Book review: Do You Dream of Terra-Two?

Could you ever imagine going into space?

Could you then imagine spending twenty-three years there, beginning your journey just as you are about to leave your teens, only to end it just after the point you’ve entered middle age?

And could you do all this knowing even then that you won’t be returning to Earth? That instead of being reunited with your surviving loved ones, you will be charged with a new mission: setting up a colony on a new planet, a planet identical to our own discovered in space but as yet uninhabited? Namely, Terra-Two?

This is the fate the group of teenagers in Temi Oh’s first-class debut novel have keenly volunteered for, having being whittled down to a select few who will join a number of older, more experienced crew for an epic journey on the Damocles to the new world. The name of the ship is only one of a number of indicators which – rightly or wrongly – suggest the crew are in for a difficult journey. They are a mixed bunch of characters and despite vigorous psychiatric screening during their years of training, it soon becomes clear they are as prone to human flaws as anyone else.

The mission begins in 2012, suggesting the ship will reach its destination in the mid-2030s. But despite references to the London Olympics, the 2008 financial crash and Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box-sets, this is not quite the year 2012 as we may remember it. Clearly, the course of human history has diverged from own own at various points. Space technology has clearly advanced way beyond anything achieved in the first fifth of the 21st century while Britain is for once at the forefront of the global space programme.

Despite a surprisingly high number of errors in the Amazon Kindle version of the book, his is a thoroughly enjoyable and gripping debut novel from British author Temi-Oh full of believable and relatable characters.

Book review: The Human Factor

Thirty years ago, the Cold War came to a peaceful end. Germany was reunified. A wave of mostly peaceful uprisings occurred across the so-called Eastern Bloc in 1989 before finally in 1991, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated completely.

Such developments would have seemed unthinkable only a few years earlier. Russian communism had dominated Eastern Europe since 1917 with the intense rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States threatening to destroy humanity following the superpower arms build-up which escalated soon after the end of the Second World War.

As Archie Brown demonstrates in this book the fact that this amazing development was able to occur at all owes itself almost entirely to ‘the human factor,’ namely the unique personalities of three world leaders during the second half of the 1980s. The personality of one of these leaders in fact, was especially critical.

Many in the west were alarmed when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in November 1980. A onetime Hollywood actor who had been a liberal Democrat until his early fifties, Reagan had strong enough conservative credentials by 1980, that he was able to preside over a thaw in East-West relations without stoking fears that he might be appeasing the Soviets. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meanwhile was not as slavish in her support for Reagan and the US as is sometimes made out. She and Reagan were friends and shared the same ideological free market perspective, but there were occasional fallings out. Crucially, on the major issue of East-West relations, however, she and the 40th US president always stood shoulder to shoulder.

However, it was the third actor, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who was utterly indispensable to the whole process. Make no mistake: without Mikhail Gorbachev there would have been no end to the Cold War. The Berlin Wall would not have fallen. The USSR would not have collapsed. Remarkable leaders though they in many ways were, the same cannot be said of Reagan or the so-called ‘Iron Lady.’

Gorbachev’s attitude and politics were utterly unique within Soviet politics at the time. Nor is it true that he (or anyone) was browbeaten into submission by the United States’ continued hard line. There is no evidence to support this whatsoever.

As the only one of these three figures still alive in May 2020, the world really owes the elderly Mr. Gorbachev a huge debt of thanks. As Archie Brown notes, it was he who made all the difference.

Gorbachev, not Reagan and certainly not Thatcher, ended the Cold War.

The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan and Thatcher and the End of the Cold War, by Archie Brown. Out Now. Published by Oxford University.

Book review: Viz: The Trumpeter’s Lips 2020

As the rosette emblazoned (or, at least, drawn) on the cover reminds us, Viz has been doing this for forty years now.

Yes, that’s right. There have now been four whole decades of the popular British adult comic, which is ‘Not For Sale To Children’. In theory, this should mean it has now reached middle age or at least some semblance of maturity?

Has it though? Well, as Viz’s longest running character, the foul-mouthed TV personality, Roger Mellie, The Man on the Telly would say: “Hello, good evening and bollocks.”

In other words, “no”. As another publication which lasted in print for roughly half as long as Viz’s 40 years to date once memorably put it, this is a magazine “for men who should know better.”

This edition of the Viz annual, promises “a brassy fanfare of crowd pleasing blasts from issues 262-271.” So what’s included?

