Book review – Paul Newman – “Lost Gods of Albion” #20BooksOfSummer plus @shinynewbooks links and a confession


A busy post today as I have been subsumed in work, work on the house and various other bits. And not reading enough. I have read Book 2 in my #20BooksOfSummer and hoping to get into a few more soon. News of reviews in other places first, though – my review of Jeremy Mynott’s “Birds in the Ancient World” is up on Shiny New Books here – the review takes a slightly different angle to my one on here earlier in the month, and in fact I think more people saw it when I shared on my Facebook page!

I have what is possibly the most awkward photo in the world coming up to explain my latest book confession, so let’s have a review first!

Paul Newman – “Lost Gods of Albion: The Chalk Hill-Figures of Britain”

(27 April 2019 – Oxfam Books, Muswell Hill)

I bought this when I was staying with Emma for London Marathon (supporting, not running) and it looked fascinating, but also I knew I was going to have to run past the White Horse of Uffington and Waylands’s Smithy during my upcoming ultra run, and I’ve got (I had) a THING about them, dating back to the joint scaring of my young self by the TV series “The Moon Stallion” (I read and reviewed the book here and it didn’t help) and various dark doings in Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series. I knew they would feature in here and I thought it might take it away. Hm.

Anyway, this is an updated version of Newman’s previous book, with more detail and analysis. He explains in the Foreword the importance of how these figures worked in the landscape in relation to other features, and how they took part in people’s lives. There are around 30 of them, all in Southern England, and they have caused lots of theories about their origins and maintenance, some sensible, some very wild, which he shares very carefully and with a twinkle in his eye at some of the more outlandish ones.

He starts off with the White Horse of Uffington and shares a photo not unlike the one I managed to get from the hill (see my report on my Ridgeway training adventures here for photos of the Horse and the Smithy). Unfortunately, rather than taking the taste away, he mentions that the Smithy in particular has “an almost savage atmosphere”. Thanks for that! (It actually felt like a sacred grove and mysterious but peaceful and benign). Then we get all the famous ones and some others that are now grown over, with a history, origins and a conclusion that draws together the themes for each. There’s a chapter at the end about all the most outlandish theories and some detailed appendices including one detailing all the post 17th century hill figures that have been created, mostly regimental badges and horses. He’s good on how the old religions and ways were absorbed into Christianity and writes clearly and with a kind air (a bit like Mynott, actually).

I’ll leave you with this quotation which sums up the essential difficulty of writing the definitive work on chalk hill figures:

The Long Man epitomizes the central problem of identifying hill-figures, being vaguely evocative of many things in general and specifically evocative of nothing in particular. (p. 126)

He does have a nice turn of phrase, doesn’t he!

This was Book 2 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.

So last week I went to a book tour and signing by Tan France, one of the Fab Five who present “Queer Eye” over on Netflix (five gay guys make over someone’s life in a supportive and lovely fashion). Tan is the British one and was back home for three events. I saw a lot of friends there, including one who was my usher as I took my seat, Sarah Millican was a great, hilarious host and we got lots of authenticity and openness from Tan. I’d ordered a copy of his book, “Naturally Tan” (if you’re a fan, they’ve all got books out apart from Bobby – sadness!) with my ticket, and as I’d been one of the first 250 to arrive and to get given a wristband, I got the opportunity to have a photo taken with him. Which I, um, grasped with no hands whatsoever.

Turns out I really didn’t want to get close to someone I’d never met before and I don’t know what to do with my hands.

Queue, queue, give in your bag and coat, kind member of staff takes photo with your phone, retrieve your stuff, look at picture on phone, become embarrassed, leave. But I’m looking forward to reading the book!

I’m currently getting into Michael J. Benton’s “Dinosaurs Rediscovered” which is a fascinating look at new scientific breakthroughs in the study of dinosaurs. And you?

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Nuns and Soldiers” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


It’s been an unexpected and rather disquieting fact that this time around re-reading all of Iris Murdoch’s novels in chronological order, in my mid-to-late-40s (last time I did it was in 2008-10) I’ve discovered that many of the characters who I previously considered as ‘adult’, certainly older than me, have been slipped past and are now younger than me. This was again the case here, with the central, adult figures, Gertrude and Guy, being in their early-to-mid-40s and most of the constellation of ‘cousins and aunts’ similar. I’ve noticed I’ve had slightly less tolerance for the caperings of the young, so I hope I don’t end up unable to respect anyone apart from Bruno or (insert other very elderly characters here). It’s not a problem as such, just interesting.

