Category: Review (Page 1 of 86)

Nightingales in November by Mike Dilger

3.5 out of 5 stars

We don’t get many different species of birds in our garden, mostly sparrows, the odd blue tit, magpies, lots of pigeons and sometimes doves. I have seen herons on the house behind, and every now and again we glimpse goldfinches and we even had a pair of mallards once! It is a bit of a mix, but mostly we leave them to get on with it. Move away from the houses around and suddenly there are far more birds around, buzzards and the occasional kite wheeling overhead and magnificent swift scything through the air in the height of summer.

Some of what we consider our native birds are actually visitors. Some of them fly here for what we laughingly call our summer before heading vast distances to much warmer climes during our grey winters. In this book Dilger has selected twelve of our well-known birds, the Peregrine, the Blue Tit, Tawny Owl, Robin, Kingfisher as well as some of the summer and winter visitors that we have, the Waxwing, the Puffin, the Lapwing, Bewick’s Swan, the Swallow, the Cuckoo and the bird that the book is named after, the Nightingale.

Each chapter covers a month and each of the birds has a short essay telling us the sorts of things that they would be typically doing at that time of year. In January, we read about the Bewick’s Swan who are overwintering as it is much warmer than their summer haunt of the Siberian tundra. Kingfishers are keeping a low profile near the rivers and Tawny Owls starting to defend their territory. In the same month, thousands of miles away in South Africa the swallows flit catching insects around the big game.

By the middle of the year, the days are long, and most of the birds mentioned have bred and are carrying out the thankless task of feeding their young, the lapwings are fairly self-sufficient when they hatch, the kingfishers are just starting to force their first brood out to fend for themselves and the Puffin’s egg is still being incubated. The Peregrine’s chicks are just starting to flex their flight muscles and take to the air.

As the winter closes in the summer visitors will be long gone, the chicks of the cuckoos having managed to follow the parent they have never seen back to Africa, the blue tits are emptying the nuts from your feeder and the robin’s songs have returned and the nightingale is enjoying the warmth of tropical Senegal.

In all these multiple timelines are vast numbers of facts and details, stories and anecdotes about each of the birds and it makes for fascinating reading, especially about those that migrate and how the detective work has found their routes to and from the UK. I personally I would have preferred a separate timeline for each bird through their year, rather than month by month, as I would occasionally have flick back to see what they were up to in the previous chapter. That is only a minor thing though as otherwise, it is a good concept to show how each of these birds live their own separate and intertwined lives. I did love the little sketches of each bird and the beginning of each chapter/month.

The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

4 out of 5 stars

When the Lost Words was released back in 2017 no one ever thought that it would become a phenomenon in its own right. It was conceived after the OUP dictionary removed several words relating to the natural world and Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris collaborated to produce a stunningly beautiful book that could teach children these words again. The poems or ‘spells’ from that book were put to music and there have been jigsaws and even a game.

This second book that takes the things that worked so well in the first book, the prose and Morris’s exquisite artwork and have packaged them into the more compact version here. As in the first book they have picked animals, plants and insects such as barn owls, moths, oak goldfinches and swifts and many others that have a few verses or lines of prose and then several pages of pictures.

I did like it a lot, Macfarlane’s prose has been deliberately written to be read out loud by parents and children and relies on repetition and rhythm and often onomatopoeia to bring these creatures alive in the pages of this book. It did amuse me that this is described as pocket-sized, whilst it is much more manageable than the first edition, you would still need a fairly large pocket to carry it around in. It is a stunning book, and that is mostly because of Jackie Morris’s artwork, it is so full of life. I did like the glossary at the end of the book with images of all the creatures to be found by the eager young naturalist.

A Bird A Day 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.

In the first lockdown this year, people started to become more aware of the wild world around them, helped by the drop in traffic, wildlife that you may not have seen or heard before would suddenly become more visible. Some of the easiest wildlife to see is birds and this book is aimed at those who have discovered that watching them can be endlessly fascinating.

In this new book out, Dominic Couzens has picked a bird for every day of the year. Some of them are obviously linked to that day in particular, so there is naturally a robin in December and birds that are more common in the summer appear in those months in the book. Quite how you only pick 366 birds from the 10,000 or so species that we still have is quite something, but Couzens has managed to get the familiar, the exotic the rare and the unusual in a really nice mix.

The first thing that I did when receiving this was to look up the bird that is on my birthday. That bird wasn’t one that I had ever heard of but it was fairly unique in one of its habits.

It is a beautifully produced book, it is printed on quality paper and feels heavy. The stunning photographs and artworks accompany all of the chosen birds, along with a small piece of text with facts and anecdotes about their behaviour or habitat or unique trait.

