Bells of Old Tokyo by Anna Sherman which is her story about seeking the great bells by which the inhabitants of Edo, later called Tokyo tracked their lives by. Next is another obsession distilled down into a book, The Screaming Sky. Charles Foster doesn’t really do anything by halves and this is his musings on those masters of the air, Swifts.  Finally is Neil Ansell’s book about a place near me, The New Forest. Beautifully written as ever, he extolls the place and the natural world that manages to just cling on. Read all three.

       

So have you read any of these? Are there now any that you want to read? Let me know in the comments below.

Empire of Ants by Susanne Foitzik & Olaf Fritsche

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Empire of Ants by Susanne Foitzik, Olaf Fritsche and published by Gaia, an imprint of Octopus Books

About the Book

Beneath our feet, a fascinating drama unfolds: Ants are waging war and staging rebellions, growing fungi as crops and raising aphids as livestock, making vaccines and, generally, living lives that — up-close —look surprisingly human.

Evolutionary biologist Susanne Foitzik and biophysicist Olaf Fritsche reveal all in, Empire of Ants, inviting readers to live alongside the workers, soldiers, and conquerors of the insect world—and the researchers who study them. (How do we observe the behaviour of ants just a few millimetres in size—or monitor activity in a brain as small as the tip of a needle?)

Ants’ global dominance (there are 10 quadrillion ants worldwide) and supreme staying power (they have existed since the dinosaurs) give a sense of scale to our own empire-building and destroying. Empire of Ants may leave its human readers asking: Who really runs the world?

 

About the Authors

Susanne Foitzik is an evolutionary biologist, behavioural scientist and international authority on ants. After completing her PhD in ant evolution and behaviour and conducting postdoctoral work in the US, she became a professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Currently, she teaches at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, where she studies the behaviours of slaveholding ants and different work roles in insect colonies. Her findings have been published in over 100 scientific papers to date. (Photo www.fotoredaktion.net)

 

Olaf Fritsche is a science journalist and biophysicist with a PhD in biology. He was previously an editor at the German-language edition of Scientific American, is the author and co-author of many books and has been published in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines.

 

My Review

Just the thought of ants is enough to make some people’s skin crawl. I am not overly worried by them and whilst I am more than happy for the colony’s living alongside our house to stay there, I am less happy with them coming inside as they do occasionally. They are only there for food though and if one of them finds a suitable source of nutrition then it is not long before, what seems like the entire nest is there.

Ants have been around for millions of years and it is thought that there are 22,00 different species of which we have categorised about two-thirds of them. They are a social species and are part of the same family as wasps and bees. They can live in tiny colonies of thirty or so individuals or vast nest containing millions. Each species has evolved in a particular way even though they have some common habits, there is a whole world of particular differences between them.

Ants are a fascinating species and one that Susanne Foitzik has made a career from. She has written over 100 paper on ant behaviours but along with Olaf Fritsche in this book, they are bringing their cutting edge research to the wider readership. It is a mix of personal stories from collecting colonies and filling their host fridge with them, writing about how different species enslave other ants or other insects for food. Some caterpillars crawl into the nest as this is the safest place for them as they pupate unless they do not disguise themselves with the correct pheromones in which case they end up as lunch.

There are stories on how tidy they can be making sure that all waste is placed outside the nest and how this supports another set of creatures in turn. One species is always on the move and they create a shelter called a bivouac in some natural gap. This is made up of ants who hook themselves together to create the shelter to protect the young and old members of the nest. Even though they can’t see much they use other senses to find their way to and from the nest, experiments have show how they use these senses to navigate

I thought that this was a good overview of all things ant. Each of the chapters covers a particular topic on how ant colonies operate, from The Birth of a Colony to The Path to World Domination. It is very readable and thankfully it didn’t read like an academic paper as some popular science books can do at times. If you like insects and creepy crawlies then this would be right up your street.

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour

Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here

My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the copy of the book to read.

Save Our Species by Dominic Couzens

4 out of 5 stars

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

Our wildlife in the UK is suffering more than ever before. The onslaught of modern life, intolerant landowners and farmers that are pushed to try and make a living mean that our wildlife has been pushed to the fringes like nothing before. Animals, such as the hedgehog that was once commonplace are now on the endangered list. There are eleven other mammals on the red list a full 25% of our native species.

Hearing things like this can make people feel helpless, but there are things that we can do to help out those that are most critical. In this book, Dominic Couzens has chosen thirty animals that are on this list and has written a little about them and specific issues that they are facing and most importantly has got lots of practical ideas and suggestions as to how we can help these creatures.