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “Nuns and Soldiers “

(31 December 2018)

I think this one gets left out a bit as the follow-up to “The Sea, The Sea”. Certainly, based on the Introduction to my edition, it wasn’t received that well by the critics. But I’m very fond of it; I love the scenes in the French house, and I’ve certainly not tired of Anne Cavidge (so much more successful than Ann Perronet).

We open with Guy dying and his wife Gertrude surrounded by friends and family. The chorus of relatives demands particular behaviour when a circle of suitors manifests itself. While she tries to escape – to the north, to France – unprepossessing Tim seems to claim her heart while the distant satellite, a Polish “count” holds still with his love hidden. Who will Gertrude choose, and will she stick with her choice? Over the course of a year we watch Gertrude being courted, other constellations moving around her, and time passing in a circle.

Who is the saint? Anne or the Count are really the candidates, aren’t they? The Count is doing penance for his father’s anti-Semitism by page 4 (“and for much else”) although it’s worth noting that he does pass on gossip where a true saint would absorb it. His life is “a conceptual muddle” which is always a good sign. He also notes that “It’s not for me to judge” about Tim (p. 323) while also confronting Tim about his morals and seemingly planting ideas of integrity and honour into his head (p. 380).  Anne is of course an ex-nun who has a vision of a somewhat Buddhist Jesus and she effaces her love for the good of others. Gertrude says of her, “She is not a Saint, she is not even an Abbess!” (p. 52). I do love the portrait of their long and complex friendship, by the way, a massively attractive feature of this book for me. Manfred and Mrs Mount consider then to be “a spineless pair” who should have ended up together (p. 497). Is our saint Daisy, who absorbs things then pops off to be an American feminist? Tim is described as taking everyone’s blame by the chorus, but that’s because he’s a scapegoat, not a saint.

Are there any enchanters? Gertrude seems to have an effect on people but only in a loving way. Are the chorus of aunts and cousins which turn out to be manipulating things rather a lot in the late scenes a sort of joint enchanter, making things happen as they wish?

Murdoch is much more positive about marriage than in “The Sea, The Sea”. Gertrude and Guy’s bond was so close “They had never seriously quarrelled, never been parted, never doubted each other’s complete honesty” – presumably why she’s so very upset when Tim shows up as a liar. I loved the description of both Tim and Gertrude feeling a little superior to each other but transforming that into protective tenderness. There’s probably a lot to be said about Gertrude’s inability to appreciate art and Tim’s various issues in the art galleries, but I’m not sure I’m equal to that!

In other more common themes, Guy was writing a book of course, which is never finished. Daisy is writing a novel which is more successful. Anne has a short fur of hair, while Gertrude has tangles of brown and Tim of red. Once more, older women are described disparagingly – Daisy has become “prematurely haggard”. Gertrude grows older in Tim’s eyes, greying and with eyes displaying signs of crying. The descriptions of the sea in the north and the rivers and pools and canal in France are beautiful. The rain and thunderstorms play a major role. Stones are a big feature, with the beach ones hampering Anne but Jesus giving her a special stone. Anne observes Tim in the garden in France and he looks through a window and sees what he should not see. There’s discussion of how to be good and Jesus Himself sums it up:

Do right, refrain from wrong. (p. 298)

In this context, I also loved Anne’s statement to the Count that it’s best not to take your own life in case you could have done some good for somebody in later life. She’s passing on a good message here. Cats and dogs feature with all Tim’s cat paintings and Tim and Daisy’s story being bookended by Barkiss the dog disappearing and appearing.

Doubling is everywhere – Gertrude has two husbands, Tim has two tests in the canal and Anne one in the sea. In France and London are opposing house, one constrained and one free (or is it?). There are two dogs in the canal – one dead, one alive, both turning to show a raised paw, and two fountains (the face and the moss fountain). As well as Tim’s ordeal, he and Gertrude count themselves as having had one when they separate. There are two big break-up scenes (Tim and Gertrude, Tim and Daisy). I loved the times that Tim and Anne almost run into each other, walking in London.

