Bridges – Christian Menn

 

“In ancient Rome, the highest priests held the title of pontifex, which means builder of bridges. By providing a link between gods and men, these pontifices were indeed builders of spiritual bridges between heaven and earth.”– Christian Menn

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Scheidegger and Speiss, 1st edition 2015, 352 pp, ISBN 978-3-85881-455-5, £70 Hardcover

The humble bridge, while it may not strike you as one of the most exciting topics of conversation to introduce at a dinner party, is without a doubt one of the most significant early feats of structural engineering, which revolutionised travel dating back as far ancient Rome.

Of those involved in modern bridge design and construction, few are more noteworthy than renowned Swiss structural engineer Christian Menn, whose work spanned the latter decades of the 20th century, went on to inspire a generation of future bridge designers, and continued a long-standing tradition of Swiss excellence.

This stunning publication from Scheidegger and Speiss features more than 30 of Menn’s revolutionary designs, both built and unrealised, across 276 full colour and black and white images, with in-depth captions analysing the specifics of each project.

Menn’s text highlights his thinking and philosophy, approaching the circumstances and design process surrounding each individual project, demonstrating the passion and enthusiasm one expects more from an artist than an engineer. The book offers a fascinating insight into not just Menn’s experience as a bridge designer but also the art and history of structural engineering.

While many of Menn’s designs have become landmarks admired for their stunning design work and elegance, some of those displayed within the book will not take the layman’s breath away, instead appearing as those to be driven across and forgotten. Nonetheless each is a spectacular feat of design and engineering, a lifetime of work and passion, and years of combined construction, creating what is truly a work of art in its own right.

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.

30-Second Meteorology – Adam Scaife and Julia Slingo

“The storm starts, when the drops start dropping. When the drops stop dropping then the storm starts stopping.” ― Dr. Seuss

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Ivy Press, 160 pages, ISBN: 978-1-78240-310-4, Hardback £14.99

Did you know that Horace-Bénédict Der Saussure invented the cyanometer? No? Do you even know what a cyanometer is? Well, having read 30-Second Meteorology I can tell you it is a quantitative scale by which to measure the blueness of the sky.

Want to know more? Read on.

The latest edition from the makers of the 30-second book series – 30-Second Meteorology: The 50 most significant events and phenomena, each explained in half a minute – will introduce you to the science behind, and the history of, the Earth’s most significant atmospherical phenomena in easy to digest, 30-second sections.

The book analyses weather from the basic, to the complex – from chapter one, The Elements, which focuses on the basic features of weather, in the form of air, clouds and rain, right through to the final, Extreme Weather, section which gives time to the wilder side of meteorology, exploring tornadoes, hurricanes, and the terrifyingly named ‘sudden stratospheric warming’, and everything between. Discover the nature of Earth’s atmosphere, the science behind weather forecasts and predictions, and the history of the aptly named trade winds.

If you are put off by the idea of a science book for dummies then rest assured that this book doesn’t just take the science behind meteorological events and cut down into bite-sized chunks

Complete with concise biographical profiles of the top names in meteorological history – including Svante Arrhenius, the man who first noted the link between atmospheric CO2 and the greenhouse effect, and Lewis Fry Richardson, the brain behind modern weather forecasting – and an historical look at the origins of weather systems and the technology used in measuring and predictive metrological events, 30-Second Meteorology is the perfect quick guide to the history of meteorology, which anyone can enjoy.

I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but crack this book open and you can expect to find out, amongst other general knowledge gems, which 17th century Italian physicist invented the barometer.

This book is also beautiful, and a snapshot of the cover image alone doesn’t do that justice. An ugly edition can spoil a good book, but this one does not disappoint – hardbound and fully illustrated with stunning vintage photomontage prints by Nicky Ackland-Snow the book is an actual pleasure to read. I could have spent hours studying the typography and design alone.

