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wot I red on my hols by Alan Robson (fragmentum attritissimus)

A Fraction Too Much Non-Fiction...

Tony Robinson is best known as the actor who played Baldrick in the TV comedy show Blackadder. But he is a man of many parts. After Blackadder came to an end, he surfaced again as the presenter of Time Team, a show about the archaeology and history of the British Isles. I have no idea whether this show piqued his interest in matters historical or whether he brought an already deep interest in the subject to his TV programme, but either way, he his since written several notable historical works. One such book is In Search of British Heroes in which he gathers together evidence from archaeology and from contemporary documents to track down the stories of five larger than life, but nevertheless very real, and very famous historical characters. The people he has chosen to write about are Boudicca (or Boadicea as both he and I were taught to spell and pronounce her name when we were schoolboys), King Harold (he of Battle of Hastings fame), Macbeth (the infamous Scottish King), William Wallace (the infamous Scottish rebel) and Robin Hood (the infamous outlaw).

At first glance, this might seem like an odd mixture of people. Boudicca and Harold are characters well known to every British school child, so it is easy to understand why they are in the book. But I suspect that most people would regard Macbeth as being a fictional Scottish King invented by William Shakespeare for his own dramatic and political purposes. I think that the collective unconscious (if there really is such a thing!) has long forgotten that Macbeth actually was a real Scottish King, and that he really did murder Duncan, his predecessor on the throne. But Shakespeare played so fast and loose with the historical facts that these days almost all of the truth about Macbeth’s life has been subsumed by the falsehoods (the "fake news") that Shakespeare invented about him.

You could say something similar about William Wallace. Until Mel Gibson dragged him kicking and screaming into the public consciousness, I suspect that very few people in modern-day England had ever heard of him, and even his large fame in Scotland probably owed a lot more to the poems of Robert "Rabbie" Burns than it did to the facts of history.

And what are we to make of Robin Hood? Most people, I suspect, would regard Robin Hood as a purely mythical person. But Tony Robinson does actually produce some convincing evidence that the person we think of as Robin Hood very probably did exist, though not under that name and not in Nottingham or Sherwood Forest as legend would have you believe. The person that Tony Robinson suspects to have been the model for the historical Robin Hood was actually from Yorkshire, rather than Nottinghamshire and probably from a much earlier historical period than the one that popular legend places him in. Since I am myself a Yorkshireman, I found this story to be very compelling. Three cheers for Yorkshire!

Tony Robinson’s search down the highways and byways of British folklore and the historical record in search of details that could illuminate the lives of his chosen heroes is really quite fascinating. I read this book with a constant sense of mind-boggling wonder. Not only did it teach me a lot about people I thought I already knew, though I plainly did not, (King Harold, for example), it also taught me a lot about people who I was barely aware had ever even existed at all! The book is informative, often very funny and, as far as I can tell, as scrupulously accurate as it is possible to be when you are so far removed from the times in which these people lived. It’s a wonderful piece of scholarship and an enthralling read in its own right. You simply can’t go wrong with it!

I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie’s novels. Nevertheless I freely admit that she has been hugely influential in the field of detective fiction. Her books remain enormously popular. They are seldom allowed to fall out of print and her various sleuths are all household names. In a rather odd little book called A is for Arsenic, Kathryn Harkup has taken it upon herself to examine in great historical and pharmacological detail all the poisons that Dame Agatha used to polish off the various victims whose corpses litter her novels. Why do certain chemical kill us? How are they absorbed by the body? How can they be obtained, administered, detected and maybe even neutralised so that the potential victim lives to die another day? Both Dame Agatha Christie and Kathryn Harkup are uniquely qualified to discourse freely on all these subjects…

Dame Agatha was a nurse during the first world war. In 1917 she qualified as an Apothecary’s Assistant (i.e. a pharmacist) and she continued her studies of both nursing and pharmacology between the wars.

Kathryn Harkup has a PhD in chemistry and has made a career as a science communicator, specialising in (perhaps) some of the quirkier and more appealing aspects of science. She writes regular columns about whatever takes her fancy for publications such as The Guardian and Cosmopolitan.  She’s also a huge Agatha Christie fan and once she discovered that poisons were Dame Agatha’s very favourite murder method (Agatha killed more people with poison than she ever did with more traditional weapons such as a gun – "I know nothing about ballistics!" Dame Agatha once complained) she decided to investigate further…

A is for Arsenic is a wonderfully ghoulish tome that takes great delight in explaining exactly how and why people die after ingesting various nasty substances. Kathryn puts the poisons in a historical perspective by discussing some real life cases where they have been used and she puts them in a literary perspective by describing how Dame Agatha herself used them. There are some mild spoilers for the plots of some of Dame Agatha’s stories here, but nothing too important is given away...

