Thursday, July 30, 2015

Reading For Fun, Part Two!

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller.
Published by Fourth Estate, 2015 in paperback.

Fed up of maintaining a pretense about having read books he had not, and wistful about books he wished he had read, Andy Miller set out to create a List Of Betterment and made a determined effort to carve out time in his busy life to read all  fifty of them.
 Each of the books is discussed at some length, whether or not it had lived up to the hype, been worth reading, been an enjoyable read and so forth. I found it endlessly entertaining and the inclusion of his "Lists" (he ended up with three) has given me lots more books I'd like to tackle at some point as I have only read 10 out of the 50 on the original List Of Betterment.

How on earth can you fail to enjoy a book which analyses "The Tiger Who Came To Tea" in the same way as it does "War And Peace" ?  Enormous fun.

The Science Of Harry Potter by Dr Roger Highfield.

This is a charity shop find, published in 2003 by Penguin Books, so  somewhat outdated as far as the science goes, but still a really interesting read about how much of the magic described in the Harry Potter books can actually be rationalised, explained  and even replicated by science.

I do hope an updated version will eventually be published as science has marched on considerably since 2003.

Lost And Found In Prague by Kelly Jones, published by Berkley Books, 2015

I found this by chance when browsing on Amazon and thought it looked worth reading.  The mysterious death of an elderly nun in the church of Our Lady of Victories in Prague - which is home to the miracle-working statue of the Holy Infant of Prague - brings a reporter, a police investigator, a current nun at the Carmelite Convent and an influential Catholic cleric together in an attempt to solve the puzzle of the nun's death. 

It seems unlikely at first glance that  the death of the elderly and infirm Sister Claire might be linked to the apparently random deaths of several other people in the Czech Republic, but it turns out that the echoes of the Velvet Revolution in 1989 still manage to have repercussions to this very day...

Atmospheric and surprisingly captivating, though I did find the repetitious use of the phrase "religious icon" irritating beyond belief by the end of the book ;-)

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Reading For Fun

A significant portion of my reading is done for review purposes, but I have also been doing a lot of reading purely for fun over the last few weeks. 

Just in case you are wondering what I have been enjoying, these are all highly recommended :-)

The Chronicles of St Mary’s series by Jodi Taylor. The staff at St Mary's Institute for Historical research are historians, researchers and scientists and support staff devoted to investigating historical events. It should be made perfectly clear from the outset that they do not do ‘time-travel’. 
Indeed not. They merely ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time’.  So, top secret, high-tech time travel it is.....

 The series starts with Just One Damned Thing After Another, in which we meet Max and watch her exploring Norman London, World War One, get to grips with dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period and rescue books from the fire which engulfs the Great Library of Alexandria.

Book Two, A Symphony Of Echoes, sees the team have a perilously close shave with utter annihilation when they meet Jack The Ripper, witness the brutal murder of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, make the acquaintance of dodos and discover there are time-travelling enemies hell-bent on destroying the work of St Mary's.

Book Three, A Second Chance, investigates whether Isaac Newton was as clever as he was cracked up to be, a jump back to the Cretaceous period once more, the Battle of Agincourt and the only marginally less violent cheese rolling competition in Gloucester before Max's life changes forever when her long awaited trip to Troy goes horrifyingly wrong....

I absolutely loved these books - very clever, brilliantly complex plots and believable characters. I have three more to read :-D
 I haven't included the covers as the books are being re-issued this summer with brand new covers; for further information see Jodi's booksite.

The Spider Shepherd series by Steven Leather

Starting with Hard Landing, in which we meet Dan 'Spider' Shepherd, an ex-SAS soldier turned undercover cop, who goes on a perilous undercover mission inside a prison to find out just how a drugs baron is managing his empire while behind bars. 

When Spider's wife Sue is killed in a traffic accident, Dan is faced with being a single parent and an undercover cop - not an easy combination.

 The series is a long one, but so far I have completed Soft Target, Cold Kill, Hot Blood and Dead Men, and thoroughly enjoyed every one of them.
 Nail-biting, gripping the edge of your seat thriller/detective books, and my current bedtime reading!

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Gift

The Gift

By Wanda Brunstetter

Published by Shiloh Run Press, August 1st, 2015

This is the second book in the "Prairie State Friends" series and this time, we learn more about Leah Mast and her talent for treating others using reflexology. Many sing her praises, but not her neighbour, Adam Beachy. He despises reflexology and takes every opportunity to belittle it and makes Leah feel uncomfortable as a result, especially as she cannot see why he should feel that way.
Leah decides it is best to have as little to do with Adam as possible, but their paths are forced to cross in a dramatic way when Adam's twin sister and her husband are killed in an accident, leaving Adam as the guardian to their three daughters.

Totally out of his depth - and comfort zone - in dealing with the children, who are shocked, traumatised and grieving for the loss of their parents, he ends up asking Leah to help care for the girls so he can continue to work in his hardware store. Seeing each other so often makes their initial attraction slowly develop into more romantic feelings, though neither will acknowledge or admit this openly. The girls become increasingly fond of Leah, and eventually Adam wonders if the best thing for them would be if he asked Leah to embark on a marriage of convenience with him.

When Leah meets a nurse who has just moved to the town and they start a tentative friendship, it turns out there are lots of skeletons in closets. Slowly, the reason for Adam's distaste for reflexology becomes apparent when Leah finds that the reason Adam's mother left her family and the Amish faith was to pursue a career in nursing after using reflexology in her community...

There are lots of twists and turns in the plot of this fast moving book, some of which I anticipated and others I certainly did not. The role of the hummingbirds is simply lovely, the information about banding the birds was fascinating indeed and both Adam and Leah share a great love of nature.  The Amish in this area are depicted as rather more progressive than in other stories, allowing the use of bicycles and we see much less use of  dialect. Leah's parents are often referred to as Mom and Dad as opposed to Mam and Datt, and her parents are very determined that Adam allow Leah to continue her reflexology work after she marries, despite Adam's initially vehement objections.

