“Spectacles” by Sue Perkins (2015)

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“My first memory of Dad was him approaching my cot.”

Humour isn’t the only thing I look for in a book, but everyone would rather laugh and cry, I’m sure. As such, I am automatically attracted to books about funny people. Sue Perkins is one of those. I’ve always been vaguely aware of her and her comedy life partner Mel Giedroyc, but they didn’t properly cement themselves as favourites until The Great British Bake Off, by which time everyone else had taken them into their hearts as well. I’ve always enjoyed their friendship from afar, and their easy banter, and so since one of them has a book out now, I decided to take a dip.

Spectacles is like many other autobiographies. Let’s be honest, they’re all, broadly speaking, of a type. We learn about the writer as a child, relive their school days, see them fail and deal with setbacks in their career, before being granted National Treasure status. In those respects, Perkins tells a story we all know. However, there’s something else going on here that puts it on a pedestal above others I’ve read.

There are laughs from the very beginning, where she openly admits that she’s changed a few details to “protect the innocent” and “make you like me”. Then we see the moment she tells her family she’s writing the book, and how they all worry about their appearance. Her father wants it to be known he’s tall (he isn’t), and her sister would rather not be mentioned at all. This version of events lasts three pages, before the far more interesting and messy reality sets in. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Perkins has a sublime way with words that I envy, and even when you think you can see a punchline coming, she’ll sidestep you and reveal something even funnier.

Her relationship with Mel is painted in wonderful colours, showing its natural progression. They are clearly very much in love in the way that few best friends can ever claim to be, but she still manages to find the time to explain, almost every time Mel’s name comes up, that Sue is the younger of the pair (by two years). From performing shows at Edinburgh with one person in the audience, to chasing one another around a white marquee in an attempt to lick out the bowls, they are silly, lovely and sweet. Have they ever had a cross word with one another? You wouldn’t think so reading this, and I’d be prepared to accept that it’s the truth.

She is modest, too. Almost nothing is made of her time as President of Cambridge Footlights, a topic that I’m sure would be hugely interesting. She’ll focus on how she has nearly cocked up her career several times by turning down big shows and instead hosting dross – even she can’t really bring herself to remind everyone about Don’t Scare the Hare. She gives us a tantalising glimpse into the worlds of Supersizers and Bake Off, providing a light sprinkling of celebrity anecdotes that leave us hungry for more. But, as ever, I understand that the book is about her, and frankly she’s plenty interesting enough.

Despite the comedy, she’s also very open about the struggles she’s dealt with. Her father’s ordeal with cancer, the decline and death of her beloved beagle Pickle, the breakdown of her relationships and the discovery that she had a brain tumour that had left her infertile. You don’t laugh at these pages, and they provide the balance that show life isn’t all joy. She is brutally honest about the pain these moments caused, and I just wanted to give her a hug.

Charming, honest, hilarious, brave and moving. You cannot get a better combination.

“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.

“Tilting At Windmills” by Andy Miller (2002)

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There's a sport for everyone.

There’s a sport for everyone.

“In the summer of 1984, three teenagers went to war.”

I would never go as far as to say that I hate sport as a concept, but I’m definitely not a fan. Oh sure, I’ll pay vague attention to the Euros or World Cup because my family usually have a sweepstake and money makes everything more interesting (this year I had Iceland, which started out more promising than I imagined). And I quite like the Olympics, too, if only for the spectacle of the thing and my nerdy love of lists and trivia, the Olympics being a non-stop barrage of medal tables and facts about the highest, longest, fastest, biggest, and so on.

But other than that, sport basically leaves me cold. I believe that if footballers are going to get paid that much then they should at least have the decency to be good. I don’t get how cricket can last five days and still end in a draw. I think wrestling is a waste of time, boxing is needlessly violent, golf is a good walk ruined, American football is actually just a stream of advertisements with twenty seconds of play in between, and I reserve a special hatred for tennis, with its weirdly intricate scoring system and all that bizarre grunting. PE lessons were the bane of my life at school, and while since then I have tried my hand at swimming, badminton and squash, the only physical activity I get very excited about is crazy golf.

The same is true of Andy Miller. A self-proclaimed sports atheist, he doesn’t understand anything to do with sport or why it’s so popular. It’s drilled into his head at school, where he is belittled by psychotic games teachers, that real men love sport and anyone who doesn’t is, well, a bit weird. Andy becomes determined to find a sport he enjoys and settles on miniature golf, which turns out to be less “windmills and water hazards” and more “specific equipment and competitive Germans”.

