Monsters are Attacking Tokyo!

Here’s an amusing little novella whose presumption you’ll find amusing.

In Shambling towards Hiroshima, the U.S. Army is facing a bloodbath when it invades Japan in 1945 and there’s not enough uranium to construct the A Bombs. So the Ultimate Threat is three Godzilla type creatures which the Allies plan to unleash on the Japanese mainland.

After some of the scientists working at the secret laboratory start feeling guilty about breeding giant psychopathic incendiary lizards as biological weapons, the Navy call on the services of Syms Thorle. As the Olivier of Monster movies, his job is to shock visiting Japanese envoys, making them aware of the ferocious fate that awaits their country if they fail to surrender. Continue reading

The English Bill Bryson; the New Paul Theroux

I’ve just discovered a travel writer who has the potential to surpass Paul Theroux as my favourite. Jeffrey Tayler lives in Russia and is married to a Russian, but unlike most of his fellow Americans is an accomplished linguist, is willing to undergo hardship and danger. He’s also willing to accept that America does not hold all the answers. He’s travelled widely in Africa, but his main love is his adopted homeland, its rivers and empty wilderness.

In his element with corrupt officials, drunken yokels and natural disasters, he has time to ponder on the future of the societies amongst whom he travels. In his latest work, Murderers in Mausoleums, he asks, as he journeys from Moscow to Beijing along depopulated byways, why the inhabitants detest democracy, while loving the free market. Both countries have little experience of democracy and Russia’s cynicism was strenghtened by the upheavals of the 1990s. They would rather have a brutal dictator in charge rather than have a say in the way they are governed. The results of his analysis are a shock for those of us who think the Western system of government is the best way to rule and for those who think the West will continue to determine the fate of the rest of the world.

A different travel writer is Stuart Maconie. Continue reading


One of my favourite sources for ideas of what to read is the Literary Review. You can be sure that amongst the latest Irvine Welsh or tedious study of the Bloomsbury set, will be lurking reviews of unusual publications.

The eclectic mix is shown by my discovering, (in the same issue), a fascinating insight into the Italian theatre of battle during the Great War and a few pages later, this work, The Big Necessity.

It covers a subject of which we’re all familiar on a day to day basis, but of which we have but a superficial knowledge: human excrement. Once flushed it’s usually forgotten, but as the author warns, we do so at our peril. A gram of faeces can contain 10 million viruses and 100 worm eggs for example and that 2.2 million people die from poo-related diseases each year.

We learn so much in its pages: how many years a person spends on the loo, that Martin Luther ate a spoonful of his own waste daily and that even in wealthy Ireland, a fifth of its towns risk infection through poor waste water treatment.

Rose George enthusiastically explores the sewers of New York; the public conveniences of Japan and the UK and their not so salubrious cousins in the Third World. She is a fervent advocate of recycling effluent and of ensuring everyone has access to better facilities and that we all become more interested in her chosen field of study.

Buried amongst our technology sections, not far from those tedious workshop manuals, this is a book that deserves a wider readership.


Best Travel Books?

My main complaint with travel books is that everyone thinks they canwrite one; which is why there are enough duds to make you wish people stayed at home more.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph has just compiled a list of the top 20 Travel Books and there’s much to agree and disagree with in its recommendations, even if it is illustrated with mouth watering photographs.

For me there are too many fiction titles included. While Our Man in Havana and The Beach are good reads, (I’ll leave others to enjoy Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson and Arundhati Roy). For me they’re not strictly travel books and in that case one could argue for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Heart of Darkness, although I did enjoy reading a recent work that retraced the steps of the former.

There’s also one or two titles that are more journalism than travel. Homage to Catalonia and Naples’44 fall into this category.

I’ll get around to bemoaning the exclusions in a minute. Most of the authors are undisputed champions of the genre: Eric Newby, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Jan Morris (though once a fan I can no longer bear her over-ripe prose) and Bruce Chatwin.

