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20 Books of Summer 2021

After the truly bloody horrible May that we have had, the past few days of heat and sun have meant that it almost felt like summer. Not convinced it will last though. And as it is summer then it must be time for this challenge once again.

It was dreamt up by Cathy at 746 Books, it is a challenge for bloggers and anyone else and the aim is to try and read through 20 books that are on their TBR. I have tried for the past two years. In the first year, I read 18 and last year I only managed 12. I almost didn’t do it this year, but I like the idea of it and It is good to support another blogger in what they are doing to promote reading. Follow the hashtag #20booksofsummer21 to follow those who are taking part this year.  I like to pick themes normally. Last year it was travel and this year the theme is trying to read through some of the review books that I have had around for way too long. So without further ado, here is my list of books:

An Affair Of The Heart by Dilys Powell

Dilys Powell’s love affair with Greece and the Greeks began on a sun-baked archaeological dig in 1931. Joining her husband the archaeologist Humfry Payne on the remote peninsula of Perachora, she came to know the villagers who laboured on the site, camping beside them year after year, for months at a time.

Despite personal tragedy, the occupation of Greece and civil war, Powell’s affair of the heart continued. She returned time and again through the ’40s and ’50s, and with each visit there was a reconciliation with her idyllic memories of the country. Both with Humfry and without, she explored remote mountains in the company of shepherds, isolated stretches of coast and island with local fishermen and olive-dotted hillsides with the subsistence farmers who worked them. Out of this she has fashioned a gem of a travel book.

 

Wyntertide by Andrew Caldecot

Welcome back to Rotherweird, where an ancient plot centuries in the making is about to come to fruition – and this time the forces of darkness might actually win . . .

The town of Rotherweird has been independent from the rest of England for four hundred years, to protect a deadly secret.

Sir Veronal Slickstone is dead, his bid to exploit that secret consigned to dust, leaving Rotherweird to resume its abnormal normality after the travails of the summer . . . but someone is playing a very long game.

Disturbing omens multiply: a funeral delivers a cryptic warning; an ancient portrait speaks; the Herald disappears – and democracy threatens the uneasy covenant between town and countryside.

Geryon Wynter’s intricate plot, centuries in the making, is on the move.

Everything points to one objective: the resurrection of Rotherweird’s dark Elizabethan past – and to one date: the Winter Solstice.

Wynter is coming

 

The Con Artist by Fred van Lente

This illustrated mystery will appeal to comic book fans and anyone who appreciates an unconventional whodunit.

Comic book artist Mike Mason arrives at San Diego Comic-Con, seeking sanctuary with other fans and creators—and maybe to reunite with his ex—but when his rival is found murdered, he becomes the prime suspect. To clear his name, Mike will have to navigate every corner of the con, from zombie obstacle courses and cosplay flash mobs to intrusive fans and obsessive collectors, in the process unravelling a dark secret behind one of the industry’s most legendary creators.

 

Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History by Sam Maggs

A modern girl is nothing without her squad of besties. But don’t let all the hashtags fool you: the #girlsquad goes back a long, long time. In this hilarious and heartfelt book, geek girl Sam Maggs takes you on a tour of some of history’s most famous female BFFs, including:

• Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the infamous lady pirates who sailed the seven seas and plundered with the best of the men
• Jeanne Manon Roland and Sophie Grandchamp, Parisian socialites who landed front-row seats (from prison) to the French Revolution
• Sharon and Shirley Firth, the First Nations twin sisters who would go on to become Olympic skiers and break barriers in the sport
• The Edinburgh Seven, the band of pals who fought to become the first women admitted to medical school in the United Kingdom
• The Zohra Orchestra, the ensemble from Afghanistan who defied laws, danger, and threats to become the nation’s first all-female musical group

And many more! Spanning art, science, politics, activism, and even sports, these girl squads show just how essential female friendship has been throughout history and throughout the world. Sam Maggs brings her signature wit and warmth as she pays tribute to the enduring power of the girl squad. Fun, feisty, and delightful to read—with empowering illustrations by artist Jenn Woodall—it’s the perfect gift for your BFF.

 

Water Ways: A Thousand Miles Along Britain’s Canals by Jasper Winn

For a hundred and fifty years, between the plod of packhorse trains and the arrival of the railways, canals were the high-tech water machine driving the industrial revolution. Amazing feats of engineering, they carried the rural into the city and the urban into the countryside, and changed the lives of everyone. And then, just when their purpose was extinguished by modern transport, they were saved from extinction and repurposed as a ‘slow highways’ network, a peaceful and countrywide haven from our too-busy age. Today, there are more boats on the canals than in their Victorian heyday.