There’s not much actual humour in the book but great sayings such as “There is a gulf fixed between those who can sleep and those who cannot. It is one of the great divisions of the human race” (p. 37) and on Gertrude and Anne’s friendship: “She and Anne would always be riding together in that indestructible chariot. Only since it was so indestructible there was perhaps no need to let it run over her dreams” (p. 281). I also loved the assessment of Tim:

Like many instinctive uncalculating liars Tim was too lazy to think out his lies with care, and faced with exposure tended perhaps, as a token gesture to his conscience, to tell the literal truth. (p. 340).

Daisy’s feminism and swearing opposition to pretty well anything is both brave and amusing. Tim caught in the brambles is also pretty funny.

In relation to other books in particular, Gertrude and Tim breaking up at the end of one chapter and then being found in the process of getting married at the beginning of the next always reminds me of when Dora in “The Bell” is resolving not to give up her seat on the train then doing so. The discussion of the meaning of Guy’s dying phrases, including the one about “the upper side of the cube” turning out to be about hitting a tennis ball rather than some kind of deep philosophy recall Dorina in “An Accidental Man” suddenly recalling that “Pliez les genoux” was about skiing lessons rather than the imprecations of some holy man.

A good read, I think, with lots of drama and adventure and a lovely denouement when we suddenly look at everything through Manfred and Mrs Mount’s eyes.

Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

Sedate lady running 10-16 June 2019 including Bimble Bumble Summer Edition 2019 race report #amrunning #running


Summary: I don’t like going off-road so what was I doing running a 10-mile trail race??? Bimble Bumble Summer Edition race report after the rest of my week.

Tuesday – I went to Running Club tonight and it was So. Wet. I wore my (not very) waterproof, it was soggy, I was tired, and Mary Ellen and I decided to just run home when we reached the high street, rather than going through the park and back to the other park then running home. We did tell the tail runner! Then of course we ran in circles to make it up to five miles!

Running in UK June: wet Liz

Running in a UK June

5 miles, 12:46 mins per mile

Wednesday – I was so concerned to get home and dry and fed on Tuesday that I forgot to stretch. And I’ve not been rolling enough. Result? I went to yoga and my hams and bum and back were protesting so much I lay down and stretched, relaxed, then left half-way through (this is the week I kept quitting, it feels. Less quitting later).

Thursday – Managed to get out with Trudie for a run around. I was waiting for a parcel to be delivered for Matthew and we were very pleased that with me checking my phone, I managed to dash back home and catch the Amazon Man on his previous delivery at the end of the road, wait for him, sign for it, put it in the hall and finish my run. Hooray!

Trudie called this run Woman vs. Amazon!

3 miles / 12:00 mins per mile

Saturday – I was leading the club’s beginners’ session, something I always love doing. We had the house measured for blinds first thing then I popped over to the park for 9.50. I had Jenny joining me plus two lovely beginners I’ve run with before – they’d missed a few weeks due to the rain so were pleased with 2.5 miles of run/walk. Jenny and I then walked to the garden centre and she helped me choose some plants.

0.6 miles, 11:12 mins per mile / 2.5 miles, 14:03 mins per mile


I knew I had to do this trail race because although I’ve been on the unpaved canal paths and the bottom of the rugby club where it’s traily, I needed a challenging trail race under my belt before Race to the Stones. A few of us decided to do this 10-miler. But I got scared, esp when we got an email saying the rain had made it quite treacherous underfoot and the farmer hadn’t been able to mow one of the grass fields. I’m scared off road and I didn’t really trust my shoes or myself. But I had said I’d do it, so I did it.

Tara and Matt kindly gave me a lift, along with my rucksack of food and spare socks. I was testing out my Aonjie rucksack (which I did wear for the Canal Canter last year) hoping to make sure it’s OK for RTTS, and I had my pretty new Saucony Peregrines on my feet. We arrived at the race HQ, a pub in Bromsgrove, and collected our numbers and connected with quite a few other KHRC folk, plus I saw Joan and Ian from officiating, which was lovely. We all talked nervously, changed into our gear, and had a good safety talk by the organisers.

This expresses literally exactly how I felt before setting off (photo by Bernice).

