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.




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.





Riddle Of The Runes – Janina Ramirez

Riddle Of The RunesI first saw Dr Janina Ramirez on TV a few years ago presenting a documentary called Treasures Of The Anglo-Saxons, telling the bigger pictures behind Beowulf, the Gundestrup Cauldron, the Sutton Hoo treasures and many other works of art in a new and engaging way. Since then she’s become a successful author of several nonfiction historical books and presenter of TV programmes ranging from the Hundred Years War and Julian of Norwich, to the Vikings. In addition she runs an active twitter account and a series of Art Detective podcasts. And in between all this she somehow manages to be a course director for the History of Art at Oxford University! It’s fair to say the woman seems tireless, and it’s also fair to say her striking goth look means I have a bit of a crush on her (although hopefully not one that will result in restraining orders).

Riddle Of The Runes is Janina’s first foray into children’s fiction, and it’s wonderful. Set in Viking era Norway around the time of the Lindisfarne raids, this is the start of a series centred on a young heroine Alva Gutharson and her family. Alva is a great character – in this book about 12 years old, intelligent, reckless, brave and foolhardy in equal measures. Alva’s passion is finding out the truth and investigating mysteries, and around her is a cast of characters that alternatively help and frustrate her, her loyal mother Brianna,  the wise, calming influence of Uncle Magnus (my favourite) and her trusty pet wolf, Fenrir.

When a monk from Lindisfarne appears suddenly in her home of Kilsgard babbling of a casket covered in mysterious runes, and a tale of his warrior companion kidnapped in the mountains, the peace of the village is shattered and Alva is filled with purpose – the runes and the casket are a series of clues to a promised treasure and Alva must follow them, keeping ahead of the adults of the village who spend more time debating in the longhouse then getting out there and getting on with it…!

Riddle Of The Runes is a lovely tale of mystery, family, warmth and companionship for children (including grown up children), rooted deeply in Janina’s knowledge and love of this period of history. The whole Viking world of Kilsgard is brought vividly to life, David Wyatt’s atmospheric illustrations complement the story beautifully and as one who spend several happy weekends at Danelaw Viking Village in York drinking mead in the longhouse, tending fires and spit-roasting pigs I felt at times I was back there! I look forward to where Alva goes next.

Rob Glover

Riddle of the Runes – a Viking Mystery by Janina Ramirez with illustrations by David Wyatt
Oxford 241pp

The One Who Wrote Destiny – Nikesh Shukla

Every person I know seems to have an opinion about immigration. Because I am a white British woman the majority (although not all, thank goodness) of people I know are also either white, British or both the opinions I hear are varied but also rather one-sided. They are usually about the politics, the logistics or the reasons behind immigration – they are very rarely given from the point of view of one who has actually upped sticks and moved to a different country, culture and climate. They are very rarely about the actual experience of being an immigrant. Nikesh Shukla has edited a very well-received book, The Good Immigrant, which looks at the real and personal experiences of 21 immigrants from around the world* and has now given us a novel on the same themes.

9781786492784.jpgAt the centre (although not the start) of the story is Neha – the daughter of Mukesh, who came to England from Kenya and is Indian. She has discovered that she is dying from the same lung cancer that killed her mother and, among other things, decides that she should find out more about her family, about who they are and where they come from. Her father often tells the story of how he and Nisha, his dead wife, met but this isn’t enough for Neha – she needs something more. The story moves back and forth – from Mukesh’s rather stylised and sentimental telling of the ‘how I met your mother’ tale, to how Rakesh, Neha’s twin brother, copes with her death. Finally we meet Ba, the twins’ grandmother, and hear about the one time she meets the children – when they are left with her for a month after she has returned to Kenya. The stories intertwine – and are told from each person’s perspective so we see each one’s (not always flattering) view of the others – but the theme of identity and immigration run through them all. Destiny is also ever-present – partly in the idea of what will happen to a person in the end, how they will die but also in the idea of what kind of person they become in life.

I think this was an interesting book in my quest to understand those who are immigrants. I particularly liked the fact that, overall, nothing much happened. This was a book about a family – their lives, their illnesses and their deaths. Although they met with racism and prejudice this was something that happened to them not who they were. Nobody was radicalised, or had an arranged marriage. No-one became a doctor or lawyer (and thus a ‘good immigrant’). They were always just a family…


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

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!


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


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.


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