Overall, this is a really fun, interesting book to read – a sure-fire success with fans of weather systems and general knowledge alike. With a concise forward by Met Office Chief Scientist Professor Dame Julia Slingo, and contributions from top names in the field of meteorology, 30-Second Meteorology is the perfect book for anyone, outside of the field of academic meteorology, who wants a better understanding of weather systems and the history meteorology as a science.

This review was first posted on WordPress for E&T magazine.

A Stranger Came Ashore – Mollie Hunter

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?” ― John Lennon

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Beautiful cover huh? It’s not mine though.

It was a dark and stormy night in Black Ness, the wind was cruel and the rain fell in harsh, icy sheets. All through the town not a soul could be seen, but down in the bay a lone figure made his way through the waves, the sole survivor of a merchant ship, dashed to smithereens on the sharp rocks. Late that night, as the town settled down to sleep, a stranger came ashore.

A Stranger Came Ashore delves into the myths of the selkie-folk – seals that can assume a human form, and are often seen with their heads bobbing just above the waterline, staring into shore with strangely human eyes. The myths are known most commonly in the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands – the latter being where this story takes place. While the myths of the selkie-folk vary from place to place, one thing is always consistent, in order to assume human form, a selkie must shed its skin, at which point it becomes instantly vulnerable, for if a selkie should lose its skin it cannot return out to sea.

I love to read up on local myths and legends, not only does it give a great insight to the culture of a place, but I find the thrill of the unknown absolutely irresistible. I like to look up local legends and famous haunted spots anytime I visit a new city – an odd quality perhaps, but there you go. So, basically, I was absolutely thrilled to discover this book.

I have heard of selkie-folk before, but the only stories I can recall are about the female selkie. These stories are often more tragic than dark: the woeful tale of a beautiful selkie woman lured onto land by a human man, who inevitably steals her seal skin and takes her for a wife. Typically, the woman in the story eventually reclaims her skin, usually because one of her children stumbles upon it, and flees back to her home beneath the waves never to be seen again. Tales of the female selkie are somewhat notorious for following this theme, as is eloquently summed up by Sofia Samatar in Selkie Stories are for Losers:

I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.

A Stranger Came Ashore is different to the ‘selkie stories’ so abhorred by Samatar, however, and instead focuses on the insidious, manipulative side of the male selkie.

The male selkie when in human form is said to be a wonderfully handsome creature, with magical powers of seduction over Earth-borne women. In selkie lore, the male selkie enjoys nothing more than coming onshore, shedding his skin, and seeking out unsatisfied women, both married and unmarried, to satisfy his cravings. Indeed, according to 19th century Orkney folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison, selkie males ‘often made havoc among thoughtless girls, and sometimes intruded into the sanctity of married life.’ Scandalous!

Enter Finn Learson – the protagonist, and guest selkie, of A Stranger Came Ashore. Finn Learson appears to the Henderson family one dark and stormy night, knocking on the door of their simple butt and benn house to seek refuge from the weather. Assuming him to be a victim of a ship wreck, the family offer him a bed by the fire, and are quickly taken by the young man’s charms. Indeed no one is more taken with Finn Learson than young Elspeth Henderson, who, though she herself is bequeathed to the wonderfully eligible Nicol Anderson, is instantly bewitched by the stranger’s deep brown eyes. The only members of the family who are not fooled by Finn Learsons’s charade are Robbie Henderson, and his grandfather, Old Da – both of whom are horrendously outspoken, one for being young and impressionable, the other for being old and somewhat ridiculous. Soon after Finn Learson’s arrival Old Da’s health takes a sudden turn for the worse and he confesses his suspicions to Robbie. Informing the boy that Finn Learson is none other than the evil great selkie of Shetland legends, and he has come to take Elspeth.