Regrettable omissions are Dervla Murphy and Tim Moore‘s humourous excursion around the London of the Monopoly Board. I’m also very fond of a U.S.A. road trip made by a Sioux Indian, William Least Heat Moon called Blue Highways that’s sadly no longer in our stock. Other writers seem to be represented by works wich are far from their best. I much prefer Raban’s Old Glory to Coasting and Bryson’s Lost Continent to his Small Island.

I simply revel in those books where everything goes wrong and the author is lucky to escape with life and limb intact whether it’s to devastated Haiti or bandit-ridden Mexico. What’s your favourite and do you consider fiction as worthy of inclusion?

Crimes in Foreign Climes

Two different crime series  show the seamy or not so-seamy of life in other places. The latest Alexander McCall Smith confirms that this writer is turning into a parody of himself. The detective aspects of his novels have decreased as the series has worn on, whilst the domestic dramas have flourished. Increasingly, I feel like one of Catherine Cookson’s devotees. Not only am I finding myself immersed in the  cloying family dramas of Mma Makutsi and Mma Ramotswe, but I eagerly await each new N0.1 Detective Agency Novel; hoping that it will be an improvement on the last. However, my faith is rewarded with disappointment.

In the latest Tea Time for the Traditionally Built the usual cliches exist: the references to Botswana’s achievements (with very little mention of AIDS or poverty), the well worn humour; the references to the fecklessness of the apprentices, the loyalty of her husband, the secretarial college etc, etc. This is a series that has worn out its welcome and one longs for a drug-crazed gang of Zulus to lay waste to the good and oh-so-boring inhabitants of Zebra Drive. Continue reading

Spine chillers: disappointment and hope

The master of the English ghost story has to be (and acknowledged as such by writers like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell) Montague Rhodes James. Provost of Eton College, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, Bible scholar and Antiquary, he is remembered mainly for his outstanding collections of ghost stories.

Memorably dramatised by BBC TV in the 1970s, they date from the first part of the twentieth century, but hark back to the Victorian age with references to carriages, oil lamps and steam trains. Musty libraries and their staff also are a prominent feature and the usual protagonist is an elderly scholar who has pursued his studies into area that promises death or at least a damn good fright.

So it was with ravenous excitement that I chanced upon a CD of BBC radio dramatisations: Spine Chillers. However, pleasure soon turned to agony as these are lamentably amateur despite the presence of Derek Jacobi as the narrator. Gone are the Victorian settings of some, with the fifteen minute time span compressing the suspense. Thus the growing dread of something unpleasant about to happen disappears and when the spectre emerges, it has to be described at length to a third party. I suspect too that James, as a confirmed bachelor, would have been appalled at the feminine presence in the programmes.

What makes his stories suitable for re-reading is that the denouement is only a part of the appeal. For a better sense of James’ skill try the talking book (again read by Derek Jacobi). His lugubrious, measured tones are perfect for  conjuring up remote manor houses, branch lines, isolated inns and the horrors therein.

Alternatively, try these books by Chris Priestley who writes for the young adult market. Again an excellent talking book exists of Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, (surely the name must be a tribute to M. R. James?) read by Bill Wallis who captures the menace and darkness of Uncle Monty’s moral stories.  And I would love to see a collected edition of James illustrated by Priestley’s artist Andrew Roberts. Both books have a main narrative broken up by short stories with an uncomfortable twist at the end. The almost skeletal illustrations add to the uneasy feelings generated.

If you like stories of flesh eating snails, boys turned into apple trees that are about to be pruned or giant spiders lurking in abandoned pirate ships, Priestly is your guide.

Journeys in the Past

I’ve recently read or re-read three books that deal with new aspects of familar subjects: Ancient Egypt, the Discovery of America and Pompeii.

