The Third QI Book of General Ignorance

The Third QI Book of General Ignorance, by John Lloyd

Faber & Faber (2015), Paperback, 320 pages

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If you are a nice, considerate person, you will read this book to amuse yourself, improve your general knowledge of useless information, and then never mention to anyone that you have read it, or God forbid, quote examples from it. On the other hand, if you are not a nice, considerate person, you will drive your friends insane by repeating examples from the book which demonstrate that everything they ever thought they knew, is dead wrong. Such is the dilemma a book like this presents. The arresting blurb informs you that “Everything you thought you knew is still wrong”, and it delivers. You think Tarzan swung on vines through the jungle? Wrong, at least as far as the original books go. The Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich? Wrong. You can legally kill a Welshman in Chester after sunset? Wrong (I should hope so!). Lady Godiva rode naked through Coventry? Wrong. And so on. Vastly entertaining, if you are a trivia buff (I am). Irritatingly pointless, if you are not. Let’s face it, this is never going to be considered for any book of the year awards, but it does what it claims to do, and is entertaining along with it. And you might learn some things, or perhaps many things, you have never known. Fun stuff, pure and simple.

8.5/10

 

The Nature of the Beast

The Nature of the Beast, by Brian Sykes

Coronet (2015), Paperback, 337 pages

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One of the most interesting books to emerge in the arcane field of cryptozoology for quite a few years. Brian Sykes is no left-field wacko or pseudo-expert, he is the Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford and world-renowned expert in the genetic descent of man, and for him to turn his knowledge to the study of the existence of Bigfoot, the yeti, the alma and other purported ape-men wandering the planet’s various semi-explored regions is a real boost of credibility for a field that has wallowed in the shallow end of the scientific pool for many years. Sykes, after recounting a spooky encounter with an alleged Bigfoot, sets out to obtain samples of the DNA of as many reported ape-man encounters as possible from across the planet, with a view to discovering if it is possible if some members of homo sapiens’ long-extinct cousins, such as Neanderthals or Gigantopithecus, may somehow have survived into the modern era. This is no dry scientific dissertation though. Rather, his journey is told in an amusing travelogue, full of light-hearted anecdotes about his encounters with many people who claim to have encountered ape-men and many who passionately believe in their existence, to the extent of devoting their lives to finding the hairy men. Along the way he tells of the difficulty of finding viable DNA from often old and degraded samples, and how in response science is advancing to such an extent that genetic material. can now be extracted from the tiniest samples. In the end, after many travels and travails, Sykes ends up with a bevy of samples, hair, skin, blood and other materials from purported encounters, which are analysed for their DNA fingerprint. Not surprisingly, virtually all turn out to be from conventional animals, bears, deer, wolves and the like, however, Sykes is gratified to find himself left with a couple of samples that defy classification. He is subsequently led to the extraordinary story of Zana, a supposed hairy wildwoman who was captured in Russia in the mid 19th century, and spent her life on a farm, never learning to speak or wear clothes, but able to bear 4 children by various fathers. Sykes is able to recover DNA from the exhumed remains of her children and makes an astonishing revelation about who Zana really was. The reader is left in no doubt that if fully verified, this discovery will change the view forever of man being the sole survivor of the hominid family walking the earth in the modern era. It is a fitting climax to an extremely interesting book that will intrigue dedicated ape-man enthusiasts and sceptics alike.

9/10

 

Alone on the Wall

Alone on the Wall: Alex Honnold and the Ultimate Limits of Adventure, by Alex Honnold and David Roberts