Kathryn talks in great detail about the ways in which the poisons interact with the body that has ingested them, and here, I must admit, she sometimes lost me. My knowledge of biochemistry is sketchy and there were times when Kathryn delved so deeply into complex biochemical reactions that I got confused by her discussion – I always managed to pick up the gist of her argument, but the detail was sometimes overwhelming. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this somewhat ghoulish book, and I’m sure that you will too.

Closely related to Kathryn Harkup’s book is Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersley-Williams. Both books, for example, discuss the element Thallium, and both authors make much of its poisonous nature.

Hugh Aldersley-Williams is a journalist who studied natural science at Cambridge. Periodic Tales was inspired by his life-long attempt to acquire a collection of every element in the periodic table, a goal he has been pursuing since he was a small child (some of the elements are very elusive) and which continues to obsess him even today. His book discusses the history of the periodic table itself and goes on from there to talk about the social, political, literary, physical and chemical aspects of the elements themselves. Much of the material in the book was familiar to me from my studies of chemistry and my studies of the general history of science, but there was sufficient material that was new to me to hold my interest, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Like Kathryn Harkup, Hugh  Aldersley-Williams is not afraid to go into quite a lot of detail about the chemical and physical properties of the substances he is writing about. I had no difficulty at all in following his discussions. Partly this is because I have a degree in chemistry (which stood me in very good stead in terms of appreciating what Hugh Aldersley-Williams was saying) but mainly it’s because elemental chemistry is (by and large) much, much simpler than biochemistry. Or maybe I’m biased…

Back in the day Isaac Asimov, a brilliant science populariser, wrote a lot about the chemical elements along much the same lines as Hugh Aldersley-Williams. But I think that Hugh Aldersley-Williams has done a much better job than the Good Doctor did. Asimov tended to restrict himself to scientific and historical discussions whereas Hugh Aldersley-Williams paints on a much larger canvas and he delves far more deeply into sociology, politics and literature all of which have had a surprising influence on the way we think about the elements in the periodic table. I found Periodic Tales to be utterly fascinating from beginning to end.

Readers Digest is a much maligned magazine. People (myself included) tend to be rather dismissive of it. Nevertheless, if you pick up a copy and browse through it I suspect that you will generally find much to interest and entertain you. For many years Mary Roach, one of my favourite non-fiction writers, has been publishing a regular column called My Planet in the magazine and now all these columns have been collected together into one great big eponymous book. They are enormous fun, often laugh out loud funny, and the book sits very nicely on the shelf in the company of her more serious (though equally as funny) studies of sex (Bonk), death (Stiff), war (Grunt) and the intimate interior details of the alimentary canal (Gulp).

In her more serious and lengthier tomes, Mary Roach attempts to answer the great questions of life, the universe and everything that we all wonder about but which we are far too afraid to ask out loud – "What is a shit transplant?", "When you donate your body to science, what do the scientists do to it?" and (most important of all) "What happens if you vomit in a spacesuit helmet?"

My Planet asks similar questions though on a much smaller scale. There is no particular theme running through the book. The articles are just quirkily observed little stories about daily life as lived by Mary and her husband Ed – typical Readers Digest fare I suppose. But Mary’s cynical wit and acute observations lift the articles out of the usual Readers Digest rut. For example…

Like any normal couple, we refused to accept each other's differences and did whatever we could to annoy the other person.
He confessed he didn't like me using his bathrobe because I'd wear it while sitting on the toilet.
"It's not like it goes in the water," I protested, though if you counted the sash as part of the robe, this wasn't strictly true.

Much of Mary’s prose in My Planet can be mined to produce aphorisms of almost Wildean wit and wisdom:

A family is a collection of people who share the same genes but cannot agree on a place to pull over for lunch.

Or how about this as a definition of marriage:

A married couple can best be defined as a unit of people whose sleep habits are carefully engineered to keep each other awake.

I could go on quoting indefinitely, but if I do that I’ll probably be accused of plagiarism. I think you probably ought to buy the book instead and read her aphorisms for yourself…

Joe Posnanski is, so I’m told, an award winning sports journalist. That’s not the kind of person who would immediately spring to mind if you were looking for someone to write a biography of the magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, nevertheless that’s exactly what Joe Posnanski has done, and he’s done it superbly well.