I found this an interesting read, but don't think it is as good as the first book in the series, "The Decision". It does not seem as neatly crafted as her other books, with quite a lot of repetition of phrases.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Epic Survival

Epic Survival: 
Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer

By Matt Graham and Josh Young

Published by Simon & Schuster, July 2015

We have watched Matt Graham on the Discovery Channel survival show "Dual Survival", so I was delighted to be offered the chance to read and review this title as an e-book. His feats of endurance  are truly remarkable -  in only fifty eight days he ran the entire 1600 mile Pacific Crest Trail and has taken part - on foot!-  in  a three day horse race and finished third.

But what motivated this man to more or less leave the modern world behind in favour of living as close to nature - and as close as it is possible to live the lifestyle of ancient hunter-gatherers? Could anyone do it? What does Matt get from his unusual way of life?

A very real love of nature from childhood and a growing feeling that man is doing himself no favours by alienating himself from the natural world and living in a way that humans were not developed to cope with was the catalyst for changing his way of looking at the world. He made the decision not to drive a car for eight months and instead, he ran everywhere, building endurance and gaining a reputation for both speed and stamina in his running, as well as developing a remarkable way of "reading" the natural world around him in his work as a member of a Park Service search and rescue team. Gradually, he spent more and more time living a "wild" life, willingly learning from anyone who has skills to teach him and then seeking to pass these skills on to others.

The way Matt tells it, he feels that his alternative way of looking at the world which surrounds him is accessible to anyone who wants to live at peace and at one with nature. It is not really surprising that  his belief system changes from a basic and lacklustre exposure to Christianity to a form of spirituality more consistent with that of Native American Indians. As his whole lifestyle becomes more focused on living in harmony with Nature and being mindful of an animal needing to die in order to provide him with food, he learns to be wholly respectful of the animals he kills to sustain his own life and makes sure not to waste anything at all in honour of this sacrifice.

Matt does not feel lonely, but this is most likely not a way of life that would be sustainable to many people. Although I enjoyed the book and found it very interesting, I don't feel the urge to follow his example but will continue to admire his exploits and convictions.
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Monday, July 13, 2015

Ghost Flight

Ghost  Flight

By Bear Grylls

Published by Orion Books, June 2015

I am only just managing to haul my jaw back up from the floor after finishing this book.

At the start of the story, Will Jaeger is a man whose life is on the line, being tortured in a prison in a small African state. He is rescued by Raff, an old friend and Army colleague and the two of them only just manage to escape alive.
It really is a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire, however, as when Jaeger finally returns to Britain he finds one of his colleagues - and a dear friend - has died in suspicious circumstances which smack of a cover-up. Why did Smithy have a mysterious symbol carved into him, which wasn't there before his death? Nobody has any answers until Will starts doing some serious research, which raises even more questions than it answers.

To say Jaeger has a troubled past is an understatement, and when a dream of a job opportunity is proposed to him, involving danger, excitement and the chance to make a mind-blowing historical discovery as well as a hefty amount of money, he takes it with both hands, but what starts out as an adventure rapidly becomes a desperate fight for survival in an inhospitable South American jungle, with a very mixed team of people.

Who can he trust, if anyone? What is the secret behind the enormous German plane hidden in the rainforest? Who is determined to stop his expedition in its tracks? And why is everything seemingly bound up with the exploits of his grandfather in a top secret Unit during the Second World War?

A coup in Africa. A miraculous escape. A mysterious family death and the abduction of his wife and son, several years previously. An Amazonian tribe with blowpipes living in  a forest with deadly giant predatory spiders. Double agents, Tracking devices, codes and espionage, hallucinogenic drugs, tribal bonding rituals. Add in crocodiles, piranhas and a Nazi plane whose cargo has killed the forest around it, and it seems as though it would end up as slapstick, but it works -  and it works very well indeed. I did anticipate part of what might happen, but there were lots of fascinating twists and turns in the plot, many of which left me glued to the pages.

This is Bear Grylls' first novel, and he has made a very impressive start. I'm really looking forward to finding out what happens to Will Jaeger next!

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Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Hardest Thing To Do

The Hardest Thing To Do

The Hawk & The Dove series, vol 4

By Penelope Wilcock

Published by Lion Fiction, 2015

It is Lent at St Alcuin's Abbey. Always a time of extra prayer and rigorous fasting,  this year's Lent also sees the monks anticipating the return of their much loved Infirmarian to be their elected Abbot. After a year away studying at Cambridge and being ordained priest, Father John is finally on his way home to Yorkshire when he hears about a mysterious fire which has destroyed St Dunstan's Abbey and killed many of the monks. To his great surprise, he meets one of the surviving monks, outcast and avoided, injured and begging for food. John, being John, immediately and willingly provides what food and treatment he can to help before continuing on his way home to take up his responsibilities.

John finds that adapting to his new position at the Abbey is difficult at best, stressful at worst, and soon he is faced with a situation which puts him at odds not only with his helpful attendant, Brother Tom,  but even with most of the monastic brethren when one of the dispossessed monks from St Dunstan's arrives, injured and seeking succour. It is none other than Tom's archenemy, Prior William, who had publicly tormented and mercilessly humiliated Abbot Peregrine in the past. William has now been brought low by circumstances but certainly not lowered his self-esteem, pride and arrogance; he has a quite remarkable ability to cause dissent, squabbling, unease and bad feeling wherever he goes, like a rivulet of poison tainting a well of fresh water.

