I was interested in space travel when I was a kid. I bet lots of people born in the 1960s and 70s were. I can remember being excited about the launch of the first Space Shuttle, although my overriding memory is that it was persistently delayed due to 'snags'. I had never heard the word snag before then. I wondered how Australian children reacted to hearing there were delays due to snags? Would they think the astronauts were eating sausages? If you're Australian and reading this let me know. Anyway, I digress.....in 1997 I went to the museums at Cape Canaveral and they're pretty cool. I also saw a shuttle launch at night which was an awesome sight. My interest in space travel got re-kindled in 2005 when I noticed a book called Moondust by Andrew Smith was published and is a kind of 'whatever happened to' of people still alive who'd been to the moon. This turned out to be my Sputnik and in the months that followed I read loads of books about space......
Anyway, with relatively little further ado, below are all the books I've read about space travel ranked by how good I thought they were. The books listed are available at Amazon.co.uk or Abebooks. Other good bookshops sell them too, as well as some bad ones.
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 though. And as I bought most of the books listed their rating is generally higher than average!
In Search of Elvis
by Charlie Connolley
I bought this book because I'd liked other Charlie Connolley books...Stamping Grounds taught me everything I know about Liechtenstein, and Attention All Shipping has a more personal resonance as it's about the areas in the Shipping Forecast, which is one of the forecasts I make! As for Elvis, well, some of his stuff's good, and I've ruined Suspicious Minds at karaoke once or twice (the last time the karaoke bloke noted it was sung with a Brummie twang which owed more to a gutful of lager than any pretensions of taking the song in a new direction). Anyway, this book is about Elvis. The author travels the world visiting Elvis sites and exploring Elvis' legacy. Inevitably the author visits Graceland, Tupelo and Memphis but finds Elvis in Uzbekistan (the author has also taught me all I know about Uzbekistan!), Israel and a handful of other unlikely locations. The asides about Elvis and his cultural impact are interesting and the book made me laugh a few times too. Pretty good really.
In Search of Kazakhstan
by Christopher Robbins
How much do you know about Kazakhstan? Beyond being part of the former Soviet Union and having some oil and steppes I didn't know much about the place. I nearly had to go there with work once though. A book about a country I knew virtually nothing about but nearly had to go appealed to me though! A conversation on a plane prompts the author to visit Kazakhstan and see what he can find out. He makes some evidently well-connected friends (travel writers always seem to get doors opened for them that never happen when I go somewhere!!) and gets to know the country's president through a series of interviews, which provides readers with an insight into pre and post-independence politics in Kazakhstan. The author also travels across the country to its beauty spots and less salubrious spots, such as the Gulags, the Aral Sea which is disappearing and areas where nuclear weaponry was tested and weaves his observations with anecdotes and tales about Kazakhstan's history. It's a good book this one, and leaves a positive image of the country.
The Final Callby Leo HickmanThe author is a journalist on green and environmental affairs for The Guardian and has written a couple of books about living in a environmentally friendly way. In this book he looks at the global travel industry and what effect this has on, amongst other things, environmental affairs. The gist of his message is multi-national hotel chains etc focus on producing identikit resorts and put little back into local communities and pay crap wages and that flying isn't good for the environment isn't good either. He effectively advocates travelling less far less often and ideally not flying and once at a destination doing things were the local community will benefit. At the same time he warns of the effect increasingly affluent Chinese and Indian people are becoming and how they are increasingly willing to travel. On the whole I have sympathy for his view; if one wants a sunny break for 5 days it's common sense to go as near to home as possible I suppose, and inevitably an identikit all-inclusive resort is likely to do little than nod in the direction of the culture of whatever country the resort is in. Sadly, I find the author's views somewhat simplistic and idealistic - yes, I'd like to have more environmentally friendly holidays, yes I'd take the train more in the UK...except the train system is not conducive to this. And will the masses who want a cheap, stress-free holiday want to pay extra to go to, say, a local beach on the Caribbean and be pestered by beggars, peddlers etc.? And would they want their children to be exposed to that?
