Book Review: The Adventures of a Young Naturalist, by David Attenborough

Available in bookshops nationwide.

51xl7QiCeML._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_David Attenborough is a legend of our time, synonymous with sharing the wonders and delights of the natural world with us through numerous television series over decades. He is a man with fascinating stories to tell about his life and career and Zoo Quest Expeditions shares some of these adventures.

In the 1950’s, David Attenborough was 26, a television producer for the BBC with two year’s broadcasting experience and an unused zoology degree, anxious to make animal programmes.

His plan was simple. The BBC and the London Zoo should mount a joint animal-collecting expedition on which both he and a curator of reptiles from the London Zoo should go. David would direct film sequences showing the London Zoo curator searching for and finally capturing a creature of particular interest. The resulting television series should be called Zoo Quest.

Zoo Quest Expeditions is David’s diary account of the experiences they had on their animal-collecting expeditions into the wilderness of British Guiana (Guyana), Indonesia, and Paraguay in the 1950’s.

Part of the magic of this book is the realisation as to how special these far flung locations were in a time when there was limited access to the area, and few European faces. Exotic animals were abundant the jungles and wilderness, and sometimes living as pets in remote villages. David and his team come into contact with Caiman crocodiles, piranhas, sloths, exotic birds, giant spiders, vampire bats, capybara, tree porcupines, manatee, anteaters, and many, many more wonderful creatures.

There is also the realisation that David Attenborough was far more than just a television producer and presenter, he was a very hands-on naturalist, with a confidence and appreciation of the animals and wilderness environments. He waded in deep crocodile infested waters, crawled through jungles, climbed trees with giant snakes; the man had no fear. The tale of David wrestling with the monster python a foot wide and 12 feet long in the jungles of Java is an eye-opener.

David Attenborough acknowledges in the book’s introduction that nowadays zoos don’t send out animal collectors on quests to bring them back for the zoo collection. The methods were of the time, when men of science were still concerned with compiling a catalogue of all the species of animals alive today, rather than conservation and respect for the wildlife and environment. If you can be comfortable with this, you’ll be able to appreciate the stories of the beautiful and charismatic creatures and their first interactions with humans, rather than saddened by the fact they were often collected and brought back to zoos.

On the trip back from Guyana, most of the animals were brought back by sea, except a few nice spiders, scorpions and one or two snakes in sealed tins with tiny air holes that went on the plane with David. He also kept a Coatimundi kitten nestled inside his shirt, a delightful furry creature still on a milk diet, with bright brown eyes, a long ringed tail and a pointed inquisitive snout. When he became hungry for more, they fed him worms rustled up from the tulip gardens at the airport in Amsterdam.

Zoo Quest Expeditions is a snapshot of a time long past, and a truly fascinating account of the wonderful animals that live our planet Earth.

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions
by David Attenborough
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9781473665958

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions features in the 2017 Summer Reading Catalogue.

Book Review: The Mirror World of Melody Black, by Gavin Extence

cv_the_mirror_world_of_melody_blackAvailable in bookstores nationwide on 12 March 2015.

This is a tale of depression, specifically manic depression. It is narrated through the eyes of Abby, a mid-20s freelance writer, who suffers from episodes of mania and depression. Her latest episode is triggered by the discovery of neighbour, Simon, dead in his flat. Her lack of emotive response affects her greatly and she struggles to seek greater understanding of her own mind.

Abby is a very easy protagonist to connect with. She is candidly honest and direct. Her boyfriend, Beck, is lovely, but he struggles to cope with her emotional rollercoaster. Also joining the cast is the delightfully vindictive poet, Miranda Frost; the supportive psychiatrist Dr Barbara (if I ever need treatment, I want someone like her). And, of course, the Melody Black of the title, a teenager with whom Abby strikes up a friendship whilst she is undergoing treatment.

The plot is compelling, hooking me in until time rolled away from under me and I had to force myself to set it down. It also gives great insight into how a depressed (and manic) person both feels and thinks. This book is written with the authenticity of someone who has first-hand experience and who has put a great deal of thought, study and consideration into his tale. It is at times painful, yet almost darkly humorous – especially some of Abby’s more manic exploits – other times heart-breaking, poignant and moving.

I would urge everyone who has a friend or relative diagnosed with depression to read this book– if you cannot identify with Abby, than you will certainly connect with Beck. A memorable and haunting read.

The Mirror World of Melody Black
by Gavin Extence
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9781444764628

Book Review: Play on: Now, then, and Fleetwood Mac: the autobiography by Mick Fleetwood and Anthony Bozza

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Acv_mick_fleetwood_play_ont just over 300 pages, this is not a small book by any means; it’s nicely produced by Hodder and Stoughton with a good sized font and excellent spacing.

I am not sure what I was expecting when I started this book, but what I got was both more and less – more in that it’s clearly about the entity that is Fleetwood Mac, but very much through the eyes of Mick Fleetwood who finds it impossible to separate himself from the band. And less, in that I did not find it an appealing read. I think it’s partly the writing style, which is Anthony Bozza’s – he’s been a journalist for Rolling Stone for a long time and has published several books on famous rock musicians and bands. The journalistic style comes through and makes for a somewhat disjointed read, and I do think the whole book could have been improved by some judicious editing!

That said, I learned a lot about Fleetwood Mac, and in particular Mick Fleetwood’s passion and drive to keep this band going. Unfortunately, I learned way more than I ever need to know about the drug and alcohol intake of Fleetwood Mac band members and the impact that had on them as a band, and the effect it had on their relationships. To be fair though, it’s clear that at least some of their work was inspired while under the influence of various substances and the musical world would not be as rich without their amazing output.