Starting with the hedgehog, a cute prickly mammal that most people are fond of, he details ways in which homeowners can help these little hogs. There are simple things like not using slug bait, leaving a small(ish) patch untidy and not digging up your lawn. Check piles of rubbish before disposing of and a new thing that is happening in my area, creating gaps to make a hedgehog highway.

The plants that you put in your garden can make a big difference, we all know about plants for pollinators, but adding in night-scented plants attracts moths, which in turn brings in those wonderful flying mammals, bats. There are other animals that you might not come across as you look out your kitchen windows like dolphins and hen harriers, but there are many suggestions on how you can help these too, including reducing plastic use and making sure it is properly disposed of, choosing fish in the supermarket that have been caught sustainably. Joining wildlife trusts and picking a particular society of an animal that you love is another way of helping. All monies in these societies are put towards helping in the best way possible.

I thought that this was a really nicely put together book. Couzens has lots of sensible ideas and practical things that you can do to help and you don’t often have to spend a lot of money either. The drawings by Sarah Edmonds add a really nice touch to this too. Buy it, read it and do something about it.

To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre by Victoria Bennett

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre by Victoria Bennet and published by Indigo Dreams Publishing.

About the Book

These poems are an intimate meditation on love and loss, told by a daughter as she cares for her mother through terminal mesothelioma. The poet invites the reader to be witness to the private moments of dying, from the physical reality of caregiving through to the alchemy of death, telling the story of a relationship between women that is transformed through grief.
Honest, unsentimental, and quietly uplifting.

About the Author

Victoria Bennett founded Wild Women Press in 1999 and has spent the last 21 years facilitating creative experiences and curating platforms for women to share ideas, stories, inspirations and actions for positive change, including the global #WildWomanWeb movement and #WildWomanGamer. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University (2002). Previous awards include the Northern Debut Award for non-fiction (2020), the Mother’s Milk Writing Prize (2017), The Writing Platform Digital Literature Bursary (2015), Northern Promise Award for Poetry (2002), and the Waterhouse Award for Poetry (2002).
Her work-in-progress memoir, ‘All My Wild Mothers’, was long-listed for the Nan Shepherd Nature Writing Prize 2019 and the Penguin #WriteNow2020 programme.

Victoria is currently undertaking her MRes in Creative Practice at the University of Highlands and Islands (Shetland), exploring narratives of absence within landscapes of personal and ecological loss. She is a director of The Wizard and The Wyld Ltd, creating immersive playable poetry within video-game platforms. A frequent digital collaborator, she interested in how poetry and new technologies can be used to create meaningful and authentic narratives.

My Review

Many people have experienced loss of some kind or another in the past year and a half. Whether that is the loss of some freedoms that we have taken for granted up until now or a loss of close contact with family or the death of a loved one, it has not been an easy time.

Victoria Bennet poems in this collection are about her caring for her mother who is suffering from terminal mesothelioma. They are written with the full knowledge that her mother is going to die from her cancer and we as a reader can understand some of that emotional rollercoaster that she is going through.

so quiet,

I almost missed you leaving.

This is grief in its most raw form, her most intimate thoughts and feelings of the terror of losing someone so precious to her are written in these poems. And yet in amongst this intense emotional prose, there is still hope, a fundamental understanding that these feelings are always transitory, that life carries on, that death can give life.

She is not there any more, but there are still glimpses of her in shop windows and the scent of lily of the valley that brings memories that will never fade.

 

And the tides are not full of sorrow

But stones, singing:

A story yet to be told

 

There are very few books out there that have this raw visceral emotion that Bennet has managed to squeeze in this very slender collection. Each person’s grief is so very different and yet so similar. We cling to those things and memories that remind us of that person who is no longer here. Grief never leaves us, we may be able to compartmentalise it but there will always be that unexpected moment where it can unleash its full force on us again. I am not sure that I can say that I liked this book, but it is powerful, honest and a reminder that life continues after we lose someone so precious.

 

Three Favourite Poems

How To Watch Someone Die

Solway

There Is Always More To Lose

 

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour

Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here

My thanks to Isabelle Kenyon for the copy of the book to read.

Follow Victoria on Twitter here

Her website is here

Gone by Michael Blencowe

4 out of 5 stars

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

At the moment scientists think that we are in the midst of the sixth extinction. The attrition rate of what used to be common species is just shocking and whilst we know some of the headline species that are at a critical level, such as Javan rhinoceros and Snow Leopards, there are bound to be a lot of other species that we have no idea about that are at a similar critical level.

As morbid as it sounds, Michael Blencowe has had a fascination with extinct creatures since childhood. That fascination has fully developed into an obsession, the result of which is this book. He travels around the world in search of the remnants of some of his favourite long-gone creatures with the hope of seeing or maybe even getting to touch some of these animals that are sadly no longer with us.

