Missions To The Moon

pyle-moonThe Story of Man’s Greatest Adventure Brought to live with Augmented Reality

Rod Pyle

It’s hard to believe, but it’s 50 years this Christmas since Apollo 8 took the first humans round the Moon, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first men to see the far side of the Moon with their own eyes, the iconic “Earthrise” photograph was taken, and the “In the beginning…” passages of Genesis were read out by the astronauts in a Christmas Eve TV broadcast, a quarter of a million miles from Earth.  This moment lies half way in time now between us and the end of World War One, a thought to make us all pause.

The story of the Apollo Moon flights of 1968-1972 have been told in a huge number of books and biographies in the intervening half century, and I could write a whole separate post reviewing them. This book, set out specifically for the 50th anniversary of the missions, tells the story through two innovative approaches – one, a scrapbook feel is created by reproducing loads of original sources and ‘ephemera’ from the NASA Archives interleaved round the main text, this means we have a direct window into history – it helps the book ‘live’ for us, with many original memos from Werhner Von Braun and other NASA bigwigs, early engineering sketches, data sheets, lunar EVA timelines, the Apollo 13 flight director’s log, handwritten as the crisis unfolded, none of which I had seen before, and as you may have gathered, I’m a bit of a nerd. The overall feel therefore is that the missions have just been flown– no dry-as-dust chronicle, this – it feels like it was written and put together while the history was actually being made.

The other innovation is the book is accompanied by an App – downloadable for Android or Apple, which means at certain sections of the book you can hold your phone or tablet over the page, the App will recognize it and bring up audio, or video film in place of the still images, or high-resolution documents, or full rendered 3D models of the spacecraft such as the Lunar Module or the Saturn V booster, that you can explore in detail by rotating your device. These work far better as you would expect on a larger tablet screen than a phone, and the app is quite large (281Mb for Android). Initially this felt a bit ‘gimmicky’ for me, and didn’t always add to the text in my view, but there is something pretty cool when a 3D rocket appears out of the pages of a book!

The text itself is detailed, well-written, engaging and broadly follows the chronology of the flights up to Apollo 17 in 1972, with brief closing chapters to bring up to speed with the post-Apollo space programmes of all nations. The many photographs are well selected and tend to focus on the hardware and the astronauts, but there are plenty of scenic lunar landscapes too. This is a good present to give to any space enthusiast, new or old.

Andre Deutsch, hardback, 176pp.




Someone Like Me – M R Carey

I really enjoyed M R Carey’s sort-of-zombie novels, Girl With All The Gifts and Boy on the Bridge, but was already aware that he was certainly not a one trick pony. As well as zombies (or sort-of-zombies) he has also written thought-provoking psychological thrillers with a hint of the supernatural. His latest book definitely falls into this category.

9780356509464Liz Kendall is doing okay. Like everyone else these days she sometimes has to make sacrifices to meet unexpected bills but she gets by and enjoys her job working in a cinema, she has a homely little apartment and good friends and two wonderful children (who she would give her life for). Now that she has divorced her abusive, manipulative ex-husband she only has to see him when he drops the kids off after their visits. Everything should be great – but this time, Marc (the ex), decides that Liz deserves to be beaten for daring to complain that he has returned the children much later than agreed. As he is attempting to throttle her – he really does seem to mean to kill her – she seems to find the strength from deep within herself to strike back with a broken bottle. But, it soon becomes clear, this strength may not have come from Liz herself but from some other entity inside her mind.

This is a tense and, at times, terrifying story: not the oddly supernatural slant so much but the domestic violence, the physical and psychological abuse and also the secondary plot featuring a young girl who is still traumatised, ten years on, by her kidnapping at the age of six. Although I called this a psychological thriller it is not what many would expect from the genre. This is far more Sarah Pinborough than Paula Hawkins and goes far beyond the kind of ‘normal’ abnormal psychologies we usually see.  Carey’s flair for looking at established genres from an unusual angle continues.


Help Me! – by Marianne Power


Part-way through the Who’s 1975 film “Tommy”, the film of the Rock Opera, there is an over-the-top messianic rally in a stadium where Tommy is carried aloft by adoring disciples on to a stage and proceeds to whip them into a frenzy of adulation – “Life is just another game, let’s play to win toniiiiiight!!!!” I was reminded of that cinematic moment when I read the chapter in Help Me! on Tony Robbins’ Unleash The Power Within – a seven-thousand strong rally of screaming, fist-pumping, life-affirming adulation in London’s docklands. Marianne Power was one of the many people motivated enough to be dancing in the aisles – screaming “World Peace!” and – “I want to have sex! Lots and lots of sex!!!” Finally followed by a real, actual, walk across hot coals.

One morning Marianne Power had a life changing hangover. It all came home to her that being thirty-six, single, with a rented flat in London but no house of her own, and having had much the same lifestyle for 10 years was not enough any more. Contrasted with her sister Sheila, with her fancy apartment in New York and gym perfect life, Marianne felt left behind by the tide, she looked for a way to get out of the rut and find a new track. Help Me! Is the funny, inspirational, and also tense, stressful and emotional journey that resulted from the decision by Marianne to actually do self-help. While she has an extensive library and admits she was hooked on self-help books, she’d never actually tried to live them. So she did – a different book each month, for a whole year, she did exactly what the book said to see the results. The search for “Perfect Me”!