Roger Mellie appears opposite Gemma Collins on a celebrity version of Channel 4’s Naked Attraction. Aldridge Prior, The Hopeless Liar gets his perfect job: as President Trump’s press secretary: (“The President can do a one inch punch just like Bruce Lee and it would instantly kill you. FACT!”). Raffles, the Gentleman Thug is up to his usual tricks, (“Don’t forget your red flag, Bunny! We’ve got to absquatulate before the Scuffers get here!”). Old favourites return (“There is precious little sunshine for those living in the shadow of The Bottom Inspectors”), alongside strange newcomers (“Wally Walton’s Emergency Scorpion Squad and Wall To Wall Carpet Warehouse”). If you’ve read Viz before, you’ll know what to expect.

Viz has never been just a comic, however. Nearly half of it is made up of features usually satirising the celebrity-obsessed culture of the tabloid press. Highlights in this book include ’20 Things You Never Knew About Hats,” and a spoof of ‘Take A Break’ magazine called ‘Take A Shit’. There’s also a special festive edition of Roger Mellie’s Profanisaurus.

Mrs. Brady: Old Lady. Letterbocks. Gilbert Ratchet. Big Vern. The Broon Windsors (a bizarre amalgamation of the family from the long running comic strip, The Broons and the Royal Family). Mr Logic (“He’s An Acute Localised Body Smart in the Rectal Area”). I’ve really only scraped the surface of the world of Viz here.

Perhaps you think Viz is crude, vulgar and disgusting. Perhaps you think it is sometimes or often quite brilliant. You are both right.

Or as senile Daily Telegraph reader Major Misunderstanding says to an estate agent and his clients who he has mistaken for a group of young anti-Trump protesters, “Go back to your bedrooms and play on your ‘You-Tubes. Nobody cares tuppence for what you think.”

Chris Hallam has written a feature on Viz for the magazine, Comic Scene Volume 2, Issue 11, published in mid-December 2019

Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians

Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hardman. Published by: Atlantic Books.

As British voters prepare to go to the polls for the fourth time this decade, it is well worth bearing in mind: the way we select our politicians is awful.

You don’t actually have to be rich to become an MP, but as Isabel Hardman’s book highlights, the process of standing for parliament is so expensive, time consuming and arduous, it’s a wonder anyone ever does it in the first place. Most candidates in the current general election campaign will never become MPs. And even if they do, the labyrinthine world of Westminster offers so little support to new members, that many of them will find themselves falling victim to alcoholism or marital breakdown. Of course, many also often find themselves subject to personal abuse, on Twitter, on nastier versions of blogs like this or in what is sometimes referred to as “the real world”.

Hardman (the Deputy Editor of The Spectator) admits to some well-intentioned sleight of hand here. Despite the book’s title, she is not actually attacking politicians as a class. She does not pander to the popular stereotype that all or even most MPs are lazy, out of touch or corrupt. Although she does not shy away from recounting examples of abuse, she reminds us that the vast majority of MPs are hardworking, dedicated people. Attending regular surgeries and hearing constituents’ problems arguably puts them more in touch with ordinary people’s problems than the average person.

Hardman’s argument is that the current system is deeply flawed, often resulting in unsatisfactory laws.

It is an excellent book and a difficult argument to refute.

Book review: Where Power Stops, by David Runciman

Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.

The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.

Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.

Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.

The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.

Book review: Quentin Tarantino – The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work

Quentin Tarantino – The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work, by Ian Nathan. Published by White Lion

One day, nearly thirty years ago, a young bearded man in a black suit ran across a road and was immediately hit by a car. Despite flying into and breaking the car’s windscreen, the hoodlum is soon on his feet again and pointing a gun at the unfortunate driver. As the scene is filmed from the driver’s perspective, it almost feels like we, the ones in the audience, are the ones being carjacked.

The carjacker was one ‘Mr Pink’ played by Steve Buscemi. The film was Reservoir Dogs and with its release, the career of film director, Quentin Tarantino had begun.

The years ahead would see the film’s director, Tarantino become so cool that for a while, it seemed possible that the name ‘Quentin’ might actually become cool in itself. In the end, despite the continued popularity of artist Quentin Blake, this never quite happened. But, as with his earlier fine, nicely presented coffee table books on the Coens and Tim Burton, distinguished film critic, Ian Nathan’s book on the video shop employee turned director, reminds us why Tarantino largely deserved all the subsequent fuss that was made about him.

