Category: Review (Page 1 of 96)

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Chapters by Marianne Taylor

3 out of 5 stars

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

The first life forms appeared on this small blue dot about 3.7 billion years ago. Since then it has made this place unique in all the planets in the solar system and so far the universe. The number of species has ebbed and flowed constantly, surviving meteorite strikes, mass extinctions and constantly reinventing as everything changes.

So choosing ten species to represent a key aspect of how life is formed from the millions that have gone before is not an easy task. The life forms she has chosen are the fern, a virus, a nautilus, the sponge, a stick insect, the dusky seaside sparrow, the giraffe, softshell turtle, the finches of the Galapagos Islands and of course humans.

For each choice, Taylor has written a chapter with her reasons behind it and lots of details about the lifeform, its place in our world and where it came from on the great family tree of life on this planet. It is packed full of facts and detail about each and I learnt something in every chapter, that the nautilus has been around for millions of years, that some animals are adapting really quickly to environmental change and how convergent evolution shows how vastly different species come up with broadly similar solutions.

There are lots of other books out there that go into much more detail on the origins of life and evolution. However, for some readers there can be too much detail, Taylor in this book has managed to get the balance about right for those venturing into popular science for the first time. I like the way she has picked ten different species to expand on the science of life. There are rich and informative infographics throughout the book that help make it less intimidating. It is a well put together book.

The Secret Network of Nature by Peter Wohlleben

3.5 out of 5 stars

The more that we learn about the natural world the less we realise that we know. The interdependency of every living thing from the alpha predators to the nutrients that move through the system is finely balanced. The way that we have been disrupting and to be frank, most of the time ruining it, is now bringing to light issues that we never even contemplated.

In this book by Peter Wohlleben, he brings to life this web of intricate connections between the most unrelated of animals and plants. These crucial links are not just the predator and prey that ripples up the food chain to the apex predators that you’d expect. These are very important as an overabundance of a particular species can affect countless others if it is not kept in check by its natural predator. He compares it to a clockwork mechanism and in particular to a clock of his grandfathers that he thought that he could take apart and put is back together. He couldn’t and his grandfather was not best pleased.

We’ve already seen that most attempts at fixing things come to nothing, so why not simply trust mechanisms that are millions of years old to carry on functioning without us.

Using this analogy of how tinkering with a system can have massive unknown implications is the theme of the book. He explains how a lack of predators in Yellowstone meant a rise in elk populations who stripped swathes of the vegetation and caused a fall in insects and beavers whose habitats disappeared from the riverbanks. With nothing there to stop the flow, the rivers flooded more often. They released wolves in 1995 who found large numbers of easy to catch elk. As elk numbers dropped, the dynamic of the ecosystem changed, the elk no longer favoured open spaces, i.e. riverbanks, and the plants and trees began to grow back reversing the decline and stabilising the riverbanks once again. The main point of this is that the scientists had never even thought that this one change would have such a multitude of different positive effects in the park.

If you know where to look then you can find these links all over the place. He explains how salmon and trees have mutually beneficial links, why trees don’t like the taste of deer and how ants and aphids have a close relationship. He even looks at some of the folklore myths about the production of beech mast and acorn and given plausible reasons as to why these trees release masses of seeds every few years. Where there is life there is death too, each living thing that passes, from a tiny fly to a huge tree has a range of creatures that are waiting for that very moment; death becomes life and so the cycle repeats.

We need to leave things alone – on a large a scale as possible.

This is not a bad book overall. It is not full of flowery prose, rather it is a concisely written and pragmatic book that uses numerous examples of how the intertwined links in the natural world actually work. The main point that he is making in the book goes back to his clock story at the beginning of the book; namely that these systems are just so complex that even all that we know from scientists studying them, we know so very little of just how they work. It has similar themes to Tapestries of life by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson that has been recently published and is worth reading as a pair.

Fallout by Fred Pearce

4 out of 5 stars

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

When it was first put forward as a source of power for the new age, nuclear seemed to offer almost limitless energy. It had begun to go out of favour until there was a resurgence after people realised that it did not emit as much carbon as coal and gas plants. Sadly the reality was much different. Sadly the enormous power plants only had a limited life span and the ones that were built in the 1960s are mostly decommissioned now.