I was so scared at this point that I’d given myself a tension headache in my neck.

Off we set, down a grassy slope (eeps mud) and then through a wheat field …

Liz running through a field of wheat (by Bernice)

I did not know Bernice was videoing me aeroplaning along!

I nearly fell (well, gave up) at the first hurdle when we hit a stile. I am so slow climbing over these wooden constructions and was worried I was holding everyone back, offering to stop and go back. I did get more adept at these as we went, fortunately.

We then hit a truly terrifying downhill section through a wood. It was hang onto trees, step carefully, really scary stuff. I felt quite panicky here: I’d imagined the whole race to be a combo of this type of thing and muddy fields, which it wasn’t. Fortunately Tara shouted to me “Race to the Stones isn’t like this!). Then a slippery bridge at the bottom I did all the tiptoeing over.

Slippery bridge after rails we had to hang onto and before muddy steps (photo by Bernice)

You can see Fay and Tara doing what we’d just done and inching sideways hanging onto the fence. Scary! We did have a fab tail runner, Debbie – the organisation, signposting and marshals were all amazing.

On we went, muddy fields, stiles, gates … Some of us were scared of the terrain (me), some were worried about the distance, some were scared of horses and/or cows (which is fair enough) and this awesome lady had already run 8 miles to get her long run in!

Bernice and Liz in the woods

It was beautiful and I’m not complaining about the terrain, it’s as it is and common for this kind of race.

So beautiful – the views

All the sky, all the view

Lovely woods

Lovely woods

You can see the variety underfoot, though. We had a lovely horse come over to us all and I had the job of distracting it while Tara got through the gate, as it loved Tara, but all fun to see the wildlife (not many good birds, unfortunately).

All in all it was like one of those puzzle adventure games people play: work out how to get round the puddle, through the mud, over the stile … it took a LOT of concentration and was really tiring. But somehow, in about Mile 7, something sort of clicked (I’m not going to say it totally clicked) and whether I’d been out ages and was just tired and wanted to finished, but I somehow didn’t care and I was running over mud I’d have been scared of, popping over stiles (I did get a bit ahead at one point, purely because I wanted to make a bubble of time for getting over stiles!).

Bernice kindly recorded me running through some very wet and muddy grass …

Liz on the trails. The wet, muddy trails. By Bernice.

This was near the end. A few more gates, some more stiles, along we all trotted in a line of Kings Heath wonderment, and then there was cheering and whooping and we were running up a hill (hooray) and we were DONE and there was Tara’s fiancé (ooh), Matt and the organisers and a few other runners and a lady with MEDALS and a helper with water and we’d done it!

Look at them undulations!

Muddy ladies: Tara, Liz, Bernice, Tracie (where’s Fay?)

It was well set up at the end, eggs to collect (yup), a place to sit down, food being served, and announcements about the winners at the end, after we’d all come in, which I thought was a lovely touch.

That’s not all my hair, it’s an ashtray or something (by Bernice)

It was chilled and pretty at the end as we found everyone and congratulated each other, and to be honest, I went from fear to terror to panic to gritting my teeth through it to not hating it to not not liking it to a kind of hysterical enjoyment to gritted teeth and a vague ability to actually do it, and I’m OK with that. Everyone did so well, achieving what we set out to do and conquering various fears and outsideness of comfort zones: well done, us!

Eggses and a pretty medal

My shoes did superbly, I felt confident in them and only had one slide. They repelled water and stayed quite clean for a while, and I didn’t get any blisters (must remember which socks I wore). My rucksack worked really well: it’s not waterproof but that’s OK as I can put things in bags inside it and this was to test that. It did rain on us quite a bit!

9.7 miles (everyone else’s watch showed 10!) 15:42 mins per mile (or maybe a little less).

So roll on the Race to the Stones, which is three times as long but in no place as scary as that scary downhill, according to those who have done both.

Miles this week: 20.8 Miles this year: 516.4 (for 1,000 miles in the year I need 500 by the end of this month)

weekly-run-down-final-300x300The Weekly Run Down is run by two wonderful running women and joined by lots of other inspirational women. Kim’s weekly wrap is here and Deborah’s is here.