As it happens I bought this book because I'm concerned about my carbon footprint - I fly a lot with work (in the 12 months from July 2006 to July 2007 this included 2 trips to the Falklands and back, one trip from the Falklands to South Georgia, a return flight London-Toronto and several trips between the UK and Norway and Holland). I don't bother carbon-offsetting (I think this is lip-service and simply masks the underlying problems anyway). Ideally if flying was more expensive less people would fly, but even if the price of my flights were 3 times what they were I'd have still made all the journeys, especially the work ones. Interesting points did come out of the section about flying, amongst other things how Single European Skies, changes in the path of descent and more efficient aircraft would help reduce carbon emissions, but it rather sounds like this would still be a drop in the ocean compared to the increasing volumes of air traffic. The book quotes the personal carbon footprint in the UK as being about 10 tonnes and needing to come down to 3-4 tonnes; by way of comparison, the book quotes a plane flying London to Dubai as emitting 180 tonnes CO2. The book also quotes fuel efficiencies of planes being such that flying emits about the same amount of emissions as if I drove to the same destination on my own. In other words flying to, say, Aberdeen from where I live would be just as bad for the environment as if I drove on my own.
what I am going to do about
it; I can't say I won't fly, there are places I want to visit and
I want to do and I don't want to waste days of my holidays travelling.
I know that when I get there more than average of my holiday spending
trickle down into the local community. Instead I'll seek to reduce my
footprint in other ways to offset a degree of flying. Personally food
and waste packaging on food annoy me and this is an area I can look at.
TV presenter Ben Fogle likes islands. In his first book, The Teatime Islands (also good by the way), he visits lots of colonial outposts like the Falklands and Ascension Island, mentions a bit about their history and tells you what he got up to there. All in a nice, breezy, chatty kind of way. This book is of a similar vein...Fogle visits lots of islands near and around the UK, and tells the reader a bit about what's there and what he did. His aim to his own his own island, but in the meantime he makes do with visiting obscure islands like Rockall and islands with a tragic past such as St Kilda and Gruinard Island, islands which were 'ours' like Heligoland and an island with a difference (Sealand). There's lots of interesting facts and background info which makes it a good, if rather short, book.
The Last Pink Bits by
The author decides to visit some far-flung bits of the British Empire during the mid 1990s and writes about what he saw. Amongst other places he went to the Falkland and Ascension Islands, places I go to with work and this is why I picked up this book - I was curious about what someone else made of places I've been to. Anyway, this book is mildly amusing and peppered with lots of interesting facts. Obviously some stuff, for example what the author has to say about the state of St Helena and politics in Gibraltar may no longer be applicable, but such things are always the case with travel books. There are one or two other books written along a similar sort of vein as this one...Outposts by Simon Winchester (written in the 1980s) and The Teatime Islands by Ben Fogle (written around 2003), and I think I enjoyed The Last Pink Bits better than Winchester's book, but perhaps not quite as much as Fogle's. Either way, The Last Pink Bits is a decent read and if nothing else you'll find out some interesting stuff about parts of the Commonwealth. Sadly reading The Last Pink Bits it's also pretty apparent that the British government perhaps doesn't do a very good job with dealing with some of these small places and seems to fail to learn lessons from things like the Falklands War in 1982.
Into the Blue: Boldly Going
Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony
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.