The 1990s was a great time for Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs, a film about a robbery we never see and notorious for an ear removal scene we also never see, featured career-best performances from all its excellent all-male cast. Perhaps only Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi have done better work elsewhere and even they are better in this than anyone else.

Why is it called Reservoir Dogs? The book suggests the issue – as with the answer to the question, “who shot Nice Guy Eddie?”- is a mystery known only to Tarantino himsel). My own theory: the main characters’ behaviour resembles a pack of wild, stray dogs living near a reservoir, fighting each other, betraying each other to survive. But I’ve no idea whether this has any basis in fact. Do stray dogs even live near reservoirs and behave like this? I’ve no idea.

The Nice Guy Eddie ‘mystery’ is more easily explicable, however. The ‘shooting’ of the character, played by the late Chris Penn, was actually the result of a technical error. The ‘squibs’ which stimulated his gunshot wounds went off, exploding prematurely. Tarantino, cannily recognising the potential for controversy, deliberately left the mistake in the finished film. So basically nobody shot him.

Next up, was Pulp Fiction, the film where Tarantino fulfilled his promise. Then came Jackie Brown, the Kill Bills, Inglourious Basterds, the westerns and this year’s triumphant but flawed Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. I am fully aware I have not covered Tarantino’s body of work fully here. Rest assured: Ian Nathan does. The lone exception is Once Upon A Time… which is touched upon, but was obviously released too late for the book.

But in every other respect, as a crash course in Tarantino, this is second only to watching the films themselves.

A-Z of Exeter – Places – People – History, by Chris Hallam

Published by Amberley: October 15th 2019

For 2,000 years, the Devon city of Exeter has played a small but vital role in our nation’s history. There have been highs and lows. For centuries, it was one of the top cities in the land, elevated into a golden age of prosperity. But the city has also suffered countless incursions from a wide range of invaders both foreign and English. It came close to defeating William the Conqueror, remained defiant in the face of German bombing, fought on both sides in the English Civil War and has battled fires, plagues, sieges and pretenders to the throne.

This is Exeter’s story, told for the first time in alphabetical order.

Chapter headings include:

The Civil War

JK Rowling

The Exeter Blitz

The Great Theatre Fire

Witches on trial

Chris Hallam was born in Peterborough and settled in Exeter in 2005 where he now lives with his wife. He has written for a large number of local and national magazines including DVD Monthly, Yours Retro, Infinity, Geeky Monkey and Best of British. He also wrote The Smurfs annual 2014 and co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter in 2018.

Book review: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982, by Dominic Sandbrook

Published by: Allen Lane, Penguin. Out now.

I am writing this in a time of acute political crisis. It is easy to lose all sense of perspective when assessing a situation while it’s still happening. Even so, the year 2019 is unlikely to be viewed as a happy one for nation when we remember it in forty years time.

Despite this, the fifth volume in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain since Suez, reminds us, the period, 1979-82 was very eventful indeed.

To briefly recap:

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister in British history.

By 1980, she was already hugely unpopular as unemployment and inflation rocketed. There would probably have been a recession around this time anyway, but Thatcher’s dogged commitment to monetarism made things worse. Not for the last time, Labour blow the opportunity to replace the Tories in power by electing the decent but unelectable Michael Foot as leader.

1981: The SDP breakaway from Labour and are soon way ahead of both the Tories (blamed for unemployment, rioting and recession) and Labour (harmed by Foot’s unpopularity and the antics of Tony Benn).

1982: The Falklands War transforms the political landslide. Thatcher becomes hugely popular again. There were signs of a Tory recovery before the Argentine invasion and it is doubtful ,Labour would ever have won the 1983 election anyway. But the Falklands Factor removed all doubt.

Sandbrook’s brilliant at these sort of books giving both a thorough insight into the politics of the period but almost all aspects of British life.

There are plenty of useful nuggets of info here. The book opens with an account of the live broadcast of the SAS break-up of the April 1980 Iranian embassy siege. The Alan Ahlberg book Peepo! is discussed as is Raymond Briggs’ incredibly harrowing graphic novel, When The Wind Blows. The rise of Ian Botham and Steve Davis are examined as is the fall of Joy Division and the rise of the New Romantics.

I was born in 1976 and so for the first time, like Sandbrook himself (who is about two years older than me) find myself encountering things here which I just about remember. I enjoyed the references to Peepo! (a book my baby brother liked) and was particularly interested in the portrait of my home town of Peterborough. I would dispute the claim made by an employee of the bishop of the time (and apparently endorsed by Sandbrook) that “Race relations are not a problem in Peterborough.” There were no riots in Peterborough as there were in Brixton in 1981 and although I went to school with a large number of children of Pakistani, Indian and Italian, I am white myself and cannot speak for them. But I know this for a fact: there were definitely racial tensions. There still are.

