Five Star Books

Here's the best books I've been reading, nicely collected together for maximum plugging (and for good measure the books that fell just short are listed as well!)!! The books listed are available at or Abebooks.

NB: My scale, no suns being crap and five suns being marvellous, is a blatant rip-off of a clip art icon and Amazon's review scale. Note the appropriate meteorological twist to demonstrate original thought. And as I bought most of the books listed their ratings are generally going to be slightly skewed to being better than average because I'm not likely to buy a lot of books I don't like!!!!

Stark by Ben Elton
The world's dying and the some filthy rich business-types hatch a skidaddle plan. Some hippies and eco-warriors get wind of it and attempt to do something about it. Best not say much else about the plot in case I give too much away, but I've read this book several times and have always found it rather amusing. It's perhaps also worth noting that whilst this book was first published in the late 1980s it could well have been written 20 years later, such is the state of our world.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Climber turned writer Krakauer was assigned to climb Mount Everest with a commercial expedition run by guides in April/May 1996. A number of other such expeditions, as well as solo-ists and sponsored climbing groups were on Everest at the same time (early May is meteorologically the best time of the year to summit, with a secondary, erm, peak in the autumn). A 'traffic jam' of people developed near the peak, the weather closed in and then disaster unfolded ans several climbers, some very experienced, were killed. Krakauer summited, and then in spite of being addled through oxygen deprivation safely decsending, but not without spending several days sheltering with others high on the mountain. This book tells the harrowing story of the chain of events that led so many to lose their lives, compelling the reader to consider climbing ethics (ie does one leave a dying climber at 27,000 FT to save oneself?), to what extent the tradgedy was inevitable given the number of guided expeditions and competition between them and what happens if the guides themselves are affected by hazards of mountaineering such as impaired decision-making through oxygen starvation. The book ends with the inevitably controversial aftermath,  sadly partially fuelled my mis-reports from Base Camp as the tradgedy unfolded and by a media not entirely conversant with climbing ways, and the author's struggle to come to terms with whether or not he could have done more to save people.
Incidentally, GWK Moore and JL Semple wrote an article analysing the storm from a meteorological standpoint in the April 2006 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Penguins of the World
by Pauline Reilly

The author is a noted penguinologist and presents, in this book, a lay person's guide to the world's penguins. After a general introductory chapter, details of the behaviour, breeding patterns etc. of each penguin species is presented. The book then ends with some remarks about penguin this book was written in the 1990s comments pertaining to global warming are obviously outdated but the general message that human activity (e.g. land clearance for farming, commercial fishing) and climate change are the biggest threats to penguins and as a number of species' are already endangered or close to endangered something needs to be done! Anyway, this book is the best all-round guide to each of the world's penguins I've seen and the drawings are superb as well. If you want a general introduction to all the world's penguins this is the book to get!

Into the Blue: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz
I grew up in coastal areas of the North Riding of Yorkshire. One of the great heroes from this region is Captain James Cook. As a kid I went to several museums or places of interest connected with Cook. The trouble is it was never clear to me then what Cook discovered and so why he was so great (as a child I obviously linked discovery with greatness, a consequence of Britain's empire building past I suppose). I was left with the firm impression that he did a lot of sailing and went to places not many western people had been to before, but it troubled me not really understanding what he did and why he's so great.

So, first things first, Cook was the first European to clap eyes on an assortment of Pacific Islands, such as Hawaii. Note he didn't discover them - their native inhabitants did because they had to come from somewhere. Cook's three voyages took him through uncharted waters and allowed him to make loads of maps which would help future generations of explorers. And which could be used to transfer prisoners to Australia. Perhaps his legacy is that these voyages proved that a) there was no great, lush continent - just the Antarctic and Australia and b) that the northwest passage (which would facilitate trade) was iced up and not really navigable. Cook suspected this and by confirming this made what I suppose are negative discoveries. Another legacy, I suppose, is that Cook's sailors infected a number of Pacific Islands with syphilis and Cook's visit opened the door for their culture to be poisoned by Europeans (although in Cook's defence this isn't his fault - if he hadn't got there someone else would have!). Then Cook got killed when outstaying his welcome in Hawaii. Actually Cook was also pretty unlucky not to be the first to set foot on Antarctica - he sailed into Antarctic bays lying south of peninsulas which he just missed! Cook was also a great Captain in the way he ran his ships. Until he lost the plot a bit towards the end.