While getting in too deep with organisations that run miniature golf tournaments, Andy finds his game improving and starts learning to love the game, even. Along the way he begins regularly attending the football matches of Queen’s Park Rangers, finds himself reminded that to visit Wimbledon is to spend the day queuing, discovers that the Boat Race is fine as long as you’re drunk, marvels at the sheer spectacle of WWF wrestling, and even interviews a couple of PE teachers who turn out not to be psychopaths.

Genuinely funny, and insanely detailed in places when covering the games of miniature golf he and his new friends play, the book is a real laugh. As a fellow sports atheist, I can relate to him on so many levels, from his horror of having to take part in hockey lessons at school, to his English awkwardness on a Danish crazy golf course with some very loud Europeans. But he shines a light on some aspects of sports that I’d never considered, and his summary of how all sports are basically the same is a masterpiece.

A ball must be thrown or hit or pushed with a hand or foot or some kind of stick. Two individuals or two groups of individuals compete against one another on land or water or even in the air. They must ensure that they perform this activity within some designate lines or on a table or in a ring. In general, they must try not to fall over.

Truth is, ask me to the park on a warm day for a kickaround, or a friendly game of cricket and I’d probably be up for it, unless I’m in the middle of a particularly good book, which I usually am. Hell, let’s go swimming. I always enjoy a dip. But I think, like Andy realises, that what ruins sports more often than not is the people and companies around them. Capitalism has a lot to answer for, and sucking the fun out of sport is just one more of them. After all, a sport is really just a game with the fun removed anyway. Like Andy, I will never fully understand this world, but I guess millions can’t be wrong. Roll on, Rio 2016!

“The Antagonist” by Lynn Coady (2011)

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antag
Every hero is someone else’s villain.

“There you are in the picture looking chubby and pompous, and it makes me remember how you told me that time you were afraid of fat people.”

Life isn’t black and white. There are innumerable shades of grey in between and when you tell a story, you’re guaranteed to tell it in a different way to anyone else. Something that is traumatic to you, might seem unimportant to someone else. Now imagine if that someone else had taken your trauma and sold it. How would that make you feel?

This is exactly what has happened to our antagonistic protagonist, Gordon “Rank” Rankin. At thirty-nine, after years moving around Canada with more than a few dark secrets in his past, he discovers that is old friend Adam has written a book. Inside this book is Rank’s story, and he’s furious. All his secrets, confessed one drunken night to this friend, have been laid bare on the page.

Raging, Rank finds Adam on the Internet and begins to send him emails that aren’t exactly non-threatening, but don’t suggest that he’s about to turn up and bash his door down at any minute. Rank just wants a chance to tell his side of the story – give Adam a refresher course of what happened at university and before, from his point of view.

What Rank ends up discovering, however, is so much more.

OK, so some books are immediate duds, and some books are immediately revered and held aloft, but then there are some – and they’re rarer – that sit simply on that three-star-review position and don’t seem to resonate particularly in either way. The Antagonist is one of those. It’s well written, and Coady has a flair for colourful, interesting language. She sets up fully rounded characters, painting them for us, and knows how and when to release certain information for the best reactions.

But frankly, there are a lot of words here for not much action. Rank’s three great tragedies in his life are revealed out of order, and one of them he isn’t even directly responsible for, which seems to be the one, ironically, that he can’t forgive himself for most. You can see where it’s going, and it’s rather interesting, but it just takes a bit too long to get there.

The conceit of having Rank speaking directly to Adam in the book is good, but he is a distracted narrator, drunk some of the time at least, and he weaves about the narrative, jumping backwards and forwards in time, changing from first to third person and back again with barely a warning. I guess more than anything it’s a story about Rank’s father, Gord, whether it’s intended to be or not. Unfortunately Gord isn’t a particularly captivating presence, more a cartoonishly angry man who has a bad relationship with his son.

We’re exploring too many themes here – narcissism, fate, forgiveness and religion – and as such none of them get enough page time to stand out. Again, it’s not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, the writing is polished and it’s an easy read, but it’s just not very memorable. Find me in a year and ask me what I thought of this book. I’m unlikely to be able to tell you much.

It’s a filler novel; but at heart a tale of fear, struggle and our obsessions with ourselves, always wondering how we come across to others, but never really knowing.

“A Natural History Of Dragons” by Marie Brennan (2014)

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dragons 1“When I was seven, I found a sparkling lying dead on a bench at the edge of the woods which formed the back boundary of our garden, that the groundskeeper had not yet cleared away.”

I think everyone likes dragons. People are fascinated by dinosaurs, really, because they’re the closest thing we ever had to real dragons. There’s something remarkable about them, and given that they turn up in pretty much every ancient culture, maybe they were real once upon a time, but we’ve now relegated them to myth and legend.

