Some of the best current reading – with a 20 per cent festive discount

It’s time to highlight this year’s excellent Christmas books offers from The Shetland Times Bookshop. This year there are 24 titles to choose from, each with a 20 per cent discount. The offers cover a vast range of subjects and cater for all tastes. The price listed includes the discount.

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, Richard Dawkins. Transworld, £16.

What is the sun? Why do bad things happen? Are we alone? If you’ve lost sleep over such “big questions” then fear no more, as these are just a few of the topics Richard Dawkins explains in his new book, The Magic of Reality. The book is primarily aimed at children around the ages of 12 and up, however, the text is well presented for all ages to consume.

If, like me, you find Dawkins to be slightly dry and glib at the best of times, then this book gives a refreshing twist on his views on the supernatural and its apologists, aided by fantastic illustrations from award-winning artist, Dave McKean.

He starts by giving the definitions for what he terms “Reality” and “Magic”. Reality is everything we feel via our five senses or indirectly through scientific testing. Magic falls into three categories: supernatural, the stuff of fairy tales and myths; stage magic, Paul Daniels and the like; and poetic magic. Dawkins demon­strates that the world, from a scientific stance, is made up of the latter form. As he tells it: “Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison.”

Each chapter thereafter is broken down into two parts, for example, “What is a miracle?” and Dawkins runs through various tales of ghost stories, spooky urban legends and stories of uncanny coincidence. One example, “being the legend of Jesus turning water into wine – very good wine, as the story goes on to tell us. People who laugh at the idea that a pumpkin can turn into a coach, and who know perfectly well that hand­ker­chiefs don’t really turn into rabbits, are quite happy to believe that a prophet turned water into wine”. The remainder of the chapter then deals with the question of “What is a miracle, really?” which Dawkins deals with extremely well.

As Dawkins sums up on the last page: “The truth is more magical – in the best and most exciting sense of the word – than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle. Science has its own magic; the magic of reality.”

An excellent read which would make a great addition to any coffee table collection, for young and old. The book is also available as an iPad app, which bring these “big question” topics even more to life. Enjoy!SF

Quentin Blake’s A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens. Pavilion Children’s, £7.99.

Quentin Blake’s Scrooge, hunched over his desk counting money and making notes in his ledger, is truly a mean looking creature. The great illustrator finds a wealth of subject matter beyond the central character of Dickens’ great novel, written in the space of a few days in 1843 when he was 31. As Blake observes: “In essence this is just a story about a mean, crotchety employer and his underpaid clerk; but in Dickens’ hands it takes on the characteristics of a ghost story; a dream; and sometimes those pantomimes and theatre shows that he loved so much.” In Blake’s hands the characters come to life in his inimitable, anarchic style. His best illustrations are arguably those in Mr Magnolia, but this comes a close second.

British Wildlife Photography Awards Collection 2, AA Publishing, £20.

The British Wildlife Photography Awards are run every year to recognise the talents of photo­graphers and to celebrate British wildlife in all its beauty and diversity. As a result, this coffee table book is a compen­dium of the finest images imaginable.

The overall winner, as reported in The Shetland Times, was Nesting-based marine biologist Richard Shucksmith with a photograph of a jellyfish taken while diving off Sula Sgeir north of Lewis, of which judge Greg Armfield said: “A truly beautiful shot of a jellyfish that perfectly captures its iridescent colours and magical qualities. All the more remarkable that it exists in UK waters. Fantastic.”

Shetland itself is well represented. Mark Hamblin’s photograph of a female otter and her cub shaking themselves dry was taken in Fetlar, not Eetlar, but his puffin is correctly identified as being at Hermaness. Andrew Parkin has a fine shot of a dunlin pulling a worm out of the sand and others of gannets in flight in strong winds. Perhaps the most striking image from these parts, however, is one of an Iceland gull in Lerwick Harbour skipping over the surface of a calm winter sea by Lee Mott.

The Great Builders, Kenneth Powell (ed). Thames & Hudson, £19.96.

From the splendours of Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence through John Fowler’s Forth Railway Bridge and on to another dome on the Reichstag designed by Norman Foster, this book contains a wealth of information on those who have made the urban world most people now live in. It is all complemented by excellent photographs and drawings which help to give a strong sense of how pioneering the architects and builders were.

As well as stunning photographs of the Forth Railway Bridge under construction, there is the famous human model which was used to illustrate the bridge’s cantilever principle. In it, sitting in chairs, are John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, whose levers support Japanese engineering student Kaichi Watanabe in the suspended middle section.

A very satisfying book that it pays to revisit.