The tranquil and loving atmosphere of the Abbey is quickly shattered by his arrival. Brother is set against brother when John has to determine whether or not Prior William should be admitted to St Alcuin's or sent on his way to fend for himself and face an uncertain future. William could destroy the peace of the community- or the community could reach out to William and help to heal him.

Just how far can  and should forgiveness extend when there is little sign of repentance?  How much can or should be risked or sacrificed by a community for the sake of one monk? Is any soul beyond hope of saving? The situation is a major test of John's leadership ability, and the wisdom and compassion of both the Gospel of Christ and the Rule of St Benedict prove to be sure and certain guides to the difficult decisions John must make...

Yet another stunning and thought-provoking installment in this remarkable series by Penelope Wilcock, and an absolute joy to read.

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Thursday, July 02, 2015

Discovering Tuberculosis

Discovering Tuberculosis

A Global History 1900 To The Present

By Christian W. McMillen

Published by Yale University Press, June 2015

The discovery and widespread use of antibiotics and the use of the BCG vaccination programmes in the twentieth century initially promised to wipe out tuberculosis globally, yet failed to do so. We are now in the invidious position of tuberculosis staging a huge resurgence across the world, resistant to most antibiotics.

What on earth went wrong and how have we ended up in this potentially devastating situation?

McMillen, a historian, looks at the theories behind the susceptibility of races and transmission of the disease in the 1900s, at the discovery and use of antibiotics to  treat this once-dreaded disease and the problems of using allegedly "expert" opinions to form  policies which were largely based on economics rather than sound medicine and statistical evidence. The implementation of vaccination programmes across the world could in theory have enabled the disease to have been very greatly diminished or even eradicated from large parts of the world in the way polio has been, but this was not the case, with success rates in BCG vaccination trials ranging from  80%  all the way down to a staggering 0%. This illness does not have a "one size fits all" treatment profile and the in-depth study McMillen provides of three areas - Native American reservation populations, Kenya and India - demonstrates this clearly, with concerns about antibiotic resistance actually being expressed as far back as the 1950s.

We face the widespread rise of tuberculosis and a desperate struggle to somehow rein in the disease once again. There really is no room for complacency when dealing with this bacterium, which now kills more people per annum than at any time in recorded history. It is a master of disguise, allowing sufferers to appear healthy for long periods of time, yet many people in the developed nations of the world regard it as an historical disease or restricted to the poorest parts of the world - a dangerous fallacy indeed.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Stained Glass From Welsh Churches

Stained Glass From Welsh Churches

By Martin Crampin

Published by Y Lolfa, 2014

This is an absolutely joy of a book, perfect for anyone who enjoys looking at churches in general or more specifically at stained glass windows in particular. It is the culmination of many years of research and dedicated church visiting and photography by Martin Crampin, and the fruits of his labours can be seen in the almost 800 colour photographs which lavishly illustrate this large and heavy hard-backed book.

The best and most notable extant stained glass windows from the Middle Ages right up to the present day are shown, from the smallest, most humble churches right up to spectacular large churches and cathedrals. Church windows from hamlets and towns, villages and cities are all well covered both in the text and the illustrations, and I particularly liked the the thematic nature of each chapter, making it easy to find representative windows from each time period/artistic movement. The very informative introduction describes the technicalities of creating stained glass and mentions the "Imaging The Bible In Wales" project (which is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to find stained glass by artist, church or place, and can be searched at ) which inspired Martin Crampin to produce this volume.

I don't wish to impinge upon any copyrights, so I am including a link which shows page spreads from the book so you can judge for yourselves how stunning a book this actually is.

The only way I can see that this volume could ever be improved upon would be the inclusion of maps and Ordinance Survey map references/GPS locations for what can often be very difficult to find rural churches. With a book whose scope is as huge as this, there will inevitably be some amendments and corrections, and there is a regularly updated document file which can be downloaded here to keep the book as correct as possible.

At only £29.95, this is an absolute steal of a book and well worth every single penny; I have spent many delighted hours poring over it and will no doubt spend many, many more too, as well as toting the book around with me to various churches to visit the windows illustrated so beautifully :-)

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

The C-Word

The C-Word:
Just Your Average 28 Year Old....Friends, Family, Facebook, Cancer
By Lisa Lynch
Published by Arrow Books, 2010 and also 23rd April  2015

Admin note: this book has since been re-issued with a new cover and updated to reflect later events, so I would *strongly* recommend getting the newer edition.

This book made me giggle, and also just about broke my heart.
Lisa Lynch has everything going for her, it seems - bubbly, funny, clever, in a dream publishing job, happily married and hoping to start a family. In her late twenties, busily living her life to the full, she and her husband discover a lump in her left breast. With no family history of cancer and her young age, everyone - including her GP - was naturally convinced it must just be a cyst. But it wasn't, and so began Lisa's experience of invasive  breast cancer.

It sounds a grim topic, and the feelings and treatments she undergoes are certainly distressing, traumatic and extremely sobering, but the book is remarkably uplifting, filled with love, laughter, friendship, relationships and family, underpinned throughout with dark humour as she nicknames her disease "Bullshit". The blog Lisa began to chronicle her thoughts, feelings and experience of breast cancer, called "Alright Tit", is very well worth visiting.  I had read about a third of the book, was avidly cheering her on and wondered what had subsequently happened in her life. I almost wish I hadn't, as after a quick Google search, I discovered that her cancer had returned with a vengeance a few years later  :-(

Lisa's story has, I subsequently discovered, been made into a BBC TV  drama which met with much acclaim, and is a tribute to a remarkable young woman, her husband, family and friends.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Blue Skies And Black Olives

Blue Skies & Black Olives:

A survivor's tale of housebuilding and peacock chasing in Greece

By John Humphrys & Christopher Humphrys

Published by Hodder & Stoughton, 2009

This was a serendipitous find in a charity shop recently. I'm always a sucker for books about Brits who end up in Mediterranean countries.