It’s true that a band like this is a creature which needs to be nurtured, and which becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Many of the bands from this time probably have similar experiences, particularly if they are still together. There’s an intensity in creating and performing which can push everything else into the background, and which has – as with Fleetwood Mac – a damaging effect on interpersonal relationships.

I kept getting irritated – it must be my age – by the behaviour and the apparent lack of responsibility shown in particular by Mick Fleetwood, and felt increasingly sorry for his first wife, Jenny. But despite all of that, the band survived and are still playing. That’s some kind of record, no pun intended.

Overall, for me, an interesting but unsatisfying book.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Play on: Now, then, and Fleetwood Mac: the autobiography
by Mick Fleetwood and Anthony Bozza
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9781444753257

Book Review: Us, by David Nicholls

cv_usUs arrived with the fanciest packaging I have yet encountered as a blog editor. The box was a corrugated cardboard suitcase, covered in stickers for each city visited by our main character. It included a travel pillow, and a packet of English barley sugars. The review proof copy of the book has a slipcase and a great, understated cover design that I didn’t look at closely until I realised at the end that it may have given me a clue as to what would happen over the course of the book. No expense has been spared for this expected bestseller by David Nicholls, the follow up to One Day. And at the time I received it, it was still in the running for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

This book absolutely deserves to be a bestseller, and I would expect it to be a hit for the Southern Hemisphere summer sales. But I will say it wasn’t a huge surprise to see it knocked off the Man Booker list when it came to the shortlist time, if only because it is too straightforward, less experimental and certainly less grand in scale than most Man Booker prize-winners of the past few years have been (including The Luminaries).

Nicholls proves in this book that he is an expert observer of family life. Our narrator for this book is a 50-something year old scientist, who has had his ups and downs career-wise, regarding as the greatest period of his life as the moment he realised his now-wife was his perfect match. Unfortunately, the book starts with his wife shaking him awake in the middle of the night to inform him that it is time they went their own separate ways. This news comes as their only child, Albie, prepares to go away to Art School to study photography, and as they are about to embark on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe as a family.

The depiction of Douglas is so detailed you feel as though he is a great friend, somebody you know everything about and love despite his occasionally despicable actions, generally involving his son, who he has never understood, nor felt understood by. This relationship hits home as a parent as well as as a child. There is so much as a child that you cannot possibly ‘get’ about your parents, no matter how much you know of them. And as a teenager, so often you are so wrapped up in your own concerns, how can you possibly be expected to care what your parents are going through?

The book is as much about the interaction between chaos and order as it is about human relationships, and this is where the subtext lies. He says, of Connie’s superior parenting ability: “…she never seemed resentful – or only occasionally – of the hours and days and weeks that he consumed, the attention he demanded, the irrational tears, the trail of destruction and spilt pain and mashed carrot that he left behind, never repulsed or angered by the vomit that stained our new sofa, the poo that found its way into the cracks between the floorboards…”

Douglas’s own reaction to this chaos of childhood was to try and force it to be ordered, through gluing together lego sets (I recently watched The Lego Movie, there are echoes of the dad in this with Douglas’ actions), through trying to encourage his way of thinking in his child. As an only child, I can understand this imbalance of parenting between two parents, and I felt I understood a little more about my own father’s reactions to my own life choices from this.

This is a wonderful trip through Europe and a family’s relationships, which is funny, truthful, and very well written. I recommend it to anybody as a great read this coming summer.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Us
by David Nicholls
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9780340896990

Book review: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

cv_gun_machineThis book is in bookstores now.

Gun Machine – a crime thriller cum mystery by action-comic writer Warren Ellis.

The best part of Ellis’s writing is the way he changes points of view, from the protagonist’s (1st Precinct detective John Tallow) to the antagonist’s (“the hunter”) – it brings closer the ability to see the hunter’s desperation in his crazed world. And it took an accidental discovery for the hunter to enter the story.

When called to a disturbance in an apartment building, in which Tallow’s partner is killed by a naked tenant gone mad on learning his home is to be sold out from under him, Tallow has to kill the crazed tenant. During the aftermath with medics, police and CSU people swarming, Tallow examines a hole in another apartment’s wall, blasted earlier by the tenant. Inside the room he discovers a puzzle. No, an enigma, a mystery, a symbolic almost mystical gun display of as yet unrecognised significance.

Ballistic tests on a few of the guns link them to unsolved killings from years ago, and Tallow has “reopened several hundred homicides” – considered cold cases with any evidence long locked away in the vaults of the sub-basement pf the Property Office. The sheer numbers of cases to be reopened are overwhelming, and all are dumped on Tallow to work, with a team of two young CSUs.

From the hunter’s point of view, the disturbance at the apartment block is unsettling – he watches his collection being brought out from the building in crates and boxes, loaded into a police truck and disappearing. Right from the moment we meet the hunter, we see his double life – unhinged and switching from a cold modern reality to a self-created mystical identification with the native Americans who’d inhabited the sites of New York during pre-European settlement.

Tallow, under increasing pressure from superiors and fellow detectives, is expected to work alone as he uncovers corruption among colleagues and top citizens and bigwigs in both the commercial and the criminal worlds, as the hunter becomes more and more unable to control his delusions and becomes increasingly dangerous. Blackmail, manipulation, payoffs – all when revealed contribute to the resolution of the network of lies, murder and threats.

Ellis has written a gripper of a thriller, and I expect to become just as rapt in his other novels, starting back with his first – Crooked Little Vein.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

Gun Machine
by Warren Ellis
Published by Mulholland Books: Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN (paperback) 9781444730647
ISBN (ebook) 9781444730654