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
some native populations aren't too keen on him!). He intersperses his
travel tales with stuff about Cook's own travels to these places in a
much like that of Tim Severin (eg In Search of Moby Dick
Search of Genghis Kahn) but wittier, so it saves the reader
to wade through other biographies and primary sources like contemporary
diaries. The author visits Australia, New Zealand, various Pacific
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
A Piano in the Pyrenees
A few years ago Tony Hawks wrote a couple of marvellously funny books (Around Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis), so I've bought his other books as they've appeared. This book is a departure from Hawks' previous books in that rather than being about fulfilling a crazy bet, this book is the story of how, pretty much on a whim, Hawks buys a house in a small village in the French Pyrenees and how he subsequently assimilates himself into French village life etc. Being a witty raconteur how this occurs is inevitably funny. However, the last bit of the book is all a bit twee as boy meets girl and it seems to go alright; I liked the funny, but I'm not into the twee (although it should be pointed out I'm not so mean as to wish to deny someone a happy ending!), which spoilt it a little for me I suppose. In conclusion, most of this book was pretty funny, though not as much as Around Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis but I didn't think much of the last bit.
True North by
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 books 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!
The Kon-Tiki Expedition
This book is the story of how legendary Norwegian explorer/archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl built a raft pretty much according to ancient ways and sailed it from the cast of Peru to a south Pacific island in order to demonstrate how some of these islands may have been populated. Heyerdahl's theories were, at the time, very controversial, and this controversy hasn't gone away today. One could argue that his journey proved nothing other than that 6 Scandinavians can build and sail a raft, but equally one could, as Heyerdahl did, that such a primitive craft could indeed have been a means of getting people from South America to Pacific Islands. Anyway, this book is really good....it's part adventure story (the building and sailing the raft bit), part science (stuff about what crazy sea life the craft encountered en route) and finally part archaeology as Heyerdahl puts his theories forward. I don't know enough about this side of things to know whether Heyerdahl was right or wrong, but he makes a very good case for many of his points, and in any case right or wrong fair play to him for taking unorthodox methods to prove his theories - science/academia needs people like this - and he spins a good travel yarn too. Have a read of this one - it's good.
Eight Men and a Duck: An
Improbable Voyage by Reed Boat to Easter Island by
Whilst travelling in South America the author hears about a journey to be made by traditional reed boat from Chile to Easter Island and manages to become a member of the crew. The book then becomes a pretty interesting, and at times amusing tale, about the journey to Easter Island, with a few bits and pieces about Easter Island thrown in. On balance I'd have preferred less travel monologue and more fact etc. about Easter Island, but that shouldn't in any way detract from what is a good book.
Spoken Here by
The author journeys around the world visiting some areas where minority languages are under threat and disappearing, and intersperses his tales of travel with some stuff about languages, like how Esperanto is very logically structured, so it's a shame it didn't catch on. Among other interesting facts readers will learn that a parrot was the last thing to speak one particular South American language. Anyway, the subject matter of this book was really interesting, but I found the style in which the book was written pretty heavy going which spoilt it a little for me. Still, if you're interested in languages it's worth nosing through.
Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows
A book about trips to northern English agricultural shows sounds rather unlikely subject matter for a book, but the mix of fact and good humour makes this book a pretty interesting read.
Into the Wild by
This book is the story of a young man with a good start in life who upon graduation effectively shuns society, his family and the advantages his upbringing and intelligence bring him to lead an alternative lifestyle hitchhiking, exploring the wilderness and, I suppose, finding himself. Sadly the young man dies in Alaska and his body is found several weeks later. This book pieces together what happen to this young man and attempts to explain why he followed the course of actions he did, and it makes for a pretty interesting read.
As an author Danny Wallace has specialized in being involved in books where a daft project has been followed to the nth degree. Having helped his friend, Dave Gorman, find 50+ Dave Gormans and then started a cult, the author decides, following a conversation with a stranger on a bus, to change his life and say yes to everything. Needless to say this leads to a series of crazy adventures, some interesting coincidences and shedding light on what those email scams purporting to be from African/Middle Eastern royalty promising riches for some up front financial assistance are all about! Original idea, and best of all there's an incredibly happy ending. Actually, it's probably the happiest ending since Cinderella and happier than anything Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers could conjure up (oh you sentimental fool Suri).
