Spring is here, so dust off your bookshelves and crack open a fresh work of fact or fiction.
From a biography of extraordinary engineer Thomas Telford to the tale of a boy and a talking mackerel, here's our round-up of recent reads. Flick through the gallery to find the perfect title for you - plus your chance to win a copy.
1) Fish Boy
Faber & Faber, £9.99
Billy Shiel lives to swim – the sea often seems to be the only place his life makes sense. His mum is confined to her bed with a mysterious illness, and his dad is working hard to hold their little family together.
Despite the abundant love at home, Billy struggles at school and is slow to make friends. Only the imagined presence of his hero Sir David Attenborough, who narrates intriguing wildlife facts, helps Billy navigate his daily trials. That and his underwater refuge, which he escapes to every chance he gets, armed with only goggles.
Then two arrivals change the landscape of Billy’s world: new kid at school Patrick, and a talking mackerel. Capturing the magic of the marine world, this moving coming-of-age tale is a beautiful piece of fiction, wonderfully imaginative and life-affirming.
Reviewer: Maria Hodson
2) A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess
Sidgwick & Jackson, £16.99
There’s a telling passage in this book by Yorkshire shepherdess Amanda Owen (“One husband, eight children, 1,000 sheep”). One December she asked her children what they wanted for Christmas. The answer was pet rabbits, which amazed Amanda as there were hundreds of rabbits running in the 2,000 acres of their hill farm at Ravenseat, high above Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales.
So the barn loft became home to seven Dutch rabbits. One morning son Reuben rushed in to announce that there were now two baby rabbits in the hutch with Barry and Gary, the two ‘boy rabbits’. Amanda recalls: “(Husband) Clive, who was leaning against the Rayburn warming his hands around a mug of tea, smiled wryly as he looked at my swelling belly. ‘Aye, they say they breed like ‘umans…’”
This is an honest, down-to-earth and often humorous account that includes Amanda giving birth unaided to Clemmy, the family’s latest addition, in the farmhouse living room. As Amanda reflected, Clemmy’s thinking seemed to be:
“I were tupped at Ravenseat, an’ I’ll lamb at Ravenseat.”
Reviewer: Roly Smith, author
3) The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland's Border
Faber & Faber, £13.99
Landscapes are inscribed with many kinds of lines suitable for adoption by peripatetic scribes. Watersheds and rivers, A-roads, coastlines and biographical ‘life-lines’ will all provide stories aplenty, not least because they are conduits of human connections; conductors of compelling themes.
But borderlines exist to interrupt human narratives. They are ruled to divide. So a book about a border walk has to work on the weak links: the gaps and irregularities where topography and borderers outwit political history.
The Rule of the Land appears as fears rekindle that the softened distinction between north and south will reset as a hard divide. The ostensible mission is to compile a map of the border and its features and the book does include maps of a suitably idiosyncratic nature. For instance, ’Barry McGuigan’s route to first club’ shares a cartographic spread with sketched roadblocks and observation towers marked ‘OB’ – the author’s acronym for military features related to Operation Banner.
But this book is less about mapmaking than the dualities inherent in a border journey. It’s like reading two parallel versions of the same story, and goes well beyond the obvious North/South, Protestant/Catholic dualities. Estates are paired with bungalows; landlords with tenants; soldiers with civilians. A passage about the agreement that re-opened border crossings explores the ingenious word pairings – ‘peace process’, ‘weighted majority’, ‘power sharing’ and more – that helped to find common ground between two sides imprisoned by polarities. This is a poignant, funny, memorable read, layered with ideas.
Reviewer: Nicholas Crane, BBC presenter
4) It Starts with a Seed
Written by Laura Knowles, illustrated by Jennie Webber
Published by Words & Pictures £12.99
It’s never too soon to start getting children enthusiastic about nature. Through charming, gentle rhyme and lovely illustration, this story of how a tiny sycamore seed becomes a magnificent tree will surely start weaving its magic in young minds. It’s a genuinely delightful book about the life cycle of a tree, and of the animals that rely on it for their livelihood and shelter.
Children can spot a plethora of wildlife in its leaves, on the ground, and burrowing beneath its roots through the seasons – all the usual suspects are here: foxes, rabbits, birds, butterflies.
The use of the word ‘arboreal’ in the text, by far the trickiest word here, reflects the book’s factual realism – it doesn’t patronise while explaining the tree’s importance within our delicate ecosystem to its young readers.
This book is a treasure for budding naturalists, and one that grown-ups won’t tire of endlessly re-reading.
5) National Trust Family Cookbook
National Trust, £20
Claire Thomson wishes to do away with the notion of ‘children’s food’ and create dishes that can be enjoyed by all ages in her new book.
As food ambassador to the National Trust, Thomson finds a satisfying balance between her experience as a professional chef and a busy mother, providing recipes that can be made with the whole family, but wouldn’t look out of place in a dinner party.
