An Astronomer’s Tale

fildesOn my own travels I’ve seen skies above the Libyan desert.  One night, sleeping among the dunes and rock outcrops of the Jebel Akakus, I woke up and was staring straight into the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. You get a shiver in your spine, you feel like you’re falling upwards into infinity. Your eyes range around the sky looking for patterns, to make meaning of it all.  A few years ago I spent a few days observing and photographing at the dark sky site in Galloway.  The star fields have to be seen to be truly appreciated. Until the last 150 years – really since the coming of artificial light, gas lamps then electric light – everywhere in the world was a dark sky site.  These stunning views were there for everyone.

The Kielder Forest in Northumberland is Europe’s largest protected Dark Sky park, and in the heart of it is the elegant work of art and science combined that is the Kielder Observatory. Its founder and lead astronomer, Gary Fildes, has written this really engaging and passionate book, which is now released in paperback, about the observatory, the sky and his life.

Gary grew up in Sunderland, left school at sixteen into the void left by the closing of the shipyards, and became a brickie by trade. But his heart has always been in the stars. The book is an interleaved mix of Gary’s life story and a seasonal guide to the sky. The seasonal guide bits are well written, clear, exciting and informative – you put down the chapter and want to go out there straight away to look. You can see that the exposition of the sky is something Gary has down to a fine art now, through his work at Kielder.

It’s the narrative of Gary’s life and the founding of the Kielder observatory that really made the book work for me. Gary’s life hasn’t always been perfect – he writes with honesty about his involvement with the fighting and hooliganism that dogged football in the 1980s. But even through those times –  and being a young father of four he soon got the wake-up call that he had to change – he never lost his fascination with astronomy, even though admitting it to his mates at the time might have got his head kicked in.

The revival of serious observing starts again for Gary in 1996, when he connects with a neighbour with a telescope. The dream of the Kielder observatory started properly in 2002, and finally reached fruition in 2008, with the help of dozens of people who shared the dream and no small help from the skills of his own trade. Kielder is now receiving upwards of 20,000 visitors a year and has ambitions to become the world’s biggest public observatory.  During the book Gary speaks with great affection for his father, and how he wishes he were here to see what he’s achieved at Kielder. He also reminds us that this is his passion long before his profession – he’s not a professional scientist, never took a degree. Well, so what – you’re in the company of Patrick Moore there Gary!

Anyway, Kielder is now on my ‘must visit’ list for when the dark nights return – and if I get chance Gary, I’ll buy you a drink. Thanks for this super book.

An Astronomer’s Tale – A Bricklayer’s Guide to the Galaxy, Gary Fildes, Century Publishing, 298pp

@kielder_obs on Twitter

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Massacre of Mankind: a Sequel to War of the Worlds – Stephen Baxter

There is an affliction that affects people of a certain age – i.e. me –  whereby any mention of The War Of The Worlds is associated immediately with Richard Burton’s narration, David Essex as the Artilleryman, Phil Lynott as the Parson and Justin Hayward’s Forever Autumn! Yes, Jeff Wayne’s fantastic musical version was the first proper album I bought with my own pocket money and left a huge impression on me. It was to be another five years or so before I read the actual book by H.G.Wells. The Wells book, published in 1898, is deservedly a classic. It’s not a long book, but the impression of the Lowellian Mars of the late 19th century being not a wise but a hostile, predatory world, keen to acquire territory inward as the sun cools and their own world dries, and overwhelming a Britain that was then a world leading imperial force – has a kind of dark, unsettling power that still can move a modern reader. I am re-reading it now.

baxterStephen Baxter – with the authorisation of the H.G Wells estate – has created a sequel which is enjoyable, if imperfect. To begin with of course, in 2017 we know what the real Mars is like. But Baxter, rightly, sets his sequel in the same universe as the original, where the Martians still regard our Earth with envious eyes and draw their plans against us. This makes the book a science fantasy now of course – set in a solar system that no longer exists – but the suspension of disbelief is quite quick as Baxter throws you into a well-paced narrative set in the 1920s, some years after the original invasion. And the Martians come again, and this time, they’ve learned.