Writer and slow adventurer Jasper Winn spent a year exploring Britain’s waterways on foot and by bike, in a kayak and on narrowboats. Along a thousand miles of ‘wet roads and water streets’ he discovered a world of wildlife corridors, underground adventures, the hardware of heritage and history, new boating communities, endurance kayak races and remote towpaths. He shared journeys with some of the last working boat people and met the anglers, walkers, boaters, activists, volunteers and eccentrics who have made the waterways their home. In Britain most of us live within five miles of a canal, and reading this book we will see them in an entirely new light.

 

The Night Lies Bleeding by M.D. Lachlan

The world is at war again. London is suffering from the German Blitz. For one immortal werewolf, the war means little. He knows he will soon have to give up his identity once more, begin a new life. Before the wolf emerges.

But a chance conversation leads him to the scene of a gruesome murder, and the realisation that another war is being fought. The runes want to be together, and the when they are the wolf’s story will end.

And in Germany, one weak-willed doctor finds himself caught up in the Third Reich’s fascination with the occult and the Norse myths. They believe that the runes will bring them power, and wish to abuse them for their own ends.

And if they succeed, Ragnarok will come.

 

Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls by Tim Marshall

 

We feel more divided than ever.
This riveting analysis tells you why.

Walls are going up. Nationalism and identity politics are on the rise once more. Thousands of miles of fences and barriers have been erected in the past ten years, and they are redefining our political landscape.

There are many reasons why we erect walls, because we are divided in many ways: wealth, race, religion, politics. In Europe the ruptures of the past decade threaten not only European unity, but in some countries liberal democracy itself. In China, the Party’s need to contain the divisions wrought by capitalism will define the nation’s future. In the USA the rationale for the Mexican border wall taps into the fear that the USA will no longer be a white majority country in the course of this century.

Understanding what has divided us, past and present, is essential to understanding much of what’s going on in the world today. Covering China; the USA; Israel and Palestine; the Middle East; the Indian Subcontinent; Africa; Europe and the UK, bestselling author Tim Marshall presents a gripping and unflinching analysis of the fault lines that will shape our world for years to come.

 

The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist by Tim Birkhead

From the author of Bird Sense, a biography of Francis Willughby, the man who pulled the study of birds out of the dark ages and formed the foundations of modern ornithology.

Francis Willughby lived and thrived in the midst of the rapidly accelerating scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Travelling with his Cambridge tutor John Ray, they decided to overhaul the whole of natural history by imposing order on its messiness and complexity. It was exhilarating, exacting, and exhausting work. Yet before their first book, Ornithology, could be completed, Willughby died in 1672. Since then, Ray’s reputation has grown, obscuring that of his collaborator. Now, for the first time, Willughby’s story and genius are given the attention they deserve.

In his too-short life, Francis Willughby helped found the Royal Society, differentiated birds through identification of their distinguishing features, and asked questions that were, in some cases, centuries ahead of their time. His discoveries and his approach to his work continue to be relevant–and revelatory-today. Tim Birkhead describes and celebrates how Willughby’s endeavours set a standard for the way birds–and indeed the whole of natural history–should be studied. Rich with glorious detail, The Wonderful Mr Willughby is at once a fascinating insight into a thrilling period of scientific history and an authoritative, lively biography of one of its legendary pioneers.

 

The House of Islam by Ed Husain

‘Islam began as a stranger,’ said the Prophet Mohammed, ‘and one day, it will again return to being a stranger.’

The gulf between Islam and the West is widening. A faith rich with strong values and traditions, observed by nearly two billion people across the world, is seen by the West as something to be feared rather than understood. Sensational headlines and hard-line policies spark enmity, while ignoring the feelings, narratives and perceptions that preoccupy Muslims today.

Wise and authoritative, The House of Islam seeks to provide entry to the minds and hearts of Muslims the world over. It introduces us to the fairness, kindness and mercy of Mohammed; the aims of sharia law, through commentary on scripture, to provide an ethical basis to life; the beauty of Islamic art and the permeation of the divine in public spaces; and the tension between mysticism and literalism that still threatens the House of Islam.

The decline of the Muslim world and the current crises of leadership mean that a glorious past, full of intellectual nobility and purpose, is now exploited by extremists and channelled into acts of terror. How can Muslims confront the issues that are destroying Islam from within, and what can the West do to help work towards that end?

Ed Husain expertly and compassionately guides us through the nuances of Islam and its people, contending that the Muslim world need not be a stranger to the West, nor its enemy, but a peaceable ally.

 

Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age by Fred Pearce

Environmental journalist Fred Pearce travels the globe to investigate our complicated seven-decade long relationship with nuclear technology, from the bomb to nuclear accidents to nuclear waste.