Ninety Degrees North by
Most of my reading about polar exploration has focused on the Antarctic, principally because when I joined the Met Office I knew I would have the chance to go there (and I did, and it really is very pleasant). To my mind the Antarctic is the superior polar region with a number of huge advantages over the Arctic.....lack of land/ice based predators, penguins and most of all the fact that it's on land so is a tangible entity rather than a big lump ice floating and drifting around at the whim and mercy of wind and current. However, as I found out whilst reading this book the Arctic has one redeeming factor - controversy surrounding who got to the North Pole first....was it Cook? Was it Peary? Was it Byrd? Does flying over it count anyway? Fleming's book recounts the tale of the discovery of the North Pole. The bulk of the book focuses on failed mid 19th century expeditions, and occasionally some interestingly gruesome facts come to light (just one of the things I like about polar exploration!) but when Norwegians and Cook and Peary get involved it becomes pretty interesting as they vied to get to the North Pole first. The book then ends discussing the controversy surrounding Cook and Peary's claims to be first to the North Pole (chaps, if you're going to make it up at least try and lie convincingly!) before getting on the next wave of Arctic exploration where Byrd may have flown over the Pole and Amundsen did (in fact Amundsen was the first chap to see both poles!). I liked the last half of this book, but found the first half quite hard going. Good read though, and now I'll have to find out more about Peary and Cooks expeditions and creative compass work!
The Dark Heart of Italy by
Occasionally I work with Italian people, and in order to understand them better I decided to read a little bit about contemporary Italian. The author of this book is an Englishman who has lived in Italy for a few years and his book is principally a look at Italian current affairs (current as in 2000-2002 ish) with a bit of (necessary) recent political history thrown in. Italian society and politics is complicated so some stuff in this book was hard to follow at times. I found it interesting at times, but not hugely riveting. It is interesting to note how much corruption there appears to be in Italy, and also how, incredibly, the government in 2000-2002 sought to pass laws effectively making fraud and tax dodging easier, quite possibly to protect and serve their own interests!
This book is all about the eruption of Krakatoa (located between Java and Sumatra) in 1883, and looks at the eruption from a variety of angles ranging from the social and historical background as to what was going on in what is now Indonesia in the two or three centuries before the eruption, to the science of why Krakatoa's eruption was so big and ultimately to what the consequences of the eruption were. I'd read a couple of Simon Winchester's other books before and found them a little dry in spite of interesting subject matter, but I found this book absolutely fascinating and at the same time chillingly prophetic given the events on Boxing Day 2004 in this region....it seems that the Tsunami was a disaster waiting to happen with history showing that cataclysmic volcanic/seismic activity seems to affect the region every 100 or so years in recent times. Really good book this one.
Swahili for the Broken-Hearted by
Aussie travel writer Peter Moore crosses Africa from Cape Town to Cairo and has some interesting adventures en route, like failing to climb Kilimanjaro and being an extra in a film. This book is pretty light hearted, and quite amusing and is very Bill Bryson-esque, which is perhaps a bit of a dangerous thing to say given how many travel books which pertain to be amusing are described as 'funnier than Bill Bryson' or something similar. Sadly, as I like Bill Bryson books I have tended to buy books described as being 'like', 'better' or 'funnier' than Bill Bryson. With this in mind I consider myself well placed to vouch for whether or not this is true or not, and indeed bestow such comparisons on other books. So, this book, entertaining and Bryson-esque without being funnier than Bill Bryson.
French Revolutions byTim
Travel write Tim Moore cycles a Tour de France route and offers witty insights into life in France and the Tour as well as some reflections about the Tour and cycling. I really enjoyed this book and it was pretty funny too.
In Search of Moby Dick by
Tim Severin has written a number of fascinating books whereby he travels an area (or in this case the world!!) providing both a travel log of where he's travelling, and details about the history behind something (in this case Moby Dick) many will have heard of. In this book Severin travels the world looking at whaling today and discussing what truths lay behind Moby Dick (the author worked on whaling vessels). Absolutely fascinating this book. Really enjoyed it.