Poor Robbie Henderson knows in his heart there is something wrong with Finn Learson but he is never to be believed by his family, who see only the polite young man that the great selkie wants them to see. The selkie-folk are nothing but a myth – and Old Da is guilty of filling Robbie’s head with fantasy. With no one in his family willing to listen, Robbie turns to the only person who might be able to help, a man who fills his belly with terror: Yarl Corbie – the local schoolmaster. Yarl Corbie is a brutal, terrifying and mysterious man, who agrees to lend a hand to Robbie, if only to fulfil his own personal vendetta.

On the night of Up Helly Aa – a pagan festival celebrated in the Shetland Islands – Finn Learson makes his move. As the daylight fades, the young men of Black Ness are transformed into the Earth spirits of old and a dreamlike state of merriment falls over the town. Finn Learson weaves through the celebrations, leading the beautiful Elspeth from house to house, while Robbie follows. The pair fly through the crowds, dancing in the moonlight and jumping from place to place like shadows in candlelight. There is mystical, almost spiritual feel to the festival, as though Robbie is chasing an apparition – in a blink of an eye all could be lost.

One moment he had the will-o’-the-wisp figure of Elspeth in full view as she danced ahead of him across the hill. The next moment, his weary eyelids drooped, and before he could blink them open again, the green of the northern lights had vanished behind one of the sky’s spells of total darkness.

As she slips through the crowds Elspeth is blind to her fate. Obliviously living out what could be her last moments on Earth; she dances closer and closer to the great selkie’s home beneath the waves.

This book is positively brimming with everything I love: myths, legends, premonitions, dark tidings, strange characters, and creatures that lurk in the shadows. It’s is a creepy, thrilling read, which also offers an insight into some truly fascinating culture. A Stranger Came Ashore would be the perfect novel for anyone with an interest in myths and legends, but would be particularly well suited to a young Goosebumps or Point Horror enthusiast who fancies sinking their teeth into something a little more substantial.

Short Works – Ross Tomkins

“Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky, We fell them down and turn them into paper, That we may record our emptiness.” ― Kahlil Gibran

9780262162555However uninspiring the title, Short Works, may appear, this is much more than just a book of poems, translations and short stories. The work nestled within this simple cover, accumulated over five decades, is nothing short of a literary treasure trove. It makes me wonder whether there is perhaps something more to the title Short Works – is this just a literal description of the contents in its rawest form, or does it mean something else? The works are really not short at all. I would go so far as to say they are relatively ‘long’ works. While the reader could easily make short work of reading the book – I myself succeeded in a lazy afternoon – it is clear that the author took more than a little more time in writing the book. Perhaps I’m looking too much into this – but I like to think that the, perhaps somewhat dull, title has a deeper meaning, one which alludes to something of the comedian in the author’s personality.

The first half of this book is a collection of poems, past and present, which speak volumes as to the life of the author. Tomkins’ wonderfully melodramatic and fantastic younger years overflow with the essence of youth, while largely avoiding the embarrassment of childhood innocence. Later years fall into the metaphysical, the metaphorical, and the philosophical. The works clearly span not just decades, but continents, and more than one or two frames of mind, exhibiting a truly unique voice, at times jumbled and jarring, at others fantastically vivid, presenting creatures, settings, times and places that form and reform before your eyes, like images from the screen of Disney’s Fantasia.

The author’s words are at times beautiful:

Under an opal moon
Metallic scorpions scuttle

Toad winks, blinks, and gulps
Wings sticking tattered to damp lips.

At others morbid:

I remember hide and seek
And a dog dead under a bush,
Its pebble-teeth scattering the path,

But always, above all, vivid and resounding.

I was delighted by the section given over to ‘Poems from Poems’ – although I can’t be sure, exactly, what Tomkins means by this. I imagine this section is where translations and found poetry come into play*. I absolutely love constructing poetry from other poetry, it has a charm all of its own, and I like to think that the author shares and has explored this passion. A story does not need to have a meaning before it is written, sometimes, it is in the writing that a meaning is born. This section of the book goes to show just this.

