Redwall – Brian Jacques

Yet another book I wish I had known about when I was a child. I’m absolutely thrilled to know there are more in the series – I just need to find the time to read them!

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This is the first in a series of wonderful children’s books about a peaceful community of field mice who live within the quiet confines of Redwall Abbey. The brotherhood slumbers quietly on the edge of the Moss Wood, providing a place of humble solitude and unquestioned refuge for any who seek it. They live a simple wholesome life enjoying the good things nature has to offer – like goat’s milk, honey and nut brown ale. I feel warm inside just thinking about it.

Of course, it takes conflict to make a story, and so be prepared, once you open this book, for the lives of the Redwall mice to be thrown into turmoil. Not a day is given over to the lives within the Abbey before Cluny the Scourge, a vicious, one-eyed rodent, whose nightmarish existence is the stuff of legends, rolls in from the wild woods beyond the horizon. The noisome creature sets his sights on Redwall Abbey, determined to turn the warm stone walls into a fetid nesting ground for himself and his band of vile vagabonds. This is the beginning of an epic battle, the likes of which the peaceful brotherhood of Redwall has not seen for hundreds of years.

Our unlikely hero is a small, clumsy field mouse named Matthias, a new addition to the Abbey, who has a lot to learn about the complex history of his new home as he fights to defend its boundaries from Cluny’s deadly crew. It will take more than just the mice to defend the Abbey, but enlisting help from their neighbours is not as easy as just asking for it. The Moss Woods are rife with historical conflicts, and the mice, though peaceful, have a rather unsettling past. Beyond tribal feuds, though, are two evils more sinister than the sins of every benign entity combined, and only communal action can ensure that these dark presences do not forever disrupt the quiet equilibrium of the forest.

This book has a lot to offer to different readers. On one level it provides a fantastic amount of action for children’s literature – I was inadvertently clenching my teeth while reading about the battle between the mice and Cluny, and was filled with genuine terror at the idea of ‘old poison teeth’. On a personal level, though, I could have happily read all about the mice of Redwall without there being any kind of altercation. Redwall is the kind of community that one feeds on hearing about. Like the woodland animals in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe – specifically Mr and Mrs Badger – or any one of Beatrix Potter’s books. I am in love with the life that the mice live – it is so wholesome and wonderful; a simple, healthy life full of good things. The Abbey stands as a natural organ of the forest and the mice and the other creature that live within the walls keep it running like a well oiled bicycle – what more could I ask for in a book? A quiet life makes for content reading.

I was really taken by the complexity of Jacques’ characters. My personal favourite is Basil Stag Hare, whose ghost-like reflexes, mildly misquoted malapropisms and insatiable appetite are nothing short of genius. When it comes to characters that are also hares, Basil Stag is easily one of the most excellent I have ever come across*. He is joined by a whole host of unforgettable faces, Ambrose Spike the greedy hedgehog, Constance the formidable badger, and Warbeak, a sparrow who is much too big for her tiny, tiny boots.

Overall, I really enjoyed my first dip into the realms of Redwall Abbey. Jacques has crammed so much into this first book, and I have no doubt the rest will not disappoint. I would strongly recommend giving Redwall a try if you are a fan of young adult literature, tales of idyllic livelihoods interrupted, or anything containing anthropomorphic mice.

*This may sound oddly specific, but as a lifelong fan of Harriet’s Hare it is no mean feat

Not forgotten – Lesley Ann Anderson

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You have probably wondered what happens to us after we die – is there a heaven or hell? Can we expect to be reincarnated into something very distinct from our human selves? Do we become absorbed into an inky black nothingness, remaining only as memories after the lights turn out? Or maybe there is something different waiting for us after death. In Not Forgotten, author Lesley Ann Anderson explores this final idea. Delving into the complex nature of life after death – not just in the form of what happens to people that die, but of the lives of those left behind. .

