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, The Bollock Naked Chef, Celebrity Bumhole and Call My Muff.

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

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.

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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.

Book review: Soupy Twists! by Jem Roberts

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Soupy Twists!: The Full Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Fry and Laurie, by Jem Roberts. Published by: Unbound

It has now been thirty years since the TV debut of ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’. This news should be ample cause for celebration in itself. Running for four series between 1987 and 1995, the show was occasionally patchy, in common with every sketch show ever made (yes, even The Grumbleweeds) and ran out of steam before the end. The “yuppie businessman” sketches, generally featuring an over-use of the word “damn” often seemed to run on forever.

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But dammit Peter, thanks largely to the formidable combined intellect of comedy’s foremost Steve and Hugh (no offence, Punt and Dennis), A Bit of Fry and Laurie was far more often good than bad.

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Consider: the song “Kicking ass,” a parody of US foreign policy values which concludes: “We’ll kick the ass of cancer and we’ll kick the ass of AIDS,
And as for global warming, we’ll just kick ass wearing shades. We don’t care whose ass we kick, if we’re ever all alone, We just stand in front of the mirror, and try to kick our own.”

Or Fry: “I think it was Donald Mainstock, the great amateur squash player who first pointed out how lovely I was.”

Or Laurie: “Then I was Princess Anne’s assistant for a while, but I chucked that in because it was obvious they were never going to make me Princess Anne, no matter how well I did the job.”

Or Fry’s: “I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

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Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jem Roberts’ excellent book reminds us just what a formidable body of work the talented duo have produced together: Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder (including the famous scene in which Fry’s Iron Duke punches Laurie’s Prince Regent repeatedly), countless TV adverts specifically for Alliance and Leicester (“Mostin!”), their early Young Ones appearance, operating the celebrity gunge tank on Comic Relief, Peter’s Friends and much much more. Roberts also fully covers their formidable solo careers including Laurie’s spell as the highest paid TV actor in the world, in the long running House, probably the only thing many overseas readers seeing this will know him for. Fry has, meanwhile, appeared in everything from IQ (a 1995 movie comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein) to QI. His intense overwork was, of course, symptomatic of problems that would lead to the Cell Mates debacle in 1995.

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Laurie and particularly Fry’s lives have, of course, been well-documented already: as a writer on the history of Blackadder and a biographer of Fry’s slightly older technology-obsessed friend, Douglas Adams, Jem Roberts has written about the boys before himself. He deserves all the more praise then for shedding new light on them – and uncovering and reproducing many new unused A Bit of Fry and Laurie scripts – in this fresh, thoroughly enjoyable and engaging biography of Britain’s brightest ever comedy partnership.

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Book review: Comrade Corbyn, by Rosa Prince

Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media.
His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman.
Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith or Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life.

corbHe, by and large, comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a backbencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated.
There is nothing to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, when serving as a backbencher. He is certainly not pro-terrorism, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future.
Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not.
The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings, in my view. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.

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There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgewood-Benn (p71 and p308).
By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly at the fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable and that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than the likes of John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – all from comparatively humble backgrounds – were unlikely converts to the Right.
Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, Rosa Prince is a Telegraph writer. We should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge.
These blind spots (admittedly common to many Tory supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.

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Book review: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson

Book review: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson. Published by: Carlton Books.

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A century ago, the guns fell silent after four years of the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen. It is a conflict often described as futile with countless lives lost in skirmishes over very trivial areas of land, it is worth remembering that this was a war won as a result of military strategy as well as a war of attrition.

In fact, as late as 1918, after the humiliating capitulation of Bolshevik Russia at Brest-Litovsk, the war still looked like it could go pretty much either way.

Major General Julian Thompson’s book is produced in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum and is packed with detailed maps and relevant illustrations. It is a thorough and comprehensive account of the final year of the First World War.

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