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

A tiny scrap of a bird had fallen from a tree in a road in London and if someone hadn’t of picked it up it would have been dead by the following morning. Thirty years earlier another bird had fallen from a steeple and that was found and picked up. The bird in London was a magpie and was taken to a man called Charlie Gilmour by his girlfriend. The other was a jackdaw and it was given to his father all those years ago when he was living in some squalor in a Cornish stately home.

Charlie’s father was a man called Heathcote Williams a poet, writer and anarchist who abandoned him and his mother when he was two years old. Williams work was prolific as his life was turbulent. He has almost nothing to do with Charlie as he grew up, and he became the adopted song of the Pink Floyd guitarist, Dave Gilmour.

Charlie was fortunate that his adopted father was a stable presence, but the genes that tormented his father had a similar effect on him. He had issues with drugs and whilst at university was arrested and imprisoned for violent disorder after an incident at the Cenotaph in London. He was slowly returning to stability with

Both of these corvids would profoundly change the men in their own way.

This book is about that tormented relationship and so much more. He had been estranged from his stepsisters, but after a fleeting contact with one of them, he builds it into a healthy relationship with them both. It does feel that he is trying to replicate the chaos and anarchy that his father brought to many people’s lives. Somehow the presence of the Benzene, the name he gives to the magpie and his partner Yana is a big help with his mental stability.

It is richly layered with the complex relationship that he has with his real father. At one point in the book he is reading through Heathcote’s papers (he never calls him dad) he suddenly realises that they are very alike in the way that they react to situations, some of the things that drive him affected his father in a similar way. He makes the decision to get appointments and get the proper professional help he needs to get better.

Having read Corvus by Esther Woolfson recently, you could see some parallels to her book. In particular the stories about the magpie around the home and its daily habits and rituals and how these intelligent birds are hugely opportunistic. It was interesting to see the way that a wild bird changes and becomes partly tamed whilst living in their home and the way a tiny scrap of the natural world can calm and change a person. Overall it isn’t a bad book, there are some moments of brilliant writing in here, but for me, there was that extra something missing to make this really special.

Blood Ties by Ben Crane

4 out of 5 stars

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

Who we are, defines how we interact with others. Crane is one of those people who has always struggled with relationships and friendships. A relationship in the past left his with a son who he hasn’t seen in a while. A later diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome goes some way to explaining the difficulties that he had. But he still prefers his own company, hence why he lives in a remote cottage. One thing that he is passionate about though is raptors he is a self-taught falconer, learning from the book and practical experience.

It was this obsession about falcons that would take him to Pakistan. He is there to buy some of the simple but beautiful handmade bells that are made by the craftsmen there. It was a chance find online with a craftsman, that put him in touch with one of these men and after he expressed an interest in their manufacture, he was invited to visit. The trip expanded and he stayed to see the villagers fly the local goshawks, and to see first hand how they train them and seeing how the knowledge of falconry is passed from father to son.

Nine years later he has two sparrowhawks in the aviary attached to his cottage. They are called Boy and Girl, naming them would create too much of a bond as he has been training and rearing them for rehabilitation and release back into the wild. He was training these two birds at the same time that he heard that his son wanted to get back in contact with him. Both situations, he needs to think carefully about what he is doing as it would be so easy to ruin the beginnings of the relationship with his son and harm the birds as their strength builds.

I have read a fair few books on individuals using nature as a crutch or support for the troubles that they are having in their life at that particular time and this book is similar to those in many ways. Where it differs though is that Crane is mostly happy with his lot, he knows so much about raising sparrowhawks that whilst they will be a challenge, it is not out of his comfort zone. Where he does struggle though is his limitations with regards to other people, in particular, his ex-partner and their son. He finds a determined boy who knows his own mind and who has a rare perception for someone so young. I particularly liked the descriptions of his travels to Pakistan and Kazakhstan and I thought this was a well-written book that links nature and family ties together.

The Secret Life of Fungi by Aliya Whiteley

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 biggest single living thing on earth is not a blue whale or a redwood tree, rather it is a simple fungus. I say simple, this particular specimen of honey fungus is huge, mind-boggling huge. It is the Malheur National Forest in the state of Oregon. It was found because it was killing trees in this forest and when the DNA was taken from trees around 2.4 miles apart, it was found to have the same DNA. Overall it was calculated to be 3.7 square miles and the guesses at its age vary between 1,900 – 8650 years old.