While concern about climate change has led some environmentalists to embrace renewable energy sources like wind and solar, others have expressed a renewed interest in nuclear power as an alternative source of carbon-neutral energy. But can humanity handle the risks involved?
In Fallout, Fred Pearce uncovers the environmental and psychological landscapes created since the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Traveling from Nevada to Japan to the UK to secret sites of the old Soviet Union, he explores first the landscapes transformed by uranium and by nuclear accidents–sites both well-known and little known. He then examines in detail the toxic legacies of nuclear technology, the emerging dilemmas over handling its waste, the decommissioning of the great radioactive structures of the nuclear age, and the fearful doublethink over our growing stockpiles of plutonium, the most lethal and ubiquitous product of nuclear technologies. How, Pearce asks, has the nuclear experience has changed us? Is nuclear technology indeed the existential threat it sometimes appears? Should we be burdening future generations with radioactive waste that will be deadly for thousands of years?
Fallout is the definitive look at humanity’s nuclear adventure, for any reader who craves a clear-headed examination of the tangled relationship between a powerful technology and human politics, foibles, fears, and arrogance.

 

Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion by Humphrey Hawksley

Few territories are as hotly contested as the western Pacific Ocean. Across the 1.5 million square mile expanse of the East and South China Sea, six countries lay overlapping claims that date back centuries. China, Vietnam, Korea and Indonesia assert their right to trade routes, deploying military garrisons to defend disputed territories while Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines resist their expansion. But no single government can face a superpower such as China alone, and as the country extends its reach, less powerful states look to the US for diplomatic mediation creating an American security umbrella that stretches across the Asia-Pacific nicknamed the “American Lake”. These conditions produce an unstable cocktail of competing interests and international tensions poised for conflict.

BBC foreign correspondent Humphrey Hawksley has been following this increasingly precarious situation in East Asia for decades. Reporting on years of political developments, he has witnessed China’s rise to become one of the world’s most powerful trade entities, elbowing smaller markets out in the process. In Asian Waters, Hawksley draws on his experience as a veteran journalist to portray the region in all its complexity and delivers a compelling account of where it is heading. Will China continue to rise to power peacefully or will its ambition prompt a new world war? Will Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan create a multi-lateral alliance similar to NATO to pre-empt further encroachment? Asian Waters delves into these topics and more as Hawksley presents the most comprehensive analysis of the region to date.

 

Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth by Adam Frank

Light of the Stars tells the story of humanity’s coming of age as we awaken to the possibilities of life on other worlds and their sudden relevance to our fate on Earth. Astrophysicist Adam Frank traces the question of alien life and intelligence from the ancient Greeks to the leading thinkers of our own time, and shows how we as a civilization can only hope to survive climate change if we recognize what science has recently discovered: that we are just one of ten billion trillion planets in the Universe, and it’s highly likely that many of those planets hosted technologically advanced alien civilizations. What’s more, each of those civilizations must have faced the same challenge of civilization-driven climate change.

Written with great clarity and conviction, Light of the Stars builds on the inspiring work of pioneering scientists such as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, whose work at the dawn of the space age began building the new science of astrobiology; Jack James, the Texas-born engineer who drove NASA’s first planetary missions to success; Vladimir Vernadsky, the Russian geochemist who first envisioned the Earth’s biosphere; and James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, who invented Gaia theory. Frank recounts the perilous journey NASA undertook across millions of miles of deep space to get its probes to Venus and Mars, yielding our first view of the cosmic laws of planets and climate that changed our understanding of our place in the universe.

Thrilling science at the grandest of scales, Light of the Stars explores what may be the largest question of all: What can the likely presence of life on other worlds tell us about our own fate?

 

Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do by Wallace J. Nichols

Why are we drawn to the ocean each summer? Why does being near water set our minds and bodies at ease? In Blue Mind, Wallace J. Nichols revolutionizes how we think about these questions, revealing the remarkable truth about the benefits of being in, on, under, or simply near water. Grounded in cutting-edge studies in neurobiology, cognitive psychology, economics, and medicine, and made real by stories of innovative scientists, doctors, athletes, artists, environmentalists, businesspeople and lovers of nature – stories that fascinate the mind and touch the heart – Blue Mind will awaken readers to the vital importance of water to the health and happiness of us all.

 

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

In Sapiens, he explored our past. In Homo Deus, he looked to our futureNow, one of the most innovative thinkers on the planet turns to the present to make sense of today’s most pressing issues.

How do computers and robots change the meaning of being human? How do we deal with the epidemic of fake news? Are nations and religions still relevant? What should we teach our children?

Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a probing and visionary investigation into today’s most urgent issues as we move into the uncharted territory of the future. As technology advances faster than our understanding of it, hacking becomes a tactic of war, and the world feels more polarized than ever, Harari addresses the challenge of navigating life in the face of constant and disorienting change and raises the important questions we need to ask ourselves in order to survive.

