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text 2018-06-10 13:49
Puffins!
RSPB Birds of Britain and Europe - Rob Hume

Have just got back home after visiting friends and family back in the UK. We had a great time catching up with everyone and celebrating my Dad's 86th birthday, but one of the highlights of our trip was the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs in North Yorkshire.

 

We saw gannets, razorbills, guillemots (or murres as they're known in the US), kittiwakes, fulmars, and shags. But none of them are as cute as a puffin.

 

Gannets

 

Razorbill

 

Puffin (seriously, can you get any cuter than this?)

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review 2018-05-13 19:21
WALKING WITH NATURISTS IN THE UK
Naked Britain - Amelia Allen

A year ago, I learned about this book in a radio interview the author, an established fashion photographer, had given BBC Radio London. As someone who once tried the "naturist lifestyle" many years ago in the West Indies, I was curious to read, see, and learn about Amelia Allen's take on the naturist world in the UK. 

For Allen, "[s]hooting 'Naked Britain' was a study in mindfulness for me. I photographed this book fully naked, because I wanted to completely immerse myself in the world of naturism and understand how this way of life feels." Allen met with many of the people - of various ages and backgrounds - who practice naturism at a naturist club about 20 miles from London. The photographs - all in B&W - are of the highest quality. and show people engaged in conversation over cards, cycling, swimming, doing calisthenics, walking in the woods, playing tennis, gardening, playing billiards, sitting poolside, and standing on the shore. There is a pure and simple honesty in this book about living and being at peace with one's nakedness among one's fellow human beings similarly free of clothing. 

Two of the more memorable insights Allen said she got from the time she spent among naturists are the following --- 'Naturism changes how you feel about our body and yourself, it changes your perspective on what the body is.' AND - 'People are just people; it's liberating to just be yourself.'

"NAKED BRITAIN" is a book I would recommend to anyone who is interested in learning more about naturism and values quality photography

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review 2018-05-04 19:34
If you believe in the power of stories and love magic, theatre, families, and heart-warming novels, you must read this feel-good book. Love at first-read.
Days of Wonder - Keith Stuart

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown and Company UK (Clara Díaz in particular) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Keith Stuart’s first novel A Boy Made of Blocks, a truly extraordinary book, a couple of years ago, and loved it. I could not resist when I was offered the opportunity to read the author’s second novel. And, again, it was love at first read.

Days of Wonder has some similarities to A Boy. It does center on the relationship between a father and his child (in this case, Hannah), and how their relationship is shaped by a specific condition affecting the child (Asperger’s in the first novel, a chronic cardiac illness that cannot be cured and will only get worse in this novel). All the characters are beautifully portrayed, not only the protagonists but, in this case, also an array of secondary characters that become an ersatz family unit.

Tom, the father, runs a small theatre and has close links to the amateur theatrical group. His wife, Elizabeth, left the family when their daughter was three and leads the life of a high-flier, with no real contact with her family. Hannah has grown-up in the theatre, surrounded by the players and by stories, both on stage and out.

The book, narrated in the first person by both Tom and Hanna (mostly in alternating chapters, although towards the end there are some that follow the same character’s point of view, due to the logic of the story). Hannah’s narration in the present is interspersed with what appear to be diary entries addressed to Willow, (the theatre is called The Willow Tree). She is a strong girl, who loves her father, the theatre and the players, her friends, and who has a can-do attitude, despite her serious illness, or perhaps because of it. She knows how valuable each moment is, and lives it to the fullest (within her limitations). She is worried about her father and how much he has focused his life on her and decides that he must find a woman and live a fuller life. She loves comics, fairy-tales, is funny (having a sense of humour does help in such a situation, without a doubt), witty, and wise beyond her years, whilst being a credible teenager who worries about boys and can sometimes have questionable judgement. I challenge anybody not to fall in love with Hannah, her enthusiasm, and her zest for life.

Tom is a father who tries his hardest in a very difficult situation, and who sometimes finds himself in above his head, unable to function or to decide, frozen by the enormity of the situation. He is one of the good guys, he’d do anything to help anybody, and some of his philosophical reflections are fairly accurate, although, like most of us, he’s better at reading others than at understanding himself. His date disasters provide some comic relief but he is somebody we’d all love to count as a friend. Or, indeed, a father.