John Humphrys is well-known to many Brits as a reporting journalist, newsreader, presenter and Radio 4 broadcaster. His son, Christopher, is a musician who auditioned for a post in a Greek orchestra and ended up making his home in Athens and marrying a nice Greek girl.

John has had many madcap ideas, including an unsuccessful stint as a dairy farmer in Wales, and buying a derelict house in a remote yet stunning part of mainland Greece was to prove the most madcap of them all. Absolutely nothing is straightforward, nothing goes according to plan and the positively Byzantine level of intrigue, bribery and threats needed to get even the simplest task done is hilarious to read about but most definitely would not be fun to have to endure. Chris deals with the flak both from the workmen he has to deal with and from an increasingly irate father who provides the funds to deal with unexpected problems while spending long periods away in Britain.

Yes, there are olives and olive trees - but not their olive trees even if on their land. There is a renegade peacock who adopts them, blue skies and blue seas galore. There are also broken-hearted neighbours, illegal Albanian workers, Greek bureaucrats, rats and planning laws to contend with...

Alternating between sections written by John then Chris, giving both sides of the story behind their Greek adventure and giving much insight into their relationship, this book had me laughing out loud in places. An enjoyable read.

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Shepherd's Life

The Shepherd's Life

A Tale of the Lake District

By James Rebanks

Published by Allen Lane, April 2015

I first heard about James Rebanks via his Twitter handle, @herdyshepherd1, and greatly admired the gorgeous photos he takes of his beloved sheep and the Lake District where he farms.  Anyone looking to find lots of glossy photos in this book might well be disappointed by the relatively small number of black and white photos, but the book itself is quite remarkable.

James Rebanks struggled at school and was glad to leave with a mere scraping of qualifications. A very bright lad and a typical teenager, he was glad to be working on his family's farm in the wild yet lovely, tranquil yet sometimes brutal Lake District of England. After several run-ins with his father and a brilliant episode where he wrote an essay for his clever sister and it got more marks than she normally achieved, he decided to see if he could do this academic stuff for himself. Enrolling at evening classes, it was quickly apparent that yes, he certainly could do this academic stuff quite easily and he ended up being accepted to study at Oxford, all the while coming back home to help with the sheep.

After graduating, he returned home to the Lake District to throw himself into sheep farming, but being pragmatic, found other, more well-paying jobs which he could fit in around his farm tasks and hours to help support himself. His relationship with the land, his family, his beloved sheep, his friends and fellow shepherds and farmers as well as the visitors and tourists who flock in turn to the area are all described, examined and analysed as he takes the reader through a typical year on his farm and weaves into it stories from his childhood, his family's history over hundreds of years in the Lakes, memorable people and events and so much more.

Just how much his farming means to him cannot be under-estimated and the horrors of the  Foot and Mouth outbreak which ravaged the area  and his own family farm in 2001 are mercifully skipped over  quite quickly. The loss of sixty years of dedicated care and work by his family to build up a stunning breeding herd in a matter of days is a grief too deep to be laid bare for public consumption for very long.

A tough, gritty, touching and enlightening book about families, relationships, the countryside, farming and most of all, sheep.
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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Welcome To The Orthodox Church

Welcome To The Orthodox Church:

An Introduction to Eastern Christianity

By Frederica Mathewes-Green

Published in the US by Paraclete Press, May 13th 2015

Publication date for the UK: Jan 1st, 2016

I really liked this book very much indeed. Instead of starting off with basic theological concepts which can still  be really overwhelming to the average reader as well as pretty hard-going, the book starts with describing a fictitious but very typical Orthodox church which is dedicated to St Felicity.

From the first moment of entering the lobby- or Narthex - of an Orthodox church, it will be very unlike most other churches. Icons, sandboxes, beeswax taper candles, books in English and often Church Slavonic or Greek too! make a confusing visual introduction, which is carefully explained, introducing the Sign of the Cross, veneration of icons and prayer before entering the main part of the Church, in a quiet moment when it is empty, to explore further.

We find out how and why Orthodox churches are built the way they are, look at the visually striking iconostasis, examine the lovely icons and learn about the life of St Felicity the Martyr amongst many other things. Everything is explained in a lively, conversational and reassuring manner, gently and gradually leading deeper and deeper into the mystery that is Eastern Orthodoxy.

Eventually we get to visit the Church when there are services in full swing and meet Orthodox liturgy in action, which requires even more detailed explanation of concepts mentioned earlier, especially through the Hymnody of the Vigils and Liturgy where incredibly complex and profound theology can be packed into a a hymn only a few lines long - but the study of which could occupy a lifetime of prayer and meditation.

Finally, in the last section of the book, we learn about living the Orthodox life  through events such as house blessings, the Sacraments, life events including death and and burial, fasting customs and prayer.

What had seemed impossibly complicated at the beginning of the book seems logical and workable by the end, and has been an enjoyable and informative read throughout. Deceptively simple but remarkably thorough, this is an excellent introductory book about Orthodoxy.

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Sunday, June 07, 2015

A Bookshop Of Wonders And Delights

I recently went with my daughter to one of the Bath Universities' (yes, there are two!) Open Days, and as luck and good planning would have it, we had time for a nice wander through the streets of a very busy Bath.

The best part of our day, without any shadow of a doubt, was discovering this amazingly wonderful independent bookshop; needless to say, we emerged with four books. If funds and our weary arms would have allowed, we would have brought home many, many more books....

                                  Welcome to "Mr B's Emporium Of Reading Delights"!

A very nice selection indeed of children's and Young Adult books,
 nicely laid out.....