Book review – Gretel Ehrlich – “This Cold Heaven” #amreading #20BooksOfSummer


Well I’m under way finally with my 20 Books of Summer, and this one with its close print and historical narratives certainly didn’t give me a quick entry into the project this year! I was inspired to read this book by Bookish Beck’s review back in February 2018 – I ordered it quickly and then of course it sat on the TBR. But I’m very glad I picked it up and it was a very rewarding read about a place to which, like BB, I have no desire to go, but which I do like reading about! Oh, and I’ve realised my 20 Books list is a little more diverse than I thought, as this book is absolutely rooted in the lived experience of Greenlandic and other Inuit people, spending time with them, honouring their customs and sharing, rather than imposing on, their way of life.

Gretel Ehrlich – “This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland”

(10 March 2018)

A narrative of her seven years spent in Greenland for at least part of the time, a summer here, a dark, dark winter there, right up in the Inuit communities, living communally (very much so, with open toilets in hallways, naked drumming and a very basic life on the sleds), going on hunting expeditions and always conscious of and examining the pull between a modern and rapidly vanishing traditional culture, where those seeking to maintain the old ways have to present their case in the modern world and in some cases push back hard against it. The development of her friend Olejorgen, who has left Denmark to come to Greenland and learn to be a hunter describes a fascinating arc through the book: will he lose his professorial ways and become what he seeks to be?

As you’d kind of expect, quite a lot of dogs die (although this is not dwelt on in detail and some of the deaths are from preventable epidemics, showing another side to life in Greenland), and there’s a fairly upsetting scene with polar bear hunting later on in the book. However, even this doesn’t feel gratuitous if you accept that maintaining a way of life where you have to battle with the elements, one mistake can kill you very easily, and you and (first) the dogs are going to live off the meat while you make yourself a new pair of polar bear trousers is important and that this pretty small community should be allowed to survive as it wishes. It’s a difficult call to make and the author shows herself to be sympathetic while not glossing over the bad points of the culture and retaining self-reflection and critical thinking (she does get her head turned a bit by a hunky museum curator, however).

There are lots of passages describing the early 20th century explorer and ethnographer Knut Rasmusson – indeed, the impetus for her travels was reading his journals and she lugs the books around with her when all the rest of her luggage is lost. I didn’t personally find these as interesting as the passages about her own life and friendships, and I was glad when they petered out towards the end, however they did give a lot of interesting information, especially on the habit of picking up an Inuit wife for a journey, having a baby or two and then wondering what to do. I was fascinated by her reactions to the constant night and constant day of the two opposite seasons, written in perfect beautiful language, and then on a more practical level, I appreciated the epilogue from 2001 updating us on the various people we meet along the way, and I’m really glad I read this.

Now it’s on to my Iris Murdoch of the month, and I need to spend some solid time with that over the weekend! How are your 20BooksOfSummer (winter) coming along?

Book reviews – Joanne M. Harris – “The Gospel of Loki” and David Coles – “Chromatopia” plus book confessions @ShinyNewBooks @ThamesandHudson #amreading


First off I need to tell you about “Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour” by David Coles, which publishers Thames & Hudson were kind enough to send me to review for Shiny New Books.

This truly spectacular book would grace any coffee table with ease, but it’s more than just a pretty face, with fascinating facts in abundance and offers a good read to anyone interested in art, colour or indeed chemistry.

Read my full review over at Shiny. I’ve just had a look at Thames & Hudson’s autumn catalogue and there are some smashers in it, although I have a couple more from May and June to read and review before I can start frolicking amongst those!

Joanne M. Harris – “The Gospel of Loki”

(23 November 2018)

I bought this one because the lovely Annabookbel sent me the sequel, “The Testament of Loki” (which she didn’t finish, see her review here) and I am just unable to read the second part of a series first, it seems.

This is a really nicely done retelling of the Norse myths from the point of view of Loki. His voice is great, and the little details of swapping a Chaotic life in the form of a flame for a corporeal aspect that can feel all the senses give a depth to it that makes it not all just about stories. His motivation is laid out for us to see, and plausible, and he’s got a modern way with words while being firmly rooted in his context (a bit like the Marvel films, and of course it’s now hard to visualise the characters without seeing the film characters). He has to experience emotions, too, adding another layer. All the familiar tales are here, so there’s lots of nice recognition if you’ve basically been a bit obsessed by this stuff since you were 8 or so, but it’s all from his side of the story, so retains the interest. The mystery of who actually wants Ragnarok to start is a bit of a twist too far, perhaps, but it’s both competent and fun.