The storyline centres on the rather complicated lives of seventeen year old Anna Munro and her dad, Mick. Mick is a bit of an oddball, having been thrown full force into fatherhood by the untimely death of his wife when his daughter was just a toddler. He spends his days indulged in a constant attempt to escape from reality and the hardships of fatherhood and life as a widower, absorbed in walks, books and music. For Anna life is not so simple and escape doesn’t come in the form of nature or the arts. Every night when Anna goes to sleep she feels herself being lifted from her earthly body, or has her semi conscious hours plagued by ghostly figures and incessant whispering.

The teenage years are a difficult time for any young girl, but particularly so for Anna, with new and strange things happening to her body and mind she turns to her father for help only to find out something very new and strange about herself. Assistance comes in the form of Anna’s maternal grandfather, Henryk – a beautiful, old country soul who escaped Poland for the green hills of Scotland during the Second World War. To help Anna understand her new found powers Henryk takes her to Poland, to the ancestral home of her great grandmother Rosalia.

Not Forgotten is a complex and intriguing book, exploring the many avenues of life and death. There is no central character but rather a range of people with conflicting desires and emotions, who have all been scarred by the tragic nature of human mortality. Anderson delves into relationship between love, loss and life, painting a striking picture of life after death, as those left behind struggle with conflicting emotions and grieve for those who have moved on.

Death is not final, and does not only come to us at the end of our lives, rather it is always with us, moulding and shifting our desires, our hopes, and our dreams, and preparing us for the inevitable, from the moment we are born to the day we die.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

It occurred to me yesterday that 2016 was a terrible year for my personal book reviews. I read and reviewed 28 books for E&T – and loved every second of it I might add – but I really did let my personal stuff fall by the wayside. Turns out there are a few I reviewed, and then left the word documents gathering theoretical dust in my hard drive, so I’m dusting them off this week and will be posting them fresh for you all to see.

 

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I’ve had this book for a while, but only decided to pull it down from the shelves in my reading room after David Bowie passed away. As I said, I have let things slip.

I was so upset by his death, so much more so than any other person that I cannot claim to ‘know’ in any real sense. Perhaps it was the very public way that he decided to go, to give it all up with one final hurrah, but it had a very real effect on me, and I spent many nights listening to Black Star and Lazerus while quietly sobbing.

Anyway, shortly after his death I was in Waterstones and saw a copy of The Night Circus with ‘DAVID BOWIE’S FAVOURITE BOOK’ emblazoned across the front. Now don’t get me wrong, this wouldn’t have been enough to make me actually buy the book – I’m still not sure how I feel about this marketing tactic – but it did make me go home and start reading the copy that I already had.

It was the beginning of a week spent reading in the bath until my skin was grey and clammy and the water temperature had dropped a little below tepid. I was absolutely enamoured by this book, a book I had had on my shelf for months – David Bowie’s favourite book.

Imagine you are a small boy, who doesn’t yet know his place among friends or family and is striving to find meaning is his life. One day, as if from nowhere, a mysterious circus tent appears in your home town, and it calls to you.

The Night Circus – or Cirque to Reves – is different to other circuses – there are no sad looking clowns with oversized button holes, or dusty, skinny elephants tied to chairs, rather, it is a place of true magic. At the heart of the circus as some of the most incredible people you will ever meet, wonderful sorcerers, incredible contortionists, talented acrobats and marvellous mystics, all of whom are enamoured by the magic around them. It is beautiful, and captivating, but underneath the black and white façade, something far more sinister is going on.

The Night Circus is not a circus; it is a game of chess, the black and white squares on the board coming to life, twisting and turning into a stunning array of blacks and whites, each pattern striking out against the other. At either side of the board, hidden by their army, stand the two kings. The Night Circus is their pawn; it is a war, a vicious war fought by fame and glory – a war of magic, and fame, and destruction, fought between two competing shadows.

