Friday, 31 July 2009

Smoking Gun

Revolver - Marcus Sedgwick

Once more I've been reading a lot but not finding much that is worth writing about. Nothing bad but just nothing outstanding. Until this one.

The very first author that I met, and incidentally the very first event I ever organised, was Marcus Sedgwick. His novel, Floodland, had just been published and with its local setting it was an obvious choice to appeal to the Norfolkbookworm. Marcus was a really nice guy and ever since then I've followed his career with interest.

As a rule I prefer his straight historical titles and until this week I think I'd have listed Blood Red, Snow White was my favourite but now there is Revolver...

The action in this short novel takes place in just 24 hours, although flashbacks fill in more of the plot. It is a tense, atmospheric thriller that conjures up the arctic circle instantly. Not a word is wasted and even though I read this in a sunny garden in July I was shivering as if I was living through a blizzard myself.

This really is a book that I can't talk about without risk of spoiling it, so much happens in such a little space of time.
Sig is sitting with his father's corpse awaiting help when a figure from the family's past reappears. The newcomer is terrifying and ruthless and claims that Sig's father owes him something and that he will stop at nothing to get it back. Sig might have a solution but is it the right one and just what has his father been doing?

The revolver of the title is very important but short of emphasising that this is not a book that encourages the use of guns I really can say no more.

Sedgwick is talented writer and this is one of his best. I hope that it makes it onto the short list for many prizes and is not overlooked for being short book. The best things often come in small packages.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Back home, but then what?

Moon Dust - Andrew Smith

At 16.10 GMT on July 24th 1969 Apollo 11 splashed down safely. Kennedy's dream of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth had been realised. What next?

There were another 6 moon missions, five successful, and by the end of 1972 twelve men had walked on the lunar surface. So few people to experience such an out of this world experience. What happened next?

A few years ago writer Andrew Smith realised that there were only 9 moon walkers left and that if someone wanted to find out their stories it had to be done soon. The resulting book was Moon Dust. For the most part it is a fascinating read, Smith interviewed 8 of the remaining men and tells their post-Apollo life in a vivid way. He is a little struck by hero worship, but then so am I, this isn't my beef with the book.
My problem is that Moon Dust is part social history, part biography and part autobiography. And I don't want to read about Andrew Smith. I want to read about my heroes.

It is a small gripe and the book brings us up to date on all of the Apollo astronauts and finishes the story nicely, it should appeal to most people who like to know 'what happens next' and reads very well. I just find Smith intrudes too much at times.

This year I have been very lucky to have met some of these incredible men. Some I've just seen at a distance and others I've had the chance to speak to. I hope that in another 10 years we are looking forward to meeting the next generation of moon walkers as well as celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first landing.

Norfolk Bookworm and Charlie DukeNorfolkbookworm and Scott Carpenter

Norfolkbookworm and Jim Lovell

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Lest we forget.

Fallen Astronauts - Burgess, Doolan & Vis

Space travel is not without risk, this is something that all astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts know and accept when they start their training.

Before the launch of Apollo 11 eight American astronauts had lost their lives as well as about the same number of Soviets (the USSR space program was more secretive that the American thus it is harder to be 100% certain), since then more space travellers of several nations have also died.

At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida there is a beautiful memorial to those who have died whilst being members of the astronaut corps:

and a plaque was also left on the moon by the crew of Apoll0 15 to commemorate their fallen friends:

This book remembers them all in a way that is very moving. They are portrayed as humans, not super-humans and no excuses are given for how they died. If it was a problem with the space programs this is listed if it was human error it is listed.

These lost space travellers live again in this book, the stories are sad but the one thing that comes through is that everyone learns from every death and the same mistakes are not repeated. There is yet hope that one day we will return to the moon and travel further.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Women in space.

Almost Astronauts - Tanya Lee Stone

It wasn't until the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger in June 1983 that America let a woman go into space. (The Soviet Union launched Valentina Tereshkova in to space in 1963.) However way back at the start of the Mercury space program in 1958 there were 13 women willing to undertake the training in order to fly in space.

This book honours all the women of the American space program, but concentrates on the lives of the 'Mercury 13' who were perhaps not treated as well as they should have been. The stories told here prove that they were just as much the Right Stuff as their male counterparts and it was just society that kept them grounded.

Since their time women have gone on to pilot and command the Space Shuttle and also to command the International Space Station. If it wasn't for trail blazers like the 13 who knows if this would be the case?

Again this book was originally written for children but the eye witness accounts and the photographs make this just as interesting for adults to read

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

One Small Step...