In twenty-one accessible chapters that are both provocative and profound, Harari builds on the ideas explored in his previous books, untangling political, technological, social, and existential issues and offering advice on how to prepare for a very different future from the world we now live in: How can we retain freedom of choice when Big Data is watching us? What will the future workforce look like, and how should we ready ourselves for it? How should we deal with the threat of terrorism? Why is liberal democracy in crisis?

Harari’s unique ability to make sense of where we have come from and where we are going has captured the imaginations of millions of readers. Here he invites us to consider values, meaning, and personal engagement in a world full of noise and uncertainty. When we are deluged with irrelevant information, clarity is power. Presenting complex contemporary challenges clearly and accessibly, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is essential reading.

 

The Restless Kings: Henry II, His Sons and the Wars for the Plantagenet Crown by Nick Barratt

In The Restless Kings Nick Barratt presents the tumultuous struggle for supremacy between the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, and his four sons – a drama that tore apart the most powerful family in western Europe and shaped the future of two nations.

As well as exploring the personalities and crises facing these extraordinary people as a family, The Restless Kings follows them as they raced around western Europe, struggling to hold together a vast conglomeration of lands – often through force of arms – whilst constantly harried by the their nominal overlord and arch rival, Philip Augustus, king of France.

Although the key events took place over 800 years ago, their significance still resonates today. Whether you’re looking for the root causes of Brexit or tension in the Middle East, their origins can be found in the actions of the Angevin kings of England.

The Restless Kings will challenge everything you assumed you knew about the medieval world. Above all, it brings to life some of the most remarkable, complex, flawed and brilliant monarchs ever to have sat on the English throne.

 

The Kindness Of Strangers: Travel Stories That Make Your Heart Grow by Ed. Fearghal O’Nuallain

Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer

Travel opens our minds to the world; it helps us to embrace risk and uncertainty, overcome challenges and understand the people we meet and the places we visit. But what happens when we arrive home? How do our experiences shape us?

‘The Kindness of Strangers’ explores what it means to be vulnerable and to be helped by someone we’ve never met before. Someone who could have walked past, but chose not to.

This is a collection of stories by accomplished travellers and adventurous souls like Sarah Outen, Benedict Allen, Ed Stafford and Al Humphreys, who have completed daring journeys through challenging terrain, adventuring from the Calais Jungle to the Amazon, from Land’s End to the Gobi Desert, from New Guinea to Iran and many other places in between. Each has a story to tell of a time when they were vulnerable, when they were in need and a kind stranger came to their rescue.

These are stories that make our hearts grow, stories that will restore our faith in the world and remind us that, despite what the media says, the world isn’t a scary place – rather, it is filled with Kind Strangers just like us.

All royalties go directly to fund Oxfam’s work with refugees.

 

To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Every day, President Obama received ten thousand letters from constituents. Every night, he read ten of them before going to bed. This is the story of the profound ways in which they shaped his presidency.

Every evening for 8 years, at his request, President Obama received a binder containing ten handpicked letters from ordinary American citizens — the unfiltered voice of a nation — from his Office of Presidential Correspondence. He was the first to President to save constituent mail, and this is the story of how those letters affected not only the President and his policies, but also the deeply committed people who were tasked with opening the millions of pleas, rants, thank yous, and apologies that landed in the White House mailroom.

Based on the popular New York Times article, “To Obama,” Laskas now interviews the letter writers themselves and the White House staff who sifted through the powerful, moving, and incredibly intimate narrative of America during the Obama years emerges: There is Kelli, who saw her grandfathers finally marry – legally — after 35 years together; Bill, a lifelong Republican whose attitude toward immigration reform was transformed when he met a boy escaping M-16 gang leaders in El Salvador; Heba, a Syrian refugee who wants to forget the day the tanks rolled into her village; Marjorie, who grappled with disturbing feelings of racial bias lurking within her during the George Zimmerman trial; and Vicki, whose family was torn apart by those who voted for Trump and those who did not.

They wrote to Obama out of gratitude and desperation, in their darkest times of need, in search of connection. They wrote with anger and respect. And together, this chorus of voices achieves a kind of beautiful harmony: here is a diary of a nation. To Obama is an intimate look at one man’s relationship to the American people, and the the intersection of politics and empathy in the White House.

 

The Secret Network of Nature: The Delicate Balance of All Living Things by Peter Wohlleben

Did you know that trees can influence the rotation of the earth?
Or that wolves can alter the course of a river?
Or that earthworms control wild boar populations?

The natural world is a web of intricate connections, many of which go unnoticed by humans. But it is these connections that maintain nature’s finely balanced equilibrium.

