Review The Jewel Hunter by Chris Gooddie


This page contains 9 reader comments. Click here to view (latest Wed 24/11/10 22:18).

The Jewel Hunter

Gripping birds do not make gripping books but this promised both: a big-year book with a twist. Instead of rehashing a dull year of British or American twitching, Chris Gooddie — the man who "set fire to a carefully constructed career ladder and warmed his hands over the flames" — only attempted to see 32 species in a year, the catch being that those 32 species were the pittas, a family whose beauty is matched only by their ability to hide in the densest vegetation of tropical forests. Over its 20 chapters, Gooddie takes on the forests of three continents, a bout of dysentery, proposes to his girlfriend and gets far too close for comfort to a Wagler's Pit Viper. So it shouldn't be boring...

Stylistically informal, this book conjures up images so vivid it feels like you're riding pillion with Gooddie on his travels, from Uganda to the Solomon Islands, via Taiwan, Thailand and Timor. Chapter 1 is squarely in Simon Barnes territory: the unsatisfied existentialism of the naturalist, trapped in the suffocating banality of an office in High Wycombe. Steady employment or seeing pittas? To Gooddie, and probably most birders, it was no contest: the first chapter fizzes with the excitement and defiant energy of a man cutting free his socially acceptable safety net to realise his dreams. The next 19 chapters contain thriller-for-birders-style writing, cataloguing every call, bouncing twig, suspicious leaf movement and leech of his pitta pursuit. Each chapter climaxes with the pitta, where Gooddie inverts his standard irreverent tone for a breathless description of the bird's plumage and behaviour. While this adds atmosphere and realism at the start of the book, the repetitive style does start to tire with the later pittas. Despite his predilection for pittas, Gooddie's love of other tropical birds also shines through, though not all are afforded descriptions: a good thing for brevity; a bad thing if you've got no idea what a Temminck's Sunbird looks like.

However, the book is frustratingly polarized; good story-telling is not the sole ingredient of good writing. Every deft turn of phrase — "the habitually contrarian nature of pittas" — is matched by a reliance on clichés and jokes. The author's humour is more Wryneck than wry, and repeatedly grated on me. Some subtlety wouldn't have gone amiss and, for me, this is the key problem with the way the book is written. It's tiresome because it's relentless in its bombast. Because it never stops being colourful it becomes annoyingly repetitive. Gooddie occasionally abandons adjectives for poorly explained cultural metaphors and similes, with mixed results. Compare the adequate "more Brian Ferry than David Bowie", with the awkward "darkly sexy allure, like the Darryl Hannah character Pris in Blade Runner". The travelogue side of the story (the blurb has it as "a travelogue with a difference") is the offender here and it is obvious to the reader that the author is much more comfortable when writing about birding. There is more to travel writing than bad jokes and analysing the merits of every meal. My knowledge of Asian forests is limited, and the book missed an opportunity to educate, and to further the conservation message beyond 'these are pretty, let's keep them'. At times it also uneasily straddles the border between a birding and non-birding audience. Hence we see a glossary with terms like birding, dipping, list, tick, etc., which doesn't sit well with technical phrases such as 'covert panel' used in the prose.

As list-obsessed as most birders are, Gooddie seems particularly partial to them. Frequently he breaks off from the story to insert such lists as: food; considerations for making a 'proper' cup of tea; topics of conversation on Bornean trails; advantages of living in the jungle for urban dwellers; etc. Most of these are humorous in tone but they often detract from the flow of reading.

For the £17.99 you pay, the physical book is also a slight letdown. The cover is not well designed or executed, whilst, unfortunately, the font is the neo-comic eyesore that is cambria. On the plus side it does include four sets of plates, and an appendix covering all the pittas the author managed to photograph, which although not great-quality photographs (Gooddie does say that they 'were the best I could achieve under trying conditions') are atmospheric. Such is the lifelike murk of the Fairy Pitta photo, all blurred greens and browns with a stripe of fluorescent blue lesser coverts.