Always plenty of places to sit and read, 
and some wonderfully quirky plays on words!

We saw several people having fun 
with the magnetic letters :-)

Not only one floor of books - there is a tantalising 
sign showing the way upstairs!

And on the way up, oodles of Tintin comic strips!

Hints, suggestions, laminated sheaves of book reviews
to give you ideas of what you  might enjoy reading next.

Comfortable chairs and complimentary tea and coffee
to make your browsing experience even more enjoyable.


The walk downstairs holds poetry galore.
Downstairs itself holds history, politics, religion, 
philosophy, current affairs, economics, 
health, psychology and more delights.

And a fun ceiling, which I only noticed when 
Dear Daughter pointed it out to me. 
I blame that on the fact that I am waiting for my new 
glasses to be delivered to the Optician's next week!

Friendly, welcoming, helpful and extremely
 knowledgeable staff made this the perfect bookshop experience. 
They were very happy to allow me to take 
these photographs of their super shop.

Do go and visit them at 
14/15 John Street, Bath BA1  2JL 
if you get the chance - you won't regret it!

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Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Been Busy....

Just in case you have been wondering why I have been so quiet over the last few weeks, we now have a cat :-)

I am in the process of reading several books which will be reviewed soon, I promise!
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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Hutterite Diaries

Hutterite Diaries

Wisdom From My Prairie Community

By Linda Maendel

Published May 18th 2015 by Herald Press

If you mention the word Anabaptist to most people, they will generally say "Amish". Few will say "Mennonite" and fewer still will say "Hutterite", which is a shame as the Hutterite philosophy and culture is absolutely fascinating.

The Hutterites believe in living communally in a Biblical fashion, eating together, working together, praying together and holding many things in common. No-one is rich or poor; everyone works, depending on their skills, aptitudes and ultimately the needs of their particular community. They  take the concept of Christian living and caring for each other very seriously indeed. The community farms, rises livestock and makes wooden items for individuals and businesses; they are happy to use modern technology when beneficial to them, but still keep to their traditional dress and the women wear headcoverings.

Linda Maendel is a school teacher at her Elm River colony near Oakville, Manitoba, Canada, and this is  a vivid and entrancing depiction of life there. It is often very hard work, but the blessings and happiness shine through in each and every vignette, illustrating aspects of the philosophy, customs, religious beliefs and organisation of her particular colony and an introduction to the history of the Hutterite movement in general. The chapter about Hutterites who were enslaved is particularly intriguing!

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Real Lives Of Roman Britain

The Real Lives Of Roman Britain

By Guy De La Bedoyere

Published by Yale University Press (London)

May 15th, 2015

The author is at great pains to point out that this is not yet another history textbook about the 360 years of Roman occupation in Britain. Instead, it is a book which talks about what we know about the people who lived and worked, prayed and fought in Britannia when Roman rule held sway and influence.

This knowledge comes from artefacts, buildings, archaeological excavations and inscriptions, ranging from brief fragments which tantalise to rather more extensive information, and I was really surprised to find that Britannia was a real cultural and racial crossroads, a melting pot of people from all over the Roman Empire - the idea of only modern-day Britain being a cosmopolitan place is wholly erroneous! It is, however, important to bear in mind that the cultural and racial identity of native Britons was largely determined by the tribe or clan to which they belonged and the idea of being a Briton  as we understand it now would have been quite alien to them.

The illustrations at the beginning of the book are extremely interesting, depicting  examples of pepper pots, gold buckles, wall paintings, mosaics, coins, altars, clay pots, tombstones and statues. Each has a story to tell and a point to make, and the workmanship of native craftsmen is lovely indeed. From the initial contact between Rome and Britain with Caesar's invasion, frontier life, Roman London, death and dying, religious beliefs and practices, this book answered many questions I had about everyday life under Roman occupation, and anyone interested in Roman Britain would definitely find this an enjoyable and enlightening read.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Thomas The Tank Engine Man

The Thomas The Tank Engine Man:

The Life Of Reverend W. Awdry

By Brian Sibley

Published by Lion Books, 15 May 2015

My daughters grew up with Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends; I read the books to them till they were old enough to read the stories themselves and played endless games of trains with them when they were small. Every train trip was a delight to us all, even though our trains weren't pulled by steam engines, I am sad to say!

 I am thrilled and delighted to have been able to read and review this book about the life and work of the Reverend Wilbert Awdry who created the stories for the entertainment of his own son Christopher, when that young lad was confined to bed when ill with measles. Christopher's misfortune proved to be a blessing for countless children ever since. Wilbert Awdry had grown up in a family which loved trains and model train sets and he passed on this love to his own children, along with his precise, in-depth knowledge of railway workings, lore and minutiae.

 His wife felt that the stories he made up for Christopher (and he also had to write them down to make sure that he told them exactly the same every time, or Christopher would correct him!) were infinitely superior to the children's books she saw in the shops.  When published, they proved to be equally popular with many other children and their parents.  Most of the stories were based on events which had really happened, which made them even more convincing and enjoyable. The crafting of the stories and their eventual publication makes for fascinating reading indeed as his attention to detail was legendary and the stories of his polite battles with his publisher over the illustrations which inaccurately portrayed engines and rolling stock will come as no real surprise to the reader.

As an extremely busy parish priest and father to a growing family, he had little spare time to devote to writing, yet he did so, and spent a huge amount of time replying to the questions posed to him by his eager young readers and their parents throughout the rest of his life. His younger brother George  willingly acted as a sounding board to his mapping out of the fictional Island of Sodor, where the stories were set and soon they had produced a complete topography, geography and history of their own island. Family holidays revolved around railways, new ideas blossomed and soon Wilbert found that the writing of the stories acted as a tonic and a way of de-stressing from his parish work.