Oh dear. You’ve seen the state of the TBR and noted that I can’t have cleared much from it if I’m reviewing my second book of the month. But then this happened.

Somehow Jon Bloomfield’s “Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham” got itself published without me hearing about it. How did that happen? When I heard about it, I just had to have it right away. It’s got at least one person I know in it, and looks just so well done and fascinating. It also adds to the diversity of my TBR, which I’ve been a bit concerned about.

More diversity with Japanese novel “Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata, about a woman struggling to keep the way of life and work she wants while being buffeted by expectations from her family and employers. This was one Meg was given for Christmas and I apparently expressed a need to read it, so there it was when I met her for her birthday!

And then Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”. Ali had a du Maurier reading week recently to celebrate their joint birthdays. She had a competition to win a copy of “Rebecca” and one other book, and as I’ve managed never to read this novel, I entered, along with a few other people. And then, to everyone’s slight embarrassment, I won. Ali shared with me at the weekend that she drew me with the first random number generator run, and was horrified, so ran it again … and I won again, at which point she decided the fates wanted me to read it. Fortunately she’s said I can do it for DDM Reading Week NEXT year!

Currently reading

Once I’ve shoehorned these onto the shelf, I’ll get back to reading the first of my 20 Books of Summer, “This Cold Heaven” by Gretel Erlich, a fascinating book about her long-term love affair with Greenland. It’s very absorbing so far, although I have the thought of getting to my next Iris Murdoch before too long hovering gently in the background …

Happy reading everyone! How are your 20Books going?

Book review and blog tour – Jeremy Mynott – “Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words” @WolfsonHistory #WolfsonHistoryPrize


Rather than a full shadow panel who all read all the books, and not entirely like a classic blog tour where lots of people read the same book, I’ve been honoured to take part in the blog tour celebrating the shortlist of the Wolfson Prize, which awards £40,000 to the best new work of non-fiction in the UK. Here’s some information on the prize:

From a major new biography of Oscar Wilde, to an entirely fresh take on Queen Victoria as Empress of India, and from a history of the human impact of the Holocaust, to an exploration of the role of birds in the Ancient World, the books shortlisted for the most prestigious history prize, and most valuable non-fiction prize in the UK, each combine excellence in historical research with readability.

The Wolfson History Prize 2019 shortlist is: Building Anglo-Saxon England by John Blair, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice by Mary Fulbrook, Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson by Margarette Lincoln, Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words by Jeremy Mynott, Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis, and Empress: Queen Victoria and India by Miles Taylor

… and you can find out more here.

I was sent a lovely hardback copy of Jeremy Mynott’s “Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words”, published by Oxford University Press, and here I am, next up on the blog tour (see below my review for a list of all the participants and their books – I’ve been sharing all the reviews on Twitter through the week).

Jeremy Mynott – “Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words”

“Confiding” is a term used in birdwatching for the behaviour of a bird which will allow the approach of humans to observe it. That blue tit blithely feeding off the peanut hanger as you potter about on the patio, the robin on your fork handle or the heron you run past on the canal are all confiding. I can extend the metaphor to this book, in which an acknowledged expert on the relationship between humans and birds takes a gentle, close and approachable look at how birds were seen, experienced and written about by the Greeks and Romans. Packed full of illustrations and quotations, if it doesn’t have the hard-hitting nature of some of the books on the list, it’s hugely engaging and teaches us an awful lot about birds, humanity and the ancients, speaking perhaps more softly than some, with a wry smile and a little joke here and there.

Mynott is both a classical scholar and a writer on birds, and his love and deep knowledge of both areas shine through in this fascinating and rather wonderful book. From the preface, where he describes the variety of birds to be found in Athens and Rome to the epilogue, which pulls together feelings on the environment ancient and modern and shows how our experiences of nature are both different and similar, we follow a well-ordered and clear path through an exploration of the way birds were markers of the seasons, time and weather; their exploitation as a natural resource to farm and eat; birds as pets and entertainment (including a flamingo zoo!); their examination as the objects of wonder and then science; their appearance as symbols and in dreams; and their role as messengers between people and the spiritual dimension. He states early on that his aim is

using birds as a prism through which to explore both the similarities and the often surprising differences between early conceptions of the natural world and our own. (p. vi)

and he also describes an aim to contribute to the cultural history of birds and to introduce those not experienced in the classics to this time in Western history. I think he achieves these aims very well.