Beautifully illustrated, the recipes are organised in rough order of preparation time, starting with quick dishes such as chard and leek frittata and moving on to more involved ones such as beef, prune and orange tagine. The recipes are mostly easy to prepare and don’t require long lists of obscure ingredients. Though salads and lighter dishes are well-represented, the book specialises in hearty fare. The oregano chicken with tomatoes, peppers and orzo, and the smoked haddock, creamed spinach and chive sauce were both delicious and filling.
With childhood obesity on the rise, inspiring young people to take an interest in nutritious food is more important than ever. This cookbook represents a stride in the right direction.
Reviewer: Sam Swannack
6) The Horseman
The first volume in a new trilogy, The Horseman is a beautiful portrait of rural life at the turn of the century. Set in Devon in 1911, farm life is seen through the eyes of 12-year-old Leo Sercombe. Like his carter father before him, Leo shows a natural affinity with horses – “Another Sercombe with equine blood in his bones” – bringing him into contact with the Master’s daughter, “headstrong” Miss Lottie, who rides and shoots like a boy.
The two children develop an intimate bond, each innocently unaware of the taboos they’re breaking until it’s too late: “He was a carter’s son and always would be, even after he became a horseman of whatever mettle himself.”
Tim Pears combines meticulously researched historical material – each and every task, from that of the blacksmith, the farm workers at harvest time, the grooms looking after the Master’s horses, even the annual shoot, all depicted in rich, evocative detail – with lush, languorous, melodic prose.
These slow but steady rhythms of daily working life are then punctuated by episodes of heightened activity or emotion – Lottie and Leo forced to watch helplessly as her beloved horse dies in agony of a twisted intestine; Leo fearlessly riding a gypsy’s colt bareback at the local fair, “moulding his body to that of the galloping animal”; a stolen afternoon between the children; even the bloody butchery of a pig – the end result of which is a distinctly compelling pastoral bildungsroman that leaves the reader eager for the next installment.
Reviewer: Lucy Scholes
7) Mindful Thoughts for Walkers
Leaping Hare Press, £5.99
From epic long-distance walks to a short stroll in your lunch break, walking gives us chance to free the mind and “enables us to understand our place in the world of nature,” writes Buddhism and Hinduism lecturer Adam Ford. This beautifully illustrated pocket-sized book encourages the walker to pause for thought and simply be in the moment. Ford explores how walking can improve our mental health and reflects on how walking in natural environments awakens our senses. Ford also encourages walking for the sake of walking as a way of momentarily leaving the busyness of daily life behind.
Reviewer: Carys Matthews
8) Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain
If, like me, you share a passion for the Industrial Revolution and the men who forged it, then you’ll know that a book such as this is long overdue. I’ve long been fascinated with the story of a man whose work I often encounter all over the country. From canals and roads to docks, churches and most famously bridges, Thomas Telford's legacy is astonishing. During a career that may justly claim to have shaped industrial Britain, it is no small wonder that much of what this simple, modest yet gifted former architect designed and invented is still in use today.
Julian Glover’s meticulous research has allowed him to reveal much about the character and thinking of perhaps our greatest engineer that up until now has been unknown. Mixing effortless prose with genuine insight has produced an immersive biography that you’ll find hard to put down, as it chases after a man whose limitless energy and creative ambition took him to every corner of the country.
Throughout this captivating tale you’ll find yourself transported back to an age that changed our nation forever, in the company of those who knew and worked alongside a man whose achievments defined the emerging science of engineering.
The story of Thomas Telford is the story that created modern Britain, and never has it been so well told.
Reviewer: Jules Hudson
9) The Hills of Wales
Gomer Press, £14.99
As a denizen of the Welsh hills, I seized on this chance to explore my adopted highland homelands in the company of a renowned climber and travel writer. This is a collection of columns and writings from the past 40 years of Perrin’s peregrinations through wondrous countryside and much of his description and anecdote easy equal the surroundings. I enjoyed many of his adventures and kept reaching for my maps to mark new lakes and hills to explore. Perrin makes Snowdonia and the Rhinogs as exotic and alluring as any Urals or Carpathians.
But the map was always that of Snowdonia – Perrin’s Welsh hills are mostly in the north west, with a nod towards to the Berwyns and Shropshire Hills. The Brecon Beacons and the Preselis of Pembrokeshire are pretty much dismissed in one slim final chapter, which felt like a missed opportunity – especially as Perrin’s previous book was called Snowden. And I tired of his alternately curmudgeonly then superior approach to walkers in brightly coloured anoraks, National Park authorities and most conservation bodies. It began to feel like showing off.
A book best dipped in for short, joyful bursts rather than long hikes.
Reviewer: Fergus Collins
10) Britain's Wild Flowers
National Trust, £12.99
Spring is in the air and wildflowers are blooming. "I love all wild flowers (none are weeds with me)" wrote 19th-century poet John Clare and this treasury of our wild flora shares the same passion, featuring beautiful illustrations and fascinating tidbits about the folklore and literary heritage of each species.