In 1950, some of the stories were translated and published in Welsh and eventually they would be translated into many other languages. By 1958, merchandise was also being produced, starting with a press- out model book, a map of the Island of Sodor, nursery wallpaper and even records of the Rev Awdry narrating some of the stories. By 1961, some two million books had been sold -  a remarkable achievement, although the royalties he received were actually very small - and eventually Wilbert Awdry decided the time had come to give up being a parish priest and devote himself to his long-suffering wife and to the necessary in-depth research which  his writing career  made necessary.  He continued to be an active priest, acting as a visiting priest to Gloucestershire parishes where the incumbent was on holiday or ill, and saw his writing as a specific ministry to children.

This is an absolute "Must Read" book for any "Thomas" fan; absorbing, engaging and altogether fascinating reading.
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Monday, April 27, 2015

A Buzz In The Meadow

A Buzz In The Meadow:
The Natural History of a French Farm
By Dave Goulson
Published in the USA by Picador, April 28th, 2015

 The author is a conservationist and scientist (currently Professor of Biological Science at Stirling University) who has bought a tumbledown, derelict farm in the Charente region of rural France which he turns into a wildlife sanctuary. He does not intend it to be a book about an eye-catching conservation species which will capture the public imagination, but rather an in-depth look at the remarkable, beautiful yet often unnoticed nature all around us: flies, butterflies, wasps, newts, bees, deathwatch beetles and the like - which he sees in his everyday life around the farmhouse and its land.

It is well-written indeed, at times almost lyrically poetical, yet can veer very sharply into a fairly detached scientific mode.  Every single chapter is remarkably engaging given it is dealing with quite ordinary creatures; there is an absolutely fascinating chapter about houseflies with a lot of detail about  how both battery hen farms and refuse sites need to be managed carefully to avoid enormous infestations of houseflies engulfing the surrounding areas. Flies are ghastly nuisances and the cause of all sorts of unpleasant bacterial contamination, but their role in the world's ecology is vitally important. His work in this field was very interesting indeed, and most enlightening. I will still swear when flies get in the house, but at least I now have  a much fuller appreciation of the reasons for their continued existence.

Was the book worth reading?
Without hesitation, I would say most definitely yes. Even if you only read the quite heartbreaking chapter on how modern agriculture is affecting our bee populations, this book is well worth reading and well worth the money.

 Do I agree with everything he writes or does?
No. Don't start me ranting about the poor newts, the destruction of whose habitat on his farm he inadvertently engineered and spent an inordinate amount of time  trying to rectify. For someone devoted to preserving the ecological balance of his farm, he seemed surprisingly laid-back by the problem he created for the newts, yet he was utterly enraged by a local hunter shooting a red-legged partridge on his land. I would argue that to shoot one bird in no way is equivalent to destroying an entire local habitat of a species, let alone taking several years to restore that habitat. It may take many more years before the newts return to his farm, if indeed they ever do.

Relating his experiences as PhD student studying Meadow Brown butterflies, he recounts wanting to study the mating process in greater detail which necessitated finding copulating butterflies and immersing them in liquid nitrogen to freeze them and then study the engaged genitalia under a microscope, as well as killing then partially liquefying butterflies in order the study their genitalia under a microscope. Having only this  morning rejoiced at seeing an Orange Tip butterfly flying exuberantly in my area for the first time in several years, I would be sad to think that someone would one day be chasing after it to kill it in order to study in closer detail. I know scientific knowledge is not always gained easily or without sacrifice, but even so.....I would prefer to see the butterflies in their natural habitat than their genitalia painstakingly dissected out and photographed for the scientific record.

I found it to be factually interesting and on the whole, very enjoyable.  It might well challenge your ideas and expectations about ecology, wildlife, the scientific method and how humanity is interacting with the other denizens of our planet, but it will definitely open your eyes to the lives of some of the almost invisible yet quite remarkable creatures that surround us. Do bees know their left from their right? Read this book and find out!

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Friday, April 17, 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop

The Little Paris Bookshop
By Nina George
Translated by Simon Pare
Published by Abacus, April 16th, 2015

 A man with a unique gift of seeing people's feelings, their inmost needs and knowing exactly which book will bring them healing, solace and will meet their needs exactly.

A man who has a floating bookshop  in Paris called "The Literary Apothecary".

A man who can help heal others, but cannot bear to confront, let alone heal, his own grief about being left by his mysterious lover so long ago.

His name? Monsieur Perdu.

"Perdu re­flected that it was a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that book­sellers looked after books.
They look after peo­ple."

This was the point I was irrevocably hooked by this entrancing, captivating delight of a book.

M. Perdu lives in a bare flat, with a disused room barricaded by books. Despite his work, he lives an isolated life, never allowing anyone to get too close to him emotionally, not even the other tenants in his apartment building, 27 Rue Mon­tag­nard. That is until he is told of the dire need of a new tenant, Madame Le P, whose husband has not only left her but also stripped their flat bare. M. Perdu donates a table from his his secret room, and in so doing, unleashes a chain of events which forces him to confront his past and head off on a journey across France on "The Literary Apothecary" with Max Jordan a newly famous author who has developed a severe case of writer's block and marked ennui, and is fleeing from his publisher.....

Chock-full with allusions and references to books, some famous and some less so, the importance and usefulness of books of all kinds is allowed to shine brightly through the lives and emotions of people they meet on their expedition to Provence, until at last Madame Le P, Jean Perdu, Max and their fellow travellers are able to move on with their lives.

Simply wonderful. Read it! And enjoy the recipes at the end, as well as  "Jean Perdu's Emergency Literary Pharmacy" :-)

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Grace Of Incorruption

The Grace Of Incorruption

By Donald Sheehan

Paraclete Press, March 28, 2015

It's always a delight to find quality modern Orthodox books popping up on publishers' lists and I jumped at the chance to request a review copy of this.  I had read a few articles by and about Donald Sheehan which had piqued my interest and I knew this was a book I needed as well as wanted to read.