Through the book, references and often substantial quotations are pulled from over 100 classical authors, all of which have been translated anew by the author for the book. The structure is really clear, although he’s at pains to point out that there are other ways to structure the material and, indeed, other material that could be brought in.

Mynott is also at pains to ensure that we don’t map our modern views and attitudes directly onto those of the Greeks and Romans in a like-for-like way, as this is impossible. He starts off by explaining the Greeks were the first to describe the concept of nature, but is clear this doesn’t mean quite the same as our conception. He is academic, precise and intelligent, but never talks over the heads of his readers – although there is much for anyone with an interest in trying to work out which bird is being referred to where or in the struggles of translation. One example of the former will suffice – he spends quite a lot of time trying to work out what actual species Catullus’ girlfriend Lesbia’s “sparrow” actually was. He is clear that the Ancients probably had a closer relationship to nature than many of us do, with so many species and their behaviours being mentioned suggesting that audiences were familiar with a wide range of birds.

He is also careful to note that what we  might see as superstition or over-reliance on augury and religion is not necessarily so different from our need to wear certain clothes and engage in particular behaviours on specific days of the year, and there are some lovely examples of bird-related folk sayings that are still in use today – and probably “believed” to the same degree. Arguments for the value of the natural world are examined in their context and also against modern ideas.

The author never seems to mind a mystery – in fact, he highlights and embraces them. Why is the sport of falconry hardly mentioned in Ancient texts, and why are butterflies almost never written about, even though both appear in illustrations? Mynott examines the various theories put forward but accepts that there is no actual answer, and I like him even more for that. He is definitely a guide rather than a lecturer.

The end of the book holds one more smile for the avid birdwatcher. A lovely illustration of a confiding bird in an identifiable plant is described as a “little brown job” whose actual species cannot be identified. A lovely little in-joke, but again benign and inclusive.

Thank you to Ben from Midas PR for arranging for a copy of the book to be sent to me for an honest review.

State of the TBR June 2019 and #20booksofsummer pile #amreading #bookconfessions #WolfsonHistoryPrize


Well I read seven books in May (not all reviewed yet) and a look at the Book Confessions tag will show you that just a few came in. There is a gap at the end of the front shelf but only the size of one book (and next time I see Ali, I’ll be presented with the copy of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” that I somewhat embarrassingly won in her competition). And inconceivably stupidly, I’m sure, I’ve not included any of my review books or my Iris Murdochs in my 20 Books of Summer pile for this year. I think this might be the year I fail!

A small confession

First off, new books in I haven’t told you about yet.

Gill had read “Narrowboat Dreams” by Steve Haywood recently and very wickedly brought it along to our regular Sunday coffee. So there it is. Then Kaggsysbookishramblings had recently read Vijay Menon’s “A Brown Man in Russia” (her review here) and very kindly sent it on to me (more about these below as they are in my 20 Books pile).

Then I was very flattered to be asked to be part of the blogging panel for the Wolfson History Prize 2019 shortlist (see the full shortlist here). I’ve been lucky enough to receive Jeremy Mynott’s “Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words”, which is an exploration of the role of birds in Roman and Greek society and culture. I was aware of fortune telling using, um, birds, as such, but I am enjoying reading all the painstaking research that has gone into this entertaining book. The author wrote a seminal work on birdwatching and our modern relationship with birds, “Birdscapes” which went straight on my wishlist as soon as I heard about it.

My review is scheduled for 6 June and I’m also going to be reviewing it for Shiny New Books. The other reviewers are a great bunch and I’m looking forward to reading their thoughts on their books, too (there’s only one of us reading each book, so not so much a shadow panel or a book tour but yet another way of going about things!).

Now and next

So what am I reading now and next? I’m currently in the middle of Joanne M. Harris’ very entertaining “The Gospel of Loki” which retells the Norse myths from the point of view of Loki. She’s got his trickster ways and egocentricity down to a T, and I love all the little details like what it feels like to change from being a creature of chaos to being embodied. Although there are a few fights and bits and bobs, this is one that doesn’t mind where it’s read, so useful for mealtimes etc.

