Book Reviews January 2016

They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper’ by Bruce Robinson

Published by Fourth Estate

Reviewed by Steve Earles

A quick internet search will reveal a mind-boggling amount of books about Jack The Ripper, varying from the well-researched and well-intended, to the all too commonly badly written and wildly absurd- so what does ‘They All Love Jack’ have to offer that the other books don’t?

Well, firstly ‘They All Love Jack’ is written by a certain Bruce Robinson, writer and director of such films as ‘Withnail And I’ and ‘The Rum Diary’ ( I have to add here that the book ‘Smoking In Bed’ which is a collection of interviews with Bruce Robinson, is one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read, Bruce is a man who has certainly lived rather than just existed), in other words a man with the ability and tenacity to research and tell a story well.

Second Bruce believes that the Establishment covered up the identity of Jack the Ripper, a serious claim but one he has taken twelve years to research. Whether you agree with his conclusions is up to you, what I will say is that this is a superb, thought-provoking, and un-put-down-able book. I won’t spoil any of it for the readers, but Bruce makes a strong case for his argument. It doesn’t surprise me that this book has been long-listed for the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction.

One thing I admire about this book is that Bruce shifts the sympathy back to the where it should be: to the Ripper’s victims. The book’s title is a sarcastic comment on the whole so-called ‘industry’ of Ripperology, and on those Bruce feels covered up the Ripper’s true identity.

Also, ‘They All Love Jack’ highlights the squalor and poverty that the Ripper’s victims lived in. It was this poverty that made them vulnerable, a fact that Bruce is rightfully angry about and brings sharply into focus. In the sense that these unfortunate women were in no way protected or proved with a safe alternative way to make a living (not that you could call what they had to do living, more existing), the establishment (which care not a jot for women or the poor), was very much responsible for their deaths. You could see the Ripper almost as a physical manifestation for the Establishment’s contempt for them. Bruce is rightfully furious with the prejudice and hypocrisy of the Victorian Establishment, as should all courageous people with all hypocrisy ever.

This is not a P.C book. It is a book of passion and depth and bravery. I defy the reader to put it down when they begin it. It deserves as many readers as possible. No higher compliment can I pay it.

p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code’ by Sue Armstrong

Published by Bloomsbury Sigma

Reviewed by Steve Earles

One thing that we all have in common is that we all possess a gene called p53. This gene protects is from cancer, so its importance cannot be understated. It scans our cells to ensure that divide and grow properly. It maintains and repairs our cells. Cancer cannot develop in our bodies unless there is something wrong with p53.

Knowing that it won’t surprise you to learn that p53 is the most studied gene in human history.

This fine book tells the tale of medical science’s work to find out what makes this most crucial gene work, and what happens in cells that turn cancerous.

There are few people cancer hasn’t touched directly or indirectly and so this is an important book for us all, one in three people will be directly affected by cancer at some point in their lives.

It is a very optimistic book, one that highlights the huge advances that have been made and continue to be made in cancer treatment.

An accessible, very readable and very important book that deserves the widest audience possible.

John Le Carré-The Biography’ by Adam Sisman

Published by Bloomsbury

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Le Carré has been a best-selling author for more than five decades, and his readers are more curious about him than ever, something he has of course encouraged, letting slip stories about his past. All this has served to create much interest and speculation whilst further concealing the true nature of the man.

Le Carré blacked a biography from publication back in the 90s, then there was an abandoned (though approved) biography to have been written by the excellent thriller writer Robert Harris. So it says a lot for Adam Sisman’s calibre as a biographer that Le Carré has co-operated with this biography.

Sisman spent five years on this fine book, and without spoiling it for the readers, he reveals that while Le Carré’s past as a spy played a part in his work, his own life played no less significant a one.

This is an important book and one worthy of its hitherto enigmatic subject, no higher praise can I give the author.

Red: A Natural History of the Redhead’ by Jacky Colliss Harvey

Published by Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Red hair has always being a defining and divisive human characteristic throughout history, so it has taken a surprisingly long time for an author to tackle the subject of the redhead, but it’s being worth the wait as Jacky Colliss had done a fine job with this book.

She covers the history of the redhead in great detail, covering everything from art, to prejudice, to genetics (only 2% of the world’s population have the gene for red hair, but the percentage rises in more northerly climes, it is 10% in Ireland and 13% in Scotland. The majority of redheads carry two copies of a recessive variant of the melanocortin 1 receptor which sits on chromosome 16. The two copies of this gene trigger the body to produce the sort of melanin that creates pale skin and red hair. While redheads are sensitive to being burnt by sunlight, they have a superior ability to synthesise vitamin D).