Drawing on the latest scientific discoveries and decades of experience as a forester and bestselling author, Peter Wohlleben shows us how different animals, plants, rivers, rocks and weather systems cooperate, and what’s at stake when these delicate systems are unbalanced.

The earth’s ecosystems are too complex for us to compartmentalise and draw up simple rules of cause and effect; but The Secret Network of Nature gives us a chance to marvel at the inner workings and unlikely partnerships of the natural world, where every entity has its own distinct purpose.

And the more light that is shed on relationships between species, the more fascinating nature’s web becomes.

 

What We Have Lost by James Hamilton-Paterson

Between 1939 and 1945, Britain produced around 125,000 aircraft – to take one example – and enormous numbers of ships, motor vehicles, armaments and textiles. We developed radar, antibiotics, the jet engine and the computer. Less than seventy years later, the major industries that had made Britain a global power industrially and militarily, and had employed millions, were dead. These industries had collapsed within a mere three decades. Had they really been doomed, and if so, by what? Can our politicians have been so inept? Was it down to the superior competition of wily foreigners? Or were our rulers culturally too hostile to science and industry?

James Hamilton-Paterson, in this evocation of the industrial world we have lost, analyses the factors that turned us so quickly from a nation of active producers to one of passive consumers and financial middlemen.

 

Bloody Brilliant Women: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries and Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot to Mention by Cathy Newman

 

A fresh, opinionated history of all the brilliant women you should have learned about in school but didn’t.

In this freewheeling history of modern Britain, Cathy Newman writes about the pioneering women who defied the odds to make careers for themselves and alter the course of modern history; women who achieved what they achieved while dismantling hostile, entrenched views about their place in society. Their role in transforming Britain is fundamental, far greater than has generally been acknowledged, and not just in the arts or education but in fields like medicine, politics, law, engineering and the military.

While a few of the women in this book are now household names, many have faded into oblivion, their personal and collective achievements mere footnotes in history. We know of Emmeline Pankhurst, Vera Brittain, Marie Stopes and Beatrice Webb. But who remembers engineer and motorbike racer Beatrice Shilling, whose ingenious device for the Spitfires’ Rolls-Royce Merlin fixed an often-fatal flaw, allowing the RAF’s planes to beat the German in the Battle of Britain? Or Dorothy Lawrence, the journalist who achieved her ambition to become a WW1 correspondent by pretending to be a man? And developmental biologist Anne McLaren, whose work in genetics paved the way for in vitro fertilisation?

Were it not for women, significant features of modern Britain like council housing, municipal swimming pools and humane laws relating to property ownership, child custody and divorce wouldn’t exist in quite the same way. Women’s drive and talent for utopian thinking created new social and legislative agendas. The women in these pages blazed a trail from the 1918 Representation of the People Act – which allowed some women to vote – through to Margaret Thatcher’s ousting from Downing Street.

Blending meticulous research with information gleaned from memoirs, diaries, letters, novels and other secondary sources, Bloody Brilliant Women uses the stories of some extraordinary lives to tell the tale of 20th and 21st century Britain. It is a history for women and men. A history for our times.

 

So there we go. Is there any that you’ve read? Or now want to read? Let me know in the comments below

Born Digital by Robert Wigley

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Our reliance on some of the huge companies in almost all the things we do online is what makes this is a terrifying read. Their hold over us using some of the most sophisticated techniques around to keep us coming back every time our phone squeak at us. It is addictive and it is in those companies interest to keep us addicted too.

They seem to circumvent regulation too, claiming that they are doing all the things that are required to keep their users safe. However, they are not, as it is in their interests to keep us scrolling, clicking and making them money. The top engineering and neuroscientists who are making these apps against your willpower is hardly an even match so it is no wonder we are being subsumed into the online vortex so much.

Wigley includes a lot of information on how we consume our current digital diets. I don’t think we realise just how much time we all spend on screens of one form or another each day; it is quite shocking really. The way that the younger generation communicates is very different to how we used to do so, most of them have lots of messaging apps open and find the face to face communication far more difficult. Whilst an instant message may be easy to send, it is very easy to misinterpret a short pithy one-liner, something that is harder in front of someone as we pick up lots of visual clues from the person we are talking to. These modern apps are designed to be addictive, the amount of time my children spend on YouTube and Twitch is quite shocking. I use YouTube to listen to music a lot, but I am not watching the videos as it is on in the background.

This addiction is giving us what Barak Obama called an empathy deficit. It is not that we don’t care, but these devices are overwhelming us with their demands. We need that empathy as a society, it is the glue that binds us together. Companies providing the most addictive apps tend to aim for getting dopamine release that internal drug that you get from pleasurable moments. Experts are worried was this continual release of the drug is doing to our children’s brains. He explores how Generation Z is doing with regards to relationships and how the landscape of love and sexuality is changing. They are also changing the way we eat; the big brands are being nudged aside by this generation as they seek authentic companies to spend their money with; that is coupled with a greater environmental awareness that I think will change the political landscape in years to come.