Always eager to expand my knowledge in every direction, even a fictional one, I was attracted to the idea of A Natural History of Dragons, but even more than that I was attracted to the absolutely beautiful cover of this book, which, as you can see, displays an anatomical drawing of a dragon.

This is the first book of memoirs of Lady Trent, a famous dragon naturalist from a world which is greatly similar to ours, with the natural exception of different countries and so on, and obviously the inclusion of dragons. It is an era in which women are expected to keep house, talk of simple hobbies and not do anything that would stir up trouble in society; it’s an alternate Victorian era. But this is the age of discovery, and Lady Trent, or Isabella as she’s known at this point in her life, is keen not to be left behind. As a girl she studies sparklings, tiny dragon-like creatures that are believed at first to be insects, but is dissuaded by her mother from doing so, meaning she has to hide her fascination.

Her father, however, is kinder and when it comes to the time that Isabella must find a husband, he suggests a few names to her, not going on the gentlemen’s looks or riches, but on the size of the library. Isabella eventually finds a husband in Jacob Camherst, whom she meets while at the king’s menagerie with her brother one day. They have only visited because the king has some dragons in captivity, and Jacob seems quietly impressed with her knowledge.

Once married, the opportunity comes for Jacob to travel with their friend Lord Hilford to the distant mountains of Vystrana in search of dragons. Unwilling to be left out of it, Isabella insists that she come with him. Despite the men believing that this is no place for a woman, she is allowed to attend, thanks to the true love of her husband who wishes only to make her happy, regardless of what society thinks.

The troop set out to the mountains and there encounter wild dragons. But there is far more danger lurking in the caves of the mountains than Isabella and her companions ever thought possible and they soon find themselves caught up in the activities of smugglers, an unusual number of dragon attacks, and a supposed curse. The adventure is one that Isabella will remember for the rest of her life…

dragons 2Indeed, she will remember it because the book’s framework is that Isabella is now elderly and penning her complete memoirs for her interested fans. We learn via this that in the future she is widely renowned in the field, hugely successful and popular, and these are her tales of how she got to that position. She is a wonderful creation, perhaps a feminist icon, unafraid of going against the opinion of the time and determined to make her own way in the world. Why, indeed, should only men get to be scholars and adventurers?

The story is rather gripping, but if you’ve come here for a blow-by-blow account on the nature of dragons then you will be disappointed. First and foremost these are the memoirs of a spunky Victorian-esque lady adventurer, but the passages on dragons are fascinating. Isabella is obviously besotted with the creatures but her expedition is to study them, so we learn alongside her the nature of the beasts. Although similar to traditional dragons in Western mythology, there are some new additions to the mix. For example, the bones do not survive in air very long after death and crumble almost immediately. Also, not all of the dragons breathe fire, although there are some, but they all breathe something unusual;be it shards of ice, poison gas or lightning.

The book is also peppered with beautiful illustrations, presumably done by Isabella herself who is primarily on the expedition as an artist, which allow the reader to see the dragons and the locations in fine detail.

It’s hugely compelling and while some parts go a bit too deep on customs of the various countries or the political situations between them, the chapters in which Isabella is meeting dragons are hugely interesting. She is a brilliant character herself, but the supporting cast are also well-received and all seem believable within the setting, which is familiar but just different enough. If you have even a passing interest in dragons and, as I suggested above, you do, then you should curl up with this book and dream of having adventures half as interesting as this.

“H Is For Hawk” by Helen Macdonald (2014)

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hawk“Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed.”

My faith in memoir still hasn’t quite recovered from my last dalliance with it, but I fancied something based in truth rather than fiction. H is for Hawk was a book that bookshops seemed incredibly keen on advertising. Indeed, last summer you couldn’t pass a Waterstone’s without a seeing a whole window dedicated to the book, just as Go Set a Watchman is doing at the moment.

Eventually I succumbed and bought a copy and now urge you to do the same. Helen Macdonald, our narrator, has always been fascinated by raptors and from a young age was keen to become a falconer, despite it traditionally being something that is considered a bit of a “boy’s club” and definitely something linked to the aristocracy. As a child she learnt all the terms and read every book she could get her hands on, and indeed eventually her dreams came true and she started training birds.

Then, quite suddenly, her father dies. She is racked with grief, almost unable to go on, and decides that the only way to keep herself in check is to train a new bird; in this case, a goshawk, one of the most difficult species to tame. On a Scottish dock, she purchases Mabel and the two set about getting to know one another and as time goes on and their relationship develops, they start to learn from each other and the threads of wildness and domesticity begin to tangle up in new and unusual ways.