One of my favourite characters is Margaret, an older woman who has become a substitute grandmother for Hannah, and who is absolutely fabulous, with her anecdotes, her straight speaking, her X-ray vision (she knows everything that goes on even before the people involved realise what is going on sometimes), and she is a bit like the fairy-godmother of the fairy tales Hannah loves so much. As for the rest, Callum, Hannah’s boyfriend, is a very touching character, with many problems (the depiction of his depression is accurate and another one of the strong points of a book full of them), and the rest of the theatre crew, although they appear to be recognisable types at first sight (the very busy mother who wants some space for herself, the very capable woman whose husband is abusive, a retired man whose relationship with his wife seems to be falling apart, a gay man who can’t confess his attraction for another member of the group…), later come across as genuine people, truly invested in the project, and happy to put everything on the line for the theatre.

The novel is set in the UK and it has many references that will delight the anglophiles and lovers of all-things-British, from language quirks to references to plays, movies, TV series and festivals. (Oh, and to local politics as well), but I’m sure that the lack of familiarity with them will not hinder the readers’ enjoyment. Although there are also quite a number of references to theatre plays and comics (and I don’t know much about comics, I confess), they never overwhelm the narration and are well integrated into the story, adding to its depth.

The book deals in serious subjects (family break-ups, abuse, chronic physical and mental illnesses [affecting young people, in particular], aging and death, growing-up, single-parent families) and whilst it makes important points about them, which many readers will relate to, they are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric of the novel, and it never feels preachy or as if it was beating you over the head with a particular opinion or take on the topic.

Reading the author’s comment above, I can vouch for his success. This is indeed a book about love, life, and magic. It is a declaration of love to the world of theatre and to the power of stories. The novel is beautifully written, flows well, and the readers end up becoming members of their troupe, living their adventures, laughing sometimes and crying (oh, yes, get the tissues ready) at other times. Overall, despite its sad moments, this is a hopeful feel-good book, heart-warming and one that will make readers feel at peace with themselves and the world. It has a great ending and although I wondered at first if the epilogue was necessary, on reflection, it is the cherry on top of the trifle. Perfect.

The book is endlessly quotable and I’ve highlighted a tonne of stuff, but I couldn’t leave you without sharing something.

Here is Hanna, talking about magic:

I don’t mean pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing people in half (and then putting them back together: otherwise it’s not magic, it’s technically murder). I just mean the idea that incredible things are possible, and that they can be conjured into existence through will, effort and love.

As I’m writing this review on Star Wars Day, I could not resist this quote, again from Hannah:

I feel as though it’s closing in around me, like the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars, except I have no robots to rescue me although I do have an annoying beeping box next to the bed doing a twenty-four-hours-a-day impression of R2-D2.

Oh, and another Star Wars reference:

It’s as though the spirit of Margaret is working through me, like a cross between Maggie Smith and Yoda.

And a particularly inspiring one:

Margaret told me that you must measure life in moments —because unlike hours or days or weeks or years, moments last forever. I want more of them. I am determined. I will steal as many as I can.

A beautiful book, a roller-coaster of emotions, and an ode to the power of stories, to their magic, and to family love, whichever way we choose to define family. I urge you to read it. You’ll feel better for it. And I look forward to reading more books by its author, who has become one of my favourites.

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review 2018-04-13 03:24
Precursor to "the Blitz"
The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain, 1917-1918 - Raymond H. Fredette,Tom D. Crouch

Today the Battle of Britain has become an indelible part of the British historical identity, one with which nearly every Briton is familiar on some level. In the process, however, the air battles between the British and the Germans often obscure the fact that the air campaign was hardly unprecedented even in British history. For during the last two years of the war, the German Luftstreitkräfte launched a bombing campaign of London and the Home Counties, one which Raymond Fredette argues was a forerunner for the more famous sequel nearly a quarter of a century later.

 

To demonstrate this, Fredette charts both the development of the German’s air campaign and the British response to it. As he describes it, the German campaign was a product of evolving technology, namely the improvement in German aircraft design. With British air defense forces increasingly successful in their efforts to shoot down the zeppelins used in Germany’s initial bombing campaign, the Germans turned to large biplane bombers as a means to strike their enemy across the channel. Though the flights were generally small and the damage they inflicted had a negligible impact on Britain militarily, they elicited a response out of all proportion to their effect. Numerous guns and fighters were diverted from other missions to provide for the defense of London, which proved a considerable challenge as the bombers proved to be much more difficult targets to locate (let alone shoot down) than the ponderous zeppelins. Yet it was the weather and the turn of the larger war against the Germans that doomed the campaign, as by the summer of 1918 the bombers were diverted to support the doomed offensive on the Western Front, having nevertheless established a precedent that would be followed by others.