Erin Morgenstern has one of the most beautiful writing styles I have ever come across. The words flow across the page driven by rippling monochromic imagery, made of more than just the ink which paints the page. Even the simplest of phrases or gestures, are given a beautiful, flourishing turn – the opening of umbrellas after the rain becomes the ‘popping’ up of toadstools, lovers hold one another in an ‘emerald embrace’, and a ‘single perfect diamond’ stands out amongst a ‘sack of flawed stones.’

I really, really enjoyed this book. It is mysterious and intricate, filled with stories within stories and lives hidden behind the scenes, and there is so much waiting to be discovered. It struck me that Morgenstern constructed the book as if it is circus itself; with each page the reader is drawn closer and closer to the centre while glimpsing hidden corners and secret passageways that could unfold with the slightest touch. Along the way there is imagery within metaphors, magic overlapping magic and so much more than I could ever give credit to in such a short review.

I get the impression that there will always be more to this story than first meets the eye. There are hints and stories hidden within the text that may only emerge at a second, or maybe even a third reading. It is up to the reader to decide why the book was written and to think about the true meaning behind the circus. This in itself is beautiful; just like the fans of the circus I feel enamoured but ultimately clueless.

Fans of David Bowies, lovers of the obscure, seekers of magic or beauty – read The Night Circus. I implore you.

 

 

 

Measurement A Very Short Introduction – David J. Hand

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Measurement may not sound like the most exciting topic to sink your teeth into as it takes a certain type of person to become excited by a ruler. Yet this book has much more to offer than just a history of centimetres (cm) and inches. Rather, it serves as a brief, but comprehensive glimpse into a social construct that boasts a history that is inextricably bound with the many great leaps forward of civilisation. In Measurement A very Short Introduction, author David Hand traces the origins of measurement back to the beginning of civilised human society, with the birth of agricultural production.

Original units – which relied largely on basic physical objects to quantify length and weight – were of course hugely variable, depending as they did on physical objects. Of course, if there is nothing fundamental leading to the choice of object, other systems of measurement can be adopted. It’s hardly surprising then that a huge number of different systems have been adopted – today we have grams and kilos, pounds and ounces and the dreaded American ‘cup’.

When you take into account the history of units of measurements, measurement itself seems like a fairly vague thing – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. What is a cm? You could say that it is 10mm, or 1/100th of a metre, but how can it be defined on its own? The history is complicated and points toward the need for a unified method of measurement. This became especially important with the rise of scientific experimentation in the 20th century. It’s been a long time coming, but with the birth of the metric system we are getting close, although there are a few stubborn nations who insist on holding on to their outdated ways.

Of course, measurement is not a purely scientific thing, but can also be used to understand social aspects of society. Far from a scientific concept, it spans the entire range of human society, from the purely physical to the wholly abstract. Economic progress can be measured, but it requires a much different system measuring milk or grain – it is something that cannot be conceived with a basic unit of inflation. This, Hand says, is the difference between representative measurement and pragmatic measurement, a wholly different and complex school of thought which is becoming more important to our understanding of society.

Measurement A Very Short Introduction offers the reader a wonderfully accessible route into a hugely complex subject that spans the fields of science, sociology, history and anthropology. From the simple grains and fathoms of old, to GDP, GNI and the modern-day World Happiness Index – the history of measurement has a lot to say about the development of society. Hand has taken a topic that spans almost the whole of human existence and condensed it into a book which the avid reader could easily conquer in an afternoon.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

Dear Data – Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

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When they first met at an arts festival, Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec realised that they had been living oddly parallel lives:. Both were residing in a foreign country – Giorgia had moved from her native Italy to New York and Stefanie, originally from Colorado, was living in London.  They were the same age were both only children and, most importantly, they were both obsessed by data.

Stefanie and Giorgia have spent their lives collecting and organising information from the world around them. As a child, Stefanie delighted in filling in scorecards with her father at baseball games, while Giorgia collected and organised anything she could get her hands on, from buttons to small stones. As they got older, they both realised that they were collecting data and went on into careers as visual designers, creating data illustrations.