She covers all the clichés associated with red hair such as if you have red hair you must be Irish, Scottish, or bad-tempered!

There is something in the idea that there is a sense of otherness about redheads, but in a positive way. Redheads may be able to produce adrenaline more quickly and this react more quickly. Not so positively, they also feel pain more readily and need 20% more anaesthetic to render them unconscious.

Interestingly, despite some ignorant prejudices against redheads, more red hair dye is sold than any other shade!

So, overall, a well-researched, timely and enjoyable book.

The British at First and Second Ypres’ (Images of War) By Bob Carruthers

Published by Pen and Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Pen and Sword’s ‘Images of War’ series is a fine idea, every picture telling a story, and this volume is no exception. Just the right amount of caption and text puts the photographs in context without overwhelming the overall impact. The contrast between the bright new arrivals of the British Expeditionary Force at Ypres in 1914 and the jaded veterans of later years is striking. The photos of activities behind the lines are also invaluable.

Rails Across Canada: A Pictorial Journey From Coast to Coast’ by David Cable

Published by Pen and Sword Transport

Reviewed by Steve Earles

One of the highlights of the great film ‘Narrow Margin’ starring Gene Hackman and Anne Archer, are the fantastic trains journeys across Canada that it features.

This book’s photographs of trains travelling the epic Canadian landscape are incredible and will inspire the reader to travel there.

The superb photographs are accompanied by an equally appropriate text.

Victorians in Camera: The World of 19th Century Studio Photography’ by Robert Pols

Published by Pen & Sword History

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Having your photograph taken in Victorian times was a very big deal indeed. It was often expensive and arduous, yet today the results are often historically invaluable. But that is how we feel after the fact. This book explores how the Victorians felt about their portraits, exploring what their photographs represented to them, who took them, and where they were displayed. In other words Robert Pols explores the social history behind the photos. He is an expert on old photographs, so his writing is first class. For example, his exploration is why people so seldom smile in Victorian photographs is priceless.

So, to conclude, a well-written and beautifully presented and illustrated book. Kudos to both the author and Pen & Sword.

Cholera: The Victorian Plague’ by Amanda J. Thomas

Published by Pen & Sword History

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This finely written and presented book tells the story of cholera, the disease that scourged the people of Victorian times. Yet this pestilence had a positive side as it led to major changes in sanitation.

Amanda Thomas is a skilled and likeable writer. She draws on first-hand accounts, the most up-to-date scientific research, and archival material to draw together an informative and very readable narrative.

The Victorians believed that cholera was spread by foul air or miasma, and in this they sensed something of the truth of its origins (Though they also thought brandy could cure cholera!)

Amanda’s research and writing is first class and this book would make a great subject for a documentary, no higher compliment can I pay it.

Masters of the Grotesque: The Cinema of Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, the Coen Brothers and David Lynch’ by Schuy R. Weishaar

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Even taken simply at the face value of entertainment, the work of the above creators would be worthy of a book, but Weishaar digs deep into the underlying philosophies of their work.

The highest compliment I can pay this book is it made me want to revisit these creator’s films and see them in a new light.

Hammer Films’ Psychological Thrillers 1950-1972’ by David Huckvale

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Hammer Films are undoubtedly best known for their Gothic horror film, very often starring the iconic Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

But Hammer also made a number of psychological thrillers, influenced by the likes of Hitchcock and Couzot, which, while underrated, are well worth re-evaluating on their own terms. Some of these films such as the fine ‘Paranoiac’ starring Oliver reed are very good indeed.

So, just when you thought that every aspect of Hammer Film’s prolific output had been covered, along comes this fine book. Huckvale covers such film as ‘The Nanny’, ‘The Full Treatment’ and ‘Maniac’. His writing is first class and he explores his subject matter in great detail.

Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped’ by Garry Kasparov

Published by Atlantic

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Garry Kasparov has been an out-spoken vocal critic of Vladimir Putin for over a decade, to the extent of leading the pro-democracy opposition in the 2008 Presidential election. His years of hard-won experience have led him to realise that Putin and the enemies of the Western-style democracy that we are fortunate enough to enjoy, define themselves by their opposition against us. While Western countries still recognise and negotiate with Putin, Kasparov argues it gives him great credibility in his own country, allowing him to behave as he wishes.