The section of short stories is perhaps the most difficult to pass judgment on – with so much content, how can you give adequate coverage to everything? On the whole, Tomkins’ short stories are well-written – remarkably well-written in fact – concise, intricate, and beautifully flowing. The works really bring character and setting to life, with the imagery exhibited in the poetry brought to a whole new level, delivering a picture the reader can really see. The stories are so open to interpretation, leaving their mark and giving the reader something to think about long after they have turned the final page. The characters, each unique in their own way, have hidden secrets, desires and aspirations that the text can only allude to, a mystery which can only be imagined, a silent, niggling message which can never be fully understood. I love the power of the short story to make you think, fill out the characters and create your own story, within the verbal landscape of the author.

I was particularly taken by ‘The Sands of the Sea’ – although ‘Mr Lippstadt’s Holiday’ was certainly not without its charm – being drawn in firstly by the delicious descriptions of Ferdy’s newly found bookshop. I was delighted by the description of the books as living creatures, hopping from shelf to shelf, following Ferdy on his search, as though desperately excited at the prospect of purchase. The last book, however, is something more insidious, with the elusive work crawling through the bookcases before coming to rest, like some predator, to lie in wait, inconspicuously, silently, on a final dusty shelf.

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

Overall I found Short Works to be refreshing, thoughtful and surprisingly readable. While undoubtedly magnificently written, this book is not self-important or difficult for the sake of difficulty. The poems and short stories alike are sure to delight wordsmiths, and leave the reader with one or two things to think about.

* Explanatory note from the author: ‘What they are in fact are translations in the form of condensations where I hope I succeeded in cutting away fluff and padding to get at the raw heart of the poems – pushing towards the interplay of images and away from the explanatory.’

New year, new update!

Hi boys and girls!

I hope you all had an amazing Christmas and New Year with your loved ones.

I know, I know, I suck! I’ve been really rubbish the last month and haven’t posted a single update!

You see…

The run up to Christmas was insanely busy, what with 12-week reviews, gift shopping, chest infections, and preparing for a long-haul flight (which, it turns out, makes me rather anxious), and I very much needed to take a little time off – I do hope you will forgive my radio silence!

Excuses, excuses.

In other news, we’ve just come back from an amazing few weeks in Hong Kong!

In my time away I drank Champagne in the highest bar in the world, got purposely elbowed in the face by a Chinese woman, fell over – twice, saw a real life giant panda, and ate more strange things than I would care to admit (sea cucumber is definitely an acquired taste).

But you didn’t come here to read about my festive antics, did you?

You’ll be pleased to hear that in my absence I surmounted quite the pile of books to review, so I’m going to have a very busy start to the new year. It’s a good thing I am feeling so wonderfully refreshed 🙂

I also returned to some very welcome packages from my good friends Prudence and the Crow!

November’s box

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December’s box

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While I’m over the moon with both my books, I’ll be placing November’s choice on the bookshelf for now, purely because I reviewed all the Chronicles of Narnia not that long ago, but I can’t wait to get started on December’s choice:

Redwall – Brian Jacques

It is the start of the Summer of the Late Rose. Redwall Abbey, the peaceful home of a community of mice slumbers in the warmth of a summer afternoon. The mice are busy preparing for the great Jubilee Feast. 

Bust not for long. Cluny is coming! The evil one-eyed rat warlord is advancing with his battle-scarred mob. And Cluny wants Redwall. 

Needless to say, I am thrilled with the prospect of another vintage children’s book to sink my teeth into – especially as it comes with a personal recommendation from Prudence.

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Here’s wishing you all the Happiest of New Years 🙂

There will be many, many reviews to follow.

A Tale of Two Families – Dodie Smith

“But these backwaters of existence sometimes breed, in their sluggish depths, strange acuities of emotion” ― Edith Wharton

I’d never heard of this book, or the author, before I was asked to review it. In fact, I will confess to having thought it was a modern novel – as so many I am requested to review are. So I was surprised, but also not, having read the novel, to discover it was written in the 1970s. I was taken by the language and setting, and thought the portrayal of the time was done very well, but I also thought that is had a slightly modern feel to it. This has led me to conclude that Dodie Smith was somewhat ahead of her contemporaries in her writing style.

