Book Reviews: What to read this May

Looking for a wild read? We've reviewed the latest releases...




The Running Hare


John Lewis Stempel

Doubleday, £14.99

ISBN 9780857523266

Has the phrase “one man’s weed is another man’s wildflower” ever been truer? John Lewis-Stempel wrote a beautiful love letter to the small wonders of a meadow on his Herefordshire farm with Meadowland. He has followed it up with one to a wheat field, where he encourages ‘weeds’ and wildlife.

His descriptions of nature make The Running Hare another pleasurable read. It is a more cautionary tale, of the wasteland awaiting us on British farmland, if nothing is done to halt the chemical warfare being waged against the flora and fauna that once flourished there in the name of progress.

He takes a light-footed approach to farming, hoping to attract hares – his benchmark for success in resetting the clock to the halcyon days of his childhood. Alongside poetry from the other Johns (Clare and Keats) are disheartening statistics, such as how agriculture has caused a 50% decline in bird populations on farmland in southwest England since 1970.

Ever the Romantic, on moonlit walks down country lanes he imagines the darkness hides a natural world that no longer exists. He favours the old ways, but is happy to buy his vintage farming equipment on eBay if the price is right. 

It’s comforting to read that in just one season nature can bounce back; that dwindling species still exist on the fringes. He refers to the Welsh term ‘cae ysbyty’ – hospital field – where animals were turned out to heal themselves with whatever Mother Nature provided. Lewis-Stempel seems to be saying that nature itself should be left to do the same. 

Rachael Stiles

Rivers Run

By Kevin Parr

Rider Books, £9.99

ISBN 9781784740665

    A passing glance led me to think that this is a book about the joys of fishing – why men (it is still mostly men) ‘fritter’ away hours of their lives in pursuit of relatively small quarry that they won’t eat. I have always loved water and the mysterious things that live in it so I was prepared to give it a go.

    But there is much more to this. It is really a moving treatise on the ways we deal with some of the really dark things that life throws at us. In the author’s case, it is childhood depression followed, in later life, by his partner’s long-term illness and their loss of house, jobs and livelihood. For Kevin, escaping to river or stream bank to test his rod skill against wily chub and perch while utterly immersed in beguiling surroundings, has been an essential balm for coping. Without it, he implies, he would have been pulled under.

    In each chapter he returns to a favourite stretch of river – mostly in southern England – to reflect on past exploits but also on phases of his and the river’s life. Sadly, some familiar rivers have lost much of their biodiversity – succumbing to pesticide and fertilizer run off, excessive extraction, invasive crayfish plagues and even cormorant predation. Though railing against some of the avoidable human destructions, Kevin learns to accept that things change for good or ill and he gains an element of perspective and peace.

    Many nature writers try to demonstrate that deep happiness comes from appreciating simple encounters and beauties in the moment. Kevin Parr’s experience made me go out and simply sit on a riverbank for the best hour I’ve spent this year.

    Fergus Collins, BBC Countryfile Magazine editor


    Raptor: A Journey Through Birds

    James Macdonald Lockhart

    Fourth Estate, £16.99

    ISBN 9780007459872


    James Macdonald Lockhart sets out with the intention of observing 15 native birds of prey in 15 British landscapes. Books such as Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane have familiarised us with the concept of eclectically curated journeys, but it is a while before Macdonald Lockhart sets out his wares, and the reason for this is soon apparent. 

    Owls are also raptors, but they are too many and too different, so he sets them aside. There is the voice and companionable ghost of William MacGillivray who, in 1819, walked from Aberdeen to London to visit the British Museum so he might behold its “birds and beasts”. And then there are the hawks themselves, who do not limit themselves to the places in which the author has gone to find them. 

    In Orkney he looks for hen harriers, but stumbles across a tomb filled with sea eagle feathers amid heather dense with short-eared owls and skies bright with merlins. When he goes to the peat flows in search of the merlin, he sees a hen harrier. Of the sea eagle he writes: “Here was a bird that kept dismantling my preconceptions of it”, and the same might be said of his book. 

    With the poise, speed and skill Macdonald Lockhart attributes to the sea eagle Raptor quite suddenly coalesces, and when it does so it soars, carrying this reader with it, peering down at a landscape far below like a fish in the grip of an osprey. 

    Katharine Norbury, author of The Fish Ladder


    The Trees

    Ali Shaw

    Bloomsbury Circus, £14.99

    Although not explicitly cli-fi in design – no particular element of climate change is referenced as the cause for the events that unfold, nor is there much sense of a larger population in need of punishment – Ali Shaw’s novel The Trees conveys an implicit message about Mother Nature’s power and majesty; and one that’s much more about brutality than the picturesque.

    In the middle of an unusually wet night, and seemingly without any warning, the trees arrive: “The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming uppercuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass.”

    Civilisation as we know it is destroyed, and those that are left alive must find a way to exist in the murky shadows beneath the endless forestry. The idea is a fascinating one. Nature fighting back by imposing a new beginning on a planet we’ve heedlessly destroyed, this new environment one in which pre-historical animals suddenly appear, and spindly branch-like creatures dart in and out of the canopies above, their “whispering” a creepy, unsettling soundtrack for this brave new world.

    The human inhabitants forced to fight and struggle for survival, the co-ordinates of the moral compasses they’ve previously lived their lives by now as useless as any modern gadget. Unfortunately though Shaw does an astonishingly poor job in doing his vision justice, any potential foreboding power the novel might exert over his readers continually and consistently undercut by lacklustre characters, stilted dialogue and a rambling and holey plot.

    Lucy Scholes


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