Then I’m also onto Jeremy Mynott’s “Birds of the Ancient World” we’ve talked about above, and it’s being prioritised of course!

Next up I have my Iris Murdoch of the month, “Nuns and Soldiers” and you can read more about that in my preview post here. I can’t quite believe I’m on Book 20 of my re-reading project, but I’m heartily enjoying it. I’ve chosen what I’m going to do for my next project already, but I’m not ready to share on here QUITE yet.

And then we’re on to the next review book, Michael J. Benton’s “The Dinosaurs Rediscovered” which is about the strides forward in science that have been made in the last 20 years, not just the renaming but finding out what colours they were and what coatings they had. It looks fascinating and appeals to the grown-up non-fiction reader and the little girl who loved dinosaurs in me!



20 Books of Summer 2019

I’m excited to be taking part in 20 Books of Summer 2019! I’ve done it since 2016 and have a dedicated page for it here with a pic of the books and links to all I’ve read (I’m adding that next so if you’re super keen and clicky you won’t see the updated version!). Here’s the pile …

and yes, there are 19: one of them is an omnibus! Here’s a bit about each one. As usual, I’m including my All Virago (and Persephone) / All August challenge in there, so it’s weighted towards those (also I should have finished my review books by August!).

I’m horribly aware that this pile isn’t very diverse. The weighting to Viragoes and Persephones makes it woman-centric but not that much on people of colour, LGBTQ people, etc. and I am sorry for that. I do have two books about or by people of colour in there, but then I also have two books on Norse and far-northern culture. Not sure about the LGBTQ quotient until I’ve read some of them. My NetGalley list is more diverse and I will continue reading from that amongst these and working to broaden things further.

Here are the non-Viragoes:

Gretel Erlich – “This Cold Heaven” – seven seasons in Greenland. A dense book but came recommended and I do like reading about Greenland.

Lynne Murphy – “The Prodigal Tongue” – she writes a blog about US and UK English and here’s the book, talking about the differences, similarities and histories.

Neil Gaiman – “Norse Mythology” – his retelling of the tales, can’t wait to read this.

Clair Wills – “Lovers and Strangers” – a history of post-war immigration to the UK

Harriet Harman – “A Woman’s Work” – her autobiography

Cathy Kelly – “The House on Willow Street” – her usual multi-character-stranded work, set in a seaside village outside Dublin this time.

Paul Newman – “Lost Gods of Albion: Chalk Hill Figures of Britain” – needs to be read before I run past the White Horse of Uffington (of which I am oddly afraid) when I do my ultramarathon in July.

Joe Harkness – “Bird Therapy” – an Unbound title I supported, about the value of birdwatching to one’s mental health.

Steve Haywood – “Narrowboat Dreams” – man amusingly travels the canals of Britain – maybe our ones!

Vijay Menon – “A Brown Man in Russia” – author from India does the Trans-Siberian Express.

And the Viragoes and Persephones:

Margery Sharp – “The Eye of Love” – you can’t beat Margery Sharp and this promises to be a great novel.

Ellen Wilkinson – “Clash” – the story of a political activist set against the General Strike of 1926

Henry Handel Richardson – “The Getting of Wisdom” – coming-of-age novel by this (female) Australian novelist

Henry Handel Richardson – “Maurice Guest” – a doomed Australian-English love set over 500 pages (this might be the one I swap out but Kaggsy gave it to me so that’s a good sign)

Angela Thirkell – “Before Lunch” – more Barsetshire fun. I have about six of hers TBR so have confined myself to just one for the moment.

Dorothy Whipple – “Young Anne” – her first novel and the last to be republished by Persephone and another coming-of-age novel

Ada Leverson – “Tenterhooks” and “Love at Second Sight” – I read “Love’s Shadow” a couple of years ago and picked up the omnibus also containing the other two.

Edith Ayrton Zangwill – “The Call” – a woman scientist abandons her career to be a suffragette.

Nicholas Mosley – “Julian Grenfell” – acclaimed biography of the First World War poet.

So there you go – 3 June to 3 September, 20 books, 15 by women, 9 non-fiction, will I read them all?