First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong - James Hansen

Hundreds of millions of people around the world watched Neil Armstrong take his first step out of the lunar module (Eagle) on to the surface of the moon at 02.56 GMT on July 21st 1969.

Since that moment Neil Armstrong has avoided the being in the limelight as much as is possible for a real American hero. Instead of living off of his fame Armstrong has buried himself in life as an academic. (And who can blame him when even his barber will sell his hair clippings to memorabilia collectors?)

Unlike his crew mates Armstrong has not written his autobiography, however in 2005 he did allow James Hansen to publish an authorised biography. Hansen talked to friends and family who normally remain silent and has produced a very thorough account of Armstrong's life.

First Man is by far the longest book about the Apollo 11 crew and is crammed full of details about every aspect of Armstrong's life, with a heavy bias on the technological aspects. This emphasis makes the book a more challenging read than those by Aldrin and Collins but as so little is written by or about Armstrong that is actually authorised and accurate it is worth reading if you are interested - just to get an idea of who he actually is.

Monday, 20 July 2009

To Infinity...

Magnificent Desolation - Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin stepped on to the surface of the moon twenty minutes after his commander on July 21st and while he claims to have no problems with this you really do have to wonder once you've read any of his books.

Aldrin wrote his first autobiography Return to Earth only four years after the moon landings. At the time he was battling depression and alcohilism as well as trying to come to terms with walking on the moon. Once you've walked on another planet where can you go from there?

To tie in with the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 he has written a new autobiography. This one concentrates far more on his life since 1969 but in parts is a re-write of his earlier book (and life?).

This new volume Magnificent Desolation was a far more enjoyable read, it is certainly a book about the man and not the mission but was interesting throughout. It had flashed of humour and in it Aldrin takes far more responsibility for himself than he did in the first book. I am pleased that 40 years on he does seem to have found a balance and happiness in his life.

Oh and yes Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movies is named after Aldrin!

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Third Man

Carrying the Fire - Michael Collins

There have been many books written about the Apollo 11 mission, some shortly after the success and many more in the 40 years since. This is reissue of an autobiography first published in 1974.

Collins is the often over-looked third member of the Apollo 11 crew. While Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon he remained in the command module awaiting their return, knowing that if anything went wrong on the lunar surface he would have to return to Earth alone.

This book is a stunning read, Collins comes across as a very humble and down-to-earth guy. He mixes personal details, mission details and a some technical details in a way that makes the story fascinating and even the most un-mathematical, un-scientific person (me!) can follow the whole story and understand exactly why the missions were so incredible.

I've been lucky enough to meet several astronauts in the past year but I'd travel across continents for the chance to meet Collins.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Go Team Moon

How 400 000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon

Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins have said from the very beginning that they were the smallest part of the Apollo 11 mission and that most of the credit was due to the 400,000 other people who were essential workers on the Apollo Program.

This hardback picture book, written originally for children, uses NASA transcripts, archive material and pictures taken by the Apollo 11 crew to create a full picture of just how many people were integral to the landing.

This is a wonderful book championing the oft over looked 'back room' boys who worked so hard in the 1960s to achieve Kennedy's goal.

Friday, 17 July 2009

We choose to go to the moon in this decade - JFK

A Man on the Moon - Andrew Chaikin

Before concentrating just on the stunning Apollo 11 mission it is worth thinking about how and why America decided to go to the moon in the first place.

President J F Kennedy gave a bold speech in May 1961 where he said:
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
This was astounding for at that point in time America had only managed to launch one man, Alan Shepard, in a 15 minute sub-orbital flight. The Russian's were forging ahead with space technology - Yuri Gagarin had already made the first space flight to orbit the earth and Gherman Titov was preparing to spend over 24 hours in space. Kennedy knew that to regain the US's position as a leader he had to aim... well he had to aim for the moon!

Chaikin's Book A Man on the Moon: Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts is an over view of America's race for the moon. It is a readable book that is not too technical, more of a social history book than a science book. The main highs and lows of American space history from 1961 to 1972 are covered with much focus on how everything came together for the success of Apollo 11 and the successful failure of Apollo 13.

This book has just been reissued to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the moon landings and I feel is the best book around for explaining the whole programme to someone who is interested in finding out a bit more about the space race without it becoming too technical.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

One Small Step

5..4..3..2..1..we have lift off!

It is forty years today since the Saturn V Rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center launch the crew of Apollo 11 on their way to the moon.

I am an unashamed space geek and over the next 9 days I will be reviews a selection of books relating to the manned space program that I feel best sum up the heady days of the Space Race.

