2015 Non Fiction

Counting Sheep by Philip Walling

 Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: British, countryside, history, farmers, change

Counting Sheep is one of those rare books with the power to interest the reader in a subject of which they previously had little knowledge. The book gives a complete history of sheep in Britain, explaining how breeds have changed over time to reflect our varying needs for wool, meat and milk.

Counting Sheep does for sheep what Leviathan by Philip Hoare did for whales. It is packed with little anecdotes and is the sort of book where you find yourself continually pausing in order to tell others some bizarre fact that you’ve just learnt:

In hard times, when grass is really scarce, Herdwicks will find a way to survive. The most enterprising will find their way onto roadside verges, jumping stone walls or getting over cattle grids by squeezing themselves close to the side-walls and tiptoeing along the edge like a ballerina; I heard of one ewe that mastered a trick of doing a side-roll over the bars.

The book is divided into chapters which each focus on a different breed of sheep. I was previously unable to identify many different characteristics of these animals, but I feel I could now confidently distinguish a Dorset Horn from a Black Hebridean!

Philip Walling’s love for the British countryside shone through and I loved the descriptions of his travels to meet different flocks. The historical research was also impressive and I especially liked learning that working dogs sometimes brought flocks of sheep home from markets without any human accompaniment – sometimes even stopping overnight for food and shelter at known inns!

I occasionally found the detail of the breed history a little boring, but the book wouldn’t have been complete without this information. I was happy to skim over the names and dates in order to move onto something more interesting, but I’m sure that anyone with a greater affiliation with sheep will find these details useful.

If you have any interest in the natural history of Britain then you need to add this book to your shelves – it will give you renewed admiration for the flocks quietly grazing in nearby fields.



Scorper by Rob Magnuson Smith

Scorper: A Novel

Five words from the blurb: American, English, ancestral, tools, ghosts

Scorper is a strange, but beautiful book. I’ve not read anything like it before, but it could be described as a cross between All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills and Strangers by Taichi Yamada, with a bit of The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling mixed in. The story is set in Ditchling, a small village in rural Sussex, where an American has travelled in order to study his ancestors. The book combines realistic (and often humourous) observations of British village life with surreal scenes in which the American meets his long-dead relatives.

The writing quality was outstanding – I think this is the first time I’ve enjoyed a book written in the second-person narrative style. It felt so original and I loved the meta aspects of the text:

Yet another critic will opine, in a morally brave departure from this historically limited binary approach to literary criticism: ‘We must allow that Mr Cull has captured a thoroughly modern England in his depiction of our rural village life. With an outsider’s broad perspective, he is simply more aware of England than the English themselves. Resist the easy, outmoded accusations of “bad faith”. Put away the knives. This American exhibits a fresh boldness of vision: one we should celebrate, not vilify.’

The book was also very well researched. It introduced me to Eric Gill, a stone mason who invented several different typefaces, and explained the art of carving wood (using a scorper, the tool referred to in the title). I loved the way the book mixed fact with fantasy, creating something that felt almost Japanese in origin – a strange outcome for a text so rooted in the English countryside.

My only criticism is that I had no emotional connection to the characters – the reader simply has to enjoy observing this strange story. Luckily the writing was so strong I was able to suspend my disbelief and enjoy this bizarre tale.

Recommended to anyone looking for something a bit different.


2009 Historical Fiction

Kill-Grief – Caroline Rance

This book transports you straight into the horrors of an 18th century English hospital. The problem was that I’m not sure it is a place I ever want to witness! The squalor was vividly described, and I don’t think I have ever read a book which conveys the smells of the scene so convincingly. It was disgusting!

The book has clearly been meticulously researched and contains many interesting snippets about the medical practices of the time, but the majority of the time I didn’t really want to read about them: 

He pressed his thumb into the inflamed skin and a thicker bead of pus exuded from the cut, retreating like a wary maggot when he let go.

I was alternately absorbed and revolted!

The book follows Mary, a reluctant nurse, who has to deal with the all the bodily functions thrown at her, on top of the secrets she is hiding. Mary is struggling to become independent and is initially over-whelmed by her new  life in Chester, as she is used to a very different life by the sea. As the book progresses she gains in confidence and her hidden past is gradually revealed. The book is very well paced and the plot, although quite simple, is compelling.