Not only is it the story of Helen and Mabel, but it’s also a back door biography of T H White, the author of Helen’s apparent birding bible, The Goshawk, but perhaps better known to most of us as the writer behind the retelling of the Arthurian legends, most notably, The Sword in the Stone. Mixing in with the genres of misery memoir, biography and falconry textbook, there is also a vast amount of nature writing, painting the British countryside in wonderfully poetic and descriptive hues.

There is something hugely compelling about the writing. Macdonald is clearly in love with the subjects she tackles and bravely holds forth on memories of such a painful time in her life. There are moments of utter joy, such as when she discovers that goshawks are capable of play, and dreadful sadness when depression sweeps over her and she is trapped in a black fug of grief.

Macdonald never seems to particularly anthropomorphise Mabel, although I’m sure the temptation is there and once or twice she inserts lines suggesting what Mabel might be thinking. However, she also never loses sight of the fact that this is a wild animal, and could easily turn against her and fly off to never return at any time. There’s a wonderful note in the text that even though humans have coexisted with birds of prey for thousands of years, we’ve never been able to domesticate them completely. They remain as unchanged and wild as they were when our ancestors first took an interest in them. They represent something otherworldly, it seems, and Macdonald frequently points out how Mabel is reptilian in many aspects of her appearance and behaviour, a reminder that this is what the dinosaurs turned into.

A captivating and engaging read about what it is to be human, to be wild, to grieve, and to love.

“An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth” by Chris Hadfield (2013)

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astronaut“The windows of a spaceship casually frame miracles.”

I’ll never go to space, that’s, at this point, a given. This won’t stop me from being fascinated by the idea of it, though. By now, over five hundred people have been up there and seen the world from above, and to me they are surely the luckiest people in history. I’ve never read in much detail about any of them though. Enter Colonel Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station.

Colonel Hadfield first went to space in 1995 when he visited Mir. In 2001, he was in a team that helped construct part of the ISS, and in 2012 he returned to be its commander. All told, he’s spent nearly four thousand hours in space. You may remember him because during his last trip, on the advice of his son, he took to social media to share videos about life in space, and it all ended with him recording a version of Space Oddity while floating around the station that immediately went viral back here on Earth.

To say these are his memoirs are to miss the point. His early life is covered with speed but details that he’s wanted to be an astronaut ever since he was nine years old, and so at that moment starting living his life the way he thought an astronaut should, eating the right things and behaving in the right way. He is a man who is passionate about space and exploration, and this continues through his writing. The book is split into three sections – “Pre-Launch”, “Liftoff” and “Coming Down To Earth” – and throughout each one Hadfield goes into detail on his training, some of the experiences he’s had, and how best to cope in truly bizarre circumstances.

In short, this is actually a book of advice, but not so directly as to just list rules for us to live by. Hadfield takes all he’s learnt in his twenty-three years as an astronaut and applies it to general life. He notes that being obsessive about small details doesn’t make you a worrier, it makes you prepared should anything go wrong. He argues that we should attempt to be a neutral effect – a zero – in situations, especially where we’re new to the team, rather than trying to prove yourself as better than everyone else, or worse, causing aggravation and irritation to those around you. (This is particularly important to an astronaut, as in space, there’s nowhere to hide. If you’re pissed off at someone, you can’t go for a walk around the block to calm down.) He also talks about how arrogance never gets you anywhere and modesty is key. Hadfield himself is perhaps one of the most modest people I’ve encountered, completely understanding that just because you’re an astronaut, it doesn’t mean you get to do all the spacewalks. Sometimes you have to stay back and fix the toilet. Sure, he shows he is capable of jealousy and frustration, but he doesn’t ever let those emotions get out of control.

The book is interesting simply because it shows the life of an astronaut for what it really is – tedious, time-consuming and hugely varied. When not in space (and very few astronauts ever get there), they work on Earth helping those in space and trying to make everything better for everyone. Hadfield alone has been in numerous departments over the years, from robotics to communications, and it seems that promotions can happen in every direction – up, down and sideways. He says it’s important to not let that bother you. You may feel a hero while you’re on the ISS, but a few weeks after you’re back, you’ll be working in a mid-level office position somewhere in Houston and no one will care. We see astronauts as superheroes and thrillseekers, but Hadfield says that those kinds of people would never make it. They need to be people who are obsessed with detail, remain calm under pressure and are willing to spend hours a day doing the same tests over and over again, not to mention spending over half the year away from home and taking exams almost every day. In Russian.

This book won’t teach you how to become an astronaut, but it may teach you how to be a better human.

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