Reading the book, I was surprised to learn just how racist many people were back then. The extent of racism in the police force seems to have been appalling.

Sandbrook has started writing for the Daily Mail in recent years and though he strives for balance, his conservative tendencies occasionally show. Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, then an early SDP champion, is at one point described as a “future saint.” Who regards her as a saint, you might ask? No one in the real world, that’s who. Certainly not Guardian readers. The term is only ever used in reference to Toynbee sarcastically by envious columnists on the Right. I was also surprised to see Sandbrook resurrecting the discredited claim that Michael Foot was in the pay of the KGB. Foot retained strong pro-democratic tendencies throughout his life and won a libel case against the Murdoch press when tbey made the same claim. Were he not dead, I’m sure Foot would be suing again. And I’m sure he would win.

So Thatcher generally comes out of this well, Sandbrook agreeing with Charles Moore, in the face of virtually all evidence that the Iron Lady had a sense of humour. Little credence is given to the notion that anyone might have found the somewhat jingoistic aftermath of the Falklands conflict distasteful. Tony Benn comes out of this badly. After an effective chapter about the fear of nuclear war experienced by many at this time, Sandbrook then seems to go out of his way to argue unconvincingly that nobody was ever seriously worried about it after all.

But ultimately, this is another literally superb addition to Sandbrook’s account of Britain since 1956. What next? Greed is Good? No Turning Back? Nice Little Earner? I eagerly await Sandbrook’s next volume.

As a chronicler of post-war Britain, Sandbrook is only seriously rivalled by David Kynaston and Alwyn W. Turner.

Book review: Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need To Know

Book review: Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need To Know. By Ian Haydn Smith. Illustrated by Kristelle Rodeia. Published by: White Lion. Out now.

What makes a cult filmmaker? The key qualities seem to be distinctiveness and a degree of obscurity. Hitchcock and Spielberg were and are great filmmakers, but both are much too famous now to be included in a volume like this. Hitchcock might have appeared once. Spielberg too, perhaps in the brief interim after the release of Dual but before Jaws. But not now.

Indeed, it could argued that just by highlighting the fifty directors included in this volume in a book specifically titled, ‘Cult Filmmakers’, author Ian Haydn Smith is simultaneously undermining their cult status as much as he is re-enforcing it.

That is not to attack the book, which is a good one. The author’s choices are intriguing and it is almost as interesting to see who has been left out as it is to see who has been included. Sam Raimi doesn’t feature. Nor does Wes Anderson or the Coens. Presumably, the men behind The Evil Dead, Blood Simple and Rushmore would have been considered cult filmmakers once. However, they are now ineligible as they’ve all moved onto more mainstream successes as the men behind Spiderman, Intolerable Cruelty and Isle of Dogs.

But if this is the reason, it’s odd that the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton and Kathryn Bigelow are. Other selections are less contentious: David Lynch, David Cronenberg and ‘Pope of Trash’ John Waters, have all achieved fame, while retaining their cult status. Some such as John Carpenter seem to have lost their initial cultiness, only to later recapture it.

The book is stylishly illustrated by Kristelle Rodeia. Occasionally, the pictures look nothing like their subjects e.g. Terry Gilliam. It doesn’t matter.

Personally, I am most grateful for the chapters shedding light on Amat Escalante, Benjamin Christensen and Barbara Loden, amongst others. Until this book, they were undeniably in my eyes, cult filmmakers: I had never heard of any of them. But now I do. And this can only be a good thing.

Book review: The Friends of Harry Perkins, by Chris Mullin

“Who is Harry Perkins?” you might ask.

The answer lies within Chris Mullin’s excellent 1982 novel, A Very British Coup. Written in the dark days of early Thatcherism, Mullin envisaged a future (the late 1980s), in which Perkins, a working-class hero and onetime Sheffield steelworker leads the Labour Party to an unexpected General Election victory on a manifesto not dissimilar to the one Labour lost on in 1983. Perkins’ Labour Party is thoroughly socialist and the new government quickly embarks on fulfilling the radical agenda it has been elected on: dismantling Britain’s nuclear deterrent and leaving NATO, breaking up the newspaper monopolies, redistributing wealth and more.

