Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Review: From Source to Sea

From Source to Sea From Source to Sea by Tom Chesshyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tom Chesshyre happened upon a map of the River Thames in a Bric-a-brac market on his way to the library. It was a reproduction of a map by William Tombleson showing the twists and turns from the source near Cirencester to the mouth on the Kent and Essex coasts. He could not resist buying it, and having done so, an idea formed of walking along the river from the source to the North Sea. The Thames is one of the few rivers including the Nile and the Amazon, with a global presence. Whilst the other rivers are thousands of miles long, the humble Thames is only 215 miles long, making Tom’s walk a gentle stroll compared to the adventurers Ed Stafford and Levison Wood who have walked the other two rivers.

Our most well know river has drawn all types of people through the ages, from artists and authors to those that have used the river to make their living from. It doesn’t have the exotic and dangerous elements that the Nile and the Amazon can boast, it does reflect the rich and diverse history of our country stretching back several thousand years. Passing historical churches, vast country estates and idyllic meadows before walking into the famous skyline that is London. Along the way, Chesshyre meets the great and the good and other people walking the same route as him and the characters that make the river such a dynamic place to live and work. Oh, and there are pubs too, lots of pubs

Travel books should inspire you to move from the comfort of your sofa and go and seek the places yourself. In this delightful book, Chesshyre does that. He engages with the spirit of the river and the places that he walks through, whilst pondering the implications of the recent referendum result. This is a walk that I would like to undertake myself one day as it seems to be a wonderful way to see an iconic part of our country.

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Royal Society Shortlist

The Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2017 continues that fine tradition of finding the best science books out there and introducing us to new authors and the latest books that could pique your interest. The books on the short list are quite wide ranging and all very different. I Contain Multitudes is about the microbes that live within and around us, it is not for the fainthearted at times. If millions of microbes don’t appeal, then how about reading Beyond Infinity, where Cheng takes us to another level with numbers. There are two books on the mind; Other Minds takes us on a journey to understand the inner workings of the cephalopods and In Pursuit of Memory looks at the latest research into Alzheimer’s. The two final one concern our sense of self and our bodies. Cordelia Fine takes on the myths surrounding gender in Testosterone Rex and To Be a Machine is Mark O’Connell’s exploration with those wishing to push the limits of technology and the body.

I do not envy the choice of the judges, but if I had to pick one I’d go for In Pursuit of Memory, a personal and poignant account of the latest on the tragic disease that is Alzheimer’s.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Review: London Map of Days

London Map of Days London Map of Days by Mychael Barratt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Back in 2015 the Canadian-born, but now London-based artist Mychael Barratt presented an eight plate etching of the eponymous city at the Royal Academy. This artwork, which appears in the back of the book, became the foundation for the London: Map of Days. The beautifully designed book is packed with a cornucopia of facts, anecdotes and stories that have happened, taken place or have some link with each of the 366 days (including the 29th February) in and around London. These little snippets of information are accompanied by bold sketches of the characters involved with the fact for that day.

There is something for everyone in this book as Barratt covers miscellany from subjects as diverse as the death of Chi Chi the giant panda, Hersschel’s discovery of the moons of Uranus, Queen Victoria’s marriage and the day that the last Punch magazine was printed. They are all interesting and cover all aspects of this city’s history. There is a delightful fold-out print of the entire map at the back of the book of Barratt’s original artwork too with the Thames weaving its way through the middle. An ideal book for those that like facts or London, or both!

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Sunday, 17 September 2017

Review: Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The mind is a complex entity, we have only scratched the surface in comprehending how it works and what it is capable of. The neural networks that make up the brain are capable of absorbing vast sums of information and making sense of them fast. The intelligence that we have, and can see in other mammals and birds, in particular, other primates, cetaceans, and corvids. There is another set of animals that seem to have also benefited from a large brain and complex neural networks and that is the cephalopods. You’ll probably know them better as cuttlefish, squid and the octopus. These are quite amazing creatures, not only are they aware of all that is going on around them, they can open jars to get the treat inside, have been known to squirt lights with jets of water as they don’t like the brightness and have been found crawling across the floors of laboratories in an escape bid. The skin operates like a high-res video screen as it is able to mimic its surroundings and ripple with colours depending on mood. They have been proven to recognise individual members of staff, even when in the same uniform, so much so that a person they took a dislike too would get drenched when they walked past.

