Book reviews: great June reads

Reading in the sunshine - pure bliss. From kestrels and Chris Packham to the North Sea and adventurous micropigs, here's our round-up of our favourite recent releases...

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Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir

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Chris Packham

Ebury Press, £20

ISBN 978 1785033483

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Extraordinarily vivid and utterly unique, this childhood autobiography fizzes with the wonder and joy of wildlife as experienced by a wide-eyed, nature-obsessed boy. To escape his bickering parents, bullies and jeering classmates in a pebbledashed Southampton suburb, the young Christopher Packham sought solace in nature. He was a loner who all the other kids called a ‘weirdo’ (or worse), so replaced the dreary world he didn’t understand – and which didn’t understand or seem to want him – with an alternative technicolour universe of tadpoles and tiddlers, foxes and flying ants, badgers and bird’s eggs. His bedroom and back garden became a miniature zoo, a young kestrel taken from its nest his only true friend.

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A young Chris Packham with his kestrel

Packham’s prose is intense and visceral, detailing the precise appearance, smells and sounds of the wild animals he met and often ended up taking home. His narrative chiefly covers 1966–77 and skips back and forth in time– the earliest recollection includes catching ladybirds in jam jars as a five-year-old, while the most recent concerns his discovery of punk rock 11 years later.

The darkest moments come in a few extra passages where Packham, now in his early 40s, describes visits to a therapist. Unflinchingly honest, these reveal a vulnerable and troubled side to the popular TV presenter that we’ve seldom seen before. But the beautiful evocations of experiencing living, breathing creatures are the highlight of this memoir, surely destined to be some of the most talked-about nature writing of the year.

Ben Hoare, BBC Wildlife Magazine features editor

The Naked Shore of the North Sea

Tom Blass

Bloomsbury, £20

ISBN 978 1408815496

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The North Sea has never suffered a surfeit of glamour. On the whole, it’s more Grimsby than St Tropez. But for those of us who grew up on its shores, it is the “British Sea”, the marine conductor that made us who we are. We relish its stories. This is a wonderful book. How can you not admire an author who sets out on a journey to write about a place “derided for its moody lugubriousness, its inclinations towards inclemency, damp chilly sands and a decidedly utilitarian aspect when glanced at from a certain angle”?

Tom Blass takes us on zig-zag course from one pole of this connective sea to the other; from Canvey and Knokke to Skagen and Shetland; from Bronze Age rock carvings to Anthropocene Age wind turbines. Along the way we meet the dead and the living who congregate these busy shores.

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A young, shallow sea, formed less than ten thousand years ago, its margins are still on the move. On this undercurrent of geographical impermanence bob the cast of characters that give this book such voice. If I had to choose a favourite landfall,l it would be the Halligen, “an archipelago of half-islands in Schleswig-Holstein, north of Heligoland and south of Sylt and Amrum”, whose inhabitants live on the remnants of eroded polders and where the sea-airs are so fresh that incomers from the city look ‘blass’ or pale. It was a story that had me reaching for my atlas but, yes, Halligen really does exist.

Nick Crane, BBC Presenter

No Way But Gentlenesse: A Memoir of How Kes, My Kestrel, Changed My Life

Richard Hines

Bloomsbury, £16.99

ISBN 978 1408868010

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Although it might seem as if Hines is simply cashing in on the success of Helen Macdonald’s best-selling and prize-winning memoir about grief and austringry H is For Hawk, Hines’ story of his relationship with his bird is something of the proto narrative here. Not least because it provided the inspiration for Hines’ older brother Barry’s celebrated novel A Kestrel for a Knave, the book that was famously adapted into Ken Loach’s film Kes. The kestrels that appeared on the big screen were trained for their starring roles by Hines himself, just one of many jobs he undertook on his way to becoming the documentary filmmaker he’s best known as today.

Traditional education didn’t suit Hines, but he did find much comfort and interest in books about falconry, including TH White’s The Goshawk, which also featured heavily in Macdonald’s book. After school, and as a way of spending time in countries with a strong history of falconry, he pursued a career in the Voluntary Service Overseas. The issue of class weaves through the pages, whether in the context of British Imperialism as thrown into focus during Hines’ time in Nigeria, or closer to home through the prism of the history of falconry itself here in the UK – a rather unexpected interest for the son of a South Yorkshire miner. Full of the “gentlenesse” (a quote from a 17th-century falconry book) of the title, it’s a moving story of a man and the birds he loves.

Lucy Scholes

Once Upon a Time in the West Country

Tony Hawks

Hodder, £14.99

ISBN 978 1444794779

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Tony Hawks and a micro pig called Titch are to blame for causing me to snort with laughter on a crowded train, in a café and while reading in bed. Reading Once Upon a time in the West Country by comedian and lifelong London resident Tony Hawks in public should come with a warning.

Hawks shares his experiences of moving from the Big Smoke to the wilds of deepest, darkest Devon with partner Fran, ahead of the birth of their first child. However, true to his comedic form (see Hawks on TV shows such as Have I got News for You, QI and Just a Minute), Hawks’s countryside exploits aren’t without the odd madcap challenge or adventure. From cycling coast to coast with Titch the micro pig (who is, possibly, the real star of the story), to creating a ‘swimming harness’ to use in a giant paddling pool in the garden, taking part in his first tractor run and joining the local rural committee, this book is a humorous account of Hawks’ transition from city dweller to countryman.

Friday 20 December 2013 Picture by Sean Hernon Tony Hawks cycles with miniature pig called Titch from Pennywell Farm Titch gets to the Mayflower steps Plymouth

Tony Hawks and Titch (photograph Sean Herron)

Guided by the calm and resourceful Ken – friendly neighbour, rural lifestyle guru and handyman among others, Hawks learns the traditions and intricacies of country life, before embarking on the biggest challenge of his life to date – fatherhood. Ultimately welcomed and supported by the local community, Hawks creates a warm, amusing and often bonkers read that is almost guaranteed to have you laughing out loud. Who knew life in the West Country could be packed full of so much excitement?

Carys Matthews, digital editor

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