Needless to say, the establishment: the civil service, the media and the security services are horrified. They immediately begin conspiring with the US (who, viewing things through a Cold War prism, see Britain as having “gone over to the other side”) in a bid to thwart the programme of the democratically elected government. It is a great read.

Mullin was writing at a very volatile political time. In 1980, the new Thatcher government was already proving to be such a complete disaster that it seemed hopelessly doomed. For much of 1981, the SDP, not Labour, seemed set to replace them. By the post-Falklands summer of 1982, the resurgent Tories again seemed unbeatable, as indeed, proved the case, the Iron Lady having staged her own very British coup in the South Atlantic. We are in very volatile times again now. The future in the Brexit era is also very hard to foresee.

In this long-awaited sequel, Chris Mullin (now a former Labour MP himself) creates a convincing near future which cleverly not only seems sadly only too plausible but which also makes sense in the context of what has happened in the earlier book.

It is the 2020s. With Brexit having proven a miserable failure, serious consideration is being given to a humiliated Britain going crawling cap in hand and applying to rejoin the EU. Trump has left office, but has left the international situation thoroughly de-stablised. Today’s leaders have left the political stage. A King is on the throne, as he was in the earlier novel. Labour seemingly locked in perpetual opposition under an ineffectual woman leader seems poised for a takeover by the former aide of the recently deceased former Prime Minister, Harry Perkins, Fred Thompson (Mullin isn’t much of a one for glamorous character names). As so often happens, Perkins, the scourge of the status quo in life is now hailed by left and right alike as a great leader of the past, now he is safely dead. Thompson, who was played by Keith Allen in the acclaimed 1980s TV version of the book, is still middle-aged (Mullin admits to some authorial sleight of hand here: only ten years have passed since the events of the first book, not thirty or forty).

But can Fred Thompson succeed in leading Labour back to power and restoring Britain to it’s former glory? Will his family difficulties or a rising tide of violence threatening to engulf British politics get in the way?

The Daily Telegraph describes this book “preposterous.” Presumably, they mean “preposterous” in the sense that it doesn’t mindlessly back Brexit or shamelessly back Boris Johnson’s leadership bid as that newspaper did.

This is perhaps – like Thompson himself – not quite the equal of its illustrious predecessor. But it is a fine sequel and an excellent, short-ish read.

Published by: Scribner UK. 192 pages

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Collection

Carlton Publishing Group. RRP: £30. 1,096 pages. Approx 40 black and white illustrations. Out now: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Thirteen decades after he first appeared, Sherlock Holmes is alive and well. The 21st century has already seen the arch sleuth successfully reviving director Guy Ritchie’s career with two enjoyable, if not too faithful films (there is soon to be a third) while the BBC’s modernised slick version of the stories made stars of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Then, there’s the long-running US series, Elementary starring British actor Jonny Lee Miller which transposes Conan Doyle’s concept to 21st century LA. And that’s not even mentioning ‘comic’ interpretations such as Sherlock Gnomes and the truly disastrous “what on Earth were they thinking?”recent parody starring Will Ferrell and the usually excellent John C. Reilly.

It’s good to see amidst all this, that the original stories still hold up very well and remain popular. They are all presented in a high quality package here, in a fine cover with occasional illustrations throughout.

What else is there to say? Watson first meets Holmes in A Study In Scarlet, one of four long Holmes stories (including The Hound of the Baskervilles) amongst many short ones, themselves all spread across five books, all included in this one volume. Holmes frequently demonstrates powers of deduction so acute, that it seems unlikely they would work in real life. “I see from your steamed up glasses and muddy shoes, that you have a sister-in-law called Elsie who enjoys Gilbert and Sullivan and that your dentist once lost his hat to a swan in Stibbington,” is just one example, which I made up.

But these are great stories. Cocaine, violins and Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft appear very infrequently: the deerstalker and the phrase, “elementary, my dear Watson” never at all. One story relies on the reader not knowing what KKK stands for. But generally, they’ve aged well.

Hercules Poirot. Jane Marple. Lord Peter Wimsey. Father Brown. Reg Wexford. John Rebus. Endeavour Morse. Perhaps they all owe their existence to Sherlock Holmes?

Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle famously tired of his most famous character who he felt distracted from his other accomplishments. These included his attempts to prove conclusively that two Bradford schoolgirls with a pair of scissors and some copies of magazines with holes cut out of them, had uncovered the existence of fairies. Spoiler alert: they hadn’t.