Anyway, so that's Cook, now onto the book. Horwitz basically travels the world visiting some of the places which Captain Cook visited (including my home town!) to see what they're like today and what sort of legacy Cook left (perhaps not surprisingly some native populations aren't too keen on him!). He intersperses his own travel tales with stuff about Cook's own travels to these places in a style much like that of Tim Severin (e.g. In Search of Moby Dick and In Search of Genghis Kahn) but wittier, so it saves the reader having to wade through other biographies and primary sources like contemporary diaries. The author visits Australia, New Zealand, various Pacific Islands including Niue, Hawaii, Tahiti and Tonga as well as Alaska. The book's really good - historical details and travelogue are nicely interspersed and Horwitz visits some pretty interesting places one doesn't normally read about..

Penguins of the Falkland Islands and South America by Mike Bingham
I like penguins, either visiting their colonies or happening upon them on Antarctic and sub-Antarctic beaches. Having spent some time watching a group of penguins in a colony on a semi-regular basis one spring I thought I'd better find out more about them. There don't appear to be that many books dedicated to penguins (although undoubtedly there will be significant chunks of more general bird books dedicated to them), but as luck would have it I found this book in a shop in Stanley, and as I see most of my penguins on the Falklands this book seemed tailor made!! The author has worked with penguins for years and spent a lot of time with them on both the Falklands and in South America. The book basically is divided into a chunk about penguins in general, then more specific stuff about the various types of penguins pottering around the Falklands and South America before discussing what wider impact penguins have on the environment. Much of the information in the book was both really interesting and directly pertinent to what I want to know about penguins so I thought it was a great book! If you want to find out more about penguins in the sub-Antarctic this is a great place to start!!

True North by Bruce Henderson
Two Americans - Robert Peary and Frederick Cook - claimed to have reached the North Pole within a year or so of each other early in the 20th century. Both claims have been brought under substantial question, although for a long time Peary was recognized as being first. Henderson's book looks at both men's background, early exploring career and then their claims to being first at the Pole, and ultimately ends up being pro-Cook casting considerable doubts on Peary's claim. This book is a really good read (better than Fergus Fleming's Ninety Degrees North which covers Peary and Cook as well as earlier, and later, Arctic expeditions) and raises considerable food for thought. The only minor point that I wasn't so keen on is that the book is pro-Cook when I'd have rather read something slightly more obviously impartial. However, this is nitpicking. This is the best book I've read about these chap's race for the North Pole!

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
Reading this book I couldn't help but wonder how much Orwell's tale of an intelligent man who gives up a good job and middle class existence and goes to work in a second hand bookshop whilst writing poetry draws on his own experience of both poverty and attempts to make a living as a writer. Arguably the 'hero', Gordon Comstock, chooses to live his dream, as well as living to his principles, such as not wanting his life to be dominated by the pursuit of money, but it doesn't quite work and he slides further and further into poverty, and upon being paid for a poem, goes on a massive bender which steers him towards self-destruction. As luck, and the benevolence of the author, would have it, our 'hero' is saved, by the real hero, Rosemary, his girlfriend, who puts up with all manner of shit from Comstock and eventually, upon joining the pudding club, convinces Comstock that money and a middle class existence perhaps isn't the route of all evil. Most of this book is gritty and real, and there were a number of aspects of Comstock's character I could empathize with. Can't believe Rosemary put up with so much shit though.....girls never do that with me in real life! Anyway, I really enjoyed this book, even if most of is a bit depressing as Comstock chooses to bugger his life up. Good happy ending though!!

Captain Scott by Ranulph Fiennes
As if coming second in the race for the South Pole having suffered all manner of hardships to get there and then croaking on the way home isn't enough, Scott was well and truly 'bashed' (unfairly in my opinion) in Antarctic literature in the 1960's, 70's and 80's. Fiennes biography is unashamedly pro-Scott but makes a number of good points in Scott's defence. I'd read one or two of Fiennes tales of his own Antarctic adventure and found them, inevitably I suppose, somewhat self aggrandizing, so I delayed starting this biography which turned out to be a very entertaining and well written read.

What We Did on Our Holiday by John Harding
A tale about a husband and wife with their own problems on holiday with on set of parents, with their own problems, in Malta.....a long lost interloper then complicates the scene in what turns out to be an often funny, and occasionally sad novel. The tale is really well put together though and this is a really good read!

