The Last Place You’d Look For A Wallaby

The Last Place You’d Look For a Wallaby: My Obsessive Quest to Seek Out Alien Species, by Glen Chilton

University of Queensland Press (2013), Paperback, 289 pages.

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After looking for the long-deceased Labrador Duck, Canadian ornithologist now settled in Australia Glen Chilton sets off another zoological quest. This time the animals he is seeking are very much alive, although many people wish they weren’t. His quest is for animals (and plants) that are a long way from where they should be. Wallabies in Scotland, Pacific oysters off the Dutch coast, eucalyptus in Ethiopia, American ducks in Spain, and many more. As in his Labrador Duck quest, Chilton again plays the clueless traveller, with another assortment of interesting travelling companions. Only Chilton would go looking for Australian wallabies on a Scottish island accompanied by a Hungarian architect. As usual his travels are made vastly more interesting by the people he meets and the officialdom he has to deal with. His experiences in Ethiopia in particular have to be read to be believed. This book is less emotive than his Labrador Duck quest. Live animals always are a lot more cheerful subject than vanished ones. But it’s no less an entertaining read. Chilton finds that not all invasive animals are a pest or cause damage to their new homes. Some fit in really well, and others are even beneficial. Just the juxtapositions of some of the animals with out of the way places you would never expect them to be is a real eye-opener. Another entertaining and enthralling offering from a very talented and very funny writer.

8.5/10

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Marina

Marina, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Pocket Books (2012), Paperback, 350 p.

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Welcome to the great Gothic cliche-fest. All the stock characters are here. The ethereally beautiful, doomed maiden, with a terrible secret. The mysterious veiled woman, with a terrible secret. The mysterious murdering monster living in the sewers, with a terrible secret. The twisted, possibly mad doctor, with a terrible secret. The grand, rotting mansion, full of terrible secrets. They’re all here, but it doesnt matter. Cliched as it is, this is still a great read. The writing is slick & economical, fluid poetry that moves the reader forward with a progression of revelations, that while not exactly earth-shaking, are sufficiently intriguing to keep the reader entertained until the denouement. In addition the book wins through its wonderful evocation of Barcelona’s past glories and tarnished underside. The author is careful to keep the modern world at bay, and its very easy to slip into believing the novel is set sometime between the late 19th & early 20th centuries, and get a shock when reminded it actually takes place in the late 70s’, redolent with a pungent whiff of the very recent Franco era. The two main protagonists, the beautiful, doomed Marina, and the troubled teenaged narrator Oscar, are both very likeable, and the reader will shed a tear at the inevitable conclusion of their budding but frustrated romance. All in all, its a worthwhile read that plucks at the reader’s heartstrings and will have an emotional impact, and you will put it down feeling better for having read it. Highly recommended.

8.5/10

An Officer and a Spy

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

Hutchinson (2013), Paperback, 496 pages

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Superb. IMHO this is Harris’ best book so far. Better than Fatherland and far better than his clunky and awkward Roman novels. I had read a a bit about the Dreyfus affair but never really understood why it so bitterly divided French society and caused repercussions in French politics for decades. Harris  has written a novel that really brings home the enormous impact of Dreyfus on Belle Epoque society.  It is a slow burn, since the story is so well-known there are no surprises, but it is compulsive and enthralling. I simply couldn’t put the book down until I had finished the last 200 pages (at 2.45 am). The characters are engaging and believeable, no-one is entirely white or entirely black. The hero is Marie-Georges Picquart, the career army officer who sacrifices just about everything for his belief in honour and justice. Dreyfus himself is a marginal character, not presented entirely sympathetically, typefied by the book’s very last scene where he tempers his gratitude to Picquart by demanding his reinstatement to the rank he would have had had he not been falsely convicted. Harris’ story belongs to Picquart, not Dreyfus, whom Harris seems to argue, suffers as much if not more than Dreyfus, entirely voluntarily, in his quest for justice. Cameo appearances by literary and historical giants like Emile Zola and Georges Clemenceau add substance and historical veracity to the story. It is simply a great book, a great read and a thought-provoking piece on what men will do, or not do, in their quest for what they believe is right. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

9.5/10

One Summer: America 1927

Ome Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson

Doubleday (2013), Hardcover, 560 pages

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While I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, I decided to include the review here because it’s just a fantastic, absorbing read. Bryson draws in an incredibly diverse collection of events and characters to illustrate one amazing summer in American history. The book is more or less built around Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth, and their stories are weaved through events covering politics, cinema, crime and punishment, sport, aviation, economics and natural disaster. Its a roller-coaster ride, as Bryson flits from one to another, frequently swooping off in tangents, but it is endlessly absorbing. Bryson cleverly uses these tangents to illustrate people or events, incidental to the main action, but each forming a piece of the incredible patchwork that makes up this one short period. For example, while waiting for Lindbergh’s plane to reach Paris, the American Ambassador whiles away the time catching some tennis, which allows Bryson to detail the life and career of the great Bill Tilden. The book is full of wonderful little sidebars like this. The research that has gone into this book is formidable, but Bryson refuses to be weighed down by dry fact regurgitation. He simply does not stay in one place long enough to allow the story to get boring. I’ve never read a book quite like this before, but its certainly among the best books I’ve read in recent years. More, please.