I wouldn’t say I liked this book, Wigley talks about some very difficult subjects about the way that we interact with technology. However, I would say this should be essential reading for those that have children and who let them use technology to keep them occupied when you are doing other things. It has a clear structure to the book and he has obviously done his research well as he lays out his arguments on the positive and negatives of our device addiction and argues for the abolition of anonymity online which I had not really considered before. Well worth reading as it will make you think about how we use these devices.

The Future of You by Tracey Follows

4 out of 5 stars

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

Who are you?

It is a legitimate question that may have several answers depending upon where you are at that particular moment in time. People modify their behaviour depending on who they are with and where they are. Your work persona is different to the one in the pub, for example.

The same applies online, a good example of which was started by Dolly Parton where she had four images of herself that represented the ideal image for four social media platforms, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Tinder. The meme went viral, with lots of people interpreting it in their own way. The way that our lives have changed as we are spending much more time online is changing our identities in ways that we have not even considered.

You know who you are and you are probably fortunate in that there is probably something in your home that means that you can identify yourself should you need to. However, around the world that are around a billion people who do not have that luxury so back in 2015, The United Nations committed to reaching a number of development goals, including clause 16.9, ‘Providing legal identity for all’. But how do you set about doing that in a world that you need to be running in, not to be left behind.

One country that has made a strong start in integrating real and online identities is Estonia. They realised back in 1994 that the online world was going to mesh with the real world and have set many things up, such as blockchain and i-voting to enable an online presence. Anyone in the world can apply to be an e-resident of the country and that gives you certain rights. Lots of things here are online now, I have renewed my passport, paid car tax and signed numerous petitions in the vain hope of influencing the political overlords. Most of those have been in vain though…

Tying all of these things together in a virtual environment is proving challenging as private companies have different ID requirements to the government who all seem to have their own specific requirements. As complicated as this is there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of plans should some part of the data that you use to identify yourself be compromised. This data can be used for good and bad, Follows, an example of the way that South Korea used personal data to control and manage the Covid pandemic is as impressive as it is worrying.

When it hasn’t descended into a cesspit, social media can sometimes be great. In amongst its many faults is the problem with the younger generation seeing the ‘celebrities’ and influencers people often feel inadequate and left out and how they are creating two accounts, a ‘Rintsa’ one where you present the image that you want to portray to the outside world and a ‘Finsta’ account that is the real, unadulterated you.

It is a wide-ranging book coving all sorts of details about the modern interlinked world and the challenges we face. There are chapters on replacing you, enhancing you and even destroy you, or at least your digital presence. Thankfully Follows deals with these issues in a very readable way, taking time to clearly lay out the positives and negatives of our fast-changing lives. If you have any form of digital presence then this is essential reading.

Westering by Laurence Mitchell

4 out of 5 stars

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

Laurence Mitchell really didn’t have a plan for this walk, rather the aim was to drift west from his home on the east coast with the intention of ending up in Wales at some indeterminant point in the future. He did want to head back to some of the places that held memories for him though and also to explore other places that he had passed in the car and knew little about. The route that he didn’t want to plan, was suddenly coming together.

He decided to begin in Great Yarmouth, and more specifically from the Britannia Monument. His wife and he took advantage when it was open to the public on the annual heritage weekend and they could climb the 217 steps to the top. Being Norfolk is was one of the highest points around and he could see the spit of sand that Yarmouth was based around. He turns inland and looks at the silver snake of Breydon Water. He would be heading in that direction in a few days along the Wherryman’s Way.

Mitchell was not going to attempt the whole walk in one go, life and other things were going to mean that it wasn’t possible. Rather he undertakes it in several sections and the first day’s walk was around seven to eight miles and ended up at the Berney Arms pub. He caught a train back to Norwich he returns a week later to walk onwards again. This time he would be walking alone and back to his home in Norwich. It is not long before he is walking into the Fens, a part of the county that he has only really seen from a car or train window. It is a reminder that sometimes we need to get to know where we live a little better.

The second part of the walk is in the Midlands, a place that he knows well as he grew up in Redditch. It was way back in his memories but had changed a lot since he left, so it felt like he was visiting a new place. Gone is the heavy industry and there are still traces of it left if you know where to look. Even though it was close to the urban centre of Birmingham the people of Redditch were independently minded and they still are.