Macmillan (2015), Paperback, 256 pages

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I think I’ve confided before that I’m a mountaineering and climbing junkie even though I have a terrific fear of heights. I love reading about death-defying and vertigo-inducing feats at altitude even though I would collapse in a screaming heap even at the thought of doing something similar. But the vicarious pleasure or reading or viewing someone else risking their life is just too much to resist. And this book is a beauty. Alex Honnold is ultra. He is arguably (and I doubt even his rivals would be doing much arguing) the best exponent in the bowel-clenching world of free-solo climbing. Put it simply, he climbs alone, on terrifyingly vertical rock faces, to dizzy altitudes with no ropes, no pitons, cams or other equipment, and no companions to assist him if he gets into trouble. He falls, he dies, its as simple as that. His only equipment,  a bag of chalk for his fingers, a pair of climbing shoes, and his own muscles and brain. This guy does things that even other equally daredevil climbers baulk at. As the blurb puts it, he does things that are literally inconceivable for ordinary mortals like the rest of us. His philosophy (and philosophy is a common practice among climbers, it’s an occupation that tends to promote introspection) is that he does not fear, because fear only comes if you make mistakes, and since he does not make mistakes, he has nothing to fear. He is also a genuinely free spirit, with no permanent home, living in a van which he has kitted out as  a crude dwelling on wheels and travels from place to place climbing, always looking for the next ultra-difficult route on some enormous face somewhere in the world. The book is almost poetic in its descriptions of his climbs, as he literally flows from one foothold to another. The one slightly jarring note is the copious climbing jargon, which flows freely and prevents the non-initiate from really appreciating the nuances of this oh-so breathtaking sport. But its a minor niggle. Even if you can’t appreciate the lingo, you will have no problem appreciating that this is a uniquely talented individual who lives and moves on a level so far above the rest of us as to seem almost divine. And his craft will blow you away, literally. Captivating.

9.5/10

Admiral Collingwood

Admiral Collingwood: Nelson’s Own Hero, by Max Adams

Head of Zeus (2015), Hardcover, 368 pages

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I make no secret of my passion for the days of fighting sail, I have read most of the best fiction in the field, O’Brien, Forrester, Kent, Pope and many others, and enjoyed them all. But in my opinion, none of them can match the stories of the real heroes of the Royal Navy in the day’s of Britain’s wooden walls. It is particularly good to read a book that acknowledges those whose contributions have been largely forgotten or overshadowed, in other words, anyone who is not Nelson. Don’t be mistaken, I have read many books on Nelson, enjoyed them all, and his place in history is well-deserved, but unfortunately his exploits have grossly overshadowed many leading figures whose contribution is just as important. One such is Cuthbert Collingwood, 1st Baron Collingwood, Vice-Admiral of the Red, Nelson’s dear friend, and a man who matched Nelson in so many ways, and exceeded him in others. It was Collingwood who led the British fleet to cut the French and Spanish line at Trafalgar, his ship dismasted and being pounded by as many as six enemy vessels, he fought on until the battle was won. It was Collingwood, who after Nelson’s death, kept Napoleon at bay in the Meditterranean for 5 years, thwarting his ambitions in Spain, Sicily and Greece, and played a far more significant role in Napoleon’s ultimate defeat then Nelson did. Yet, as Adams shows, he has been largely forgotten. There is no column for him in Trafalgar Square, although he contributed at least as much to this victory as Nelson, only a scattering of memorials and street names throughout Britain. Part of this is undoubtedly due to Collingwood’s character, he was a modest individual, with no flair for dramatics like Nelson. There was no infidelity like Nelson’s storied affair with Lady Hamilton to capture the eye of history. He remained touchingly devoted to his wife and daughters, and his letters home and his longing to be reunited with them are among the most touching parts of the book. It was not to be – having served his country without stint for more than 40 years, he spent the last six years of life virtually continuously at sea, and died at sea without ever seeing his home and family again. A better sailor than Nelson, and certainly a better diplomat than Nelson, he lacked Nelson’s impetuosity and flair for the dramatic, which has made for better copy in the history books than Collingwood’s steady proficiency. This is a great read, largely anecdotal and filled with the minutiae of war at sea, liberally interspersed with Collingwood’s own words through his copious correspondence. Highly readable, full of action, the whiff of salt and gunpowder, this is a match for any fictional tale of tall ships and fighting sailors.