A Tale of Two Families – Dodie Smith

‘This is going to be a long five minutes’ walk,’ said June.

May thought this possible as there was still no sign of any house, but she continued to find things to praise: the overgrown hedges, the tall, still-dripping trees, the brilliant green of the grassy verges, the freshness of the air. And after several more bends in the lane they saw a white wooden gate standing open. Once through this they looked across a large, circular lawn surrounded by a gravel drive. And now at last they were face to face with the house.

‘Much too large,’ said June.

51QWhoqlqpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_May and June are devoted sisters, married to equally-devoted brothers, George and Robert, and even after more than two decades of marriage the four still thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. So when May and her highly-successful husband commit to a five-year lease on a huge, decaying manor house out in the country it seems only natural that they should persuade June and Robert to accept, rent free, a cottage within the grounds.

The two families leave London and, once joined by two not-quite-stereotypical grandparents, and blessed by regular visits from their respective children, begin to thoroughly enjoy their new experiences. Any initial qualms about leaving the city are lost in blissful hours spent wandering through the lilac groves, listening to the birdsong of the resident nightingale, absorbing the country air and indulging in May’s excellent cooking. The only thing that could possibly distress this perfect equilibrium is the compulsory visit of dreaded Aunt Mildred aka ‘Mildew’. Eccentric, annoying and thoroughly too young for her age, Mildred delights in secret dramas, regardless of their truth, or the harm that they may cause.

First and foremost I was absolutely delighted at Dodie Smith’s portrayal of country living. There are few things I love more than day-dreaming of a blissful, quiet life somewhere remote, with only the smell of flowers, birdsong, and the thought of bare-footed, early morning strolls through dew-soaked grass to trouble me. Even though Smith’s portrayal comes through the eyes of a somewhat dysfunctional family unit it still felt to me like a kind of absolute heaven, although perhaps a less than traditional view of heaven . I was so taken by the setting, from the second May and June arrived at the manor house, on a day in which the house and ground were engulfed by a stereotypical English downpour. The rain could not put me off, there was a magic in the dripping of the tree-lined driveway, and the impression of the foreboding, unloved Dower house, standing cold and resolute against the elements, and when the washed-out introduction gave way to pure, unadulterated spring bliss I was smitten. The whole book is brimming with lilac groves, quaint woodlands, blossoms, sundials and mounds and mounds of asparagus and strawberries – I loved every single second of it.

This is a book where characters are really central to the plot, I know characters are important in any story, but here it is the development of the characters that drive the story forward. Smith clearly had a talent for creating quirky, yet believable characters. Each and every character that passes through the estate has some kind of secret, inner passion or frustration. From the sensual Corinna, who is well and truly tired of waiting for saintly Hugh to make a move on her, to the quietly frustrated Robert, who, try as he might, cannot get his next novel on paper. Mildred inspires the release of these frustrations, allowing characters true desires to take form, while undoubtedly an expertly crafter character in her own right, her primary role is to serve as a catalyst for development in others.

In this way the story is very much in the moment, and in the experience, of two families shared existence. The day-to-day happenings in the Dower house are all at once endearing, humorous, envy-inducing, and on the whole utterly ridiculous. Think about it, could you really imagine your parents moving in with your aunt and uncle? Or yourself moving in with your sister/brother and their significant other? Regardless of how close knit a family you come from the situation is really rather odd. The book reads like an extended summer holiday – beautiful in its own way but very much temporary. I get the impression that, in the end, both families might actually quite like to return home.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Tale of Two Families, and would be interested to look up Smith’s other works in the future. I found the book to be a perfect, relaxing afternoon read – it left me feeling pleasantly fulfilled, and without the emotional torture than comes from a horrific book hangover. That said, if you like a bit more substance to your books, there is definitely potential to delve a little further into the hidden meanings behind characters’ actions. On the whole, would recommend, whether as a casual afternoon read or a more in depth book club selection.