And it turns out it wasn’t clean energy either.

It isn’t the carbon, rather the problem that humanity is going to have with the nuclear industry is the masses of radioactive waste that was generated in the production of uranium for power generation and plutonium that was needed for the weapons industry. Some of the materials are going to be deadly for thousands of years and the cost of decontamination mounts exponentially.

So where are we with it? And what can be done?

These are two of the questions that Fred Pearce sets about trying to answer in this enlightening book on the nuclear industry. He travels to some of the places that have suffered the worst nuclear accidents, Chernobyl is of course one, but there are others that very few people know about. He visits the places that are trying to make these materials safe for our grandchildren and their decedents who will follow. What he also finds is an industry that is struggling to manage the situation and find places where the long term storage facilities are starting to leak into the environment.

It is to be completely frank, quite scary stuff.

Even though this is three years old, the subjects that Pearce brings to light are deeply troubling. Namely, what are we to do with the gargantuan amounts of waste that the nuclear industry generates and the long term (i.e. thousands of years) solutions to neutralizing it or storing it in a safe and secure place. This is a very readable book that is understandable by the layperson too. Read this and be very troubled indeed.

Human, Nature by Ian Carter

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

The planet that we live on is a finely balanced system. We have for far too long been buggering it up though and there is much evidence that we are reaching a tipping point. What people seem to forget is that we are as much a part of the ecosystems as the worm in your garden and the blue whale.

The intricacies and complexity of these relationships and how we interact with the natural world around us is something that has fascinated Ian Carter for many years. In this book, he has brought together a series of essays and articles that he has written over a number of years that look at the way that we and the natural world have co-existed and the benefits and problems that it causes.

It is split into four sections, Closer to Home where there are essays on rats and what birdwatchers do in the quiet months of July and August and even lets us know his favourite bird. The second section is titled Human Nature. In here he extolls the virtues of making mud pies versus playing  Mario, why we name creatures, how one person’s favourite is another person’s nightmare and that even dead animals have a place in the ecosystem.

The third section is titled Conflict. Here are some of the sticky subjects that he wants to deal with including the spectre of plant and animal non-natives, when should we intervene in rescuing wildlife and should we cull wildlife at all? The final section, Wild Places is looking at how we see wildlife; if the place you park has a pay and display machine can it be counted as a wilderness and the delights of the Isle of Skye in January.

I thought this was pretty good overall. Carter has been involved in conservation for over thirty years now. He started with the nature Conservancy Council before moving to English Nature. In his work, he has been involved in a variety of schemes including the reintroduction of Red Kites. This has given him valuable insight into the way that we interact with the natural world and he conveys just how we are dependent on those links to the wildlife around us. I like that the essays are short distillations of his thoughts about a particular subject and be read all in one go, or dipped into as and when it suits. If you want a slightly different perspective on our complex and complicated relationship with the natural world then this is as good a place to start as any.

The Odditorium by David Bramwell & Jo Keeling

3 out of 5 stars

History may be written by the victors, but it is made by people from all walks of life. Who these people are is often overlooked in the grander history books, but thankfully we have authors like David Bramwell & Jo Keeling who are prepared to poke around in the dustier areas of our past and tell the stories of those that have made their mark in one way or other.

They have split the characters in this book into five different sections, the first is Tricksters & Subversives, Creative Mavericks, Wild at Heart, Pioneers & Inventors and Explorers of the mind. In each part, there are around ten different people that they have found and are telling the story of.

There are a few that stood out for me. W Reginald Bray was one, who in the pursuit of his art, posted anything and everything that he could get in a letterbox. Quentin Crisp who was camp and gay at a time when it was illegal to be, and Alfred Wallace Russell who worked out evolution at the same time as Darwin and is buried just down the road from me in Broadstone. Two particular favourites are Flora Tristan who stood up for injustice before anyone else and Joseph Campbell who took a huge pile of books to a shack in Woodstock and spent four years reading them.

