Book of the Week, April 14th 2018

Cockshutt Wood is a few acres of mixed woodland in Herefordshire and this is a diary written by an award-winning countryside writer. It records the last year he spent managing the wood, detailing day by day, the seasonal ebb and flow of life amongst the trees.

It is full of fascinating history and country lore; how to collect the sap from a silver birch to make a syrup or country wine or, if you are really brave, how to peel and pickle ash keys! We learn that half the world’s bluebells grow in Britain and in times gone by the white substance from their mashed stalks was used to glue the feathers onto arrows.

On April 13th he records the arrival of swallows and warblers and wonders exactly ‘how Darwin’s theory of evolution explains how the first warbler decided to fly 5,000 miles to summer in Britain’.

Each chapter is sprinkled with poetry and literary references making this a rich celebration of one small wood through one year.

Hardback, £14.99.

Book of the Week, April 7th 2018

The timing of this novel’s publication is spot on. It is a story about the growth of artificial intelligence, how we increasingly live our lives and conduct our relationships online – and how much of ourselves that ultimately remains stored in cyberspace.

But it is also a deeply moving account of one woman, computer expert Laura Bow. We meet her first as a troubled teenager in 1997. It is the early heady days of the internet and Laura is a reclusive geek, depressed and self-harming. In her London bedroom she spends her time developing a rudimentary AI system, initially a kind of enhanced diary, with which to share her thoughts. Ten years later she becomes a leading programmer and is head hunted to work in Silicon Valley for a company whose own AI driven interface platform, Scion, is being developed.

The book dips into Laura’s life every 10 years, taking us through current times and on into the future. Scion becomes the essential personal assistant operating system installed on computers across the world. As the level and complexity of the system develops beyond the expectation of its creators the question becomes ‘who ultimately is in control’?

This is a thrilling and visionary look into the future but also a study of love and loss and what makes us human.

Book of the Week, March 31st 2018

Written by an anonymous barrister working in criminal law, this is a look behind the scenes at how our justice system really works – or quite often, as we discover, doesn’t work! The police and prosecution services are underfunded and understaffed; 50% of cases reach their first court hearing with prosecution not fully prepared, critical documents go missing and lawyers can be exhausted and underprepared. The whole system is close to breaking point.

The secret barrister is passionate and outspoken and he (or she) illustrates problems with stories of real cases showing the human consequences of a legal system under strain. The prison system is described as – ‘an expensive way of making bad people worse’. Cuts to legal aid budgets mean barristers can end up working for just a few pounds an hour. And it is possible to be imprisoned for years for a crime you didn’t commit with no compensation.

Despite noble principles and an international reputation our judicial system is no longer serving us well and the author details these failing in lively and sometimes very funny tales of life in a gown and wig.

Book of the Week, March 24th 2018

It’s hard to believe that next year it will be 50 years since men first walked on the surface of the moon. People watching those historic images all those years ago might have imagined that 50 years later space travel would be routine.  But is has remained the stuff of science fiction. So, what can science really predict about the future now? In this book a group of leading scientists look into their crystal balls and tell us what to expect.

Our planet now faces many problems like climate change, population growth and pollution. The question is, will science manage to provide the solutions?

The treatment of many genetic disorders will soon become possible through genetic engineering. Improvements in machine learning will accelerate the development of artificial intelligence leading to driverless cars, and ‘smart cities’. Developments in energy production and storage technology will end our reliance on oil and gas. And revolutionary changes in agriculture and food production will support a steadily increasing world population. In the last chapter Jim Al-Khalili himself looks at those staples of science fiction, asking could time travel and even teleportation be possible?

Book of the Week, March 17th. 2018

In the mid nineteenth century the army camp was built just outside Colchester and soon it was the largest garrison in the country. The town benefitted from an economic boom but with It came problems. There was drunkenness, brawling and, with only 7% of soldiers allowed to marry, prostitution rocketed.  Colchester’s existing red-light district could not cope. The ladies of the night spread all over town.  Records show that half the pubs and beer houses were associated with prostitution. And outside town into the countryside –  the expression police had for those activities in places like Abbey Field was ‘flattening the corn’!

A report in 1857 recorded the number of soldiers incapacitated by an ‘insanitary condition’ across the country. Colchester Garrison came bottom of the table with almost half soldiers at some time hospitalised – the equivalent of the loss of two regiments.

This fascinating and well researched book looks in detail at the lives of some of the 350 women working as prostitutes at the time and explores the medical, religious and social impact on the life of Victorian Colchester.

University of Hertfordshire Press, paperback £18.99

Book of the Week, March 10th 2018

This remarkable debut novel has been calmly sitting at the top of the bestseller lists for the past few weeks while winning over the hearts and minds of readers of all ages.

Eleanor works in an office large enough for her to remain anonymous and leads a solitary, sheltered life. At weekends she stays home alone with supermarket pizzas and bottles of vodka. Back at work she insists, if anybody cares to ask, that she is ‘completely fine’

In fact, of course, she is anything but completely fine. But Eleanor’s odd, sideways view of the world, born of her intelligent curiosity, her damaged past and her current isolation is really very funny.

When an old man collapses in the street in front of her, she, along with Raymond from the IT department, accompanies him to hospital in the ambulance. Her barriers to the world begin to crumble and the novel follows her as she tentatively begins to engage with life again.

The terrors of Eleanor’s past are revealed and she breaks out from her isolation and loneliness in this heart-warming, emotional thriller.

HarperCollins paperback, £8.99