Mary Beard’s Pompeii : the life of a Roman town,  follows a book that I thought was the definitive work on the subject released only in 2005. That book was readable and informative. However, true to form Beard’s managed to make one reassess preconceptions of an overworked topic. She  critically reassesses the casualty rate (many of the bodies were those of people returning after the eruption), the location of bodies (cynically noting how the discovery of corpses seemed to coincide with the arrival of prominent visitors in the eighteenth century), makes one think twice about the alleged bawdiness of the city (not every other house was a brothel) and points out that the life of the place was not fixed: the buildings were a confused melange of several centuries rather than a town whose buildings all date from the same decade.  Her main success is in bringing the place and its people alive and making one think twice before accepting the conclusions drawn by archaeologists.

A similar achievement is performed by my other two authors:

Continue reading



Hellraisers. I’ve not laughed at a book (as much as I did with this one) for quite some time. These four men were womanisers, adulterers, violent, drug takers and above all, boozers of the highest calibre. When Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Richard Harris or Oliver Reed approached, one never knew if one was going to receive a kiss, a bear hug or a punch in the teeth.

It must have been and indeed it was, Hell to be married to these men. However, it was never boring and proceeded to a soundtrack of smashed glass, the clink of glasses and the thump of bodies. Come on admit it, there’s a part of everyone who admires these guys for their unwillingness to compromise and their ability to have one Hell of a good time. Who would you rather spend an evening (or more likely a couple of days with) Richard Burton or the wreckage that is Elizabeth Taylor; Oliver Reed or Tom Cruise and his fifteen bodyguards?

No doubt about it these guys were talented. No forget it- they were stars. Only NZ’s finest Russell Crowe shows signs of being up to them and significantly, he was a big pal of Richard Harris. Towards the end it does get a little sad as the health scares mount up, but the photographs alone are worth opening up the book. As I curl up with it during one of my “early nights” I cannot but feel a twinge of envy.

What’s the name of that book?

You know the one? The one about the enchanted toothbrush or the one about the rats that declare war on the invaders from Venus? Well, these books don’t exist (as far as I know), but all of us have a book whose title we yearn to find out. Usually it’s a childhood favourite and as the desire to find the book grows, the memory gets worse and worse.

Books & AuthorsOf course one could ask a friendly librarian or access our databases.  One of them, Books & Authors lets you browse by Character, Subject, Location and Time Period, and provides a visual representation of your matching books. There’s free access to this premium website in our libraries and from your home computer, although you will need to be a library member (with a PIN on your card) for the latter service.

Another service is provided by Abebooks in their Booksleuth forum. You will have to register, but this is free and provided access not only to a community forum, an on-line book group and a book finding service, but the invaluable booksleuth tool. Divided into the categories of general, children’s, science-fiction, romance and non-fiction, I’ve found my elusive titles about 90% of the time.

As the information providers are enthusiastic and friendly amateurs like oneself, one feels part of a club of worldwide readers, who are only too willing to help fellow bibliophiles. One also picks up ideas for books worth reading as well as those wretched elusive titles!

Waugh and Orwell

George Orwell & Eveyln Waugh in love and war
The same man : George Orwell & Eveyln Waugh in love and war

Two of my all time literary heroes are George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. The readability of their plots, the crispness of their prose and the 1930’s settings of many of their works has always appealed to me.

Although I have read several biographies of both I was unaware of how much esteem each felt for the other. Despite their differing views on religion and politics, it is surprising how much they had in common. Orwell, for example, was working on a review of Waugh’s works during his final illness and received letters of praise for both Animal Farm and 1984 from the latter. Both despised the effects of the Twentieth Century on Britain and the world; both hated political correctness, their public school upbringing and cant and hypocrisy; both were disgusted by relativism, material greed, ignorance and the rule of the ill-educated specialist. Basil Seal, the anti-hero of so many of Waugh’s books, is a typical example of the new man they fear and loathe.

Their compatibility is shown in one of the most moving chapters of the book in which Waugh visited the dying Orwell, an event of which I was hitherto unaware. What I wouldn’t give for a verbatim account of this meeting!

It cannot be a coincidence that both of these writers remain popular today. Their style, honesty and refusal to compromise have meant their works have survived while most of their contemporaries have been been forgotten. After reading Lebedoff’s book I feel inspired to re-read all of Waugh’s works, in addition to my regular perusal of Orwell’s.