Monday, 16 October 2017

Review: As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books by Alex Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

It was Alex Preston’s Aunt that foster his love of the natural world and birds in particular. But in his teenage years, skateboarding and listening to Niverna was considered much cooler by his peers than being stuck in a draughty hide. This passion was suppressed but it never went away. Instead, Preston was drawn into an avian world between the covers of books where the poetry and writings from luminaries such as Dillard and Fiennes, Hardy and Hughes. It took another decade and a half for him to feel comfortable in the things that he wanted to do and this reignited his desire to watch birds again.
























Taking us through twenty-one birds as exotic as the blue streak that is the kingfisher and the inspiration for the title of the book, the tiny wren, and the speed of the swifts, Preston extols the virtues of each, weaving in poetry and prose taken from the books that made an impact as he grew up. There are personal stories too, his father with cancer, being alone deep into Russia and his wedding in December. All of these memories are written with a stark honesty.
























Each of the twenty-one chapters is fronted by a breath-taking image created by the graphic artist Neil Gower. These full sizes colour plates show the bird is a typical scene, a peregrine in a stoop, the murmurations of the starlings, Skylarks float over golden fields and the silence of the barn owl. Scattered throughout are black and white sketches of the birds and other objects, even the endpapers are a thing of beauty; the kingfishers that make up the pattern are caught by Gower in that moment as they dive to fish. Whilst I have read some of the books that he mentions in the text I now have a longer list of items that I want to read. Preston has got to the very essence of what makes the natural world and birds in particular necessary to make ourselves whole. The book is so well produced, with its spectacular cover, high quality pages and tactile binding. It is a joy to hold and a delight to read.


    






















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Saturday, 14 October 2017

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Review: Exit West

Exit West Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In an unknown city in Asia, Saeed and Nadia slowly become aware of each other. Their meeting over a coffee is where their story begins, and slowly they start to see each other more. But in a city that is full of tension and with the low-level conflict threatening to erupt into full-scale war, their moments of intimacy are what keeps them sane. Inevitable their greatest fears are realised and civil war commences. Family members are lost in the crossfire, and they know that they need to escape to try and make something of their love and lives. Passing through a door, they end up in a European country. The battle is no more, but as aliens in a strange land, the violence may have ended but hate has not. Making the most of their lives they scratch out an existence before the opportunity for another life through another door beckons.

It is a strangely beautiful book, whilst also being heart-wrenching. Hamid has written a microcosm of the world’s troubles seen through the eyes of a couple who seek companionship as much as they do love and has come up with a metaphor for the current and growing refugee crisis. These people are often here because they have no choice, don’t particularly want to be here and would rather be in their home country living peacefully as they once did. It hovers on the edge of science and dystopian fiction with the ability of Saeed and Nadia pass through doors to other places and the way that the states they inhabit are full of drones and pervasive surveillance. I am a big fan of those type of novels, but this part jarred with the intensity of the rest of the prose on how innocent people are forced to makes these changes to their lives just to exist. It is thought-provoking though and I have a feeling that it will be a book that will rumble around in my subconscious for a while. 3.5 stars.

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Thursday, 12 October 2017

Review: Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past

Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past by J.M.R. Higgs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

It is easy to be complacent about the amount of history we have on this little island of ours. The layers are draped over our landscapes and towns and if you know where to look, the past is startlingly visible. Some of our roads go back to before Roman times, and these have become historical sites in their own right. These include Ermine Street and Icknield Way, the Ridgeway and of course one of Britain's oldest roads, Watling Street. This trackway can be still travelled along in its modern incarnations as motorways and A roads and reaches in a huge logarithmic arc from Dover to Anglesey.

As the path became a trackway the name of the land it passed through changed names. Invaders came and turned it into a road whilst making it straighter and at some point in the distant past, it gained a name; Watling Street. It has seen a lot of history in its time, it is the place that spelt the end to Boudicca, it has heard the chatter of machines decoding secrets and seen the landscape surrounding it change as people have sculpted it to their needs. It has seen myths and legends created and destroyed, and had the lowest in the land to the Royal bloodline travel along its route.

Nowadays it is the same as every other road, with its grey asphalt, pale lines and unnecessary amounts of road furniture, but it still carries people to places that they need to go to. As Higgs travels along it, he peels back the layers that have made us who we are, goes to the significant milestones of history along the route and contemplates how this one road can be a metaphor for who we are and who we may become in this post-Brexit age. It is a difficult book to pigeonhole too, partly history book, partly polemical, a smattering of personal memoir and a draught of nostalgia is probably the best way of describing this. He writes with enthusiasm about the places and people that he encounters on his journey with the odd funny anecdote and sharp wit. However, there is more to this book than that, it is an insightful guide to the current state of the nation and our present psyche. Higgs doesn’t have all the answers, but it is a whimsical look at our country.

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Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Review: Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey In Russian History

Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey In Russian History Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey In Russian History by Rachel Polonsky
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Moscow is a city with layers and layers of secrets and history. Along with other cities in Russia, there has been a level of impenetrability and this mystic has made them a source of fascination for all outsiders. Rachel Polonsky, a British journalist, was fortunate to live in Moscow for a number of years, and where she lived had previously been home to some the elite of the Soviet era. One of those was Vyacheslav Molotov, a man responsible for condemning hundreds to exile to Gulags and almost certain death. Polonsky discovers that his apartment in the block contains a substantial library full of books, some of which were written by those that he despatched to Siberia and an old magic lantern. This discovery that Molotov was a bibliophile was quite startling inspired Polonsky to voyage find the stories hidden in Siberia, to venture into the Arctic Circle, travel across the steppes and into the forests surrounding Moscow.

This is a book that is full of detail of the people and the events that made the Russia revolution and the grip that the totalitarian state had on the people of Russia. Whilst she ventures far into the past of the country and writes about the complex relationships that had developed from the iron grip that Stalin had on the country, there is not as much on her travels around Russia that I would have liked, though it does give a flavour of contemporary Russia. Her prose is incredibly dense, but this is as much from the subject matter, as it is her style. Definitely a book for those that have a fascination with Russia and its history rather than being a travel book for a wider readership. 2.5 stars.

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Thank you to Chatto and Windus for this lovely book