Even today, almost a century after he died, Harry Houdini remains a household name. When your feline ratbag escapes from a carefully locked up house and spends the night out catting you’ll accuse it of being a Houdini creature and everybody will know exactly what you mean when you tell them the story. And because Houdini is so famous it is not surprising to find that hundreds of biographies have been written about him. So why on Earth does the world need yet another one of them?

Guess what? That’s exactly the question that Joe Posnanski asked himself. Consequently The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini is not at all a straightforward biography. Rather it attempts to define exactly why Houdini has remained so well known for so long. One of the ways it does this is by distilling other biographies and finding all the lies in them, lies that can be traced all the way back to Houdini himself. Houdini never let a fact get in the way of a good story. He had a genius for self-publicity and almost everything he said about himself, dutifully reported by journalists and by his more naive biographers, turns out to be quite untrue. Posnanski debunks these myths with enormous glee and gusto and by doing so he gives us a biography that is a bit like the tunes you get when you play on the notes that lie between the keys on a piano...

Houdini started life as a stage magician and although his reputation is based upon his skills as an escape artist, he continued to perform stage magic throughout his career. And yet, if Posnanski is to be believed, Houdini was at best a mediocre magician. Nevertheless he had the gift of convincing his audiences that they had seen wonders. Posnanski quotes Houdini as saying:

The secret of showmanship consists not of what you really do, but what the mystery-loving public thinks you do.

And therein, I think, lies the whole secret of his success.

Lee Child’s novels about Jack Reacher are enormously popular. Every time a new one appears, it shoots straight to the top of the best seller lists. Occasionally, when I’ve been at a bit of a loose reading end, I’ve dipped into one or two of these books but I’ve never been able to finish one before boredom sets in and I have to put the book down, never to pick it up again. Clearly, I thought to myself, I must be missing something. Perhaps I didn’t have enough back story because I started too late in the series. So, when I recently stumbled over Killing Floor, the very first Jack Reacher novel, I decided that I’d begin at the beginning. That way I could be sure that I wasn’t missing any important information...

Well, I’m sorry to tell you that starting the series at the beginning didn’t help at all. Boredom set in almost immediately and I had to force myself to finish the book. It was a struggle to get to the end if it and when I did get there I was quite sure that the struggle had not been worth my while.

Jack Reacher lives off the grid. He has no credit cards, no bank account, no identification. He just drifts across America going where the fancy takes him and having adventures wherever he stops for a time. In this novel, he gets off a Greyhound bus in a small town called Margrave in Georgia. He’s stopped there on a whim because it was the home town of a long-dead blues guitarist called Blind Blake who is one of Reacher’s heroes. He hasn’t been in town more than a few hours before he’s arrested and charged with murder. After that things go down hill a bit…

Reacher is a thoroughly unlikeable man. He spends most of the book killing bad guys and nobody in authority seems to care at all that Reacher is littering the countryside with corpses. After all, they are the corpses of bad guys, so clearly they have got exactly what they deserve. Reacher’s egotistical judge, jury and executioner attitude sits very uneasily with me and predisposes me to dislike him. It doesn’t help that the complex plot in which Reacher finds himself embroiled is so utterly unlikely and unbelievable that I simply couldn’t force myself to get involved in it. The whole story is ridiculous from start to finish.

One tiny little factoid in the plot did pique my interest though. A fairly important plot point depends on the fact that American banknotes, no matter what their denomination, are all the same size, shape and colour. America is, quite literally, the only country in the world for which this statement is true and therefore the action of this novel could not take place in any country except America. That rather odd notion really did tickle my fancy…

But that aside, I found the novel quite tedious, I found Jack Reacher an unlikeable thug and I very much doubt that I will ever read another novel about him. I’m a bit of a voice crying in the wilderness here. Lee Child has written twenty-four Jack Reacher novels (so far) and he has also published a collection of Jack Reacher short stories. They have all been best sellers. There’s even a very popular spin off series of novels and short stories by Diane Capri known as the Hunt for Reacher series in which a couple of FBI agents go looking for Jack Reacher as news of his exploits comes to hand. The first book in the series is called Don’t Know Jack in which the agents arrive in the small town of Margrave in Georgia to try and find out what he was up to there...

I don’t know what I’m missing, but clearly I’m missing something that a lot of other people find enthralling. Your mileage may vary.

A friend suggested that I read Dave Hutchinson’s novel The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man. She explained that it had started life as a short story called The Incredible Exploding Man and that in fact the original short story was incorporated into the ending of the novel. So actually, the first three quarters of the novel are really just a prequel to the short story proper. My friend went on to say that she found the novel very funny but that the original short story said all that really needed to be said, and therefore it was that you really needed to read.