I received a free copy of A Tale of Two Families from Hesperus Press in exchange for an honest review.

The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban

“A clockwork heart can’t replace the real thing.” ― Dru Pagliassotti

I received this book in my August Prudence and the Crow box, the book selection was a fantastic bit of luck, as I’d been really craving classic children’s literature – between you and me I’m becoming more and more convinced that Prudence and the Crow are able to read my mind. From the a quick look at the front cover and the name alone – I know, I know, never judge a book by its cover, right? – I was expecting story about a mouse that fell in love with a windup mouseling. I’m sure you get the idea, something similar to Pinocchio, but English – so, perhaps with afternoons spent playing in dolls’ houses pretending to drink tea. I could not have been more mistaken, but, far from being disappointed, I absolutely loved it.

The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban

“Where are we?” the mouse child asked his father. His voice was tiny in the stillness of the night.
“I don’t know” the father replied.
What are we, Papa?”
“I don’t know. We must wait and see.” 

the-mouse-and-his-childOn a cold winter’s evening a tin father and son emerge from a box to stand on display in a toy shop window. Outside the cold wind blows and tramp passes by, momentarily taken by the sight of the toys. Brand new, and confused, the mouse and his child struggle to comprehend what it means to be windup toys and the thought of the life that lays before them makes the poor child cry.

It is not long before they are swept away, bought by a family, destined for a life spent dancing beneath the Christmas tree – the life of a windup. It is a simple life, spent quietly fulfilling their duties; until they break the ancient clock-work rules and must face the consequences.

Discarded in the snow the mouse and his child begin a wholly different journey than the one written for them. They are rescued, repaired by a tramp, and chased by a terrible force that would see all windup toys turned to slaves. Through all that they endure the mouse and the child wish for only one thing, a place to call their own – a magnificent house, a mother, and a sister.

I wish I could say that I had read this book as a child. This is definitely a tale that will take on an entirely different meaning, and gain resonance as a person grows older. I spoke about the book with a colleague when I had just started reading it, and he said that he loved it as a child, but upon revisiting it as an adult realised, quite simply ‘wow, this is really deep stuff’. I could try and say it more eloquently, but that is the bare bones of it. The Mouse and his Child is an incredible tale of quest and determination for children, and when viewed with an adult’s mind it is absolutely brimming with philosophical thoughts, lessons, analogies, and big, gaping questions about life.

“All roads, whether long or short, are hard,” said Frog. “Come, you have begun your journey, and all else necessarily follows from that act. Be of good cheer. The sun is bright. The sky is blue. The world lies before you.” 

The humanity of Hoban’s characters is truly incredible. The authors has taken windup toys and elevated them to the next level. Each toy, however minor their role in the tale, has its own unique drive and personality: the once-proud elephant, now plushless, and with the missing ear and eye patch; the tin seal, long separated from her colourful ball; the sweet child, forever asking questions, always looking, and understanding; and even the donkey – the poor, poor, donkey – who once dared to complain. These creatures may be made of clockwork, but they are no less human than you and I. They are exhausted, frightened, frustrated, despondent, sentimental, joyous, hopeful, and forever working towards their goals. Life throws its hurdles, and each one is tackled, even if it does take a short lifetime. Can you imagine what it would be like to spends years at the bottom on a pond? Through all this, they grow stronger, never losing sight of their aims, growing, learning and interacting with all whom cross their path. Just one more step, they will get there in the end.

The mouse and his child, who had learned so much and had prevailed against such overwhelming odds, never could be persuaded to teach a success course… The whole secret of the thing, they insisted, was simply and at all costs to move steadily ahead, and that, they said, could not be taught. 

The Mouse and his Child is a truly phenomenal children’s book, which has just as much, if not more, to offer to adult readers. I feel really thankful to have discovered this book, and look forward, truthfully, to a time when I can share it with the children in my life.