One wonders: if Conan Doyle really wanted to destroy his hero forever, why did he “kill him off” in such an inconclusive way? Perhaps he couldn’t really bear to get rid of him. Millions of readers have felt similarly affectionate about his marvelous creation in the years since.

Book review: Napoleon. His Life, His Battles, His Empire

Napoleon. His Life, His Battles, His Empire. By David Chanteranne and Emmanuelle Papot. Published by: Carlton Books, March 7th 2019

I know almost nothing about Napoleon Bonaparte.

I studied International History up to postgraduate level. Despite this, I don’t remember being taught anything about him during my entire twenty years in education.

I know roughly what he looked like, that he was born in Corsica and that he married Josephine. I know he rose very fast through the ranks after reviving France’s fortunes following the bloody chaos of the French Revolution. He became very powerful and very important, very quickly but, like Hitler later, came badly unstuck trying to invade Russia. He died in exile, at a relatively young age (51).

I don’t get the impression he was anything like as bad as Hitler, Stalin or Mao in the 20th century. He didn’t unleash genocide and probably did some good along the way, reforming France’s legal system and the like. His wars nevertheless wrecked and destroyed thousands of lives. On balance, I suspect, he was more of a “baddy” than a “goody.”

What else? I know,  “My, my. At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender” because Abba told me so. But are 1970s pop lyrics really a reliable source of historical information? There is plenty of doubt, after all, that Rasputin was in fact, as Boney M argued, “lover of the Russian Queen.” As to whether he was really “Russia’s greatest love machine?”: well, it’s now almost impossible to verify.

This book was thus very helpful to me in filling in the considerable gaps in my knowledge of one of history’s key figures. With 180 illustrations, it would probably appeal to children, but I doubt I’m the only adult who found it useful.

After all, as a wise person once pointed out: “the history book on the shelf. It’s always repeating itself.”

Book review: The Cold War by Norman Friedman

The Cold War: From the Iron Curtain to the Collapse of Communism. Published by: Carlton Books.

Nothing about the Cold War is simple. When, for example, did it start? Most people would say after the Second World War but a case could be made for saying it started as soon as Russia turned towards Bolshevism (that is, Communism) in 1917. Certainly the West was hostile to the new state from the outset, numerous powers attempting to crush it with a series of military interventions during the post-revolutionary Russian Civil War. But as the USSR was on the Allied side during the war with Hitler, most people view the Cold War as starting in the late 1940s, particularly after the USSR obtained nuclear weapons in 1949. This book does the same.

When did it end then? With the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? (it was in fact demolished later). With the collapse of the USSR in 1991? Were there, in fact, two Cold Wars, the first ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the second starting with the sharp decline in East-West relations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979?

Indeed, with China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos still Communist, could a case even be made for saying the Cold War is still on? Certainly, plenty of spying and intrigue still goes on and the world is hardly free of international tension particularly since the succession of President Trump in 2017. US defence spending is now far higher than it ever was during the official Cold War. This is essentially madness.

This thorough nicely illustrated and accessible account wisely restricts itself the key period, however, chronicling events from the botched aftermath of the Second World War, through to the Berlin Airlift, Marshall Plan, Korean War, nuclear confrontation, the space race, Detente and ultimately a largely peaceful resolution, mostly attributable to Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It is well worth reading.

Book review: Timeless Adventures From The Father of Science Fiction, H.G. Wells

Book review: Timeless Adventures From The Father of Science Fiction, H.G. Wells. Published by: Prion.

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Let’s get one thing straight right from the get go: none of these adventures is ‘timeless’. Yes, they are still generally readable and are certainly very forward thinking. But they are all very obviously of their time, a time which is now over a century ago. Perhaps it is foolish to expect otherwise.
This is a fine volume containing four major works and ten short stories from H.G. Wells. The description of Wells as “the father of science fiction” might sound like a bold claim. However, if we are talking about British sci-fi, in Wells’ case, it’s actually pretty much on the button.
As a young man, Wells invented the time machine: not the device itself sadly, but the concept in the book of the same name which is included here (from 1895). The Time Machine in which Wells’ unnamed time traveller encounters nice Eloi and a nasty load of old Morlocks in the year A.D. 802,701 remains a good read. It has been filmed once, marvelously, by George Pal in 1960 and once, terribly, in 2002, by Simon Wells, great-grandson of the author.

