It only seems like last week that I was reviewing a new book by Bo Beolens (The Eponym Dictionary of Amphibians [EDA]). Published by Pelagic, EDA is a serious work or reference and a compilation of obscure facts which I enjoyed hugely.
And now here’s another book by Bo, ‘A – Z of Birds: A birder’s tales from around the world‘ ['A-Z']. When does he find the time? It’s taken me almost a fortnight to even start this review. In the meantime Bo will have produced a podcast, updated his ten or so websites, written an article for a magazine (or two), and possibly started on another book. Bo is one of life’s ‘do-ers’. Which of course has given him enough stories to fill a book or two…
Before I start this review, in the interests of full disclosure I should say that I know Bo Beolens – the ‘Fatbirder’ – fairly well. I’ve known of him for a while but have got to know him ‘in person’ only recently. I wish I knew him better, actually, because what I do know of him I like a lot. He’s erudite, witty, and thoughtful, and thankfully (as he points out in the Introduction to ‘A – Z’) he absolutely refuses to take himself too seriously. Which considering he’s been a fixture of the online birding scene through his websites and his writing for well over a decade is a ‘good thing’ (and a pointer to the way the stories in this book are told). However, I’m lucky enough to know quite a few people who’ve written books, and if I review, praise or criticise them I always do so as honestly and as fairly as I can.
With that in mind let’s have a look at ‘A-Z’. Opening with a prelude by Mike Dilger (who is described on the back cover as a ‘celebrity naturalist and broadcaster’ which misses that he is one of the most ebullient and cheerfully artless people you could ever hope to meet) ‘A-Z’ is arranged in twenty-six alphabetically-arranged chapters each named for a bird species and topped-off with a full-page cartoon by Des Campbell (normally I find birding cartoons very hit or miss, but these are great fun and add a great deal to the feel of the book).
You might expect each chapter to be simply about the bird that heads it up, for eg ‘G is for goose‘ to be about geese or ‘S is for spiderhunter‘ to be about spiderhunters (you get the picture) but that seriously underestimates our author. Bo is a far cleverer writer than that. Each chapter is a deftly woven tale (or three or four tales) that is sometimes a pun on the title, sometimes features a pivotal moment that concerns said bird, and sometimes uses the titular species as a metaphor.
This reminds me of something that may well go right over the heads of younger readers (I’m middle-aged now so that is probably a goodly proportion of current birders), but I’m a huge fan of ‘Columbo‘, the American detective mystery television film series starring Peter Falk (bear with me for a moment). In ‘Columbo‘ each episode starts with a murder which we, the viewer, see committed and over the length of each programme our hero somehow pieces together what happened and nails the criminal in the final five minutes. Now, while ‘A – Z’ is obviously not a murder-mystery novel, as I got into the swing of the book and recognised the device Bo was so cunningly employing, I did find myself wondering how he – having told us what bird he would at some point mention – would work his chosen species into the narrative. A small thing maybe, but it added extra spice to what was already tasty fare.
And I really do think this is tasty fare. ‘A – Z’ is full of variety and colour, a serving up of dishes from all round the world if you like (Bo, like myself, has done more than his fair share of travelling so that last analogy is at the very least geographically accurate). Occasionally there is a hint of a taste we’ve had proffered to us in previous pages (we’re left in no doubt that Bo doesn’t like – really, really doesn’t like – snakes for example, and a certain Common Quail makes more appearances in print than it seems to have done in life) but there’s plenty of original material and it’s all told in a style that is very ‘Bo’.
That may not mean much to you if you’ve not read or heard Bo before, but in effect it means a style that is warm, full of humour and self-deprecation, laced with well-turned phrases and a dollop of lugubriousness. It’s a very pleasant mix. It also means that the stories sound a little as if they’ve been written to be narrated rather than written down. Sometimes this means that sentences (and I hope Bo will forgive me for this) can at first reading seem a touch overlong or convoluted, but read them while imagining hearing Bo’s droll Clive James-like delivery and they do make perfect sense.
It’s perhaps unusual for a ‘book of birding tales’ to be quite so strongly accented. I’m glad of it though. I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s efforts (it takes massive commitment to get beyond just thinking about writing a book and actually starting it, let alone finishing it months/years later) but compared with some of the rather bland ‘what I did on my birding holiday’ books that have passed my desk over the years such distinctiveness is (in my opinion) very welcome. Other readers may think differently, of course, but I quickly got into the rhythm of Bo’s writing and enjoyed ‘A – Z’ all the more for its phrasing and vocabulary. Perhaps one day he’ll read it all out aloud as an audio book and find a second audience!
Having said all that it would be wrong not to acknowledge that ‘A – Z’ is not without its problems. It is – unfortunately – somewhat let down by the standard of proofreading and the over-liberal use of a spellchecker that was not itself checked. While there certainly aren’t so many typos and errors that ‘A – Z’ is unreadable (far from it) there are some jarring moments that should have been picked up. There is no such a thing as a Wall Creeper or an Ivory Bill woodpecker, for example, despite what a spellchecker may say. Someone should have noticed the incorrect capitalising of Common Warblers which was part of a sentence describing a passage of birds that included some common warblers (there is an inconsistency throughout ‘A – Z’ when it comes to using capital letters for birds’ names – in one paragraph the same species is begun with an upper-case and a lower-case just six lines apart). It’s irritating rather than a ‘deal breaker’, but it does hint at a rushed final edit, which is a shame because this is otherwise an attractive and well-presented book. Hopefully there will be a second edition of ‘A – Z’, when the mistakes will be corrected.
And I do hope that there will be a second edition, as that would mean that the first has sold out. I don’t have any financial stake in either the first or any further editions, incidentally, but I do like this book and hope it finds its niche. It won’t change a reader’s life I don’t suppose, but it’s well-written, well-meaning, entertaining (and also something of a love-letter from a grumpy old birder to a wife he obviously adores and without whom etc etc).
It’s for sale on Amazon right now for less than a tenner, which really isn’t very much for a night in with a good book.