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, A S Byatt. Canongate, £11.99.

A S Byatt is a magnificent writer and one of the most significant serious literary figures of the age. In Ragnarok, the story of a “thin child” who is moved to the country during World War II and is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods, the end of the world myth is a touchstone. As she indulges her passion for reading, the myths provide a reference point and allow the author to weave in discussions of war, natural disaster and the destruction of life on earth, all very resonant themes. The quality of the writing is outstanding.

Whale Song: Journeys into the Secret Lives of the North Atlantic Humpbacks, Andrew Stevenson. Constable, £20.

Andrew Stevenson has followed the whales of the title off Bermuda and his native Canada for more than five years, spurred on by his daughter Elsa who wanted to know why these majestic creatures breached. He has recorded them in audio, video and in photographs – magnificently repro­duced in this coffee table book – which provide a window on their habits and behaviour. The text is a travelogue of their journey with his wife Annabel and Elsa. But is not in the least bit self-indulgent. Stevenson has co-authored scientific papers on the species which have contributed to our under­standing of the great grey humpback whale.

Murder Squad: Best Eaten Cold and Other Stories, Martin Edwards (ed). The Mystery Press, £5.59.

Ann Cleeves, whose Shetland novels are well known, is one of the authors who have contributed to this little collection. The first of her three stories, The Habit of Silence, is a tightly written piece about a murder in the silent room of a library in Newcastle. The setting echoes the theme of the story and points the way to the cause of the killing. Solving a murder convincingly in a short story is no easy task, but she adopts a clever ruse to get to the heart of the matter.

If you’re in need of a little dose of crime writing over the Christmas holidays, this short book is very good value indeed.

Lego City Brickmaster. Dorling Kindersley, £15.19.

In an incredibly competitive toy market, Lego is as popular as ever. Partly, that must be down to the company’s ability to innovate. This set-cum-book allows for the making of nine different models in different combinations. My son and I made the police helicopter and robber’s getaway car (complete with gold bars). Ostensibly, there are “stories” to go with the different models, but they are faily limp and the rest of the book comprises the instructions familiar to all Lego afficionados. None­theless, this would be a good means of introducing someone who has never experienced the pleasures of the little plastic bricks and pieces to a whole new world.PR

Cooking with Beer, Paul Mercurio. Murdoch Books, £11.99.

“The key to cooking with bear is to create really good dishes that stand on their own, are well balanced, well flavoured and don’t taste like beer. If every dish in this book tasted like beer there would be no point in writing more than one recipe.” It is the sheer range of beers now available that has helped take cooking with beer beyond the ubiquitous beer-battered fish and chips, according to author Paul Mercurio. And there is certainly a fine selection of recipes to choose from, from Hoegaarden seafood risotto to Lamb shanks in Guinness. There’s even a splendid desserts section. Cheers.

Tyger Tyger Burning Bright: Much-Loved Poems You Half-Remember, Ana Sampson. Michael O’Mara Books, £7.99.

This book has a diplomatic subtitle. Mostly I can’t remember poems at all, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, which is reproduced here, even though I’ve read it umpteen times and know that it was the result of an opiuim-induced trance: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. Pope, Blake, Byron, names from a who’s who of verse, appear in this useful and nicely-produced aide memoire.PR

Reader’s Digest DIY Manual. Reader’s Digest Association, £15.99.

Fittingly, this book weighs almost as much as a brick. And in its 500+ pages there is absolutely everything you could ever need to know about DIY, with superb drawings, diagrams and photographs to help turn text into reality. All that’s required is some skill.

If you don’t want to or are unable to lug the book’s great bulk around, there is a CD-Rom enclosed which covers much of the same ground albeit in less detail. Handy perhaps if you have a small laptop that you can set somewhere close by as you work.

Craft, Kirstie Allsopp. Hodder & Stoughton, £16.

There is a menu of subjects with handy tips here to tempt even the most experienced SWRI members, although one suspects they might not warm to the voluptuous Kirstie. Everything from greeting cards to banana cake to decorated candles is covered and beautifully presented. Kirstie says she fell in love again with crafts while renovating her house several years ago and spent time this summer touring county fairs and agricultural shows to discover the best on offer. Here it all is.

10,000 Cupcakes, Susanna Tee. Ivy Press, £7.99.

This clever little book ought to be a winner locally. Although the cover is conventional, the pages are in a binder and split in three so that you get a huge variety of combinations. At random, sprinkles, peppermint frosting and green tea cupcakes. Of course not all the combinations will work, but you will have lots of fun trying to see which ones do.