Hold on to your seats as we travel over a quarter of a million miles to be there when Aldrin and Armstrong land on the moon on July 21st 1969.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

End of an era

Confessions of Georgia Nicholson - Louise Rennison.

I'm feeling a bit sad today as another series I've read from the beginning comes to an end.

There is nothing highbrow in the tomes by Rennison, in fact often there isn't even a plot! They are just incredibly funny diaries featuring Georgia, her mad family, her loopy friends and her disastrous love life. Plus of course there is Angus. Her cat who is mostly Scottish wild cat rather than cute moggy.

These books aren't my usual thing at all, and they really won't appeal to everyone. However as a female who went to an all girls school and had a mad group of friends there are certainly elements that I can identify with. I do think that we were more studious and less boy mad though, although that could just be distance lending enchantment.

Each book doesn't take too long to read, you'll probably get infuriated with the characters but I think you will laugh out loud at least once during each book.

The real draw about these books is that Louise Rennison says they are very much based on her real life and it is nice to know that some one as messed up as Georgia can become as successful and funny as Rennison.

The photo of Ms Rennison was taken when she visited Norwich in 2007 as part of the Evening News/Waterstone's Children's Book Festival.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

All's Fair in Love and War?

Henderson's Boys by Robert Muchamore.
Book 1 - The Escape
Book 2 - Eagle Day

Robert Muchamore has a loyal fan base, all of whom love the Cherub books and have been eagerly awaiting this new series. Muchamore writes gritty, contemporary thrillers where young adults are the spies. He packs no punches and his characters are far more James Bond than, squeaky clean, Alex Rider.

Now Muchamore has turned to history for inspiration, and The Escape opens just before the fall of France in May 1940. Much of the first half of the book is spent introducing the main characters but is still action packed and moves swiftly from Northern France, through Paris to 'free' Bordeaux in the south.

Henderson is a British undercover agent who has been working for a while in France, he is on one last mission before returning to England. Rosie and Paul are travelling through France with their father who has some secret documents that must be handed over to Henderson. Marc is an orphan who is taking advantage of the war to make a new life for himself.

Things don't go to plan for anybody amidst the chaos of the German invasion, and by the time the disparate group meet up it is clear that France will soon be totally under German control and that England needs all the help she can get in order to remain free.  The foursome, joined at various times by extra help, spend the next 500 or so pages causing maximum disruption to the Germans whilst all the time trying to return to England.

The action throughout is fast paced and well described. Muchamore's great talent is in his ability to use very few words to thoroughly describe all of his locations and characters whilst at the same time never leaving you confused as to what is happening.  All of the children come to life realistically even if they are all a little talented to be true. They also do seem to be children of the 1940s rather than modern teenagers, the way they talk and act is reminiscent of books written at the time. They question, quibble and quarrel throughout the story but at the same time they all have that typical wartime pluck that sees them act in a far more responsible way than you'd expect.

For me it is Henderson himself that lets the story down.  I feel the kindest way to describe him is as a flawed hero, but to my mind he comes across as a blood-thirsty sadist. He kills repeatedly, in many ways - all of which are graphically and stomach churningly described by Muchamore - and seems to take great pleasure in inflicting pain, mental or physical.  To their credit the children seem uneasy with this and never totally reconcile this side of the man. he justifies his behaviour by saying that everyone else would do worse than him if allowed. He certainly seems to believe that the only good German is a dead one, and he makes no distinction between a German conscript and a hardball Nazi.
His character is probably right for a 1940s spy trapped in an enemy country but I feel that while the violence is generally needed for the plot it perhaps needn't be described in such detail and with such relish.

I did enjoy this duo on many levels. I found the violence and sadism a little much especially in a book that has main characters aged between 10 and 15. If these books were filmed as they stand they would have to be given at least a 15 certificate and yet the readers will be considerably younger. They do come with a 'not suitable' warning but I don't think that the books would lose anything at all by being toned slightly.

There will be more Henderson's Boys books but as these two have a complete story arc I don't think I will be rushing to read them.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Reader's Block

It's terrible, I've developed a new condition, no not swine 'flu~ it is far more serious than that. I've got Reader's Block.

Over the past few days I've visited the library, haunted bookshops, been visited by a laden down postman and raided my own shelves but despite having lots of books to chose from I can't find anything to settle down with.

I've started lots of books, I think at last count I had 6 partly read, but not one of them has held my attention.

I hope that this doesn't last too long as there are plenty of people out there who will testify just how grouchy this state of affairs can make me.