If you want a history book that looks at the people who often go against the flow and you almost certainly haven’t heard of, then this is a good place to start.

Tarmac to Towpath by David Banning & Julian Hyde

4 out of 5 stars

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

The arrival of the Covid virus into Europe changed the way of life across the continent. What was normal, suddenly became forbidden or restricted. Words that were rare in our lexicography suddenly became common; furlough, social distancing and isolation. The first lockdown was a bit of a novelty for everyone. However, as the virus ebbed and flowed around the population, people came to realise that these changes were here to stay for a while.

We were allowed out at times. If you could not work from home then you could travel to work and there was permitted exercise for an hour a day which I used to discover more of my local area. People reacted to these changes in many different ways and David Banning & Julian Hyde have collected in this slender volume text and images from 13 artists across the UK. The first page is a Year planner, wherefrom the 16th March someone has written ‘IN’ on every day until the end of June.

Some of the photos in here show the eeriness of the empty streets, the queues of people waiting to scour the empty shelves for something to eat. Trains that were once full of commuters are now rattling empty along the lines. Most poignant is a series of black and white pictures with the discarded blue face masks picked out in colour.

It was dark; even the faintest stars were unusually clear

I hesitated.
I was afraid of the empty streets.

If you are looking for a very different take on the pandemic so far, then this book is a very good place to start. The artistic responses here are as good as they are unsettling, the empty streets feel like spectral walks, the ghosts of people who once passed seep out of the concrete. Without the people passing the eerie geometries of structures are much more visible, and the surreal things that have been discarded add to the psychogeographical encounters throughout the book. As unsettling as it is, I really liked this, it picks up on themes from the excellent Unofficial Britain by Gareth Rees about those fringe parts of our urban landscape that are not normally seen and brings them to life.

Ciderology by Gabe Cook

3 out of 5 stars

Generally, I am a beer drinker, but there are certain times over the summer when I like to have a cider or two. The acidity of the drink is very thirst-quenching and when chilled very refreshing. And I tend to think that it is one of your five a day…

Even though we think of apples as the archetypical English fruit, they originated from the mountains of Kazakhstan, where the wild Malus sieversii can still be found today. Those fruits are very unpalatable. However, with careful selection of hundreds of years, we have ended up with thousands of varieties of delicious apples that are now grown all over the world. There are the well-known dessert apples, crab apples, cooking apples, and of course, cider apples.

They have fantastic names too. For example, there are apples named Ball’s Bittersweet, Improved Hangdown, Bastard Underleaf and the best cider apple that there is, Kingston Black. I didn’t realise that one of my favourite apples, Egremont Russet is used for cider too. Apart from the Egremont, you wouldn’t want to eat any of these though, they are bitter, full of tannins and sour. But those qualities make them perfect for juicing and fermenting into cider.

I quite liked this book, it is a reasonable introduction to all manner of things about cider, with chapters on drink styles, orchards and the science of making cider. It is fairly comprehensive, but those looking for more depth would be wiser looking in other books. The writing is clear and concise and Cook really knows his stuff. There were a few new things that I learnt from here, for example, I didn’t think that you could grow apples in Sweden and Canada, let alone that they had a growing number of cider producers.

When Quiet Was The New Loud by Tom Clayton

4 out of 5 stars

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

Like everyone I like to think that I have some eclectic and fine tastes in music. However, judging at the looks on my children’s faces, sometimes they scandalously do not consider what I think is the best song that I have so far ever heard as worthy of troubling their ears. Mind you I think similar things about the music that they are playing…

That sums up just how personal musical taste is. A bit like reading really. I wouldn’t say I have a broad musical taste, rather it is pretty niche in particular genres but it does vary from folk to dubstep with some unusual avenues along that route. One of the things that I have never really been into was the phenomena of the late 1990s, Britpop. I quite liked the song, Wonderwall, but a lot of the other bands that existed then never really crossed my musical radar.

