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Rain - Cynthia Barnett ***

This fairly chunky book, subtitled 'a natural and cultural history' takes on a subject that causes mixed emotions: rain. We all need it, however usually it's a case of 'but not now.' I think it's fair to say that Cynthia Barnett concentrates more on the cultural side than the natural history, but there is some science here in amongst the interesting stories of humanity's interaction with this very distinctive aspect of the weather.

Some sections are particularly interesting. I was fascinated by the attempts to make rain - even now, not wholly confirmed as a scientific possibility - from firing cannons into the sky to seeding clouds with dry ice and iodide crystals. There are strange rains (Fort's frogs and the like), monsoons and, of course, the whole business of clouds, intimately tied up with rain itself.

Overall, the book proved rather too US-centric for my taste, not only having a whole section dedicated to US weather, but also spending far too long reminiscing about TV weather forecasters who would hold no meaning to anyone outside North America. In the same section is the book's biggest blooper - we are told that the UK's Meteorological Office is universally known as 'the Met'. No, it's not. That would be the Metropolitan Police.

Although there are plenty of good stories, the book lacked an overall arc - and while a random jumble of information can be endearing, it is useful to have some helpful structure. Some parts contained genuinely interesting stories, but too often there were effectively extended lists which told far too much detail of rain event after rain event. Perhaps this came across worse in the chapter 'Writers on the storm' (get it?), which after a little more interesting wandering around the influence of Manchester and Washington State on Morrissey and Kurt Cobain respectively (both apparently less rainy locations than their reputation suggests), consists primarily of example after example of writers and artists using rain in their work.

The presentation overall also lacked the humour that tends to run through the best definitive cultural/natural history books, like Sjöberg's excellent The Fly Trap. Barnett has a light touch that wanders between poetic and everyday, but rarely captures the same warmth as the experts in this field.

I didn't dislike the book, but in the end, reading through chapter after chapter that was a collection of facts, rather than a piece of writing that took me somewhere, became a touch uninspiring.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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