They are some of the strangest living things that we have found so far on the planet. Bizarre is only part of it. They live all around us and sometimes even on us. They can work in harmony with the natural world or their mycelium can suffocate the life from its host. Those looking for a high, can try and source magic mushrooms, but where they choose to grow makes them less than appealing. They can be a wonderful source of food, from the ubiquitous button mushroom to the very hard to find, but exquisite truffle. They have even named one, the porcini, after me…

Aliya Whiteley is one of those with a fascination, or to be more honest, an obsession with all types of fungi. It began in her childhood trying to take pictures on her camera on the ones she found on Darkmoor that always ended up a little out of focus when the film came back from the chemist. These specimens though were just the visible part, to learn more about them she would have to delve much deeper. Looking through the guide books she found that some of the names given to them were quite wonderful, who would not want to find a fairy sparkler? Others names though have a much more sinister vibe, who can fail to have a chill run down their neck at the thought of a death cap.

All fungi are edible. Some fungi are only edible once.” – Terry Pratchett

Whiteley has packed this book with hundreds of facts about fungi, you can learn which species ejects its spores at 20,000g, which mushrooms the mummy that emerged from the ide in the Alps was carrying, which species she found a carpet of yellow mushrooms in a woodland walk on the way home from a club and which fungi that have the names Toxic Ooze and Clint Yeastwood. I rather liked this. It is not supposed to be a rigorous study, rather, Whiteley’s writing is fun to read as you follow her looping connections of all things mushroomy. It doesn’t read like a science paper either, her attention to detail is a countered with a dry sense of fun and lots of anecdotes of her fungi forays.

Mancunian Ways Edited by Isabelle Kenyon

4 out of 5 stars

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

There are certain cities in the UK that have a lot of character, London of course, but there are others including Newcastle, Bristol, Liverpool and of course, Manchester. They all have a particular thing about them that makes them distinctively different from other cities.

This distinctiveness can be seen in all elements of the city, from the language to the culture and Manchester is unique in their own special way. One of the publishers in this city is Fly on the Wall Press. They are a social enterprise company and a not for profit publisher who looks to publish short stories and poetry on the pressing issues of our time. This anthology was collected after a call to the creative people of this city.

The anthology is mostly poetry, but there are photographs and some of the art that can be found around the city. It is split into six sections, Northern Dream, Modern Manchester, Northern Spirit, Mancunian History, Northern Grit and Northern Culture and each of the poems for that section, fit the theme.

The sky above Manchester that night,

Beaten to a thin gleam as if

Some brawny northern god

Had hammered a path to the stars

I do have a small confession, I have never been to Manchester, but know a little about it by reputation and music and so on. The thing that I like most about this collection is the diversity of views. There are poems on commuting, rain, cranes that puncture the sky, the homeless and even a love story. Rather than having photos of the main sites of Manchester the photos and artwork show slightly gritty urban streets and locations, i.e. places and people that you will see if you were to walk around the city. One day I will have to visit.

Three Favourite Poems
The Portico
Let There Be Peace

Inglorious by Mark Avery

4 out of 5 stars

The news about the Glorious 12th has always been very much on the periphery of my knowledge. I have vague recollections of hearing it on the news over the years and knew it was to do with shooting grouse. What it refers to is the ‘sport’, and that is a very loose definition of the word, of driving the red grouse that have been artificially raised on out moors and uplands towards lines of guns so they can shoot them. Great, eh?

The grouse have very little choice as to where they can go and this ‘spot’ is not hunting where it is the hunter versus the hunted, where the odds of getting a kill are much lower. Rather this is where people drive the birds towards a line of guns where they can pick the low flying birds off, with little or no effort. To take part in this ‘sport’ you need deep pockets for the day and the shotguns. Or you just need to know someone who has a suitable moor in their vast estates…

The people that run these claim that the ‘sport’ is economically important to the area that it takes place, bringing employment and income to an area that has precious little else. It is true that it generates an income, however, when you look at the figures it is a mere drop in the ocean compared to our GDP. They would make more money from wildlife tourism. The other thing that they do is to eradicate all threats to the red grouse chicks. This means illegally killing all predators from eagles, wildcats and most importantly, hen harriers.

Avery has come from a conservation background and for years has sought to find a way to allow these magnificent raptors to survive and ideally thrive on the moors and uplands. But the shooting lobby and organisations do not really do compromise and the scant concessions that they are prepared to make are almost nothing compared to the concessions they expect others to make.

Some of the facts that Avery revels in here are really quite shocking. This is about powerful people, who often haunt the corridors of power on both sides of the houses of parliament and who are used to getting their own way regardless if it is illegal or not. Most distressing is the lack of prosecutions of people who deliberately seek to kill hen harriers and eagles and other wildlife. I feel that it should be the perpetrators and the landowners that should face fines and or jail.

As grim a read as it is, it is worth reading. Very much ‘Inglorious’ and more of a national tragedy. Avery is well informed and has targeted his fury at the practices of the shooting lobby into this book and other campaigns to get a ban of this ‘sport’.