This book is a roller-coaster ride of emotions therefore, as Marianne rattles through a whole smorgasbord of different popular self-help books and approaches. Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway, Money – A Love Story, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, Rejection Therapy and many others including as mentioned the billionaire messiah himself, Tony Robbins. On the way both friendships and mental health are strained to their breaking point, but Marianne should not be seen as credulous of them all – I got to meet her in Manchester this summer and she’s lovely! A healthy scepticism of woowoo is in there, certainly The Secret does not get a glowing review (if Secret answers the mystery, why did people buy the two other books?), and as for Angels….  well, read what she says!

The ride is leavened by Marianne’s no-nonsense Irish mum who keeps grounding her again and again, and I can really recommend this read as a story of someone trying all the different ways of jolting herself out of a stasis in life, even if self-help books aren’t your thing, you’ll feel like you’ve experienced a dozen of them. As for how it ends – you’ll have to read the book!

Help Me! By Marianne Power, Pan Macmillan 352pp.





Some modern day parables…

I’m not much of a one for the bible but I am familiar with most of the best known stories: Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah’s ark and so on. When it comes to the New Testament, however, the famous parts are all parables – simple stories used to illustrate moral or spiritual lessons – involving loaves and fishes, Good Samaritans or lost sheep perhaps. These are often some of the first stories we can recall – it seems that it is one the clearest ways to get a point across is to use a story with a strong moral message – so it is no wonder that this kind of story is still popular. Mostly in the form of children’s books but, sometimes, also in collections of stories for older readers.

Roar – Cecelia Ahern

39218412This is a collection of stories about women in all kinds of situations which seem familiar. They are mothers, daughters, wives and workers – they are us. Although they are all nameless, all being referred to as ‘the woman who…..’, they are all oddly familiar: the woman who slowly disappeared, the woman who thought her mirror was broken, the woman who was pigeonholed. The themes are ones that most modern women will recognise: women who are unhappy with their bodies, women who find that aging has made them less important than before or women who feel that they are least important members of their families. Some of the stories can seem, at first, a little obvious but I did wonder if that was because I’ve been thinking about inequalities between the sexes for over forty years now. In many ways this would make this a good collection for younger women and men – who, although they may be aware of some aspects of inequality, may not know how things change for women when age, ethnicity or class are taken into account.

Don’t think that this means these stories are preachy or dull. They certainly aren’t – they are funny, subversive and, at times, moving. The joy of short stories is that you can dip in and out, skipping ahead to stories you think sound more appealing than others: this was a collection that I read straight through, missing out nothing.

The Little Snake – A.L. Kennedy

38313027When I was thinking about the introductory paragraph to this post I did consider the difference between parables and fables. After extensive research (two whole internet articles……) it appears the difference is animals: parables feature humans, fables have animal protagonists. Which is why it took me a little while to decide which category A.L. Kennedy’s novella, The Little Snake, was in: the main characters are Mary, who we first meet as a young child, and Lanmo, a beautiful golden snake who moves as fast as thought and, it seems, is there to witness death. I decided that death-witnessing snakes were people too (well, Lanmo certain is) so this book is an extended parable.

Mary is a little girl living in an unspecified but not entirely perfect city. The city is lovely – there are flowers and kites flying – but there is great inequality and Mary has just a tiny patch of rooftop garden to play in. It is there she first meets Lanmo, who is golden, beautiful and clever. He is, however, a snake and thinks Mary should be afraid of him: she is young and fearless and has not yet learned to be scared. They become good friends and learn much from each other. The snake, whose role in the world is to present at the time of death, learns love and respect for humanity (well, some of it – he retains the right to notice those who don’t deserve such love or respect…) and Mary has to learn that her world isn’t as safe and wonderful as she thought. But she also learns that Lanmo will always love her (even though he has to share her love with, first, her family and, later, with a boy. When the city becomes too dangerous for Mary to live in Lanmo returns to guide her to safety.

This is a lovely book which reads as if The Little Price had been reimagined for adult readers. Mary is a loving and innocent child who is battered by a cruel world but retains her inner beauty. Lanmo is a wise cracking witness to inevitable death who absorbs some of Mary’s essential humanity. We, hopefully, gain both wisdom and compassion from their story.




The Growing Pains of Jennifer Ebert, Aged 19 Going on 91 – David M Barnett

Every now and then news stories show up in fiction. I’m not talking about the big political stuff, the wars, Brexit and terrorism – they are and always will be part of serious, contemporary novels – but the feel-good stories that come at the end of the bulletin. The animal stories, the charity fund-raisers and lots of nostalgia – they all make for books with an interesting angle. In the last couple of years there have been articles about nurseries being based in retirement homes, and even a tv series on the same theme, but one of the earliest stories concerned students sharing an accommodation block with pensioners. Considering the fact that David Barnett is a journalist it should come as no surprise that he has picked up on these stories.