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The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896): Don’t be put off by the appalling 1990s film version starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. The book still seems weird, even now but is nevertheless a great story, about an exiled doctor conducting bizarre experiments on animals and people on a remote island. It is surprisingly relevant to ongoing ethical debates about the appliance of science today.
The Invisible Man (1897): Very famous and undeniably clever, this is nevertheless, less fun than it sounds.
The War of the Worlds (1898): Finally, before a selection of more minor, shorter works, comes Wells’ genre-defining classic of Martian invasion. It has itself been adapted a few times, notably Orson Welles’ (no relation) headline-generating radio broadcast in 1938. But it, like so many other versions of the story, that missed perhaps its most compelling feature: that this amazing futuristic alien onslaught begins in Wells’ own stomping ground: Kent, in the last years of the Victorian age.

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Book review: Richard Herring’s Emergency Questions

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Book review: Richard Herring’s Emergency Questions: 1,001 Conversation Savers For Every Occasion. Published by Sphere.

Comedian Richard Herring can be a very silly man.

In 2012, he started interviewing a range of fellow actors, writers and comedians for his weekly Leicester Square Theatre Podcast. An amiable, amusing but always somewhat amateurish interviewer, Herring frequently found himself running out of questions and so in his spare moments took to writing down ’emergency questions’ which can theoretically be asked to anyone (although frequently only adults: and as Herring is quick to warn often not parents or elderly relatives) in the event of conversation ever drying up. This book is the result.

Some of the 1,001 questions are genuine conversation starters:

665. Were you ever in a fan club?

Me: Yes! The Dennis the Menace Fan Club. The Lego Club. And…er…the Weetabix Club? You got a magazine and posters based around the animated characters then used to advertise the popular breakfast cereal. It made sense at the time. Even more geekily, I was a member of the Young Ornithologists’ Club. I got a nice bookmark and went to see a film about kingfishers at Peterborough Regional College. There was no internet then.

74. Did any siblings of celebrities teach at your school?

Me: Yes – my Classical Studies teacher was the brother of Inspector Morse creator, Colin Dexter. Yes, my school was quite posh.

9. Who is your favourite historical character?

(Richard claims his is pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck).

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Some are just basically impossible to answer:

2. If you had to have sex with an animal – if you had to – which animal would you choose and why? (Richard himself chooses an okapi).

644. Would you rather swing on a star or carry moonbeams home in a jar?

Eerrr…

A good number are just insane:

346. Would you prefer to have teeth made out of beef or knees made out of cheese?

If you could resurrect a woolly mammoth, what would you knit with its wool?

In short, this is hilarious and an absolutely essential purchase this Christmas for highly addictive yuletide family fun. Although do check each question first before reading them out over the Christmas dinner table.

Richard Herring is currently one of Britain’s most likeable stand-ups although certainly not in the top tier of comedians success-wise. His star certainly deserves to rise after this.

Although be warned: he doesn’t want your own suggested emergency questions. As he warns in the introduction to this book: “All your ones are rubbish…don’t be so arrogant as to think you can compete with a professional like me.”

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Book review: Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, by Lucy Worsley

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Book review: Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, by Lucy Worsley.

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton

There is now no one on Earth who was alive at the same time as Queen Victoria. Her long life began nearly two centuries ago in 1819 when Napoleon was still alive. By the time of her death in 1901, her funeral procession was able to be filmed, bringing it to a wider audience than all previous royal funerals combined. Her reign, now the second longest in British history now was hugely important, marking the peak of British imperial power and the industrial revolution and the literary careers of Charles Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.

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Victoria’s reign has been very well documented, however, so it is refreshing that Lucy Worsley has managed to find a fresh perspective on it through choosing to focus on 24 key days in her long life. Through this, we are able to gain a new insight into Victoria as a person, as well as a ruler, empress and symbol of an age.

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Book review: Roger’s Profanisaurus: War and Piss/Viz The Pieman’s Wig 2019

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Viz Presents: Roger’s Profanisaurus: War and Piss. Published by Dennis.

Roger Mellie, the Man on the Telly is to adult comic Viz what Dennis the Menace is to The Beano, what Judge Dredd is to 2000AD or what Dan Dare was to The Eagle. He has been in every issue of Viz since Chris Donald first started selling copies of his home-produced comic nearly forty years ago.

The premise is simple: Roger is a TV presenter wholly unsuited to TV, largely because he has a tendency to swear virtually every other sentence. Typical episodes see him being barred from hosting Blue Peter after drawing attention to the size of a puppy’s penis and attempts to pitch TV shows entitled, The Bollock Naked Chef, Celebrity Bumhole and Call My Muff.