From a chance visit at an arts festival, Stefanie and Giorgia decided to try and get to know each other by sharing data. Having only met once, Stefanie and Giorgia began exchanging postcard-sized letters that described what had happened to them each week, but instead of writing what had happened, they drew it. The resulting project spanned a year, 52 weeks and covered 52 themes, from smiling at strangers to smells and sensations. Each week, Stefanie and Giorgia would collect, collate and share data with one another, often containing information about the most private aspects of their lives such as touch,  envy and desire.

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Dear Data is an amalgamation of the project that unfolded from the chance meeting of two strangers who went on to become intimate friends, revealing oddly personal pictures of each woman’s life. Often, aspects of life that would not necessarily be revealed through the simple act of writing can be seen through data. By looking at each other’s infographics each week, Stefanie and Giorgia got to know each other, noticing themes and patterns in each other’s drawings. The resulting works tell a story about the person behind the data. We learn that Giorgia is a control freak, and Stefanie enjoys more than the occasional drink and apologises far too often.

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Dear Data will make you pause and think about what data can reveal about a person. It makes you realise that you don’t need an app to tell you anything new about yourself. Every one of us is a walking data collection, from the money in our bank account to the calories we consume in any given day. Each time we glance at the clock on our office wall, apologise, or take a walk, we are inadvertently adding to a huge data collection that is our lives. This book is a wonderful illustration of just how data-heavy the average person is. As a project, an exhibition and a book, Dear Data is fascinating, beautiful and a treat for the eyes and mind.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots – Beatrix Potter

It’s today! It’s today!

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I was unbelievably excited to wake up this morning to an email informing me that The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots would be waiting for me when I returned from work. Obviously I would have preferred to wait by the front door for the postman, but somehow I managed to get through the day at work. I then tore home, dived into the book and had it finished before supper time.

I’ve always been a huge Beatrix Potter fan. My childhood box set was always a prized possession of mine and was subject to more than one show-and-tell session back in primary school. The Tailor of Gloucester was always my favourite and I still love to pull the book out and watch the BBC adaption around Christmas time. If there is anything more magical than animals behaving like humans it is animals behaving like humans in the snow. Simpkins in his snow boots is one of my favourite images of all time.

When I heard there was a new book by Beatrix Potter being published I was over the moon. To think that the manuscript remained hidden for over 100 years, only to emerge to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s death – it is almost as though she had planned it. I couldn’t wait to see what this story, written ten years after all her other much-loved tales, had in store for me.

The newest addition to the collection tells the tale of a very serious, well-behaved black cat by the name Catherine St. Quintin who likes nothing more than to sneak out at night and poach animals with her air gun. Like all of Beatrix Potter’s tales it is filled with funny escapades with the characters falling into one or two unfortunate scrapes, before ultimately learning a rather valuable lesson. Diehard fans of Beatrix Potter will be delighted to encounter a ‘stout buck rabbit in a blue coat’, who bares more than a striking resemblance to a mischievous young bunny once seen stealing radishes from Mr Macgregor’s garden – it looks like Mrs McGregor never did get her winter coat – as well as one or two other familiar faces and more than a few news ones.

Of course, half of the delight in a children’s book is in the illustrations and while I will admit I was slightly surprised when I saw that Quentin Blake was illustrating the book,  I think the result is absolutely stunning. Who better to illustrate a book by one of Britain’s most-loved children’s authors than one of Britain’s most loved children’s book illustrators? His drawings are nothing like Beatrix Potter’s, but I wouldn’t have liked to read a book where Beatrix Potter’s style was mimicked. Blake doesn’t attempt to fill Beatrix Potter’s shoes, he merely pays homage to her work, and does a remarkable job of it. The illustrations are perfect, wonderfully encapsulating the action and humour in Beatrix Potter’s latest tale.