10/10

The Baghdad Railway Club

The Baghdad Railway Club, by Andrew Martin

Faber & Faber (2012), Hardcover, 304 pages

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This is the latest in a series of mystery stories based around the exploits of Jim Stringer, a railway detective from northern England. This book and the previous title, The Somme Stations, concern Jim’s military service in WWI.  I had read Somme Stations and not really enjoyed it, finding it curiously flat and unengaging. While I enjoyed this book more than Somme Stations, I still find it really hard to get into this series. Mostly, like Somme Stations, it just seemed flat. Even the rare passages of action seem stilted. Maybe this is intentional by the author, perhaps he’s trying to convey the renowned British stiff upper lip attitude of the participants, however the fact that no-one ever seems to get startled or hot under the collar, also the fact it does not generate any sense of suspense, can really start to grate after a while. Perhaps he was trying to convey the ennui of life in the torrid heat of the Middle East, certainly the enervating climate gets mentioned at least once on every page, but then the same flatness and lack of effort was apparent in the Somme Stations and I don’t think heat was ever a problem there. The book gets extra marks for dealing with the British campaign in Mesopotamia, which generally gets short shrift compared to the Western Front, and the author conveys the terrain and general feel of the region quite well. But frankly, as far as the story goes, its a bit of a bore.

6.5/10

The Curse of the Labrador Duck

The Curse of the Labrador Duck: My Obsessive Quest to the Edge of Extinction, by Glen Chilton

Simon & Schuster (2009), Hardcover, 320 pages

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Simply a book that has to be read to be believed. Part hilarious travelogue, part lamentation on the finality of extinction, part scientific detective story. In a nutshell, the story concerns the Labrador Duck, a not too common species that has the dubious distinction of being the first known bird in North America to become extinct due to human action. It was shot in its hundreds ( even though people knew it tasted horrible) and its wintering grounds on the north-eastern US coast were consumed by the human sprawl. So it quietly slipped into eternity in the 1870s without anyone ever knowing much about it all. Fast forward 140 years or so and a Canadian ornithologist rediscovers a childhood fascination with the Labrador Duck and conceives the quixotic notion of finding and describing every one of the known 55 remaining stuffed Labrador Ducks. So begins his adventures as a clueless traveller, speaking no language other than English, and accompanied by a variety of companions, including his wife, his mother, and a series of young, attractive women, one of whom he pretends is his wife to fool puritanical hotel-owners who take a dim view of unmarried couples sharing the same room, and another who inveigles him into going skinny-dipping at night in a freezing glacial stream. He travels to the UK, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia, the US and back home to Canada,  allowing  himself to play  the clueless tourist to the hilt, dealing  with a variety of officialdom, friendly, indifferent and downright hostile, as he hunts down, one by one, the last earthly remains of the ill-fated Labrador Duck. And in this, there is a touch of sadness among the humour. Every duck he finds is a testament to a species, one among many, that we will never see again, about whom so little is known that we have no clue where its nesting grounds were, what its eggs looked like, and even what colour its eyes were. And we we will never know these things, because this bird is gone forever. All that remains are a  few pathetic, moulting, dusty taxidermic mounts to testify that it even existed. Nothing brings home the absolute immutable finality of extinction more than seeing a photo of one of these specimens, posed in a cleverly  lifelike position, but knowing that we will never actually see one of them alive again. This is a very funny book, but also extremely sad. It is, however, enthralling, engrossing and though-provoking, in addition to being hilarious. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

9.5/10

Welcome!

Welcome to BBB – Braemar Book Bites, my personal book review site. I’ll be posting reviews of books, I’ve read – the good, the bad and the ugly – and also any snippets of book or publishing information I come across, or any comments I have about books or publishing in general.

I’m a librarian by profession, so you could say books are my life. I’ve been reading on average 100 books or so a year for at least the past 30 years, so you can see I bring plenty of experience, personal and professional, to my reviews. My main purpose in writing this blog is to share the joy of reading, to promote books I think are really worth reading, which has been the cornerstone of my professional life for many years.

My reading tastes run mostly to non-fiction, but ranging quite widely, including history, science, biography, geography, sport, in fact there probably isnt any sphere that I haven’t read something about at some stage, so expect a wide variety of offerings.

There will be reviews fiction books, but as I read about 1 fiction work to every 5 non-fiction works, they’ll be a bit less common obviously. I tend to be very selective about what novels I read, and even more selective about which ones I finish, so expect reviews of books I dont happen to finish to be quite detailed as to exactly why I didnt consider them worth finishing.

I hope you get as much pleasure out of reading my reviews as I do out of writing them, and reading the books, of course.

I will start with a real gem…about ducks