Sunday, 20 May 2018

Review: Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some are getting too much, most aren't getting enough. No, I don't mean that; what I am talking about is sleep. There are people out there who seem to be able to exist on almost no sleep, people who are in the office at stupid o'clock in the morning and who are still up way after midnight. While scientists knew that we needed food and water and could explain why, no one could adequately explain why we slept, what purpose it served.

It is only recently though that scientists have been able to understand through decades of cutting-edge research just how key sleep is to our health and well-being. In essence, sleep is an essential element to our well being and health and in this book, Professor Matthew Walker sets out just how important it is and how most common diseases in the modern western world have roots deep within our lack of sleep. In this he will explain just what the different sleep types are and how they help us think over deeper and long-term issues, the effects of stimulants on our sleep and why do most teenagers drive like they are missing part of their brain? Because they are… It takes deep sleep and developmental time to accomplish the neural maturation that plugs this brain 'gap' in the frontal lobe. There is a fascinating demonstration on how lack of sleep can affect how we perform; he shows that sleep deprivation can have an equivalent effect to alcohol when driving.

Walker recommends that we need around eight hours each night; I normally only have about six hours sleep a night, heading to bed around midnight and being startled into life as the alarm screams at 6.15. Reading this has made me think about the best way to increase that given the potential health benefits of sleep. Did like the fact that a sleep graph is called a hypnogram. Generally, it is very well written too, he takes time to explain in a clear manner the points that he is making but occasionally it drifts towards more academic prose. If you have trouble sleeping or are just fascinated by the way the body works then you should read this.

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Review: Mysterious Britain: Ancient Secrets of the United Kingdom and Ireland

Mysterious Britain: Ancient Secrets of the United Kingdom and Ireland Mysterious Britain: Ancient Secrets of the United Kingdom and Ireland by Janet Bord
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The phrase, the past is a foreign country is completely true when you venture way back into English history. There are strange standing stones and circles that are still visible in the landscape, ancient earthworks, churches with pagan marks and wells that still have ritual significance even today. Even though modern archaeological techniques and science can go some way to explaining the sites, there is still so much we do not know or can even comprehend.

When this was published way back in 1974 they knew even less then, but there was plenty of speculation as to the origins of the stones, burials and henges. Some of the suggestions in here as to the original purpose of the place would not even be entertained now, for example there is way too much nonsense on UFO's and Ley Lines. Hence it is now quite outdated, but I have had it sitting on a shelf for a decade and a half and though I had better read it. Extracting it from there reminded me a little of Time Team! What I did like though were the photos of the places, they harked back to a time before visitor centres and information boards and were often quite atmospheric.

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Review: Among the Summer Snows

Among the Summer Snows Among the Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Snow? In the summer? It sounds like climate change gone mad and given the weather recently it could be quite feasible. However, this is not the snow that Christopher Nicholson seeks. Most of the snow doesn't last past the summer, clearing before the winter returns, but he is obsessed with the finding those patches of snow in the Scottish Highlands that are left over when the rest have gone and because of the size managed to survive all year.

Nicholson heads alone into the hills braving the elements, it is late summer after all, in search of these ghostly remains of winter. Not every year has them though, a warming climate is ensuring that, but the ones he finds vary in size from a few feet across to huge ones that you can get in underneath. Some of these patches of snow have been there for years, the layers building up to create some truly deep drifts. There are even some that you can crawl under bathing you in this eerie blue-white light as is passes through the ice; they have even been called snow cathedrals.

I have been high in the French Alps in July and see pockets of snow and where we were in Tignes there was a glacier where they were still skiing on. To read about snow pockets was something that I had never expected that we still had in Scotland. There is more to this book than that though, there are musings on the weather, other walkers and a touching tribute to his late wife too. All through the book are hauntingly beautiful photos of the snow caves that he finds on his walks and the fragments of snow set against the dramatic landscape of the Scottish mountains.