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
At the time this was a bit of a departure from the normal sort of stuff I read, but nevertheless Orwell's brief study of the working classes in the UK in the 1930's makes very good reading. The book is divided into two parts. In the first part Orwell travels to various parts of the UK meeting and mixing with the working classes, and this part is, to my mind, quite wittily written and gives a bit of an insight into what life was like then. You also realize that to a certain extent some things haven't really changed either which is perhaps a little bit alarming! In the second part of the book Orwell discusses socialism, how he, as a middle class Englishman, feels about socialism and how his views towards socialism have changed and developed over the course of his life. Putting in bluntly Orwell basically tries to justify his socialist views. I enjoyed the first part of the book; it gives the reader a good impression of working class life at the time and his descriptions amused me (although I suspect this should be seen as a bonus rather than taken as an intention of the writer!). The second part of the book bored me. I don't really care if a middle class Englishman has socialist leanings, and in any case considering some of Orwell's other works e.g. Animal Farm, Down and Out in London and Paris and the fact he fought for the left in the Spanish Civil War I was aware that he had socialist leanings. On the other hand I can understand that in the 1930's it was unusual for middle class Englishmen to be socialist so some justification of his views would have been necessary. I think this is worth a read, and on the basis of this book I'll probably read some more of Orwell's non-fiction works. Oh, and by the way Orwell never got to Wigan Pier.

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor
I met the author during an orientation week organized by the British Antarctic Survey prior to going to work in the Antarctic for them for a while. This book is Jon's first novel and it is outstanding. The tale of how a number of people's seemingly ordinary lives are brought together by one tragic event is very cleverly told. This book was the best book I read in 2004, a year in which I reckon I read about 40 books. My friend Rose liked it as well.

Complicity by Iain Banks
I've read most of Iain Banks' books. Some I like, some were too surreal for me and some I thought were a bit crap. Complicity is, by far and away, my favourite. The story is full of interesting twists and turns, and I could actually imagine the turn of events in the book happening. Really good this book!

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
In his early days as a writer Orwell studied, for want of a better phrase, the poorer classes and in order to do so spent time living amongst tramps and people struggling to find work in both Paris and London. Like The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell gives an excellent insight into what being poor and homeless in the 1930's was like. I really enjoyed this book. Orwell writes in a nice, easy to read style and is really quite witty. Definitely worth a read!

Baggage by Emily Barr
A few years ago Emily Barr used to write a witty column in The Guardian sports supplement on a Friday in which she banged on about how much her bloke put sport before her and how she got increasingly interested in the sports he was watching. The column was so good I used to read it first, before the real sports news which I really wanted to read. So, I was really rather pleased that she'd written a novel. The novel is about a girl who fakes her own death to get away from a rather serious situation at home and runs away to Australia. Incredibly some years down the line she's discovered by an old friend who inadvertently attracts a media circus to Australia. I thought this was a great book with one or two nice twists at the end.

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis by Tony Hawks
The author takes up a crazy bet that based on the fact he's quite good at tennis he should be able to beat 11 international footballers from Moldova at tennis. The footballers clearly have the athletic prowess, the author the tennis technique. Which will prevail? And might at least one of the international not have picked up a tennis racket before? This tale is very well spun, wittily written and has a cracking twist in the plot towards the end. Definitely worth a read!

Are you Dave Gorman? by Dave Gorman & Danny Wallace
This book's absolutely brilliant. It's got almost everything; an interesting, original plot, it's well and humorously written and it doesn't take too much effort to read! It's the best book I've read in ages. The writers strike an elaborate bet to meet 54 people named Dave Gorman and then set about meeting them, Dave very enthusiastically (perhaps not surprisingly!) and Danny with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Well worth buying.

Almost Heaven by Martin Fletcher
Martin Fletcher is a journalist for The Times who after working in the USA for a few years travelled across the USA via some rather strange and out of the way places rather than via the main tourist stops. He meets a number of interesting people with a tale to tell and gives the reader a flavour of what 'real America' is like away from the big cities and tourist traps. The book's quite wittily written and in the vein of Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent (only not quite as droll). Worth buying.


And the  near misses that didn't quite get my top rating but are good anyway...