It’s The End of the World by Adam Roberts

4 out of 5 stars

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

2020 has been pretty crap, to be honest. The pandemic spread around the world with startling rapidity and as I write this we are just entering lockdown for the second time in the UK. For some who have caught this virus, it is the end of the world, their individual world. But there are other things out there that scare people more than a virus, like the next asteroid, or the impending doom of climate change, amongst other things.

One of the most common types of apocalypse is the end of the world predicted by religions. A lot will be aware of the detail written in the books of revelations found at the end of the bible, but this is not a recent theme, as it can be found in other religions and even in the Norse mythologies. These are often tied into the return of a particular deity who with bring the end of days with them and amongst believers the belief that this will happen can be quite high. A lot of the reasons behind this end is a punishment for particular transgressions and is an opportunity for those in favour to move onto a better place. I have read lots of stories of those in cults who have trooped up hills expecting the end and a few days later shuffled back down again after nothing happened…

Science fiction is full of stories about worlds ending and one of the most popular genres at the moment is the Zombie one. Most of them are about these half-dead creatures that are intent on reducing you to the same as them. The lumber about, making them fairly easy to outrun, but I can see why these stories fill some people with dread. I am not a huge fan of zombie fiction, but of the few that I have read, The Girl With All The Gifts and the Boy On The Bridge by M.R. Carey are very good well-thought-out stories.

Having avoided the undead, Robert’s then confronts the virus. Well not just that one, but the real-life viruses that have changed and shaped humanity in the past. These have never been the end, we’re still the most populous mammal on the plant after all, but the fear of catching something nasty or unpronounceable is high of people’s fear list. This fear has seeped into fiction too, with stories about the end of civilisation captivating and scaring people in equal measure.

The end of the world as seen in films like the Matrix and Terminator occupy some of our fears, especially with the rise of AI that some bright spark thought it would be a good idea to give weapons to. Thankfully these ideas mostly inhabit the minds of science fiction writer as they can give people serious nightmares.

I must admit that the earworm that kept going through my head reading this was ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by R.E.M. It is a good job I like the song. For a book about the end of the world it is actually quite upbeat and light-hearted at times, but not in a cynical way. He has a bone dry sense of humour, and I think that he is another Pratchett fan too! Roberts wants to take a look at our fears in a rational way with crystal clear analysis as to why we think the way that we do and the reality behind a lot of the scenarios described. He hits the nail on the head by saying the fear of a lot of people is our mortality rather than the world at large. We worth reading and it might even put your mind at rest too.

Corvus by Esther Woolfson

3.5 out of 5 stars

Every day that I am out and about there are four birds that I am guaranteed to see, gulls, pigeons, magpies and crows. I am not a fan of the first two, but the latter two are always fascinating to watch, whatever they are doing. Just watching crows dancing in the wind is quite something. We have had the odd bird in the house before now, including a magpie recently, but I am not sure that I would want one in the home as a pet though.

Esther Woolfson is another who is fascinated by corvids, but her interest began when her daughter brought home a fledgeling rook that she had rescued. She nursed it back to health and Woolfson clips her feathers to stop her flying as they are concerned that she wouldn’t survive in the wild. She ends up staying as a family pet. They call her the faintly ridiculous name of Madame Chickeboumskaya. It was shortened to Chicken, which I thought was equally daft!

They had had a number of birds before this rook and she had doves outside her Aberdeen home too. But watching her moving around the house and interacting with everything, she didn’t expect her to be quite as intelligent as she was. She would cache food, especially items that she liked, but would think nothing of ignoring some that were presented to her. They construct a wire enclosure to allow her outside sometimes, but they need to be wary of the neighbour’s cat. Her daily rituals become much as part of the family as their own.

Further along the line, she acquires a magpie that had fallen from the nest before fledging and she calls it Spike. His wings are not clipped. He was very different in behaviour to Chicken and she found it fascinating comparing them to each other. Watching these two birds piques her interest in other corvids and she is lucky to see ravens nesting on a trip to Lochaber.

I did like this book, reading it feels like you are sitting at the kitchen table watching the antics of her two semi-wild birds happen around you. Her writing is gentle, beautiful and occasionally whimsical. These are sparklingly intelligent birds that can even mimic her voice and some of the phrases that she says. They are characters and love a routine. However, I am not sure about the morality of keeping a rook and a magpie inside. I feel these are wild birds and should be free. That said, she cares deeply for them, almost as much as her children and they would not have stood much of a chance if they hadn’t have been rescued. All through the book are beautiful drawings by Helen Macdonald of H is for Hawk fame. Might not be for everyone, but I thought it was worth reading.

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