I liked the characters. Narrated in the first person by journalist Julie Elphinstone, former sister-in-law of the original narrator (who reappears too), Julie is a strong-willed woman who is given a mission by Major Eric Eden – serving under Churchill – to infiltrate the Martian’s Redoubt,  their primary operating base  located in the ruins of the town of Amersham. With a cover story of communication with the Martians, and the actual purpose hidden, Julie is swept into the world of the British resistance, and into the military cordon round the Martian base. There are lots of colourful people here that I enjoyed meeting – journalist Harry Kane, Verity Lambert, Albert Cook (the artilleryman from the original book, making a reappearance), each of them have their own story and experience to tell – and for the first two-thirds of the book the story motors along. And yes, the story eventually does go international this time, with waves of Martians landing all over the planet.

I found the final third a bit of a disappointment – although it’s clear from the earliest pages that the second Martian War is eventually won, so this is not a ‘spoiler’, the manner of winning seemed very contrived.  Baxter develops a good idea – from the final chapter of Wells novel, there is a hint of the future strategy of the Martians, including invasion of the swamp-world Venus further inwards – and the significance of planetary-scale signs or ‘sigils’. I just somehow feel that Baxter had to rush the ending.

Nothing can match Well’s classic of course. I think Baxter has done a pretty decent, if workmanlike job of writing a sequel, and if you liked the original (or even the album!) do give it a whirl. ULLA!

Rob

13 Journeys Through Space And Time – Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution

13_journeys

The first recollection I have of one of my all time heroes – the astronomer Carl Sagan – was when he undertook, for the Royal Institution, the Christmas lecture series at the end of 1977. As a fascinated 11-year-old I absorbed it all and I still remember his demonstrations of lunar cratering with the aid of marbles “except you don’t find marbles down craters”, as well as his talk around the still-new Viking Mars missions and the just-launched Voyager mission with the interstellar record of music and messages to be a present for any future aliens who might find it.

A precis of Sagan’s lecture is just one of the thirteen summarised in this lovely little book – a great present for Christmas – which brings back historic lectures, aimed at young audiences, on the subject of space and time, ranging from  1881 to 2015. The book is a fascinating mixture of lecture history, science, RI archive content such as handwritten letters, and photographs and transcripts. The book explores what we thought we knew then and what has been discovered since. The emphasis of the lecture series has always been ‘don’t just tell – show’ – which is brought out well in the book with drawings and photographs of how children from the audience, from decade to decade, have been invited down to get involved in experiments in the Faraday Lecture Theatre.

The earlier ones – Robert Stalwell Ball of 1881, Herbert Hall Turner of 1913 are lovely period pieces, indeed Ball’s own full lecture notes – available in his book “Star-land” – are full of the more poetic language of the age.  Compiler Colin Stuart compares what was believed then, with what is known now – for example the common belief in 1881 that the lunar craters were volcanic in origin, and the Martian Canals controversy – active from the late 19th to the early 20th century – was a common theme returned to in the earlier lectures.

Classic lectures by the giants of the mid-20th-century follow by James Jeans, Harold Spencer-Jones and a team led by Bernard Lovell, and as we move into the space age proper the latest lectures by Monica Grady and Kevin Fong continue to find ways of showing cutting-edge science to a young audience. In the final lecture Kevin Fong introduces British astronaut Tim Peake via video screen to talk to the audience – live- from orbit in the International Space Station, a sight that Robert Ball would no doubt have loved to have witnessed.

This is a great and unusual little book for all ages to enjoy.

Rob

13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution by Colin Stuart, with a foreword from British ESA astronaut Tim Peake. 224pp, Michael O’Mara publishing

http://www.mombooks.com/books/13-journeys-through-space-and-time-9781782436874/

http://www.rigb.org/

The Hidden People -Alison Littlewood

For someone who thought she didn’t read horror/ghost stories I certainly seem to be getting through a few of them recently. To be fair it is October – the time of year when all the creepiest books are released onto readers eager to balance Halloween sweeties with some spine-chilling stories. Of course what I have read quite a lot of in the past are 19th century novels, full of Victorian manners, so how could I not be intrigued by a book which promised to tell me a Victorian tale of suspense (but written in the full knowledge of our twenty-first century world?)  Because as well as being an age of rationality, science and moral rectitude the Victorian era was also an age of fairy tales and folklore – culminating in Bradford’s very own Cottingley fairies in the early part of the 20th century. Alison Littlewood seems to be known as an author of horror and ghost stories but I would say this book, The Hidden People, is more of a dark fairy story. Nothing sparkly or delicate but the kind of fairies who think of humans as something to be used and then discarded. If you’ve ever read Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies you’ll know the sort of thing.