These criticisms aside, what Goodie has achieved here is a unique and readable story, though to say this is the best year-listing book I've read is to define 'damned by faint praise'. There is no doubt that it's a great idea let down by poor execution, but no matter how many awkward passages and annoying idiosyncrasies it contains, it is honest about what it is, and emerges as a fairly enjoyable read. If you've ever gawped at a Gurney's Pitta, or dreamt of travelling the remoter parts of Asia, then you will enjoy this book — if you take it for what it is.

The Jewel Hunter by Chris Gooddie is published 2010 by WILDGuides
Softcover. 424 pages, 136 photos, 20 maps.
RRP £17.99. ISBN: 1903657164

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hide section Reader comments (9)

Well I enjoyed it and I know many others have already. Its a shame when a review (or should that be opinion?) basically says "I didn't like it". Just one minor criticism of the review - the cover font is clearly 'Bembo' and I guess this highlights what we have here, a wannabe writer/designer who thinks they know more than they actually do and is prepared to shout out an opinion without knowledge or research - must be great fun to be with on a tuna-boat pelagic . . .
   Melbourne Pete, 10/09/10 09:07Report inappropriate post Report 
There's another review at http://10000birds.com/review-the-jewel-hunter-chris-gooddie.htm
   Paul Pearson, 10/09/10 16:26Report inappropriate post Report 
It is a shame when someone who carefully expresses an unbiased opinion based on carefully reading a book is anonymously attacked in this way. For the sake of transparency we will leave the comment up, but it is a marginal call. And for the record the review correctly states that the main text of the book is set in Cambria.
   Max Whitby, 16/09/10 15:34Report inappropriate post Report 
I too enjoyed the Book & thought the review sour & mean spirited . Who gives a c..p what type face the script is ? - an excellent 'read ' ! Chris Hancock
   chris hancock, 18/09/10 11:35Report inappropriate post Report 
I agree wholeheartedly that this is a confusing and mean-spirited review. I really enjoyed Chris Gooddie's book and his photographs and I can only believe Steve Rutt got out of bed the wrong side on the day he wrote the review. It doesn't strike me as an "unbiased opinion based on carefully reading a book"... it's a review well below the standard I would expect from Birdguides.
   Chris Parnell, 22/09/10 08:58Report inappropriate post Report 
In defence of the reviewer, I found it an intelligent and entertaining review and not at all mean-spirited. Just because we admire someone's birding and literary efforts doesn't mean they are a great writer.
   Chris Seaton, 04/10/10 09:22Report inappropriate post Report 
Like Steve, I approached Chris Gooddie’s book with a similar scepticism; just because someone has undertaken a great adventure, it does not make them a good author. After thoroughly enjoying The Jewel Hunter, however, I reached a very different conclusion to the reviewer. This book is a triumph, a joy to read. In addition to the story of the adventure, challenge and travel, the author’s ability in his narrative to paint an accurate and lively picture of birding in the tropics is a real...more more
   Ben Miller, 28/10/10 16:50Report inappropriate post Report 
Hello Mr Miller. I’ll deal with the points you raise, but I’ll point out that I’m currently 400 miles north of my copy, so I can only go by my memories of it. Also, thanks for having the confidence to support your opinion with a well-expressed argument. It makes a refreshing change from disagreeing without justifying why.
Firstly I don’t see the relevance of the link you’re making between my criticism of the awful cover, the typeface and their charitable works. The design, feel and...more more
   Steve Rutt, 03/11/10 19:50Report inappropriate post Report 
Thanks Steve for your fulsome reply. I won't go through each comment, rather I'd like to thank you for taking the time to write this; good for you and Birdguides! I also agree your review was not so negative as some have suggested. Hopefully this exchange will have encouraged others to pick up a copy, have a read, and perhaps share their thoughts...
   Ben Miller, 24/11/10 22:18Report inappropriate post Report 

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