As the millennium came and went, and thankfully no one suffers from the bug, the music that took over didn’t crash to shore, rather it rose steadily and quietly like the tide coming in on a calm day. The New Acoustic Movement had arrived without a fuss. Not really considered cool, a lot of people thought that it had been unfairly overlooked, but sales of records proved that a lot of people liked the music that these bands were making. I must admit that a lot of this music escaped me, which has a certain irony, as at the time I was working for a hi-fi company designing multiroom systems and speaker cables and we played a lot of music for research purposes. Instead, at the time I was discovering lots of other bands and music styles that a friend was introducing to me.

One person who was into all these bands was Tom Clayton and one of the things that he felt was that thy were not getting the attention and recognition that he felt they deserved. Neither could he find much written about them, so he decided to write the book himself. His friends couldn’t believe that he wanted to write about these bands. This music had been around in his formative years, he loved them and he was sure that his friends did too, even though they were reluctant to admit it.

In five chapters he will take us through his key records of this era, He begins with Travis and The Man Who. There is a little history behind each band, who there were, where they cam from and a critique of each of the songs he has chosen.

I must admit that this type of music is not really my sort of thing, so much so that I had barely heard of some of the bands, such as Kings of Convenience, Badly Drawn Boy and Turin Brake he writes about. I had heard of Travis and we actually have Dido and Coldplay albums in the house. I couldn’t remember knowingly heard the music either, I. think at the time I was on a journey of discovery into Chicane and Afro Celt Sound Systems.

That said I really enjoyed the book. Clayton has a way with words that makes this book worthwhile reading. These are his favourite pieces of music so the way that he writes about them is warm and generous. There are personal anecdotes all the way through, these are the music that defined his formative years after all. The most amusing of which is where he gets to meet Guy Garvey while on holiday in Cornwall. Even though I haven’t heard many of these, I have been listening to the tracks with an open mind whilst writing this review. Thankfully, Tom has produced a playlist here on Spotify of his favourite tracks.


Croak by Phil Bishop

3 out of 5 stars

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

Frogs have been around far longer than us and are found on every continent except Antarctica. There are thought to be around 8300 species of these amphibians. So far we have identified around 88% of them. They may be more, but no one really knows.

Sometimes you never know the true value of a creature until it becomes a memory – Suzy Cato

Most live in damp places as you’d expect, by being ever adaptable there are some that can live in deserts. This book is a collection of amazing photographs and quotes that Bishop has collected together. The text is from a variety of people such as  Harrison Ford, Colin Tudge, Roald Dahl, Lou Read and even one from a puppet; you’ve guessed it, Kermit.

When we save the frogs, we’re protecting all our wildlife, all our ecosystems and all humans – Kerry Kriger

This is a delightful little book. The quotes are quite memorable and amusing occasionally about our little amphibious friends. Couple this together with a series of stunning images and it is quite the visual feast. Seeing all these pictures reminds me that not all frogs are green; the colour variation between the various species is just staggering. There is a list of the species at the back of the book, but I did feel that it could have done with a few lines about each of them to highlight where they come from and if they are endangered or not.

Trimming England by M.J. Nicholls

2 out of 5 stars

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

We have probably all had those moments when the person in front in front of you in a queue is doing something really annoying or the exasperation of some people who fail spectacularly to wear a simple face mask properly. You could be just that tiny bit happier if you could somehow get rid of them.

In an alternative Britain, set in 2021, the new British Prime Minister Frank Oakface has been elected just with the policy and mandate; to remove each county’s most annoying person and deport them for a period of time to the Hotel Diabolique, a one-star hotel in Jersey. But who will they send, and how long will their exile be for?

The crimes that these characters have supposedly committed vary from Verbal Uxoricede committed by a Craig Scowly of Northumberland, Zydeco Awaking by Sim Triple from Staffordshire to the MP for Wiltshire who had been found guilty of the unbelievable crime of Blabberoonification. Then there is the slightly more believably crime of YouTube comment history by a certain Frank Fitch from East Sussex and Polly Toddle who was incarcerated and the reason given is ‘because she knows why’.

This is one of the strangest books I have read in a while. It ranges from the absurd at times to the ridiculous fairly often. There are some amusing parts every now and again and Nicholls has a broad and warped sense of humour. I did struggle with it a little; I felt it was trying too hard to be funny at certain points. Not really one for me.

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