Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Book Review: Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia & North America by Per Alstrom, Krister Mild & Bill Zetterstrom

"Pipits & Wagtails" is a bird field guide/reference book on this often difficult to identify group of species. Whilst it contains a huge amount of information it is just about small enough to be regularly taken out into the field in a small rucksack. This publication consists of four main sections; a short introduction covering general aspects of identification, sexing and ageing; 30 colour plates; a hugely detailed set of species accounts; a photographic section. All four sections of the book are extremely useful to ornithologists in the identification of these birds and the photographic section certainly illustrates, very well, how similar many of the species and subspecies covered here are.

The species accounts here are intensely detailed, covering taxonomic status, wing formulas, calls, regional plumage variations amongst other details, making this book suitable for the serious ornithologist and not for those with a casual interest in birdwatching.

Although this book is superbly researched and information is dissipated in a very readable style, this is not a book to read cover to cover, but rather one to dip into as a reference book when one has a query about a particular species. Unfortunatley there are a few minor irritations for the user of this book, particularly that one has to constantly flick between the plates, species accounts at photographic section when reading about a species and the fact that the Yellow Wagtail subspecies are not illustrated in winter plumage. These minor problems aside, this is a superb book for ornithologists throughout Europe, North America and Asia.

Whilst this is an excellent publication for serious birdwatchers and ornithologists, the material within is far too detailed to be of interest to casual bird enthusiasts.

Score: 9/10

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Book Review: Why Do Moths Drink Elephant Tears? by Matt Walker

This collection of weird, interesting and often disgusting facts about the animal world is well put together and would appeal to wide range of readers. Many other books on the market follow a similar formula, but what makes this rather more interesting is that all the facts are properly referenced and are fairly up-to-date, so whilst it is hardly cutting edge science, there is at least a scientific core to this book.

This is not a novel and so it is particularly suitable for readers looking for something to pick up and put down - ideal for a gift for a wide range of people. Most of the facts in this book are quite amazing and it is easy to learn a lot from it; indeed, with its referenced material this would have made a useful book when I was studying for my degree in consevation.

Obviously with its slightly tired formula this book is not going to win any literary prizes but it is a better publication than most in this genre.

I would recommend this book to those buying gifts for readers and as light reading material in between more challenging books.

Score: 8/10

Book Review: Salt by Jeremy Page

Salt is a rather strange title for a strange novel. Set on the saltmarshes of Norfolk and the fens of Lincolnshire this is a wistful and wandering recollection of a boy's story, starting from the meeting of his grandparents and describing the litany of miseries of his childhood. It is rather difficult to say what this novel is about as it is certainly not plot-driven, but it seems to attempt to deal with the slight madness that living in such isolated places can bring upon people and as such is quite depressing. Quite overdescriptive and reliant on "wordbites" to set the tone of the Norfolk landscape, I would imagine that most of this book would be lost on anyone not familiar with the location.

Through much of the book the author attempts to paint a landscape using words and this is to the detriment of the story. This is a shame as at times the reader suddenly discovers a fairly interesting story, with some unusual characters, but every time it seems like something profound will come, the author gets wrapped up in painting his picture of words -"terns call, wind blows, I see the samphire tremble", which becomes quite boring and repetitive.

Rather than dealing with madness or landscapes this novel, to me, was more about neglect - neglect of children, neglect of women, neglect of oneself and finally, by the author, neglect of any ending worthy of the reader's efforts; throughout the book there was just enough intrigue for it to have been saved by an excellent ending, but once again the author lapses into a dreamlike prose which finishes nowhere.

Salt is a book I acquired from my mother as she lost interest in it, and this tells you a lot about its quality. Readers who are in love with the Norfolk landscape and like wordiness may love this book equally, but for those who don't know the area or like a good story, this is a book to avoid.

Score: 3/10