This collection of essays covers his writings on how his Orthodox faith has permeated every aspect of his life, including his career as an educator, as a professor of literature and as a man who loved poetry, a career which is reflected in his often lyrical prose.

He describes his early life, living in a family affected by the violence and alcohol-fuelled aggression of his father, and how it was only after his father's death and a visit to the grave accompanied by his own family, that he was able to fully make his peace with his father and receive the wholly unexpected gift of the constant Jesus prayer. The prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner",  was his constant companion, leading him to a conversation with a Benedictine monk and thence to Orthodoxy. The rest of the book leaves the reader in absolutely no doubt that he found his heart's true home within that Orthodox faith.

An enormous range of topics are covered in these essays: from the obvious aspects of  Orthodoxy found in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov", St Isaac the Syrian's depiction of the Chalcedonian use of the term "hypostasis", depression and asceticism to  the elements of Orthodoxy found in  Shakespeare, Salinger and modern poetry too. The relationship between Orthodox Christians and the natural world, the loving respect for animals which characterises so many of the great Saints and the bodily incorruptibility of some reposed souls are mentioned, and the second half of the book discusses Psalmody, especially Psalm 118, in great and enlightening depth.

I would not describe the book an easy read; it requires the reader to concentrate hard, to think, to ponder deeply and above all  to pray. For the reader keen to delve deep into the riches of the Orthodox tradition in the multi-faceted aspects of its glory, this will be a treasure, a source of joy, and a blessing to read.

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Thursday, April 09, 2015

Introduction To The Psychology of Ageing for Non-Specialists

              Introduction To The Psychology of Ageing for Non-Specialists
        by Ian Stuart-Hamilton
          Jessica Kingsley Publishers, March 2015

Even with a background in midwifery I found parts of this book a little heavy going and had to re-read several sections. It is, however, a book that is well worth the time and effort in studying if you have an interest in ageing and how it affects the psychological make-up of people. It is a distillation of his much larger and more comprehensive medical textbook and is both succinct and clear, with touches of humour and real-life experiences.

 My motivation for reading it was to explore the psychological effects of various forms of dementia which was a particularly interesting section, but the chapters cover intelligence, memory, language, the general background of ageing, personality changes, lifestyle and mental health issues amongst older people. It might be thought that such a book would be depressing reading, but I was pleasantly surprised that to find quite the opposite; by taking account of the changes occurring in ageing, it is perfectly possible to make small but logical adaptations to one's lifestyle in order to minimise the adverse effects of the ageing process on well-being. 

The overwhelming tenor of the book is very positive indeed and this is a very useful introduction to the subject of ageing.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Long Fall

The Long Fall
No 3 in "The Hawk & The Dove" series
By Penelope Wilcock
Published by Lion, March 2015

This review has been a long time in coming because of the very nature of this quite remarkable book. This is one continuous narrative rather than a collection of short stories as the previous volumes were, and considering it is a slim volume of 224 pages, it packs a devastatingly powerful emotional and spiritual punch.When I first read it, I was rendered speechless, quite literally, and rather unnerved; I have had to read it through a second time, much more slowly, and ponder and pray over what I have read and how it has affected me.

"The Long Fall" is the third in the wonderful "The Hawk & The Dove" series. Life at the monastery continues in its predictable routine, following the seasons of the year and the liturgical pattern of the Church until Abbot Peregrine is stricken down by a severe stroke. His faithful cell attendant, our dear Brother Tom, is utterly devastated, grief-stricken and has no idea how to cope with the abbot's physical incapacity or his own sadness and feeling of inadequacy. He begs to be allowed to do farm work instead and labours like a man possessed in his attempt to blot out what has happened, until the Infirmarians, Brothers John and Michael, take him aside and open his eyes to what is going on and what he needs to be doing to support and help Peregrine.

 How do we cope with an unexpected and  profound change in our intellectual or physical abilities, whether as the persons affected, those caring for us physically, or those who are closest to us? Denial, stunned shock, rage, depression, avoidance, bargaining, understanding and finally acceptance are stages that both Abbot Peregrine and Brother Tom have to work through before they are reconciled and together, with the help of the Infirmary staff and Brother Theodore, they all work to restore the Abbot to meaningful speech and movement.  Can we or should we expect, hope or ask for death? Should we ever ask another to help put an end to our suffering, no matter how great or whatever the circumstances? Why do we suffer and what is its purpose? These are all things the Abbot and Tom discuss before Peregrine is stricken down once more and dies.

The spiritual, mental, physical and emotional effects of suffering, dying, death and grief are covered incredibly well in a short narrative and this has to be the best depiction of the classic Elisabeth Kubler-Ross academic pathway of the stages of grief ever to be portrayed in a novel, let alone in one which manages to be a remarkable, touching and eye-opening book.

Penelope Wilcock's background as a hospice chaplain shines through in her compassionate and tender look at something most of us try to avoid thinking about. Being encouraged to examine our own beliefs and to study those of our individual religious traditions regarding these topics is important in an  increasingly unchurched society where religious beliefs in the value and nature of suffering are often not understood or even acknowledged; although I may not entirely agree with everything said, this is one of the most thought-provoking, beautiful, heartbreaking yet uplifting and important books I have read, and I have learned so much from it.

Not only has Brother Tom been enlightened and supported by the end of the book; the reader has too. Thank you, Penelope, for writing this story. It cannot have been easy to do so.