This book reveals a harsh truth the majority of people in the West aren’t brave enough to face: That, we are in effect, a free world that does not want the hassle of fighting to protect that freedom, and the day may come when that freedom is gone and we will rue the day we all buried our heads in the sand.

This chilling, well-written, and admirably courageous book deserves, nay, needs to be a bestseller.

The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism Without Consumerism’ by William Irwin

Published by Wiley Blackwell

Reviewed by Steve Earles

I recently read William Urwin’s ‘A Slap In The Face: Why Insults Hurt-And Why They Shouldn’t’. I thoroughly enjoyed its mixture of stoic philosophy, common sense and humour. It was also written in a very accessible style.

So, ‘The Free Market Existentialist’ is written in much the same vein. Without giving away too much of the book and spoiling it for the reader, ‘The Free Market Existentialist’ argues that a synthesis of capitalism and existentialism can result in a truly free-market minimal state funded by an equal tax policy (which basically means that the state is treated as a club where members pay equal amounts for equal benefits).

I recommend this book wholeheartedly, it is truly significant, and will provoke debate and hopefully, positive change.

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Found’ by Frances Larson

Published by Granta

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Heads play a big part on all our lives, after all, with out one, you wouldn’t be reading this!

Serious though, the severing of heads has played a big part in human history: as momento mori or religious relics in churches, as means of execution, as a means of waging terror, for medical research, in this fine book Frances Larson explores all this and more. She is indeed a very good writer, sharp and witty. I have never read a book like this before and she covers everything from Cromwell’s mummified head (in fact, Cromwell’s head was displayed in public until it was buried in 1960!) to Damien Hirst’s platinum skull set with diamonds. The author has certainly done her homework, for instance, studying 3,000 human skulls at the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford.

The heads of dead geniuses, including the composers Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven, were removed so their skulls could be studied by students of phrenology. The head after all carries the seat of our consciousness, so this fascination is not surprising.

At turns macabre and enthralling, this is a marvellous and original book, with a terrific cover design, kudos to both the author and Granta for such a fine piece of work.

Deeds of Darkness’ by Edward Marston

Published by Allison & Busby

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Edward Marston is a fine writer and ‘The Home Front Detective’ series is one of his most inspired creations.

Set during World War One, what makes the series work brilliantly is the juxtaposition of the crimes back in England with the war on the Western Front.

So while Joe Keedy and Harvey Marmion hunt a killer, Marion’s son marches towards the Battle of the Somme, where he is shellshocked and blinded.

It is the dual nature of this story that really makes it special. His feel for the period is perfect and this will appeal to the many fans of his books.

Dance of Death’ by Edward Marston

Published by Alison & Busby

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Once again another fine book by Edward Marston, creator not only of this series (The Home Front Detective Series) but also The Railway Detective Series.

‘Dance of Death’ is the fifth Home front Detective book.

Set in the autumn of 1916, Inspector Marmion and Sargeant Keedy investigate the murder of a certain Simon Wilder, killed during a Zeppelin attack.

As with the previous novels in the series, the writing and plotting is first class. Moreover, the author’s feel for the period is marvellous, like ‘Foyles War’ set during The Great War. It would maker a superb TV series, no greater compliment can I pay these books.

The Strength & Conditioning Bible: How To Train Like an Athlete’ by Nick Grantham

Published by Bloomsbury

Reviewed by Steve Earles

It’s the time of year where we’d all like to get fit again and this useful book from experienced Strength and Conditioning coach Nick Grantham could be a great help with that.

Regardless of the readers’ current fitness, Nick reveals that anyone can train like a professional athlete. He explains the science behind an athlete’s training plan and his book contains an excellent 16-week, 4 stage plan that balances endurance, total body strength, mobility, coordination and athleticism. The beauty of this plan is that it will enable anyone using it to enjoy productive work-outs in the years to come.

A truly great book from an expert in his field.

The Burgoyne Diaries: The First Winter at Ypres With The Royal Irish Rifles’ by Gerald Achilles Burgoyne

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Syeve Earles

Gerald Burgoyne survived the Great War, only to be killed in 1936 by the Italian Air Force while he mules were conveying a Red Cross Unit in Ethiopia. His daughter found these diaries and sent them off to be published.

It has to be said, reading this book, that Burgoyne is an extremely unlikable officer, particularly from the point of view of an Irish man. His contempt for the Irish Volunteer soldiers under his command is simply sickening, particularly when on considers the huge contribution the Irish made to the British army in World War One, something only now coming back into the light. Moreover, things like his obsessive hope that an unfortunate soldier caught sleeping on duty, or his delight at the bombing of Scarborough (thinking it would improve recruitment), show a frankly horrible man.