Dreaming of Iceland by Sally Magnusson
The Worst Journey in the World 
by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
The Year of the Locust
by Jon Hotten
An Impartial History of Britain
by John O'Farrell
The Miracle of Castle di Sangro
by Joe McGinniss
The Beckoning Silence
by Joe Simpson
Forza Italia
by Paddy Agnew
The Fix
by Declan Hilll
Staying Up
by Rick Gekoski
Murder on the Darts Board
by Justin Irwin
Fire in the Night The Piper Alpha Disaster
by Stephen McGinty
Left Field
by Graeme Le Saux

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know
by Ranulph Fiennes
by Beau Riffenburgh

The Death Zone
by Matt Dickinson

The Arctic Event
by James Cobb
State of Fear
by Michael Crichton
Four Kings
by George Kimball
One Big Damn Puzzler
by John Harding
In the Footsteps of Scott
by Roger Mear 
and Robert Swan
Deception Point
by Dan Brown
Penguins Past and Present, Here and There
by George Gaylord Simpson
In Forkbeard's Wake: Coasting Around Scandinavia
by Ben Nimmo
Walking on Thin Ice
by David Hempleman-Adams

by Alfred Lansing
Made in Sheffield
by Neil Warnock

This is Your Life by John o' Farrell
Legend? by Bernie Slaven
In Search of Elvis by Charlie Connolley
Velocity by Dean Koontz
In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins
The Final Call by Leo Hickman
The Best a Man Can Get by John o' Farrell
Offshore by Ben Fogle
A Soldier's Song by Ken Lukowiak
Life and Limb by Jamie Andrew
Back from the Brink by Paul McGrath
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
Past Mortem by Ben Elton
My Quest for the Yeti by Reinhold Messner
Fiends Reunited by Paul Reizin
Of Ice and Men by Sir Vivian Fuchs
Fowler My Autobiography by Robbie Fowler
My Autobiography by Niall Quinn
The Last Pink Bits by Harry Ritchie
Pink Ice by Klaus Dodds
A Falkland Islander Till I Die by Terence S Betts
A Question of Blood by Ian Rankin
A Little Piece of England by Andrew Gurr
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
May Contain Nuts by John o'Farrell
The First Casualty by Ben Elton
The Battle for the Falklands by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins
A Life Stripped Bare by Leo Hickman
Fleshmarket Close by Ian Rankin
Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
Je Hebt Het Niet Van Mij by Marcel van Roosmalen
Nansen by Roland Huntford
Orwell by Jeffrey Meyers
Antarctic on a Plate by Alexa Thomson
Tornado by Thomas Grazulis
Hawaii 501 Life as a Darts Pro by Wayne Mardle
Undefeated by Terry Marsh
Brand New Friend by Mike Gayle
The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl
Eight Men and a Duck: An Improbable Voyage by Reed Boat to Easter Island by Nick Thorpe
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows by Harry Pearson
Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich
The Glory Game by Hunter Davis
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Extra Time by Willie Maddren
Yes Man by Danny Wallace
Ninety Degrees North by Fergus Fleming
Greavesie by Jimmy Greaves
While the Sun Shines by John Harding
Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
Starman The Truth Behind the Legend Yuri Gagarin by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony
Krakatoa by Simon Winchester
Swahili for the Broken-Hearted by Peter Moore
The Coldest March by Susan Solomon
Waiting to Fly by Ron Naveen
French Revolutions by Tim Moore
Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage
Put me Back on my Bike by William Fotheringham
In Search of Moby Dick by Tim Severin
Seeking Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin
Frank Skinner by Frank Skinner
A Time to Die: The Kursk Disaster by Robert Moore
Che Guevara by Andrew Sinclair
Moonshot by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton
Moondust by Andrew Smith
Psycho by Stuart Pearce
Left Foot Forward by Garry Nelson
Tackling My Demons by Stan Collymore
Cherry by Sarah Wheeler
Two Sides of the Moon by David Scott & Alexei Leonov
The Last Breath by Peter Stark
Stupid White Men by Michael Moore
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Parallel Lines by Ian Marchant
The Lawnmower Celebrity by Ben Hatch
Keane by Roy Keane
McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy
One Hit Wonderland by Tony Hawks
It's Not About the Bike:My Journey Back to Life by Lance Armstrong

These books are available at, or better still independent booksellers, unless they're out of print, in which case Abebooks is probably the best place to try and find them.

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Dan Suri, 3 September 2009