Wales is the final part of his journey. He picks up the walk again after the winter heading back to Clun in May. He walks over rather than along Offa’s Dyke, the original border between England and Wales and finds himself walking along the Kerry Ridgeway, a path that predates the Iron Age. Wales is a place of memories, holidays and days out from home when he was younger. The pace is slower here because of the hills but it is not long before he will be in Aberystwyth.

It seems strange reading about travelling in the times before the pandemic, normal conversations were had, he eats in restaurants. Well, you know what I mean. This is no Great Walk, rather this is a lovely paced memoir with a lovely mix of travel, personal memoir and anecdote and with potted histories of the places he passes. It is also a glimpse of a part of the country that I know very little about. One of the places that he passes through is on my list to visit one day, Sutton Cheney. (I have to really). It even has a bibliography, a lot of which I know about, but some of which I haven’t read, yet.

The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell

5 out of 5 stars

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

There are parts of the New Forest that have not changed in the past thousand years since the land was seized by the new monarch, William the Conqueror, nee Bastard and he made is one of his new hutting forests. It is not heavily wooded, rather it is a delightful mix of woodlands, heathlands and other habitats. Bar the few roads that cross it and small towns there has been very little development on the landscape, wildlife that is rare in other parts of the south can often be found here.

It is a place that Neil Ansell has known since childhood. He grew up in Portsmouth fairly close to the area and would spend days there watching all sorts of wildlife and immersing himself in the natural world. This is a trip back through his own memories of childhood and a self pilgrimage to find the place that had such a long-lasting impact on the direction of his life.

He begins in January on the heath at Shatterford; it is bitter and a strong wind isn’t helping either. The sun glinting off the ice does add a certain magic. Just pausing long enough to look at the fractal patterns on the pond is enough to bring the birds out from where they had been hiding as he had walked up, stonechats and then in the sky, a raven. He follows the trail onward and pauses again to sit on a fallen branch. He takes in what is around and then sees a bird perched on top of a dead birch, a shrike.

It is wiser to go out with my eyes wide open, to fully appreciate what is actually there, rather than ending up regretting what is absent.

He returns each month to the forest just to be there really. Some visits have a specific aim; to find a place that was once a memory, but mostly he is there just to walk aimlessly and see where it leads him. By visiting regularly, he gets a better sense of the way that the seasons fade into each other. There are moments though where you sense that another pivot has been reached, the return of a particular migrant, the first flower from a plant that wasn’t there the last time he passes and the first butterflies floating about.

The journey there takes him past where he grew up and each time the train stops at Cosham, he has a nervous feeling as the memories pour back. He didn’t have an unhappy childhood, but the events at the time set in motion the direction of his life and have determined where he ended up now. With this, he draws in a tangle of other threads about the natural world, travellers and strong thoughts on who now owns the land of our country.

The goal is not to walk through a landscape, but to walk into it. The point of a walk is not to reach the end but to reach the middle. To find the centre of things, and soak it all in.

As with his other books this is a joy to read. It is more reflective than his other books, he is recounting past memories of his childhood trips there and tries to find the places that made such a distinct impression on him in his formative years. It is more political than his other books, I think that he has reached a point where he sees birds and animals disappearing that he used to see a few decades ago and rightly feels that we are doing bugger all about it. I do like to that that he is not a specialist in any particular field, rather he is there to absorb the rhythms of the natural world on his wanders through the forest. His steady hearing loss means that the sounds of some birds and the whisper of the wind through the trees are lost to him forever, but this has sharpened his observational skills. It is another wonderful book from Ansell and I can highly recommend it.

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

5 out of 5 stars

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

It took me a while to work out the best place to see swifts here in Dorset, there are rarely above my house. Instead, I found them near the River Stour that I spent many hours by during the first lockdown. They were very high up and I wasn’t paying a huge amount of attention as I was enjoying the sunset more. First I thought the black shapes were bats, but when I looked closely I realised that they were moving far too quickly to be bats, not only that they rarely flapped their wings. Then I looked properly.

Swifts!

They were collecting bugs at dusk and swooping and banking in their distinct way. hey were such a joy to watch that I missed the sun dropping behind the trees that night. I even tried to take some photos on my phone, but they don’t half shift!

I am not that obsessed by them compared to other people, Lev Parikian for example, or the author of this book, Charles Foster, but I can see why they both are. The arrival of swifts back in the country is a marvel of the natural world over the modern world. Waiting for Swifts to return from their African journey is probably worse than waiting for Christmas, at least we know when that day is even though it seems so far away when you’re seven. We don’t actually know what day they will fill our skies with their screaming.

Their power freedom and joy are the way everything really is – though we don’t usually see it. It is just when the swifts scream through the sky, you can’t miss it. That is how everything, all the time, is meant to be.