Seeking Robinson CrusoebyTim
Tim Severin travels the Caribbean/South America discussing how the tale of Robinson Crusoe developed from real life tales of castaways. Interesting reading.
In Search of Genghis Kahn by
The author travels through Mongolia showing the reader what modern day Mongolia is like and telling the reader some stuff about Genghis Kahn. There wasn't enough gruesome stuff about Genghis Kahn for my liking, but my word did he have a big empire at one stage! The historical stuff was interesting though, but Severin's contemporary journey through Mongolia was a bit tedious. This book's not as good as In Search of Moby Dick and Seeking Robinson Crusoe, but I still thought it was OK.
To the Poles Without a BeardbyCatherine
Tale of a 30 year old lady who walks to the South Pole. And then goes to the North Pole. Mildly entertaining tale, but diaries of early 20th century explorers are far, far better.
Taking on the World by Ellen
I thought this was a bit boring, although I have to admit I principally read it to see what she had to say about the weather and her sailing. I found it a bit repetitive to be honest...Ellen decides compete in a race, struggles with boats or sponsorship, meets some people she thinks are nice, gets some help, completes the race and so on. I think she's a bit of a tart as well. Nor does she say much about the weather!!
My Dam Life by
Tale of an Aussie who lived in Amsterdam for three years. Not a bad tale, but too much detail about his social life and not enough about the actual living in Holland, which is what I wanted to read about.
Parallel Lines by
Marvellous tale of a writer's views and experiences of train travel in the UK and Ireland. The author does a bit of spotting, some line bashing and generally addresses, in an amusing way, some of the problems and issues concerning British railways. Good book this one.
Prison Diary by
Simon Winchester was working as a journalist at the time of the outbreak of the Falklands War. His employers sent him down to the Falklands just before war broke out and he got there just in time to witness war breaking out. He was subsequently captured and held on spying charges with 2 other journalists in an Argentinean jail for a few months. This book started off well, and I liked the stuff about the war breaking out. However, much of the book dealt, not surprisingly, with his time in jail which I found rather dry and boring. Good bits and bad bits with this book then.
McCarthy's Bar by
I saw this book for sale at every airport I went into for what seemed like years. I like to think of myself of being slightly different to average and have always been put off buying airport bestsellers. Nevertheless, I gave this book a go, and bloody hell it was funny. McCarthy details a trip round Ireland and it's really a pretty funny read. I'm loath to say 'a bit like Bill Bryson' because such comparisons are made on covers or in reviews of almost every amusing travel book these days (or so it seems), but this book is very Bill Bryson-esque. But slightly funnier.
One Hit Wonderland by Tony
Fresh from tennis against Moldovans the author takes up another challenge, this time to make a hit single. Our hero's quest for a chart topper takes him from Nashville to Albania via Sudan, the Netherlands and Romania, a rather unconventional route to musical superstardom you might think. This is a nice tale and again wittily written. It wasn't as funny as Playing the Moldovans at Tennis though. Still worth a read!
Down and Out in Paris and
London by George
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!
Stamping Grounds by Charlie
Charlie Connelly’s book is a tale about going to watch World Cup 2002 qualifying matches featuring Liechtenstein. In order to do this the author spends some time in Liechtenstein, and this book will probably tell you more about the country than you'll find anywhere else! It's a pleasant enough read, but if you don't like football this book will have very little appeal. Similarly, if you don't want to find out anything about Liechtenstein you won't like it either. It's not a bad idea for a book, but the premise of going to Liechtenstein is based on doing it for the hell of it, rather than something more pressing, like, say a bet, which I reckon would made the book a bit better in that the author would have more of a sense of urgency.
Playing the Moldovans at
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
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.
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.
These books are available at Amazon.co.uk 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, 5 September 2009