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: 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 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: Peter and Dan Snow’s Treasures of British History

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Peter and Dan Snow’s Treasures of British History: The Nation’s Story Told Through 50 Important Documents. Carlton Publishing Group. Out: now. RRP: £20

Like a real life, latter-day Henry and Indiana Jones, father and son writing and broadcasting team, Peter and Dan Snow apply their formidable powers to an analysis of our nation’s history through an examination of fifty key historical documents. This isn’t, of course, very similar to ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ in most respects (most things aren’t). But what this lacks in machine guns, Nazi airships, cameos by Alexei Sayle and the ghosts of medieval crusader knights, this more than makes up for in incisive and intelligent historical insight drawn from the Snow Boys’ seventy or so years of collective writing and journalistic experience.

All the usual suspects are here such as Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and the Munich Agreement. There are also a few unexpected treats like the Queen’s chilling ‘speech in the event of a nuclear war’ from 1983.

The documents are reproduced nicely, making this an attractive and readable book: a coffee table read for someone with a huge cup of coffee.

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Book review: Punch & Judy Politics by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton

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Punch & Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide To Prime Minister’s Questions by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Published by Biteback.

Iain Duncan Smith was terrible at it. William Hague was brilliant at it but it got him nowhere. Theresa May is not very good at it. Jeremy Corbyn is better although is a dull performer. Harold Wilson drank a bottle of whiskey, sometimes two to prepare for it. Margaret Thatcher had her notes for it, produced in large print. She felt wearing reading glasses would look like a sign of weakness.

It is, in fact, Thatcher who we have in many ways to thank for Prime Minister’s Questions in its current form. Although Prime Ministers have had a designated time slot for answering questions since the early 1960s, it was Thatcher who transformed it into a major event – or rather two events – by choosing to answer every question herself. It was also around this time – although not her doing – that parliamentary proceedings began being broadcast on the radio from 1978 and then TV from 1989. The modern ritual of PMQs would not be the same without this.

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On taking office, Tony Blair reduced the sessions from two to one a week. Some criticised him for this, suggesting it proved his “contempt for parliament” but in fact it seems very sensible. Thatcher reportedly spent eight hours a week just preparing for her two weekly sessions. Something had to give.

Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton are behind this well researched and thorough guide and clearly know their stuff. Both have experience as political advisers and spent years briefing Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband behind the scenes for their own sessions with, as they admit, somewhat mixed results.

It is a bizarre ritual, a genuine ordeal for the leaders on both sides and almost useless as a means to both ask and get an answer to a question, involving a lot of improvisation, preparation and second guessing. The sight of 600 paid representatives bawling and groaning at each other in a crowded chamber on a weekly basis also probably puts more people off politics than anything else.

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It does serve a function though and as the book reminds us, has provided scenes of rare humour and drama. William Hague, though a largely unsuccessful Tory leader was a master of this strange art and like the late John Smith could often be very funny.

Even Hague, could come unstuck though, as he did filling in for David Cameron when Harriet Harman stood in for PM, Gordon Brown in 2008.

“You had to explain yesterday that you dress in accordance with wherever you go – you wear a helmet to a building site, you wear Indian clothes to Indian parts of your constituency,” he began, then attempting a joke. “Presumably when you go to a cabinet meeting you dress as a clown.”

Against all expectation, Harriet Harman then wiped the floor with him:

“If am looking for advice on what to wear or what not to wear, I think the very last person I would look to for advice is the man in a baseball cap,” she said.

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By common consent, PMQs is currently going through a dull patch. Jeremy Corbyn covered up his initial experience well by using questions from the general public. Today, he is much better and no longer resorts to this clever tactic. But he is not a spontaneous performer even as he consistently outperforms Theresa May.

It was David Cameron who called for “an end to Punch and Judy politics” when he became Tory leader in 2005. He was not the first or last leader to express such sentiments and was not referring to PMQs specifically anyway, a ritual which he generally proved pretty good at.

But a few years later, he admitted the folly of this pledge. For calm down, dear! He was the future once, his Day Mayor and your Night Mayor.

And Punch and Judy politics are here to stay.

That is that. The end.