hiddenWe start this book on the rational, scientific side of the age – at the Great Exhibition of 1851 – where young Albie meets hit pretty young country cousin Lizzie. Despite an initial attraction Albie follows his father’s wishes, joining the family firm and marrying a sensible, suitable girl. He forgets all about Lizzie until, shockingly, he hears of her death. In fact, her murder at the hands of her young husband. Albie decides to travel to the little Yorkshire village of Halfoak where Lizzie lived and died and this is where he comes up against what he thinks is superstition and ignorant belief in fairies. Lizzie was killed because her husband believed she was a changeling (and by burning alive because that’s one of the only ways to guarantee killing a fairy). We 21st century readers tend to agree with Albie’s rational view – fairies aren’t real and changelings don’t exist – and yet we, like him, are sucked into an otherworldly atmosphere where the impossible becomes almost believable.

I really liked the way that the reader is kept on edge – Albie, and his wife Helena when she joins him, are changed by Halfoak. Are they bewitched by fairies or do they just suffer some inexplicable breakdown? Early in the story Albie notices that the village clock has three hands so that it can tell local as well as railway time – the whole book leaves us unsure which timeframe we are in: whether we are in a rational or a fantastical world.

Jane

It’s so hard to choose…

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the last twenty years and, naturally, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the books I’ve read in that time. I can’t remember them all – I do spend a lot of time reading – but I did start to wonder if I could try to pick a favourite out of the books I’ve read which were published since 1996. When it comes down to it it’s a lot harder than it looks so I decided to ask around and see if I could get some inspiration.

I started at home. Yes, pity poor Rob as I demanded he review his past two decades of reading…Luckily, after a quick trawl through the bookshelves he came up with a few suggestions. They range over the genres – travel writing, fiction, environmentalism, science writing and science fiction – but the one that stood out for me from his list (like I said, it’s hard to choose one) was one we both loved. Nick Harkaway’s Gone-Away World is a remarkable book with a crazy plot which has more to it with every re-reading and some memorable characters. To be honest I don’t think either Rob or I will ever forget Ronnie Cheung.

Next I asked around my colleagues at work. Starting with Bex herself. Impressively she found it rather easy to choose the book that meant most to her (and I quote) ‘Harry Potter – I’m a first generation reader…I was the same age as Harry when Philosopher’s Stone was published’ . Although is it cheating to pick an entire series? Who cares! It is such a great series to choose… And I even got a bonus choice from Bex’s daughter who, at 18 months old, just can’t get enough of Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler’s Tales from Acorn Wood which she described as essential pre-Gruffalo reading. (That’s Bex, not her daughter, obviously…). Ian the manager (who has recently moved to our Leeds store) also found it simple to narrow down his favourite – I reckon he had to move to Leeds since he has already recommended Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to the whole of Bradford. I also cornered Jamie (our new manager) who named Kill Your Friends by John Niven as his favourite. Up in the coffee shop Luke (lead barista and store hipster-in-chief) was quick to name Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Megan (our newest staff member – she makes a mean bacon buttie…), when pushed, plumped for Khalid Hosseini’s  A Thousand Splendid Suns. Although she did say this was subject to change – there are so many great books out there!

I decided not to stop there and have been bothering lots of other people – some who have worked in the store in the past 20 years and, of course, some of our customers. Sarah, who supports us in choosing and ordering stock for the shop, chose a graphic novel, Blankets by Craig Thompson. She described it as her favourite graphic novel of all time and one that redefined the genre. Charlotte, a customer, author and occasional contributor to this blog showed her penchant for horror and fantasy by being undecided between Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. And we both agreed that her daughter Sophie was still a huge fan of You Choose (we’ve both read it with her for entire afternoons…). And Kay, one of regular customers and member of our monthly book group, tells me that the book she regularly recommends or gifts to family and friends (always a sign of a true fave)  is Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons.