Peter Godfrey-Smith first came across them when someone introduced him to a place they had called Octopolis. This was a place that had many octopi that had brought and discarded scallop shells and begun to make it a safe haven from the predators around. There were a large number of the creatures there that seemed to tolerate each other most of the time, but every now and again there would be running battles between some of the males and Godfrey-Smith was fortunate to capture these on video. Godfrey-Smith though is a philosopher of science, not a biologist, but it got him thinking; just how had this creature had evolved down a separate branch of our shared tree and had ended up at a level of sentience which was quite advanced. The octopi that he regularly sees as he scuba dives off the coast of Sydney are willing to come up and interact with him and the other divers,

It is an interesting book comparing our understanding of human consciousness with a creature that is so alien that we cannot fully get a grip on what it is thinking. There is a lot on the biological makeup of cephalopods and how their brain and nervous system works, as well as a couple of chapters on the evolution of consciousness and how the need to be aware of your surroundings has driven the development of the brain. I would have liked to read more about the observations that they had conducted on Octopolis as the chapters that were there were fascinating. Definitely worth reading for those that have an interest in marine ecology and peering into the dark recesses of the mind.

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Book Haul

Friday, 15 September 2017

Review: In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer's

In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer's In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer's by Joseph Jebelli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you think of diseases that kill people cancer and heart disease would most top peoples list, but with the population in the western world getting older, other illnesses are having an effect on mortality rates and people’s quality of life. One of the most significant is Alzheimer's and dementia, a cruel disease that leaves the shell of the person whilst stealing their personality, dignity and their memories. The first time that Joseph Jebelli came across this illness was when he was twelve years old and his grandfather started doing strange things and becoming ‘indefinably peculiar’; Gone was the warm person he had known. This family tragedy became a pivotal point in his life and drove him to pursue a career in science researching the very disease that claimed his grandfather.

I felt totally alone, with the world receding away from me in every direction, and you could have used my anger to weld steel – Sir Terry Pratchett

Jebelli is now an established expert in the field of Alzheimer's research and in this interesting and informative book he sets about describing the background with Alois Alzheimer's discovery of the illness in 1906 all the way up to the current understanding of the science behind this distressing disease. Travelling all over the world he talks to the people at the cutting edge in laboratories about the latest avenues of research as they race to find a cure. He takes time to talk to sufferers and their families gaining a heartfelt understanding of the anguish they go through every day. It is a clear and well-written exploration of the different efforts that encompass research into Alzheimer's. There is a small amount on Sir Terry Pratchett, who was sadly one of those to get early onset Alzheimer's, or his embuggerance as he called it. He donated a fairly hefty sum of money to enable research, but more importantly, he spoke about his illness and spent time raising awareness of it. Jebelli writes about a difficult and personal subject in a way that brings clarity to the dark world that is Alzheimer's, I can highly recommend this book. 4.5 stars

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Thursday, 14 September 2017

Review: Strange Heart Beating

Strange Heart Beating Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a freak accident, a swan attacks a small boat, capsizes it and Leda drowns; she was the cherished wife of Seb. Leda was originally from Latvia and even though Seb knows her, he knows very little about her family and upbringing. As he is sifting her possessions he discovers a set of unopened letters addressed to her. Opening them, he finds they are from a man that she has never mentioned and the precious little he thought that he knew about her crumbles to dust. Hampered in moving on by grief and not knowing, he decides that he has to travel to her village in Latvia to find out who she was.

Goldstone has written a strange and ethereal tale of sorrow and melancholy. Taking the character Seb at his lowest ebb, she proceeds to unravel all that he knows about his beloved and thrust him into a variety of situations in an unknown land with people who only knew Leda a little. I liked this, but whilst the writing is haunting beautiful, I felt that the plot didn’t have the necessary depth to it especially with the promise posed with the dramatic opening. A good debut, Goldstone will be an author to watch though.

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