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Book review: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, by Caroline Slocock

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In 1989, Boris Johnson (then aged 25) reported on Margaret Thatcher’s press conference performance in which she committed to Britain joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism. According to him, the 63 year old Prime Minister was looking: “distinctly sexy, with a flush about her cheeks as though she were up to something naughty.” Alan Clark, Tory MP, diarist and womaniser was another fan. “I never came across any other woman in politics as sexually attractive in terms of eyes, wrist and ankle,” he wrote, rather oddly. Paul Gascoigne, the footballer, also seemed keen, embracing her eagerly on meeting her in 1990.”I was right there and could see that she just loved it,” observes her private secretary, Caroline Slocock observes. “What he thought he was doing, I don’t know.”

Others, such as her longest serving chancellor, Nigel Lawson, were less keen. “I think she could turn it on if she wanted to,” says the father of the TV chef, Nigella Lawson, “but sexiness wasn’t the most obvious thing about her. She was also extremely headmistressy.” For the record, if Microsoft could detect sexism, the last sentence would have a line underneath it now on my computer.

As it is only the word ‘headmistressy’ is underlined because the spelling and grammar check has noticed ‘headmistressy’ is not actually a word. If it was, it would mean, “like a headmistress or someone in charge.”

In other words, Lord Lawson is saying. “She acted like she was in charge. Which she was. She was the Prime Minister. But I didn’t like it because I was a man and wasn’t used to it.”

In 1989, Caroline Slocock became the first female private secretary to any British Prime Minister. She was – and is – a bright spark and a valuable eyewitness to Margaret Thatcher’s final year in office and overthrow. Best of all, unlike Thatcher herself, she was both a socialist and a feminist. That’s right! She’s one of us.

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This is an excellent, highly readable memoir which really does shed new light on the “Iron Lady”. Slocock like many people, was somewhat repelled by Thatcher’s artificial sounding voice, the product of first childhood elocution lessons intended to purge the Grantham out of it and later softened by the tutoring of Saatchi and Saatchi spin doctors.

As Slocock points out though, the political environment in the Commons both then and now, does rather favour male speakers. Were this not the case, would all those years of speech work have been necessary? One suspects not.

As Norman Tebbit puts it: “One of the problems of being a woman in politics is that men can shout, but if a woman increases the volume of her voice, she tends to squawk.”

Slocock actually lets Lawson off the sexism charge (even after some bizarre distasteful comments from him, which suggest she sat on her knickers, rather than her skirt) but it is a fact that while she got on with many men: Dennis, Reagan, Gorbachev, Cecil Parkinson,  she certainly didn’t, others: Lawson, Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe. Her utterly contemptuous treatment of Howe, a decent man who she humiliated through her public bullying and shaming of him, ultimately brought her down. Deservedly so.

Equally unforgivable as Slocock notes, is her near total failure to promote other women. Thus, the big expanse in women MPs didn’t come until the age of Blair. The first woman Foreign Secretary? Under Blair. First woman Home Secretary? Under Blair, again.

I spotted only one mistake that should have been proofed out on p119. “(Chris Smith) was appointed as the first openly gay person in the Cabinet in 1997, nine years after Margaret Thatcher had left power.” Nine years? Really? Not six and a half?

But pedantry aside, this is an excellent read.

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Book review: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, by Caroline Slocock. Published by Biteback. Out: now.

Book review: The World of Sherlock Holmes by Martin Fido

Sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s not real.

He seems so fully realised, with his maddening powers of perception and endearing eccentricities (violin-playing, cocaine: both habits which tend to be rather less endearing in reality), that it is sometimes hard to accept that he isn’t, or at least wasn’t once, a living breathing person.

Is it really possible to deduce as he so often does, from say, a dash of baking powder scattered on the front of your shoes that you went on holiday to Turkey last year, or that you work as a tree surgeon, or that your maternal grandmother’s name was ‘Elsie’ or that you voted for the SDP in the 1983 General Election? Who knows? If so, perhaps the web isn’t the greatest threat to our personal data, after all.

Experienced crime fiction expert Martin Fido here provides a thorough guide to all things Sherlock anyway, which should satisfy all regardless of whether your own Holmes of preference is Benedict, Downey Jr, Jeremy Brett, Rathbone or Basil The Great Mouse Detective.

Comprehensive, my dear Watson.

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Book review: The World of Sherlock Holmes: The Facts and Fiction Behind The World’s Greatest Detective, by Martin Fido.

Published by: Carlton Books

Out: now

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