July 11, 2016
Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out now
The cover of this book makes me want to jump on a plane and fly off somewhere. As someone who likes flying, despite serious concerns about climate change, I thought I might like this book. I was wrong. I love it.
If I’m looking for escape in a book, I’m most likely to find it in one concerning a subject completely new to me which is explained with style and generosity. Skyfaring meets these criteria effortlessly. Vanhoenacker is a deeply enthusiastic, knowledgeable and thoughtful guide to the several worlds of aviation. The book is stuffed with excellent facts and anecdotes (I was delighted to learn that when friends or relatives of airplane crew are passengers on a flight with them, they are often fondly referred to as ‘Klingons’). For a taster of his prose and some lovely pictures, see http://www.vox.com/2016/5/2/11520288/pilot-airplane-photos and http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/25-incredible-views-from-plane-passengers-windows-collected-by-an-airline-pilot.
Sometimes the book feels very personal, as when the author talks about why he became a pilot, or when he provides a personal gloss on a feature of flight that might seem at first sight mundane or technical. He is not afraid of bringing art, philosophy or emotion into a scientific subject, or of relating all of these to real life: “Georgia O’Keeffe was afraid of flying but obsessed with the clouds she saw from aeroplanes, which she painted with an all but religious devotion… I try to remember, when I haven’t flown for some time, and the handles of the bags of food shopping which I’m carrying though a cold and rainy November dusk are about to break, that such a lake of light may be over the clouds that rest above the street”.
For me he has brought a sense of wonder back to commercial flight, something that can seem tedious and constrained. I feel transported, refreshed, and ready to pay attention. A lovely book.
Review by Bethan
June 6, 2013
Paperback now available – sequel out June 20
For all his staggering success, Terry Pratchett’s a writer who benefits from a partner in prose, if only to rein in his relentless mirth making. The Long Earth, a novel with ‘hard’ SF author Stephen Baxter about a chain of parallel Earths, is not as knockabout as Discworld and yet it has one of Pratchett’s most hilarious characters. Douglas Adams would have been proud to have created Lobsang, the artificial intelligence who claims to have been reincarnated from a Tibetan motorcyle repairman.
The multiverse premise is built around a pleasingly humdrum piece of technology, a potato-powered device called a Stepper, which enables anyone to take the leap into another uninhabited, skewed version of Earth and then keep going. It makes for a powerful, expansive science fiction novel, full of possibility, wonder and a certain amount of peril, which would suit young and adult readers alike. The co-writing between Pratchett and Baxter feels smooth as the authors adroitly handle quantum theory while focusing on individual families as they seek out new frontiers. The impact is also being felt on the original Earth – now known as Datum Earth – as people leave or step back into places they shouldn’t. No doubt certain newspapers would bemoan the effect on house prices.
While the authors enjoy creating these parallel worlds and exploring the consequences, they don’t forget to create an engaging hero. Joshua Valiente, a seasoned Stepper who was born on a parallel Earth, joins Lobsang on an exploratory mission in a high-tech airship as part of a colonising operation. If the ending to this inventive, witty novel feels a little rushed, the good news is that the sequel, The Long War, is out on June 20.
October 6, 2012
The six titles up for the UK’s leading non-fiction prize include some popular and much admired books here at the Riverside Bookshop. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert Macfarlane, is lyrical nature writing that draws deep on literature, myth and memory; a book for walkers or indeed anyone who’s felt their imagination stir as they put one foot in front of the other.
The other nominees are:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity by Steven Pinker
The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain by Paul Preston
Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux
The winner will be announced on 12 November.
May 24, 2012
So this probably will not be winning a major literary prize any time soon – there’s a few too many narrative touches, presumably intended to make it all more ‘reader friendly’ (think clunky Greek mythology shoe-horned into the start of each chapter), but if it is highly polished prose you are after then go elsewhere. This one is all about the wonder. Mind-boggling wonder. And there is more than plenty of that.
It is all very Shape of Things to Come, as you would expect from a book about the shape of things to come, but Kaku knows his onions, as well as a great many industry insiders (and, perhaps, his Greek mythology), and the result is a highly readable, thoroughly fascinating and confident romp through all the wonderful (and some of the terrible) things awaiting us. It’s short. It’s to the point. It’s curiously strange and all so plausible.
April 17, 2011
Released before his elevation to poster boy for Atheism, scourge of Creationists and God-botherer’s the world over, The Ancestor’s Tale is almost certainly his most wondrous and remarkable work: a reverse history of all life on Earth that celebrates the true wonders of nature and evolution. It may appear an epic tome (largely because it is), but Dawkins has a lot to share, and combined with his unique verve/arrogance/certainty, it makes for a splendidly engaging read that’s over before you know it and, better still, leaves you feeling infinitely cleverer.
October 10, 2010
A comprehensive history of the Apollo Programme that does real justice to the incredible achievements made, a decade that was so much more than Neil Armstrong and the infamous Apollo 13. Focussing on the people and politics that went into the missions and constructed largely from interviews with the men involved, its simple structure is the best platform for an amazing tale of genuine wonder and real determination.