The first line of this book is: This is an account of an obsession. And he is not wrong either. He begins his story in January in Africa. He is full of snake and gassy African beer watching the swifts hunt for their insect food, swirling around his head so fast that the fuzziness from the alcohol means that he has trouble keeping up with them. They are masters of the air, so much so that they almost never land, always on the move, sleeping, feeding continually and even mating on the wing. The only time they touch down is to nest, lay eggs and feed their brood.

Like most animals they are under threat, In the uniquely British way we have tidied things up and the nooks and crannies that they used for their young have disappeared leaving very little options for nesting. Couple that with the desire to drench every living thing with some sort of insecticide, they are struggling to find the food that they need. To say we need to do more is a mantra that needs repeating endlessly; once they are gone they will not be coming back.

In April we find Foster in Spain, waiting on the top of a cliff for them the pass. He has been there a week and is beginning to hate the coffee, all he wants is a glimpse of them as they pass. As much as he looks though, he never sees them, until there is that scimitar flash in the very edge of his peripheral vision. They are here, passing onto the next landmark on the way home; except the UK isn’t really their home. The season of summer is where they live and they move back and forth across the planet.

‘They’re birds, for Christ’s sake!’ an ex-friend helpfully reminds me, trying to bring me back down to earth. But it’s no good: the swifts aren’t down to earth at all.

Charles Foster doesn’t like to follow convention, something that you will discover if you read, Being A Beast. His prose has an intensity that you rarely find these days; it is like having a double espresso directly in through the eyeballs! His passion, sorry obsession, about these birds is almost addictive and is starting to rub off on his family too. This is a wonderful book about these aerial wizards of the skies and the stunning sketches and artwork by Jonathan Pomeroy make this a perfect book.

Notes from Deep Time by Helen Gordon

4 out of 5 stars

If you were to compress the entire life span of the earth on a clock face, then humanity would only appear in the final two minutes. The two hundred thousand years that we have been around as a species is almost no time at all compared to the 4.5 billion years that the earth has existed as a planet.

For most people getting a grip of how vast geological or deep time, takes a lot of doing. Ten thousand years ago, a mere moment in this timescale, we were still connected to mainland Europe. To see this deep time laid out before us we need to look at the rocks.

Helen Gordon has an obsession with one type of rock, chalk. She had headed out of London to the North Downs just to get some space and thinking time. Near Caterham, she came across a board explaining that the ground she was standing on was once the bed of an ocean around the time of the dinosaurs. Amazed, she decided to find out more so when back in London headed to the Natural History Museum. She looked at the dusty exhibits and wanted to know more. Books on geology led to field trips learning more about the rocks below our feet that tell the story of the deep time of our country and planet.

Finding out more will take her from the glamour of Cambridge Heath Road, to see ice cores in Copenhagen, the Siccar Point to see the place where a man called James Hutton had looked at the granites and sandstones and realised that the earth was much, much older than 75,000 years. She heads to the deserts of America to see where dinosaurs once trod and spends time in Naples learning about volcanos.

I really enjoyed this. If you want a well written and nicely balanced introduction to the field of geology and deep time you cannot go wrong starting with this book. Gordon mages to make this vast subject approachable and also reminds us that we are a mere footnote in history, the planet will continue with or without us.

Finding True North by Linda Gask

3 out of 5 stars

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

Linda Gask has had an interesting and varied life. She retired from being a consultant psychiatrist in the National Health Service and an academic at the University of Manchester a number of years ago. She is now Emerita Professor of Primary Care Psychiatry at the University of Manchester. In the past, she has advised the World Health Organisation and was awarded the President’s Medal by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2017.

To work at that high level you would expect someone who is driven and level headed, but she has suffered from anxiety and depression throughout her life. After she retired she decided to make her home in Orkney, her husband still had commitments down south so they would be enduring separate lives for the foreseeable future. She moves in slowly bringing items from their home in Yorkshire all the while wondering how this abode will cope with the relentless weather that sweeps in all year round. As they talk over Skype, John sees that she is relapsing into another period of mental illness.

It is a challenging time for both of them, John’s mother is admitted to a care home and he still wants to stay near her so they only have a certain amount of time together before he has to head back to Yorkshire. They have always wanted to live in Scotland, but circumstances mean that this isn’t possible at the moment and that isn’t helping with her anxiety. Slowly things begin to change though and a combination of medicines and hope help lift her from her blackest period.

This is a very personal memoir of a life spent helping others with their mental health issues whilst at the same time suffering from her own mental health issues. It did give her an insight into what the patients in her care were suffering from and almost certainly meant that she was in a better place to be able to help them recover. I had hoped for more of the place that she has chosen to live with her husband, Orkney. It is there in the book, but only as a landscape glimpsed occasionally in the narrative, but she does bring its bleak beauty alive in her prose.

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.

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