There are eleven animals in this book that he is looking for and he will head to San Francisco, Finland and New Zealand to search for the last traces of these magnificent animals. His first creature, though is more local, the Great Auk. These used to live in the UK and could be found on the various tiny islands scattered across the North Atlantic seaboard, but he was heading to Lundy to see where a vicar had been given an enormous egg by an islander. These huge birds were not able to fly, rather they were more like the penguins in the Southern Hemisphere and almost exclusively aquatic creature, By 1830 there was just one island left with these magnificent birds on and ironically their rarity made them more valuable. Soon they were all gone. And we had killed every last one.

There are still remains though, these are tucked away in museums where he heads to see the last example of this species. Another bird that suffered at the hands of greedy collectors was the Spectacled Cormorant. This was gone by 1852, and it was only after this that it was discovered that it had a much wider range than just the Bearing Sea. Not quite as beautiful is the Steller’s Sea Cow which is a dugong with skin as furrowed as oak bark and weighing ten tonnes. These huge animals were first spotted after the naturalist, Stellar has spotted them in the sea on the island they were shipwrecked on. It wouldn’t be long before they were no more too.

Even though it is a grim subject, I thought that Blencowe has written a really nice book. He is a lyrical writer and at times his prose is quite funny. This is a well-researched book. On top of that, he is passionate about his long-gone subjects, deftly mixing in his current travels with the historical context of how these animals disappeared. It is a warning shot across the bows too, a reminder that we are responsible for a lot of these extinctions at the moment and it will only get better if we change our habits and practices and see that the entire biosphere is interlinked and that our actions will have dramatic consequences. I thought that the artworks in the book by artist, Jade They are just beautiful. Definitely worth reading too.

May 2021 TBR

Another month passes and I suddenly realised that I haven’t decided what I am going to read for next month! Quickly shuffled around the spreadsheets and now have a list for May. Totally ambitious as ever, but I did read a fair amount in April. So here we go:

Finishing Off

Lotharingia – Simon Winder

Behind the Enigma – John Ferris

 

BLOG TOUR

To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre – Victoria Bennett

Empire Of Ants – Suzanne Foitzik & Olaf Fritsche

 

Review Copies

Wyntertide – Andrew Caldecot

Astral Travel – Elizabeth Baines

The Germans and Europe – Peter Millar

Reset – Ronald J. Deibert

Britain Alone – Philip Stephens

The Future of You – Tracey Follows

We Own This City – Justin Fenton

Born Digital – Robert Wigley

Fox Fires – Wyl Menmuir

Invisible Work – John Howkins

The Power of Geography – Tim Marshall

Finding True North – Linda Gask

Elites – Douglas Board

Trimming England – M.J. Nicholls

The Fugitives – Jamal Mahjoub

Spaceworlds: Stories of Life in the Void – Ed. Mike Ashley

Slow Trains Around Spain – Tom Chesshyre

Westering – Laurence Mitchell

Much Ado About Mothing – James Lowen

Earthed A Memoir – Rebecca Schiller

Phosphorescence – Julia Baird

The Others – Raül Garrigasait

Burning The Books – Richard Ovenden

The Four Horsemen – Emily Mayhew

 

Library

Everybody Lies – Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

On the Plain of Snakes – Paul Theroux

Notes From Deep Time – Helen Gordon

Sea People – Christina Thompson

Summer In The Islands – Matthew Fort

The Electricity Of Every Living Thing – Katherine May

 

Books to Clear

Battle of the Titans – Fred Vogelstein

Where My Heart Used to Beat – Sebastian Faulks

Prisioners of Geography – Tim Marshall

 

Poetry

Three this month as I only read one in April

Watery Through the Gaps – Emma Blas

To Start The Year From Its Quiet Centre – Victoria Bennett

Door Into The Dark – Seamus Heaney

 

Challenge Books

From Rome to San Marino – Oliver Knox

 

Stanford Award

Without Ever Reaching the Summit – Paolo Cognetti

The Border – Erika Fatland Tr. Kari Dickson

Shadow City – Taran Khan

Travelling While Black – Nanjala Nyabola

Owls of the Eastern Ice – Jonathan C. Slaght

 

Science Fiction

Planetfall – Emma Newman

After Atlas – Emma Newman

I know it is quite a lot, but I am hoping to get to at least 18 – 20 of them

The Spirit of the River by Declan Murphy

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

I have been fortunate to see a few glimpses of kingfishers, they are super fast and you have to learn where they will be perched to see them feeding. That iridescent blue flash is captivating for many others too, one of whom is Declan Murphy. He first spotted one of these birds as a young lad and he never forgot it.