 

Though Fredette draws primarily from contemporary news reports and other published accounts for his information, he uses this information to good effect. As a career air force officer he infuses his narrative with a professional’s understanding of the challenges the pilots and their superiors faced in both mounting and responding to the bombing campaign. Written with a sense of the dramatic, his book provides an engaging narrative of the “first battle of Britain,” one that makes a good case for its underappreciated significance to the history of strategic air warfare.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-04-06 20:37
Contains Spoilers
Hamish Macbeth: Death of an Honest Man: Hamish Macbeth, Book 33 - M. C. Beaton,David Monteath,Audible Studios
Why did I read it? I adore the Hamish Macbeth series, and this was the latest edition.
 
What's it about? An income arrives in Cnothan, and town on Hamish Macbeth's beat. Paul English considers himself an honest man, but on calling on the incomer to welcome him to the community Charlie, Hamish's constable, lands them both in trouble at headquarters. Paul English works his way around the communities, spouting his views on the shortcomings of the locals directly to their face, causing hackles to rise. "I could kill that man," could be heard from Lochdubh to Cnothan. And, so ...
 
What did I like? Honestly, the soothing tones of David Monteath were perhaps the only lovely thing about this particular episode of life in Lochdubh.
 
What didn't I like? Oh dear. It seemed to me that the author, M.C. Beaton 'phoned it in'. There were so many errors in the book.
 
(1) Lucia Lament was noted as the daughter of Mr. Ferrari; however, in earlier books, we learn Lucia is a distant relative of Mr. Ferrari brought over from Italy to work in the restaurant in Lochdubh, after Mr. Ferrari's immediate family took over the running of his first restaurant.
 
(2) Initially, it is said Silas' father died when he was two, then, later, it is said his father died 10 years previous. So, either Hamish's new constable is 12 years old, or this is yet another error in the narrative.
 
(3) It seems the forensics team has been re-populated with boozy blokes, who I thought had been replaced a few books back.
 
There are many more inconsistencies like this that regular readers/listeners might pick up on.
 
How many constables can Hamish get through in one book? Charlie Carter, who has been with Hamish through a few books, seems to have been unceremoniously pushed out of the series. Larry Coomb appears, and is gone within a few short paragraphs. Enter Constable Silas Dunbar. Exit Constable Silas Dunbar. Enter Freddie Ross. Exit Freddie Ross. Then, at the very last, enter a WPC, Dorothy MacIver.
 
Why bring Elspeth back into Sutherland at all? Her contribution to the narrative was negligible, with the low level rivalry between her, and Priscilla for affections of Hamish becoming increasingly tedious in its repetition. And, the rivalry between the two of them, and Sonsie is reignited upon the cat's incomprehensible return.
 
The storylines featuring Colonel Halburton-Smythe, and Chief Inspector Blair were so far beyond believable, and extremely disappointing. Yes, this is fiction, which often strays from reality as it is set in an idyllic version of the highlands, but these narratives were just too far-fetched, and stretched far beyond the known behaviours of these long-term characters formed through the previous 32 books. These tangential stories seemed ill formed, and very ill judged. It's almost like they were padding for the scant murder mystery, which, itself, seemed poorly thought out, and too closely related to other victims, and plots in the series.
 
There are other disappointments, but I have listed only what I see as the the major faults here. Overall, the book felt disjointed, the main narrative was thin, and the side stories not as believable as in the past. At times, the superstitious and supernatural elements felt more real than anything else.
 
Also, having listened to this audio series in its entirety several times now, I have begun to notice mistakes in the text, e.g. the wrong character having said a line. Unfortunately, this is also true of “Death of an Honest Man” having listened to it three times now.
 
Would I recommend it? Honestly, no. Not even to fans of the series. I sincerely hope the next two books in the series, which M.C. Beaton has confirmed she is contracted to write, are not so badly composed as this one. I want a return to the Hamish Macbeth and inhabitants of Lochdubh I have grown to love.

 

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