Book Reviews: What to read this April

What's on your bedside or coffee table this month? Here are four book reviews of recent releases to whet your literary appetite...




How to Measure a Cow


By Margaret Forster

Chatto & Windus, £14.99

ISBN 9781784740665

    No straightforward depiction of the pastoral idyll, How to Measure a Cow presents a more nuanced take on the potential recuperative powers of the rural environment than many others novels written in this vein.

    Deciding to start a new life away from London, Tara Fraser chooses the ex-mining town of Workington in Cumbria at random. She moves to an old terraced house on a nondescript street where her elderly neighbours remind her of the figures “in Lowry paintings.” This is exactly the existence Tara is looking for: something ordinary, unremarkable, dull even. Local gossip, however, is rife, and although Nancy, the widow who lives opposite Tara, doesn’t want to sink to the levels of some of the more loose-tongued women in the town, she is intrigued by her new neighbour, who arrived without the usual hustle and bustle of moving house, keeps her own counsel and hides herself away. Slowly, the two kindle a tentative friendship.

    Nancy introduces Tara to the countryside in which she’s lived her entire life, from growing up on a now defunct nearby farm to the best part of a lifetime she’s spent on this one street; and in turn, Tara begins to find a sense of peace in her new surroundings. Underneath the surface, however, she’s guarding a devastating secret about her past, one that she has to revisit when old friends rear their heads. Soon events transpire so that she’s forced to make a choice between the woman she once was and the one she’s on the road to becoming.

    Lucy Scholes, reviewer

    The British Wildlife Year

    Dominic Couzens

    Hale, £18.99

    ISBN 9780719811852

    This is a simple idea that has never worked quite so successfully before. Naturalist Dominic Couzens takes us on a journey through the wildlife year that is both an enjoyable vicarious romp through the countryside and a friendly practical guide to getting much closer to nature. He has a refreshing take on even the most familiar creatures born from a life of quiet observation – and his enthusiasm, sprinkled with wry asides, is magnetic.

    He takes two broad approaches: firstly, each month he delves into the lives of species familiar to us all – blue tits, common frogs and others – revealing their hidden lives in pithy diary entries, mini serials to keep the reader gripped. He then looks at what nature is up to in a variety of wild habitats, from gardens to farmland and woods to coasts. And there are plenty of surprises on every page, from the spawning habits of carp to the dietary quirks of song thrushes – behavior that can be observed in parks and gardens across the land.

    Every week of the year has a round-up of highlights plus a focus on one particular wildlife spectacle – and the book’s message is that anyone can find and watch them. The overall picture is that of a much needed optimistic view of Britain’s natural riches; their beauty and variety revealed with infectious delight.

    Fergus Collins, BBC Countryfile Magazine editor

    Uprooted: On the trail of the Green Man

    Nina Lyon

    Faber and Faber, £15.99

    ISBN 9780571318018

    One of my local pubs is called The Green Man, but I’ve never really thought about who he is, or where he came from – unlike Nina Lyon. Her quest to find his roots takes her on a spiritual and physical journey: googling local shamans, starting a cult, going to happenings in the woods, traveling to Cornwall and Germany’s Black Forest, among other places rich in folklore and myth.

    Lyon believes now is the perfect time to rekindle our relationship with the natural world and the Green Man, and her book coincides with the revival of a mindfulness movement, and long waiting lists for urban allotments. Uprooted tackles big questions about humankind’s relationship with nature and progress, and the crossover between religion, philosophy and morris dancing – sometimes uncovering connections in unexpected places. Like me, you might not have a clue where the Green Man originated, but you probably don’t suspect he has anything in common with Nazis.

    A bit heavy-going and academic in places, Uprooted is most enjoyable when Lyon is being self-deprecating about her own attempts to connect with nature, reject technology and put aside her skepticism about people who talk to trees (literally). Describing walks around her home near Hay-on-Wye, her language is thick and green with moss and forests and earthiness.

    While trying to explain what she’s doing in the woods to some HR professionals on a team building exercise, you get the feeling that she doesn’t quite believe what she’s selling. She is unable to reconcile her search for a higher spiritual plane with the misery of no Internet connection. But it does make you think. As Plato said, philosophy isn’t for everyone, but the march of progress and its relationship with nature affects us all. 

    Rachael Stiles, reviewer

    365 Nature: Projects to Connect You With Nature Every Day

    Anna Carlile

    Hardie Grant, £25

    ISBN 9781741174649 

    This charming hardback book will provide plenty of inspiration for readers looking to connect with nature a little more in their day-to-day lives. Anyone who’s looking for tips on what and when to craft, forage, grow, walk and gather will enjoy dipping in and out of these attractive, seasonally arranged pages.

    The lush photography ranges from big inspiring landscapes to tiny macro details, reminding us that while we can’t go for a big hike every day, we can still find a connection in the nature that is around us. Accompanied by stirring quotes on the joys of nature, it’s a great collection of ideas and thoughts that could easily veer off into the shambolic but are nicely tied together. Perhaps slightly ambitious at times in terms of expected resources and space – one suggestion, for example, is “Keep chickens” – it’s delightfully written: “Roosters can be gentlemanly, but noisy”.

    Other suggestions range from practical interactions, including “Know your knots”, with a beautifully simple set of illustrations, and “Read the clouds”, to gentler ways to occupy your free time, such as “Make a wildflower wreath” and “Paint stones”. Just opening the pages of this lovely compilation has a refreshing effect, making you want to stop, take several deep breaths and dig out your wellies/paintbrush/wooden spoon to forge a deeper connection with nature on a daily basis.

    Heather McKay, BBC Countryfile Magazine section editor


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