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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Dubuque's Forgotten Cemetery

Dubuque’s Forgotten Cemetery:
Excavating a Nineteenth-Century Burial Ground in a Twenty-First-Century City
By Robin M. Lillie and Jennifer E. Mack
University of Iowa Press, March 2015

This has been a timely read, considering the re-interment of King Richard III of England at Leicester Cathedral this week. All that pomp, pageantry, splendour, with enormous crowds to witness the re-burial proceedings for a king - but what about the humble, the ordinary, who have been long forgotten until a chance discovery brings their deaths back into public view once more?

People in Dubuque, Iowa, knew there had been a Catholic cemetery long ago, but everyone believed that virtually all the burials had been re-sited in the new graveyard in the late 1800s, and that perhaps only a few might remain  on the original site. The land was about to be developed; a contingency plan had been made to deal appropriately with any bodies that might be found in the course of the development, but what nobody expected - least of all the person who bought the land - was that there would be lots and lots of people still buried there. Iowa has a robust policy for dealing with human remains, both modern and historic, and in this case, the State Archaeology service was heavily involved right from the very beginning - which was just as well.

What was anticipated to take only a month ended up taking years and uncovering almost a thousand graves, as well as opening a complex and costly legal minefield. Despite all the problems, this turned out to be a remarkable opportunity which allowed archaeologists  to use the scientific examination and testing of buried human remains and their grave goods to identify at least some people and to use newspapers and census/religious records to help build up a truly fascinating picture of the health, wealth, life and death of people in multi-cultural Dubuque during the settler period of the 1800s. Many of the deceased had appalling dental problems and must have been in great pain as many of them show signs of having active dental abscesses at the time of their death.

 I found the section dealing with the religious medals - some very unusual indeed - and rosaries buried with the dead particularly fascinating. Several bodies had been buried wearing their rosaries around their necks, which is currently a fashion decried by modern Catholics, but obviously was just as acceptable then as the more mainstream custom of having rosary beads wrapped round the deceased person's hands. The medals depict saints whose specific devotions reveal the geographical origins of some of the settlers as from areas within France, Italy and Germany. It is truly staggering how much information the archaeologists have been able to retrieve from what they unearthed yet there are still many mysteries, such as the purpose and meaning of the silver-plated  dish resembling a paten which was buried with a child, a ten-sided plate buried with a woman and the presence in a grave of a pair of large scissors.

An excellent and highly readable book, detailed yet clearly written, well-illustrated and which shows the puzzles, triumphs and detailed detective work that is involved in archaeology, ending with the respectful re-burial of the dead and a discussion of the function of cemeteries as sacred space and their appropriate management over time.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bless Me, Father

Bless Me, Father
By Neil Boyd
Published by Open Road Media, 
24th March 2015

It is nice to see this classic book back in print, thanks to Open Road Media. First published in 1977 in the UK, this is the first of five books featuring the exploits and mishaps of Father Neil Boyd, a newly-ordained RC priest, when he starts his ministry under the tutelage of the formidable Father Duddleswell in the London parish of St Jude's. Thrown in at the deep end, he learns to deal with organising a Sicilian family wedding, persuading Fr Duddleswell to agree  to take part in a clerical swimming competition as well as protecting the seal of the confessional with a pair of scissors, teaching would-be converts and very much more.

We meet a whole host of memorable characters, including Mrs Pring, the kind-hearted housekeeper who lives in a state of almost permanent sniping warfare with Fr Duddleswell, the truly terrifying Mother Superior of the local convent, the local doctor who likes a tipple and the rascally neighbour Billy Buzzle, who is always looking to for a way to annoy or outsmart Fr Duddleswell

Set in the pre-Vatican 2 days of the 1950s, when the services were in Latin and life in general was very different, it is not in the least bit politically correct and reduced me to fits of laughter in several places. The clergy are shown as human, fallible, wily, gullible, prone to bad temper and occasional outburst of swearing, just like the rest of us.  It's a pleasant and memorable read.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Gods of the Morning

Gods of the Morning
A Bird's Eye View of a Highland Year
By John Lister-Kaye
Published by Canongate Books
March 5th, 2015

This is the story of a year in the Scottish Highlands, at an idyllic place called Aigas, as told by the eminent naturalist and author, John Lister-Kaye. He may primarily be a naturalist, but there is a good deal of the poet-philosopher in Mr Lister-Kaye and he does not shy away from looking at how man's interaction with the environment can be less than successful or indeed catastrophic in some cases. His Field Studies centre studies all aspects of flora and fauna in the area and he combines extensive scientific knowledge with a warm appreciation for his subject and an obvious desire to inspire the same sort of enthusiasm in the reader.

I certainly feel he succeeds in this. His love for the  area and every aspect of its wildlife shines through in every sentence, and he does not just describe the more appealing and marketable denizens such as golden eagles; I was delighted to find an incredible chapter about spiders, for instance!   Even the small events, such as a bird flying into a glass window and dying can reveal all sorts of natural history information; the fact that it was a blackcap was sad, but then it transpires that he had not heard any blackcaps singing for several weeks, yet they were still obviously in the area prior to migrating. What makes them stop singing before they fly away for the winter? He writes about owls, the delights and hardships of owning dogs, tracking animals, filming wildlife, cooking and eating swans whose corpses he found, fox-watching, how wildlife fares in the harsh winter months, wildfires, raptors, gamekeepers, butterflies and so much more.

Some of my favourite parts are when he discusses incredible migratory feats by birds, how leaves change colour and then fall and the remarkable ability of his local wood mice to navigate the area around his home, recounted with humour and a degree of delightful amazement. He tries not to interfere with nature, no matter how red in tooth and claw it may be,  yet he found he could not leave a stranded Whooper swan to perish and made sure to take some corn every day for it to eat  until it regained strength to fly off again.

A book which is worth reading and re-reading.

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