9781409175100Jennifer Ebert is a student who needs to change universities (no spoilers, but photos from a truly disastrous night out mean she is never going anywhere near her old campus again) and the only accommodation available is in Sunset Promenade, a residential home for the elderly.  The home is being run by two brothers, in memory of their mother, on a shoestring and with hand-picked residents: although when we meet some of them we wonder why they were picked. There are also four students making their home there, as an experiment and in an effort to get some extra funding, Jennifer (who has decided to live her life as if she were in a Film Noir), John-Paul (known to all as Ringo because he is, after all, from Liverpool) and two Chinese students (a very sharp young lady and a rather shambling lad who she keeps calling stupid).

Jennifer makes friends with one of the residents, the rather smart and glamorous Edna Grey, and the unlikely group start to learn to live together. In fact Jennifer starts a film group for the home – showing films made by her grandfather, unseen for years – and all goes well (or as well as it can with only one member of staff, the long-suffering Florin, and a group who are variously needy, rude and downright reactionary) until items start to go missing and the group start to wonder how ell they really know each other. Add in the fact that the home’s owners are in financial difficulties and it becomes apparent that all is not rosy at Sunset Promenade.

If you read Barnett’s last book you’ll be expecting the blend of humour and heartbreak but if you haven’t be prepared for something rather special. Bittersweet and though-provoking – perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant, Hendrik Groen et al.


A Snapshot of Murder – Frances Brody

The Kate Shackleton mysteries by Frances Brody are going strong – this is the tenth in the series – so I was interested what it is about them which has proved so popular. Some of it will be the nicely complicated plots, full of murder, scandal and intrigue but I suspect that some of the popularity is because of the glorious backdrop to those plots. I’m not ashamed to admit that I watch certain tv shows (like Poldark, Death in Paradise or Midsomer Murders) because they are shot in beautiful settings – if the plot drags or becomes too far-fetched I’ve something pretty to look at – so I can understand why this could be the case with these books. The settings are all very definitely ‘Yorkshire’ but also varied: they range from Harrogate to the mill villages of West Yorkshire and from the Dales to the Yorkshire coast – anyone who knows Yorkshire will recognise scenes; those who have yet had the joy of visiting ‘God’s own county’ will find plenty of ideas for an itinerary.

40023612A Snapshot of Murder opens in Headingley, Leeds, which isn’t a place I know hugely well apart from the area around St Michael’s Church and the Skyrack pub. Oddly enough, this is just where Kate Shackleton lives. The bulk of the book is then set in Howarth and Stanbury – villages I know well as they are just a few miles from my own home and popular tourist destinations because of their connection to the Brontë sisters – so I followed this story with particular interest. I also enjoy a bit of photography myself so the photography group plot was interesting – looking through a lens does certainly make you focus quite differently. The plot centres around Carine Murchison, a friend of Kate’s, and her fairly obnoxious husband Tobias: while the group are visiting Haworth (on the very weekend that the Parsonage first opened as a visitor attraction in August 1928) he is murdered. No-one will miss him but who killed him? Most of the group, and their hosts at Ponden Hall, have reason to want the man dead and we join Kate Shackleton as she delves deeper into their motives. Secrets are revealed about the realities of the Murchison’s marriage and their pasts and many suspects have to be eliminated from enquiries, including Kate’s young niece Harriet. Because we see all the angles (which are only gradually revealed to Kate) we are sure fairly early on who the killer is but, like a good episode of Columbo, this doesn’t distract from the telling of a good story.


How Winston Delivered Christmas – Alex T. Smith

Even though it is the time of year that we have to work the hardest I really do enjoy Christmas in the bookshop. There is always a buzz to the shop and there are lots (and lots) of exciting new books – it doesn’t really matter who you are or who you’re buying a gift for, the autumn publisher schedule has something for you.  We also start to get visits from teachers selecting books for a book advent calendar – each staff member chooses enough titles to read a new one to their class each school day in December. How much do I wish this had been a thing when I was in primary school? I know some parents who do this for their own children – with a mixture of new books, items picked up in charity shops and lesser read titles from their existing bookshelves – but I think I may have an alternative for them: a whole advent book calendar in one volume…

61VRR0IJaVL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_How Winston Delivered Christmas tells the story of how Winston, a very small mouse, finds a letter to Father Christmas which has, somehow, escaped from the letterbox. He realises it is Christmas Eve and, unless he finds a way to get the letter to the big man, there will be a child with no presents to open the next day – even though he is just a small, cold and hungry mouse he knows he has to deliver the letter. Over twenty-four and a half chapters (one for each day in December and only a half chapter for Christmas Day itself because, well, there is a lot else to do) Winston travels through snow and very large cars to save the day. As well as the story there are lots of ideas for crafts and other activities (I fancy making gingerbread mice myself…) which could come in very useful for all those little ones who just get more and more excited as the big day approaches. It also reminds children and parents that Christmas is a time to think of others – and that you can have adventures even if you are small and scared.

This is a lovely book which will, hopefully, keep small children occupied in the run up to Christmas with a heartwarming story and  interesting activities. Full of adventure, mince pies, little acts of kindness and hand-crafted gift ideas it could easily become a tradition that whole families look forward to every year.