If I had to make one criticism it would be that the male characters in the book did not stand out for me. Mary was such an amazing character that all the men in the book seemed to pale into insignificance beside her. I didn’t really mind this though – it is good to see such a strong female character, particularly in historical fiction, every once in a while.

Recommended to historical fiction fans with a stomach of steel!


Are you squeamish?

Can you read gory scenes easily?

2009 Historical Fiction

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel


I have seen several people tip this book for the Booker prize this year, and so decided to give it a try. Unfortunately this book was even more disappointing than The Children’s Book, which I think will win this year’s prize despite the fact it wasn’t for me.

Wolf Hall is set in Tudor England and tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, one of the lesser known people from this period in history, but a man with huge influence over Henry VIII. The book concentrates on the time around Henry’s divorce to Catherine of Arragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn, a period in history which has been covered many times before, most successfully in The Other Boleyn Girl.

A book has to be outstanding to grab my attention when I know the story already and I’m afraid this book wasn’t. The writing was very clunky and didn’t flow smoothly. I found that I had to keep re-reading sections in order to work out the intended meaning.

One day my brother Tom goes out fighting. As punishment, his father creeps up behind him with a whatever, but heavy, and probably sharp, and then, when he falls down, almost takes out his eye, exerts himself to kick in his ribs, beats him with a plank of wood that stands ready to hand, knocks in his face so that if I were not his own sister I’d barely recognise him: and my husband says, the answer to this, Thomas, is go for a soldier, go and find somebody you don’t know take out his eye and kick in his ribs, actually kill him, I suppose, and get paid for it. 

I also found repetition, which I found irritating:

He hopes you are well. Hopes I am well. Hopes his lovely sisters Anne and little Grace are well. He himself is well. 

and descriptions which didn’t make any sense to me:

A wash of sunlight lies over the river, pale as the flesh of a lemon.

I never think of lemons as being pale. Is it just me?

The more I read, the more I disliked this book. It was getting to the stage where I wanted to throw it across the room, and as this book is 650 pages long that would be a dangerous thing to do. For the safety of my household I decided to stop reading the book after about 120 pages – I just couldn’t face 500+ more pages of it.

I skim read the rest and had a quick look at the ending, but nothing I saw made me regret putting it down.

Recommended to anyone with a Tudor obsession, but I think the writing style and the length of this book will be off-putting to some people.



Hilary Mantel has written several other books, including Beyond Black, which was short listed for the Orange prize in 2006.

Have you read any of her books? What did you think of them?

2009 Chick Lit Historical Fiction

A Secret Alchemy – Emma Darwin

The Secret Alchemy is set in both present day and 15th century England. The interwoven stories are seen through the eyes of both Elizabeth Woodville, the beautiful widow of King Edward IV, and her brother Anthony; whilst the modern section is told by historian, Una, who is writing a book on Anthony Woodville’s library. Elizabeth Woodville is the mother of the famous ‘Princes in the Tower’, who were imprisoned in the Tower by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, after Edaward’s death.

I was impressed by the way each section came across differently, with all three characters having a recognisable voice, although I’m not sure how accurate the language of the historical section was. I’m not an expert, but it just reads differently from other books written about this period.

I didn’t think that the modern day section was really necessary. I felt the book could have benefited from concentrating on Elizabeth’s story, as I really enjoyed reading about her. Una’s character just seemed to be there to explain the history of the War of the Roses, which although I found useful, should have been able to be achieved within the historical section. I think that anyone who knows much about this period of history would feel patronised by the continual explanations of events, but luckily for me, my only knowledge of this period comes from reading Jean Plaidy books, and that was a while ago now! Towards the end the number of characters got a bit confusing for me, so I had to keep referring to the family tree provided in the front of the book, so I’m really pleased that was included.

This book is light and easy to read, but lacks the atmosphere of a great piece of historical fiction. I can see why this book would appeal to many people, but I felt that it meandered around a bit too much and so failed to really engage me. 


Emma Darwin’s first book The Mathematics of Love was short listed for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (Best First Book, Europe and South Asia) in 2007. It seems to have much more favourable reviews than this one. Has anyone read it?