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Saturday, 19 May 2018

Review: A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels

A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels by Caspar Henderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

There was a time when humans had a natural curiosity and wonder for the world around themselves. Before Google, to find things out you actually had to go and learn them, experience them or find and read the book about it. Nowadays anyone with an interweb connection can quickly read up about anything about any subject. By having everything available at our fingertips has meant that information is transitory, read but never absorbed and more importantly as Henderson argues in this book, we have almost lost the ability to wonder.

People have wondered what is over that far hill and what lies just beyond the horizon for millennia now and the oldest form of this speculation was the map. These mappae mundi were the places where people's imaginations could run riot, full of strange and magical creatures and of unknown lands, these were the internet of the day.

Should we want to look up from the blue LED glare of our screens though there is still a universe of wonder out there? Henderson takes us on a journey through what he considers to be some of the wonders still left in the world. Beginning with light where he explores from the photon to the black hole passing under the rainbow. He then moves within our body to discover more about the workings of the heart and brain. The chapter on the physical brain leads on to the concept of self as we currently understand it.

The final two chapters and my favourites were on how we see the world then and now and the wonderfully titled Adventures with Perhapsatron. Throughout the book, there are diagrams and illustrations to complement the text and I particularly liked the use of side notes to add a little extra depth, though the grey font wasn't the easiest to read. Overall an enjoyable book.

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Wednesday, 16 May 2018

#BlogTour - Why Do Birds Disappear - Lev Parikian

Welcome to my turn on the blog tour for Lev Parikian's new book, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? 200 Birds, 12 Months, 1 Lapsed Birdwatcher published today:

The picture of the cover doesn't really do it justice. The artwork is exquisite and the title has fine copper foiling, not only that it has a nice heft to the hardback too

A little about the author first. most of the time he is not an author, rather he is a conductor. No, not the one on a bus, but the guy with a small stick who manages to coerce an unruly bunch of musicians into producing marvellous music. He even wrote a book about it called, Waving, Not Drowning. With his second book, he feels that the balance has shifted from just being a conductor to being a writer too. This book was crowdfunded by the new publisher on the block, Unbound. He is currently seeking funding and ideas for his latest venture called The Long and the Short of It where you can suggest the ideas to be written about.

Anyway, back to today's book. Here is my review of the book:

At the age of 12, Lev Parikian was an avid birdwatcher. He had a huge list of birds from the common or garden to the exotic neatly ticked off. Except he hadn't seen some of them, in fact, he had probably only seen half of them. There has been a smidgen over six hundred species recorded as being seen in Britain, and as the bird watching bug bites again after a walk around the park in an attempt to combat middle age spread, Parikian feels that this time he needs a challenge and this time to do things properly. So there are rules; there has to be because this time it is serious.

But what sort of target should he go for? A friend of his managed 206 in a single year, but he was an avid bird watcher, 100 would be too easy and 300 would be unrealistic. A lot of birds that have appeared over here are very rare, swept in by the Atlantic storms and take a day or so to re-orientate themselves before disappearing once again. But first, he needs to create a list, because every birder needs a list. Separating the birds into four categories, already seen, will probably see, might see and no chance (one is now extinct after all) and the list has been whittled down from a vast 600 to an unmanageable 200. It should be ok, shouldn't it?

Starting with the ubiquitous blue tit, so begins a very amusing story of trying to track down his 200 ticks. It will take him from the Dorset shorelines to the dramatic west coast of Scotland, the big skies of Norfolk and the waters of the Somerset levels. He has some spectacular finds and spends a lot of the year not seeing any owls at all; there was one here five minutes ago is not what you want to hear. Some of the trips he is accompanied by his wife and son who seem to tolerate his new obsession and he is helped by other bird watchers that are generous with their time, expertise and telescopes. Two hundred birds in one year is a big ask, can he do it? Will he actually see ll the birds? Can he stick to the rules, or will it be a project that will join the other abandoned ones alongside the discarded resolutions on the barely used yoga mat…

Parikian has written a thoroughly enjoyable book that because of his bone-dry wit had me chuckling and laughing out loud at times. I thought that it was written with genuine warmth about his feathered subjects, his cricket and spreadsheet obsession and his love of life in general. There are amusing anecdotes about him learning to become a conductor at the same place that his father worked as well as nostalgic and poignant moments about growing up and losing his father. One to read and enjoy, and maybe make you reach for the binoculars.