But, this is who he was, these were his thoughts and opinions, and they are valuable as they show how he really was, and the contempt of the officer class for others, a class the very war he was fighting would help sweep away.

On the positive side, his descriptions of the war are very valuable: they show it in its true horror and filth. A hard read in some ways then, but with the diary entries, maps and Burgoyne’s sketches, it is one of value in its own right.

The Great War Illustrated: 1915’ Archive and Colour Photographs of WW1’ by William Langford and Jack Holroyd

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

There are so many books being published about The Great War, yet this is superior to so many. Featuring over 1,000 painstaking restored photographs, with just the right amount of text to put the images into perspective, and beautifully designed, quite simply, if you had to buy only one book on 1915 in The Great War, it has to be this one.

You will literarily get a lifetime of use out of it, and every time you go back to it, you will see some detail you have never seen before.

Every picture truly does tell a story here. Highly recommended.

Horses of the Great War: The Story in Art’ By John Fairley

Published by Pen & Sword Military

Reviewed by Steve Earles

It wasn’t just human beings on all sides in The Great War that paid a terrible cost, the horses they depended on paid just as high a price in death and suffering.

I doubt this could be better portrayed than in this beautifully produced collection of paintings of horses from The Great War. The text is learned and sympathetic and just right, while the reproductions of the paintings are superb. As with the previously reviewed ‘The Great War Illustrated: 1915’, every picture truly does tell a story.

A truly moving book highlighting a side of the Great War people don’t always think of…but should.

The Light Railways of Britain & Ireland’ by Anthony Burton and John Scott-Morgan

Published by Pen & Sword Transport

Reviewed by Steve Earles

First published back in 1985, great credit is due to Pen & Sword for bringing this fine book back into print.

This books tells the tale of Britain’s last railway development, the Rural light railways which were constructed as a result of the Light Railways Act of 1890.

The research and detail of the writing are meticulous and it works, not just on the level of railway history, but as a social history, and one that will appeal greatly to enthusiasts of either genre.

I must also give mention to the beautiful printing and presentation of this book, and the beautiful photographs contained therein.

A fine and enduring piece of work.

Medieval Mercenraries: The Business of War’ by William Urban

Foreword by Terry Jones

Published Frontline Books

Reviewed by Steve Earles

In medieval times the mercenary armies were like a plague unto civilisation: paid killers who could only be controlled by those who could afford to pay them. As Terry Jones, a man most knowledgeable in all things medieval, writes in his introduction: ‘In 1980 I wrote a little about the mercenary armies of the fourteenth century and how their proliferation throughout Europe was regarded by contemporaries as a catastrophe on a par with the Great Plague itself. It seemed then as big a threat to civilisation as the Atom Bomb does to us today: a Sword of Damocles hanging over us all…a genie that has been let out of the bottle and can never be put back in…Well, I can also say that I wish I’d had this book back in 1980.’

Quite a compliment from Terry Jones.

William Urban starts with the professional armies of Rome, tracing the rise of mercenary troops in the tenth and eleventh centuries, until they grew to dominate the battlefield in the Hundred Years War.

Mercenaries are always trapped between the hammer and anvil of victory or defeat. Defeat meant death but victory meant unemployment.

As the readers makes his way through Urban’s fine book, they will realise that the real villains are not the mercenaries, they are only the tool of those who would profit from war. A cursory glance at the news tonight will tell you such people are always with us.

I don’t want to spoil the book for the readers but I have to highlight two particularly great chapters.

The first is ‘Forming The Victorian Imagination: Chaucer’s Knight and Twain’s Saint’, where the author explores the contrast between the knight of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ (where he wisely draws upon Terry Jones’ fine ‘Chaucer’s Knight’). Of Twain Urban writes perceptively that Twain “wrote three ‘historical romances: ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ (1881), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and ‘Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc’ (1895). As novels they are either marred (or made readable) by his wry sense of humour. That is, he was a smart alec and proud of it. Most of his comments on medieval society were aimed directly at contemporary counterparts; and he never lacked an opinion on any subject. It is at this cross-section of the humorous and serious that Terry Jones and Mark Twain meet.

The second is ‘Forming The Victorian Imagination: The White Company’, which discusses Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The White Company’. This is a truly great and interesting piece of writing.

Overall, a well-written, well-researched book that deserves a wide audience and would make the basis for a terrific documentary series.