We discover that the periwinkle was believed to possess magical powers to repel evil. "Whoever carries this herb with him on his skin, the devil has no power over him," states the Hortus Sanitatis of 1491, while the Roman poet Martial used mallow to dispel his hangovers after orgies (although Cicero complained the plant gave him indigestion). The herbalist Nicholas Culpeper advocated eyebright for strengthening the brain and improving memory, while burdock burrs were the inspiration behind Velcro.
This delightful anthology of wildlflowers and their associated traditions, superstitions, remedies and literature is sure to enrich any country walk.
Reviewer: Maria Hodson
11) Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £20
Nature writer and military historian John Lewis-Stempel has created a eulogy to the flora and fauna that helped men soldier on during the First World War. “The ability of nature to endure… gave men a psychological, spiritual, religious uplift,” he writes.
Letters home were full of longing for the British landscape, yet soldiers found solace in the “intrinsically beautiful” French countryside. And those suffering the displacement of industrialisation found themselves closer to nature than they’d been for centuries. Birdwatching became the most popular hobby among officers, with one writing: “’Without the birds I dare not think how I should have got through the war.’”
There were other ornithological benefits: the development of warplanes saw pilots quizzed about the height at which birds flew – nobody knew. Carrier pigeons delivered messages across enemy lines (woe betide the hungry soldier who shot one down), while caged canaries comforted the wounded: “As every Edwardian knew, birdsong was a guaranteed cheerer upper.”
The author pays tribute to the many animals that served. Millions of horses were shipped to the front; a selection of poetry reveals how attached soldiers were to them. Stray cats sent to war as pest control and gas detectors often became pets. Where Poppies Blow is full of fascinating (sometimes heart-wrenching) information about the role of nature and animals in this brutal war.
Reviewer: Rachel Stiles
12) Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape
Head of Zeus, £16.99
Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape is a rich study of the ancient structure by archaeologist Francis Pryor of Channel 4’s Time Team. Pryor presents the story of this iconic landscape feature, built between 3000 and 1500 BC, setting it within the religious and cultural context of its time. He notes how prehistoric societies viewed the world and time very differently to us – as a cyclical, rather than linear process – and posits that Stonehenge was a constant work in progress, providing a source of stability in a world of cultural transformation.
“In later prehistory, it often seems that the process of doing things mattered more than the final product,” he notes.
Accompanied by beautiful photographs and illustrations, the book takes us back in time to appreciate the complexity and spiritual significance of a 4,000-year-old monument that stands as testament to the ancients.
Reviewer: Maria Hodson
13) Crafted in Britain: The Survival of Britain's Traditional Industries
Anthony Burton, Rob Scott
In Crafted in Britain, Anthony Burton and Rob Scott champion traditional crafts and industries that are still in production after hundreds of years, from bell-making and grain milling to stained glass.
Each chapter provides a fascinating insight into the history and personality of each specialist skill, while the photographs throughout give a real sense of place, atmosphere and often drama involved in the creative process.
The result is a delightful journey through our incredible creative heritage, which we can all too easily take for granted or forget.
Reviewer: Hilary Clothier
14) His Bloody Project
Graeme Macrae Burnet
This compelling work of fiction, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, tells the story of 17-year-old Roderick Macrae, a crofter in the small coastal village of Culduie, near Applecross in the Highlands. The year is 1869 and three bloody murders rock the oppressively close-knit community. Roderick confesses to the crime and the trial that unfolds grips the public at the time and the reader today.
A novel of great depth and drama, it captures beautifully and viscerally the harsh life of 19th-century crofters, the repressive nature of Victorian religious and cultural life and the binding nature of class in that era. This dark portrait of a past rural world is made entirely real and utterly gripping.
Reviewer: Maria Hodson
15) Call of Nature: The Secret Life of Dung
Pelagic Publishing, £16.99
Author Richard Jones was brought up by an entomologist, and where most of us enjoyed mud piles, he was deep into dung at an early age. With 12% of dung beetles on the verge of extinction, Jones shows us how we need them and the food chain they create. He focuses on a host of species that rely on dung – including ‘cuckoo’ beetles and predators that exploit dung to catch prey – and looks at species used daily by humans to break up our own waste.
There are fantastic facts about dung being used as a building material, insect repellent and in ‘poo wars’. Ancient Egyptians famously worshipped the ‘scarab’ beetle and crafted jewellery depicting the insect, some dating back 4,000 years. Final chapters cover dung identification, dung inhabitants and a dung dictionary. An amazing book – don’t be put off by its title.
Reviewer: John Miles
16) My Tiny Home Farm: Simple Ideas for Small Spaces
Pavilion Books, £14.99
As the new season unleashes a welcome burst of energy, why not transform your patio, garden, allotment or smallholding into a farm? This book urges you not to let size hold you back, offering great tips and techniques to maximise space and grow wisely.
Ideas include planting a potato bucket, keeping a handful of hens, growing crops on your roof, or building a dead hedge - some suggestions are more suited to certain types of outdoor space than others, so it's a case of cherry-picking what will work best for you.
Regardless of where you live, you can still work the land, so get stuck in and enjoy the fruits of your labours.
Reviewer: Maria Hodson
Spring books - win a copy of your choice!
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