Thank you to Unbound for providing a review copy. 

You can follow Lev Parikian on Twitter here and his blog is here.

Don't forget to get your copy from an independent bookshop. By doing that you support, them, the author and the publisher. Follow the others on the blog tour too:

Review: Eagle Country

Eagle Country Eagle Country by Seán Lysaght
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

When you think of eagles, you imagine them perched on an eyrie high in the Scottish mountains on the West coast. They are majestic birds, soaring over the landscape with almost nothing to fear; except us. The sight of the magnificent sea eagles enthralled him when Lysaght first encountered them in Norway almost twenty years ago. They used to inhabit Ireland too, and as he walks the remote coast and hills and pours over the maps he starts to see the place names that they inspired such as Crag of the Eagle and Eagle Ridge. It was time to get outside.

The best way to get a feel for the country though is to walk through it, climb the ridges and wander the rugged coastline. His walks are often undertaken alone, sometimes with Jessica, his wife, and occasionally with others. His keen eyes see the wildlife as he walks, watching the aerobatics of the ravens, tracing the gulls following the boats out to sea, finches as they buzz over the moors. He is searching for sites that could be or may once have been eyries. Every now and again a raptor lifts into the air, often he sees them being mobbed, yet they are always masters of the air.

He passes houses that have carved stone eagles on the gate posts and as he walks in the rugged landscape scoured by Atlantic, it prompts him to look back to the past to the time when eagles were often seen, collecting the stories from locals and writers that last saw eagles in the Nineteenth century. Their absence today is the result of habitat destruction and persecution. Even today raptors are still poisoned and shot and those with vested interests ensure that the people responsible do not get the punishment they deserve.

On one side, the stream ran into the moss and then re-emerged from the tips of the moss as glistening green-tinted teardrops.

Until I picked this book up, it had never crossed my mind that there were or had been eagles in Ireland too. Sadly there are still not many, there have been a few introduced and the odd one or two have drifted across the sea from Scotland. There are just about hanging on in a landscape devoid of their prey and habitat. Lysaght is also a poet and this book reinforces my own hypothesis that poets write fantastic non-fiction (Kathleen Jamie and Paul Farley to name but two) so his mastery of the language and the descriptions of the coast and hills that he walked looking for eyries is quite special. This is the tenth book in the superb Little Toller Monograph series and is another beautifully made book. It has wonderful atmospheric photos that frame the beginning of each month of walks showing the stark beauty of the land and seascape of this coastline. Loved the hand-drawn maps too, they have a certain charm. Can highly recommend this.

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Sunday, 13 May 2018

Review: Hope In The Dark

Hope In The Dark Hope In The Dark by Rebecca Solnit
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For centuries people have revolted over the control that the state or other powerful individuals have tried to exert over the people. People can only be told what to do so much. I Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit concentrates on the past five decades of activism against the state about all manner of issues. Sonit acknowledges the huge political thinkers who have shaped some of the politics that happen today.

It is an interesting polemic against the vested interests and the present economic system and is written with a clarity that I have come to expect from Solnit. It is a bit dated now, but sadly almost all of the salient points that Solnit makes are still valid. The message though is still clear; never, never give up hope. The smallest actions being carried out by you can be multiplied up into the tens of hundreds of people doing the same thing does have an effect. The rise of website and action groups like 38 Degrees and Avaaz are the testimony to this; exerting pressure on corporations and governments does get through, it is an irritant that they ignore at their peril. I particularly liked the way that think global, act local, can be turned on its head; by thinking local acting global is the replication of the same protest all around our planet. I would love to see a re-write of this to know exactly what she thinks about Trump, can't imagine it will be complimentary…

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