On the strength of her recommendation, I read the novel and I have to say that I completely agree with her assessment of the book. All you really need is the original short story. Everything else is window dressing and padding.

So just who is the incredible man who keeps exploding? And why is he exploding? The answers to these and other questions are buried somewhere beneath the small town of Sioux Crossing. A multi billionaire called Stanislaw Clayton has bought up most of the town and is building a supercollider there. He intends to use the supercollider to investigate high-energy physics in ways that other supercolliders (such as the one at CERN) can only dream about! He hires a journalist called Alex Dolan to generate some positive publicity for the enterprise.

Clayton’s wheeling and dealing reminds me very much of the real life (TM) commercial manipulations of Elon Musk and I can’t help thinking that all the jokes about rich people and their toys that litter the novel must be some kind of satirical dig at Musk and his lifestyle. Anyway, be that as it may, things in Sioux Crossing get weirder and weirder until eventually Alex Dolan gets himself caught in a high energy physics experiment that goes spectacularly wrong in a completely unexpected way. Alex is the only survivor, though that rather depends on just how you define the word survivor – some curious quantum lumps and someone caught in a loop may also be survivors, depending on your point of view.

The story has no resolution. Pretty much every plot thread is left unresolved and dangling, which makes me wonder what the point of it all really was. The story doesn’t really finish, it just stops and that is a true statement regardless of whether we are discussing the novel or the short story. So in that respect, it’s a very unsatisfactory read. It’s saving grace is its humour. It really is very funny. But I wish the author had put more work into answering the questions that the story leaves behind itself. I’d have liked to know a lot more about the enigmatic Stanislaw Clayton. I’d like to see how Alex’s relationship with Wendy progressed, particularly after the accident. I’d like to know more about why Professor Delahaye was so hostile towards Alex. These, and many other questions, are never answered. And therefore the novel feels very incomplete. Maybe it’s a work in progress. Maybe next year we’ll get Son of The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man Rides Again.

Ian Rankin is not usually thought of as a writer of science fiction. He made his reputation as a writer of gritty police procedurals. However Westwind, a novel he wrote very early in his career, has just been republished and it’s definitely science fiction.

In the introduction to the republished book, Rankin reveals that he was never very happy with it. By the time it was finally published (in a very small print run) it had been through so many revisions at the request of his agent and various publishers that he felt quite detached from it. It no longer felt like it belonged to him. So when it went out of print, he was content to let matters lie.

Over the years, the occasional fan would present a copy to him for autographing. Some of these fans had made fortuitous finds in charity shops, others had paid small fortunes to second hand book dealers. One and all, they told him that it wasn’t as bad as he thought it was. Eventually, after numerous tweets from interested fans, he agreed to allow it back into print. So what is it like? Did he make the right decision when he had it reprinted? Yes and no…

The story is set in an alternate 1990. American troops are withdrawing from Europe, returning to a Fortress America which is even more isolationist in Rankin’s novel than it it in real life (TM). Many people oppose the American pull out, others are all in favour of it, engendering fierce arguments that roughly parallel the real life Brexit debate that is currently causing so much angst in the UK. Rankin did better than he realised when he imagined this scenario.

The British authorities have an orbiting satellite called Zephyr which allows them to keep an eye on what is happening all over the UK. Zephyr gives the UK government the same sort of information that, in our world, is served up by CCTV cameras and high speed internet connections. Again, Rankin did better than he realised here. The technology used in the novel is laughably naive even by 1990 standards, but that’s not the point – the point is that Rankin was all too well aware of just how powerful a government becomes when it can observe the minutiae of the every day life of its citizens.

As the novel opens, the operators of Zephyr experience an unexplained glitch in transmission from the satellite. And at almost the same time, a space shuttle that has been deployed to launch a communications satellite returns to Edwards Air Force Base where it crash lands and burns. All the crew save one perish in the crash. The sole survivor is a British crew member.

And so the stage is set for high-tech hi-jinks as various factions contend with each other for political advantage.

It’s a curate’s egg of a book. There are some nice set pieces (I’m particularly fond of Harriet, the psychotic assassin) but the plot is too convoluted and depends far too much on coincidence and luck and ultimately it fails to convince. Westwind is a very minor novel from a very major writer. Only completists will want to have it on their shelves.

Tony Robinson In Search of British Heroes Channel 4 Books
Kathryn Harkup A is For Arsenic Bloomsbury
Hugh Aldersley-Williams Periodic Tales Ecco Press
Mary Roach My Planet Readers Digest
Joe Posnanski The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini Avid Reader Press
Lee Child Killing Floor Bantam
Dave Hutchinson The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man Solaris
Ian Rankin Westwind Orion
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