9/10

The Shadow King

The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy, by Jo Marchant

Da Capo Press (2013), Hardcover, 288 pages

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Certainly the best Tutankhamun book I’ve read for many a year (and I’ve read some godawful crap about the boy king in the past decade), and quite possibly one of the best Egyptology books I’ve ever read. This is mainly because Marchant is not pushing some theory about how he died, who he is related to, or why he’s either Moses or Jesus, or Buddha. No, this is a dispassionate, focused survey of the history of Tut’s remains from the moment Howard Carter cracked the sarcophagus, through the Tut craze that rocked the Western world afterwards, through the mummy’s neglect during the war years, the rise of Nasser’s Egyptian nationalism in the 50’s, into which Tut and the other Pharaohs were dragged as symbols of Egypt’s reclaimed heritage, the explosion in medical and forensic science which led to every conceivable test being performed on the body, and the resultant theories, ranging from the sensibly scientific to the just plain looney, which resulted from these tests. The last third of the book is dominated by the most polarizing figure in archaeology, the larger than life Zahi Hawass, who depending on who you read is either an Indiana Jones-hatted bully sticking his face in front of every camera pointed vaguely in the direction of antiquities, or a visionary who has created an Egyptology community of Egyptians for Egyptians, wresting control from Western imperialism. Marchant quietly makes the point that because of Hawass and his insatiable desire for publicity, hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into Egypt for the advancement of archaeological research, although she also points out that much of this money remained unaccounted for when Hawass got too close to the despised Mubarak regime and crashed and burned along with it during the 2011 revolution. But the central figure of the book remains the increasingly dilapidated mummy of Tutankhamun, small of stature, fragmented, crumbling, and so meagre of remains that at the book’s conclusion Marchant, pondering the king’s almost insignificant current resting place in a corner of his own tomb, wonders how something so small and battered has come to mean so many things to so many people over so many years. A wonderful piece of writing, as Marchant keeps the essential balance between the hard science and the human interest, and always keeps the narrative moving forward at a the proper pace. Highly recommended.

9.5/10

 

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, by George R.R. Martin

Harper Voyager (2015), Hardcover, 368 pages

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I have a confession to make – I am apparently the only person in the Western World who is not a fan of either Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, or the Game of Thrones TV series. I started to read the first book in the series, but never finished it. I started to watch the first season of Game of Thrones, but never finished it. See the pattern? Let’s just say I found both of them too much like hard work, too intense, too politically heavy, too many plots, and too many people to keep track of, and too relentlessly gloomy. I read non-fiction for the heavy, serious stuff, I read fiction for escapism. But, hallelujah, I have found a book by Martin that I have managed to read all the way through, and quite enjoyed it. This a collection of three previously published novellas by Martin, set in the SOIAF world, but 100 years earlier. It concerns the adventures of Ser Duncan, known as Dunk, a young hedge knight, upright and moral, socially awkward, and endearingly clueless with women, and his page Egg, a boy wise beyond his years, whose real identity is a closely-guarded secret, for he is actually Aegon Targaryen, who is destined to rule the Seven Kingdoms. The pair have an assortment of adventures as Dunk wanders the kingdom seeking temporary employment as a knight for some lord, or the next tourney where he can prove his skill against other knights, culminating in Dunk and Egg aiding in thwarting the Second Blackfyre Rebellion (that will mean something to SOIAF fans, I presume). The characteristic heavy and labryrinthine politics of the Martin oeuvre are still present and, it is still a chore to keep track of who’s who, and who’s plotting with and against who, but in this case, the weight is relieved by the humour, mainly caused by Dunk’s awkwardness, Egg’s sass,  or just bad luck. Its a light-hearted frolic compared to the main books, although Dunk’s clumsiness doesnt detract from his honesty, courage and basic goodness. He is altogether an endearing character, who wins through basically through those qualities I have mentioned. The moral of the book, if it has one, is that good guys don’t always finish last, although in terms of romance Dunk remains left at the gate, his virginal status unchanged at book’s end. Martin promises more of Dunk and Egg’s adventures, and I look forward to reading them. This is a great piece of fantasy escapism, full of the lore of knightly chivalry, well worth reading for diehard Martin fans, as well as mere dilettantes like myself.

9/10