What’s more Blake’s illustrator’s note, where he hopes that Beatrix potter would have approved of his work and speaks of his pride at being given the opportunity to illustrate such a book, is so sweet and endearing. I truly think he has done wonders with the text and brought the book to life in a way that none other than Beatrix Potter herself could have. My one slight disappointment is that the few drawings that Beatrix Potter did create to accompany the story could not be included in the publication.

Overall, however, I think this book is a real delight to read, filled with Beatrix Potter’s classical charm, but with slightly more adult escapades than the previous publications. There is also a subtle, perhaps satirical ribbon running through it which suggests that what is natural does not always come naturally.

There is no doubt that it was written by the Beatrix potter we all know and love, but the style is  different to her earlier works. Not worse, just different. Of course, we can’t know whether there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to change her writing style, or if the book was left in a somewhat unfinished state. Whatever the case may be, it is a truly charming read and I will happily place it alongside my other Beatrix Potter books, and no doubt look on it time and time again.

I know the publication is a couple of months too late, but happy birthday Beatrix, may you continue to delight us, and future generations for many, many years to come.

 

Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture – Benjamin Peters

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In 1976, Raymond Williams published his world-renowned reference book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, a text that would go on to change the way society approaches language, and make its way onto the reference shelf of political theorists, linguists, university students and academics alike. The text revealed how the meanings of 131 words were formed, altered and redefined within the changing society in which they were used.

Now, 40 years after Williams began the journey into the politics and culture behind language, his work has been continued – and readapted for the 21st century – in a book that seeks to carry on where he left off, by digging out the roots of digital language and discovering how it has shaped the newfound society we live in today.

Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture takes 25 of the most important ‘digital’ words in the English language and assesses how their meanings have shifted over time, analysing the forces behind them, their meanings and their development. With essays from contributors across the fields of politics, communication, media and digital activism, the book seeks to discover how the digital has reconfigured culture, and how the development of keywords reflects cultural change, hinting at development and marking even the subtlest of societal revolutions.

In his introduction, Peters points to the words of technological historian Leo Marx: “The emergence of a keyword in public discourse – whether newly coined or an old word invested with new meaning – may prove to be an illuminating historical event. Such keywords often serve as markers, or chronological signposts, of subtle, virtually unremarked, yet ultimately far-reaching changes in culture and society.” These are the keywords that Peters attempts to uncover in this new and revolutionary publication – the words which, once studied, reveal a deeper meaning about society than the actual definition alludes to.

What a keyword does, says Peters, is both more relevant and more interesting than what it is. In this way, it is important to understand that Digital Keywords is much more than a concise dictionary or glossary of digital terms. The very meaning of the keyword itself takes second place to the history and development of the word, the society that gave way to its development, and its continually changing definition. In addressing ‘activism’ for example, in the first essay in this collection, contributing author Guobin Yang must take into account, not just activism in its original sense, but the rise of digital activism, and the words and movements that this form of activism gave way to by delving into online activism, cyber activism and hacktivism alike.

The one annoying thing about this text is that you cannot say it runs from A-Z as books of this nature often do, as Peters’ digital list is somewhat limited, assessing only select keywords from Activism to Surrogate. ‘A to S’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? But, as the absence of Z suggests, the book itself is only the beginning. Each chapter is cross-referenced to linking keywords, both within the book and within William’s original selection, and there is also an extended appendix of further digital keywords for the reader to consult research themselves. It seems that, with the release of this book, the digital language journey is just getting started.

Digital Keywords serves as an in-depth interrogation of the meaning and development of digitised language, and strives to reveal the way in which the digital has reshaped society and rewritten culture. You can learn a lot about society from language, and those wishing to gain a deeper understanding of the modern, digital world we all inhabit would be well advised to begin by taking a look at this book. Just as Keywords made its way firmly onto reference shelves in the 1970s, so too will Digital Keywords today.

This review was first published in print for E&T magazine.