10 Little Penguins Stuck on the Fridge, Jean-Luc Fromental and Joelle Jolivet. Abrams, £10.39.

Penguins have had a good run since March of the Penguins. Children have been well-catered for too, with Happy Feet. This little book, which has an ulterior educational purpose, contains 44 magnets and 10 counting games for little ones to play.

Titanic Love Stories, Gill Paul. Ivy Press, £11.99.

Oddly enough neither Jack Dawson nor Rose DeWitt Bukater appear in this book. Nor for that matter does Cal Hockley. They, of course, were the fictional protagonists of James Cameron’s movie Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslett and Billy Zane, Dawson and Bukater falling in love despite the gulf in social class and Hockely growing ever more disparaging as the cuckold.

No, here are the “true love” stories of the fateful voyage of Titanic from Southampton in 1912, those of the 13 newlyweds including John Jacob Astor and his wife Madeleine who had eloped to Europe. Only the pregnant Madeleine made it back to America.

For those not familiar with it, their stories are interspersed with the history of the voyage.

Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects, Amy Stewart. Timber Press, £8.79.

Stewart concentrates on the dark side of the insect world, reflecting on the painful effect of small bugs throughout history. Napoleon was observed by his physician in St Helena tearing at his skin and is generally considered to have suffered from scabies; something that can be cleared up with a cream now but was then little understood. One can’t help wondering, however, whether this is a subject it would be better to remain ignorant of.

Predators: The world’s most lethal animals, Steve Backshall. Orion, £10.39.

On the same theme, but dealing with much larger animals, Steve Backshall’s book is aimed at children. They’ll be fascinated by his tales, such as that of standing up to his neck in an Argentinian lake full of piranhas with a piece of steak held in front of him. “It took 15 minutes for them to get up the courage to risk a bite, then we filmed them churning the water white as they scoffed it down. I wasn’t bitten once, though I have to admit to being a little nervous.”

Fifty Animals that Changed the Course of History, Eric Chaline. David & Charles, £10.39.

The title might be a little overdone given some of the content, but this is one of those fascinating facts books that lure you in and keep you there. Turning at random to the Spanish fly, actually a member of the beetle family, one finds that a chemical it secretes, cantharadin, has a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Unfortunately for humans, it is also highly toxic. The Marquis de Sade was sentenced to death for giving prostitutes in Marseilles pastilles of powdered Spanish fly, although he was later pardoned.

Humans, of course, have made history and are the subject of the final chapter.

Pigeon Guided Missiles And 49 Other Ideas That Never Took Off, James Moore and Paul Nero. The History Press, £10.39.

In 1940 Henry Ford of Model T fame said: “Mark my word. A combination air­plane and motor car is coming. You may smile. But it will come.” We’re still waiting, although Moore and Nero suggest that it is unease among manufacturers and the authorities rather than technical issues that have prevented flying cars from becoming reality.

Oddly, the ill-fated Darien expedition, originated by Bank of England founder William Paterson and which nearly bank­rupted Scotland in the late 17th century, appears among the 50 subjects here.

Nazi Princess: Hitler, Lord Rothermere and Princess Stephanie Von Hohenlohe, Jim Wilson. The History Press, £14.39.

This is a biography of the spy Stephanie Von Hohenlohe, who was a close confidante of Hitler, Goering and Himmler and was paid a retainer of £5,000 per year (£200,000 today) by Daily Mail owner and Nazi supporter Lord Rothermere. Jim Wilson has used declassified MI5 files and FBI memos to update the tale of appeasement.

Collected Ghost Stories, M R James. Oxford University Press, £11.99.

All the Cambridge academic’s ghost stories are here and among those in the know he is regarded as one of the best in the business.

The Sealed Letter, Emma Donoghue. Picador, £13.59.

Emma Donoghue is the author of the Booker and Orange shortlisted Room, which became an international bestseller. The Sealed Letter is an entertaining and well-written Victorian love story.

The Kingdom Under the Sea, Joan Aiken and Jan Pienkowski. Jonathan Cape, £10.39.

A classic, illustrated beautifully by Pienkowski. Aiken’s crisp, vivid and imaginative stories are just the right length to read to young ones in search of a good yarn.

Harry Potter and History, Nancy R Reagin (ed). Wiley, £9.60.

If you have read all the Harry Potter books and seen all the films but still want more, this is the book for you. It examines the real historical backdrop to J K Rowling’s stories and asks such searching questions as was Voldemort a Nazi? where did the Wizengamot and the Ministry of Magic come from? and how were the magical books and quills used by Harry and his friends made?

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These books are available from The Shetland Times Bookshop, Commercial Street,


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