Nature becomes more than his crutch; it was his comfort and became his way of coping with the world around him. He had spent time watching a family of woodpeckers in the past and realise that even though he had seen a lot of kingfishers, he knew nothing about their habits and lives. He decided that it would be an opportunity to find a pair and spend a spring and summer watching them. It would also mean that he was immersed in the natural world once again. But first, he had to find them.

He stood on the bridge on his first trip to the river watching the mass of water rush underneath that Storm Daniel had unleashed on the land. It didn’t bode well. However, over the noise of the water, he could hear birdsong. It took a little while, but he then spotted the bird creating the song; a Dipper. These are amazing little birds who forage for food in rivers picking invertebrates out from the river beds. They would be a perfect bird to watch as he tried to locate where the kingfishers were nesting.

Then one day he spots the flash of blue on his way to see the dippers. They were back and now he had to try and find where they were going to be nesting, it would be a bit of a challenge given the landscape. But a chance spot of a pair helped him to locate the unusual spot where they were nesting. Now he knew their spot, he would spend as long as he could there watching them.

Overall I liked this book, though there were a couple of parts that I didn’t think fitted with the rest of the book, though I understand why they were included. Murphy has a keen eye and is able to describe the things that he is seeing on the river in enough detail so you feel that you are participating in watching the dippers or kingfishers alongside him. The writing style is conversational, he has put in long hours watching the kingfishers raising their brood into a pretty good book. I can imagine him telling you of his day’s exploits a watching these birds over a pint in the pub. I am not sure which part I liked the most, the chapters about the kingfishers or the chapters on the dippers.

How To Be Sad by Helen Russell

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

In this perfect Instagrammable life that we are supposed to be leading, there is no space for boredom or sadness. These things do not fit in the busy lives of influencers and celebrities and they expect us to follow their lead. Not only are we not allowed to be sad now, but people are scared of this emotion and seem to want to do every to protect themselves and their loved ones from experiencing it. Only the visible outpouring of grief for celebrities that we have never met seems to be acceptable forms of emotion.

But being sad is just a normal emotion it shouldn’t be something that we push to one side in the hope that it will go away and we can carry on as before. In this book, Russell thinks that we should fully embrace it, learn what is happening to us when we are sad and the best ways of getting through it and out the other side. She has had plenty of time to be sad in her life, details of which she expands on in the book. Sometimes her sadness leads onto moments of depression and other illnesses.

There are lots of things out there to help us when we are suffering from moments of sadness the music to choose, the places to go, apps that can help when you are at your lowest ebb and the buddy system so you can have a person to lean on as and when you need it. There is even a recommendation for reading fiction when sad, and if you can’t bring yourself to pick up a book then an audiobook can have the same effect. Getting out of the home can be a big help too, either for a walk or if feeling particularly brave cold water swimming.

I thought that was a really well-considered and researched book that Russell has written about the subject of sadness. I feel that she is spot on with her conclusion that the pursuit of happiness and the perfect ‘Instagram’ life is causing so many problems, especially when people have those times in their lives that don’t conform to their expectations. Even though she has written this book to help you, it doesn’t feel like a self-help book. She is not preachy but guides with humour her experiences about how to be sad and how to get through it in a positive way. The advice is sensible and more importantly achievable and she details how that will help us to appreciate the happier times much more. Well worth reading.

Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

4 out of 5 stars

This is not a comfortable read by any means. Gleeson has had a tough life, having had to have hip replacements, treatment for Leukaemia and what seems like reading this a raft of other ailments. On top of that with she and other women are on the receiving end of the strong catholic patriarchy in modern-day Ireland. It is a culture that sees women purely for their baby-carrying duties and still has to ‘cleanse’ them after they have given birth as they think it is unclean.

This is a memoir of suffering, but also of life. Gleeson has never been a person to dwell on the life that she has been gifted, rather she sees it as a way of understanding more about herself and more importantly helping and giving hope to other women in similar positions with long term and chronic illnesses. It is not all about her though, there is an essay on her Aunt Terry whose mind is beginning to fade away from the terrible disease that is Alzheimer’s and the story of Beryl Markham who flew across the Atlantic from East to West and took a sandwich and a flask of tea.

She is spirited enough to see through all of this, persuading relatives who are against abortion to change their mind and vote for it, educating her children that these things are about choices that you make about your body and these things should not be dictated by someone who has no interest in your welfare. She can be quite graphic in her description of medical treatments and also critical of some of the doctors that she has been treated by, who have shown very little empathy about her various conditions. This lyrical and book is her way of shining a light on the manifestly unfair system in her home and should be essential reading for everyone who wishes to gain an insight into improving the ways of treating women in particular.

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