So, has all this made it any easier for me to choose my own favourite? Of course not…The best I can hope for is a short list of books which have left a lasting impression on me (and which I would happily reread – always a sign of a great book for me). Hugh Howey’s Wool makes the cut, as do all Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books and Justin Cronin’s The Passage (or Connie Willis’ book of the same name…). And then, of course, there’s always the fabulous Rosie Project or a dozen other books which I’ve been pressing into people’s hands for the last two decades. I don’t think I can pick just one (and the way things are going my own personal shortlist is just going to keep on getting longer).

Jane

 

 

The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson, The Pie at Night – Stuart Maconie

The Road To Little Dribbling

Bill Bryson returns to these shores. In 1994, Notes From a Small Island of course was a huge hit. A travelogue around Britain, written by an American, which meant his observations on the character of our people were as sharp and witty as his observations about the places he visited. I loved the book when it came out – his impassioned rant about Oxford architecture, his elegy for Morecambe, and his curry-precipitated U-turn of opinion on Bradford.

In the Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson – 20 years older too – returns to the theme to see how Britain has changed. Coming across as a genial, erudite ‘grumpy old man’, what I like about Bryson is that he’s not just a travel writer, he researches deeply to teach us obscure stuff we never knew and is not shy to call out injustices as he sees them. Did I know the Settle-Carlisle rail line was engineered by an unsung hero called Charles Sharland, who died at 25, never to see the line completed? No I did not, but there should be a statue of him. As in his previous book, Bryson’s focus is in three areas – architecture, and our total bodging failure to appreciate it and invest in the long-term to preserve the treasures we have, service without a smile (watch batteries in Torquay, anyone?), but fundamentally our beautiful, endlessly explorable countryside.

Bryson is careful not to retrace the exact same steps geographically. He frames the book round a route from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath – of course, quite a wild and wobbly route meaning he can go where he wants! It’s a strange and disappointing thing that of the 26 chapters, 16 are gone before he reaches the Midlands, one chapter covers Wales (but a lovely write-up of Tenby and St Davids by the way), and as for the whole of Scotland? Guess. You might argue that this reflects the population density, but even so, it’s tough treatment for that great nation. Having said that, Bryson is as ever a funny, perceptive and wonderfully opinionated travel writer and long may he remain so.
The Pie At NightIt might seem strange to combine this review with The Pie at Night – but this is my review and I’ll do what I like!  I first heard Stuart Maconie as a music journo, guesting on the Mark Radcliffe show along with Andrew Collins back in the 90s, with acerbic and bitingly funny music reviews. Now, he is for my money among the best homegrown travel writers around. Only nine years younger than Bryson, he feels and writes like a different generation. I’ve previously read and loved Pies and Prejudice, and Adventures on the High Teas, and now Maconie goes in search of what Northern England does for leisure. Be that football, the races, drinking, dancing or the more artful worlds of books, art and music.

Maconie, roots firmly in his native Wigan, describes himself as a romantic about the north’s industrial past, but a hard-headed one. He holds no illusions about a lost golden age of happiness – the reality of industry was back-breaking hard work. But work it was, and in return on precious holidays, those northern workers played hard too, and that is I think what Maconie’s getting at – laiking aht in the north, in whatever form, comes from a communal thing, an intensely shared culture that exists to this day.

And you get Maconie’s deep-rooted love for his North coming through in waves. In contrast to Bryson, his focus is more on characters and people, and he observes and seeks them out in a way that Bryson – more recognisable in the street – probably now cannot. Unashamedly political, Maconie’s writing is rich and lovely and often poignant to read as he travels though Stockport, Blackpool, Todmorden, Halifax, Great Gable and past High Force in Teesdale to name only a few places.

So is The Pie at Night only of interest to northerners then? Would southern people read this as a bit of pious ‘rootsier-than-thou’? I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Jane… but I loved it.

The Road to Little Dribbling – More Notes from a Small Island
Bill Bryson

The Pie at Night – In Search of the North at Play
Stuart Maconie

Rob

2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog. It is full of helpful hints (to help us with the inevitable New Years Resolution to blog more regularly) and, like all the best things in life, created by monkeys! You may well notice that the blogging pace picked up pace part-way through the year. Once again a big thank you to all the helpful folk on the Book Bloggers (UK) group on Facebook. And of course to the publishers and authors who have made their books available for review. We wish you all a very Happy New Year and hope it is full of your favourite sorts of booky goodness.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,900 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 32 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.