Roger’s Profanisaurus is an ever-expanding dictionary of swearwords. This latest edition contains 20,000 rude words, phrases and explanations. It is now longer than all three books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy combined. Really.

Typically politically incorrect examples include:

golden deceiver n. A blonde piece who looks gorgeous from behind, but is actually a right dog from the front. A backstabber, a back beauty.

bloatee n. The type of carefully toped beard favoured by the chubbier male, in the vain hope that it will demarcate his chin from his neck and thus indicate where his face stops. As sported by hopelessly optimistic pie shifters such as Chris Moyles, Johnny Vegas, Ric Waller, Lisa Riley etc.

You’ll feel dirty after reading it.

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Viz: The Pieman’s Wig 2019. Published by Dennis.

Roger, of course, features alongside the other regular favourites in this year’s Viz annual.

Other highlights include: Tiny Cox: The Pocket Particle Physicist: a one-off in which the celebrated TV scientist is shrunk to miniature proportions and fun with the usual favourites, Mrs Brady: Old Lady, Major Misunderstanding, Biffa Bacon, Sid the Sexist, Farmer Palmer and Buster Gonad and his Unfeasibly Large Testicles.

Book review: The Snooty Bookshop

The Snooty Bookshop by Tom Guald. Published by Canongate.

Some things are almost impossible to review. The good news is that this selection of fifty literary-themed cartoons (presented here in the form of postcards) is definitely very good: original, funny and clever. Go and buy it.
The bad news? Well, as the cartoons are rather unique in flavour, it’s rather hard to convey what they are like if you haven’t already seen them in The Guardian Weekend magazine or elsewhere (admittedly, more of a problem for me than you). So perhaps just enjoy this selection of typically surreal lines from the book:
‘Tips For Getting Your Novel Published During A Skeleton Apocalypse’.
‘Cookbooks By Dog-Owning Atheists’.
‘”Deeds not words.” said Mrs Tittlemouse and went off to town to smash windows with her toffee hammer.’
A very clever little book which you’ll find yourself returning to again and again.

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Book reviews: Star Wars books 2018

Star Wars Geektionary. Published by Egmont.

Star Wars Alien Archive. Published by Egmont.

First, the bad news. There will be no Star Wars films out this Christmas, the first time this has occurred since 2014.


But there is some consolation. Firstly, a Star Wars film has already come out this year already (Solo). Second, these two delightfully illustrated books are out too.


There’s all manner of useless and made-up information inside. And I should know: I wrote the last ever Star Wars Clone Wars annual.


Ever wondered what species Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi was? (“It’s a trap!”) No? Well, he’s (or was) a Mon Calamari apparently. Try ordering one next time you’re in Zizzi’s.


Ever seen a Puffer Pig? Ever bargained with a Barghest? Is Tooka and Loth-Cat a cartoon series? Apparently not.

Have you ever seen a Steelpecker? Don’t laugh! It’s a bird from the planet Jakku! Yeah? Feeling silly now aren’t you? But where are Thisspiasians from? Doh! From Thisspias, obviously. Where else?

Occasionally, inspiration runs dry (Yoda’s species we are told is “unknown”). But this is good clean fun, particularly if your child has nothing more important to remember.

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Book review: 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die

Book review: 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich.

Published by Workman.

1,000 books to read before you die is actually a surprisingly tall order, when you think about it. Personally, I feel like I read quite a lot, but tend to average only about fifty books a year. Some of these are long: War and Peace, A Suitable Boy, Stephen King’s The Stand. Some are short: Goodbye Mr Chips, Jonathan Livingston Seagull or The Catcher in the Rye. But always roundabout thirty to seventy books a year.
I am writing in October 2018. That means if I want to read 1,000 books, I won’t be finished until about 2038. I’ve actually read well over 100 of the titles included on this list already (151 to be exact), but even if I miss them out, I’ll still be nearly sixty by the time I’m done.
Perhaps I should up my game. This book itself apparently took only six years to write. And it’s a good book which has interesting stuff to say about every title featured. The books are listed alphabetically by author, unlike the similarly titled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die which lists each book chronologically and is, it should be emphasised, completely different. Neither that or this are actually listed as a book you must read here although both are good and will take you a while to read on their own.
This is an excellent volume and a very thorough piece of work. I would personally question the absence of anything by Sue Townsend, Ian McEwan or Iain Banks, but hey, it is American.
But still: check it out. And even if this is the only book you read between now and 2038, you could do a lot worse.