Review: Cosmonauts, the birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum.



Cosmonauts, birth of the space age, is an exhibition well worth a visit no matter how interested you are in Space. I spent over an hour and half there, and probably could have comfortably stretched another 30 minutes out of it, so even if I hadn’t gotten a gratis ticket because I have a blog I would have gladly paid the entrance fee at the ticket office, instead of at the gift shop at the end. It’s layout cleverly takes you through a chronological story from 1903 to 2010, the amount of 1st’s the Soviet Space Program and today’s Roscosmos accrued in that time is baffling. It is full of atmosphere and education, representing years of work to get the 150 or so artefacts to London from Moscow, almost none of which have ever left Russia. The guides and curators are very knowledgable and take time with people. When I was there several of them had extended conversations with an elderly Polish woman who was very voluble about her admiration of Russia, and eager to learn the details about the Cosmonauts and show her young relative around. The museum guards keep a sharp eye on those carrying cameras, so if you are carrying one make sure the lens cap is on and in a neutral position, it helps them relax. Backpacks appear to be fine, I saw two people wearing them. When I visited it was very overheated, so just in case wear something that isn’t too bulky or that you can comfortably carry around. The exhibition lets out into the well stocked gift shop and subsequently into the cafe. There are T shirts, and buttons and pins, a space dog cuddly toy, a great selection of books and stacks of postcards and prints. And if your budget goes to £100 and your style is akin to Will.I.A.M then the replica Cosmonaut jacket is definitely for you.
This exhibition was better than I could have expected, so please, when you go take your time to appreciate it to its full, it truly is a once in a lifetime show that tells a largely untold story. It is an exhibition that will make you reevaluate what you thought you knew about the Space Race, and encourage you to think about the importance of cooperation in the the future.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age
Discover the story of Russian space travel in this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition
From 18/09/2015
To 13/03/2016
Price: £14 (concessions available)
Continue reading “Review: Cosmonauts, the birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum.”

Book Review: Gallipoli by Jenny Macleod

Hardcover: 280 pages
Publisher: OUP Oxford (23 July 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 019964487X


Gallipoli, it’s a name most know, but few can pronounce, let alone fully appreciate. In the centenary year a great drive has been made to understand its place in the history of the nation’s who fought it, and therefore get a better grasp of why it matters, why it resonates still. A slim volume, with an attractive cover, 191 reading pages in all excluding the preface and introduction, notes etc, it’s not a cut and dry battle story.

Although each book in the Oxford Great Battle’s series includes (as they must) a description of the battle in question for perspective, the focus of the series realistically lies in the investigation of how the event is passed on and remembered.
These slim volumes are rich in detail despite being less than roomy for in depth discussion or narrative. Gallipoli by Jenny Macleod follows the set pattern laid down so far.
It begins with a fairly typical account of the campaign, detailing the mistakes of the allied General’s, the suffering of the troops, the heroism of the varying national contingents and the much more creditable performance of the Turkish commanders. This section takes up just under half of the book. Hindsight is deployed to present a coherent overview, and as with such studies it is necessary to focus on the decisive elements of the action in question.
The ANZAC legend looms large over any account of Gallipoli. Modern scholarship has tried to squeeze it back into its proper place. Macleod presents the conflict from a multinational standpoint, but because the legacy of the main players is what the book is really about, there is no doubt that the British, Australians and Turkish are the central nations examined. This as a consequence marginalises the Indian contribution to the Empire forces, though they are mentioned in the account of the campaign, it may be that there has been so little recognition of the Indian story that it did not merit its own chapter later on.

The legacy of Gallipoli, from then to now, is what primarily concerns the author and should be the main selling point of the book. I highly admire this series for its excellent idea to highlight the tricky subject of how a legend gets passed down to us. The second half of the book is split in three, dealing with the legacy of the Australian and New Zealand participation, that of the British and Irish experience, and that of Turkey.

I feel this book will be a must for those seeking to find out why Gallipoli should be remembered. People who saw and liked the Water Diviner will I think enjoy it. People interested in how Battles can influence the history of nations, apart from their military significance should definitely consider it, as it is a greatly enlightening read.

Book Review: Breaking the Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira Teitel.

Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma (22 Oct. 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472911172
ISBN-13: 978-1472911179


Good books have a smooth, attractively designed dust jackets that cling snugly to stiffly bound covers. There is a soft, comforting waft of quality compressed paper and ink as the pages fan down from under your thumb. These elements all come together not only to provide a good reading experience, but a good product that you are proud to own and take care of as well.
Therefore to begin with I’m going to give my usual hat doff to the publishers, Bloomsbury Sigma, the science imprint of the international publishing group. This book has all of the above and as a result is a very well produced volume. It’s got an understated, quirky sort of “Tomorrowland” cover that compliments the theme, a very deadpan Wernher von Braun holds a model rocket flanked by a laughing President Eisenhower and a smiling Neil Armstrong, perhaps he just told an effective double entendre or otherwise he’s not getting the joke. Anyway, a big thumbs up from me for not doing any gold embossing that rubs off if you carry it around too much (because in addition to being an attractive thing, a book should be able to take being held or transported for extended periods), well done guys.
The nuts and bolts of the book are, 263 reading pages, this is including the preface and subtracting the facing pages and end sections which include a contents at the front, and glossaries of people, places and organisations and rockets, a bibliography, acknowledgements and index at the back. In the centre there is an 8 page image section of 24 images, with an average of 3-4 pictures per page 2 of which are in colour.

It was surprising to find out that the idea of a space station was dreamt up in 1952, and the concept of a manned mission to Mars also has its origins around this time. Why? Because all of a sudden new and powerful rockets had unlocked the key to spaceflight. Breaking the Chains of Gravity tells the up and down story of Spaceflight before NASA (literally in some cases). It is the first book to be written by popular Space Historian, vlogger, blogger, and writer Amy Shira Teitel and without a doubt this will be a feast for Space-fans, students, and lovers of good history writing no matter who they are. As she points out in the preface, most books about the history of American Space exploration begin with President Kennedy pledging to put a man on the moon, however the reason he was able to make his extravagant promise is not always made clear, nor indeed is the story of how NASA was able to rise to his challenge. Those who think the Space Administration was created in a vacuum are in for a real jolting negative G moment, and those searching for the background to NASA story have just had their prayers answered. Have no fear about ending up lost in bewildering a gimbal lock, because one of the main goals of this book is clarity and approachability, take it from me I’m quite new to all this myself.

Starting with the first German Hobbyists who began experimenting with Rockets in the 1920’s, a fair portion of the first half of the book examines the efforts of the German scientists like Valier and von Braun, the latter of whom remains a central figure of the story, as they try to perfect a high altitude rocket that could be launched into Space. It continues through WW2 and shows how the ideas of these German geniuses were turned into devastating military weapons, and how they eventually ended up in America tackling the challenges of surmounting first the Sound Barrier and then achieving Escape Velocity. The story of Rocketry, the German influence and the subsequent disjointed American effort is integral to the book, highlighting the desperate need for a unified Space administration in the United States, especially after the Russians launched Sputnik and it ends with the creation of NASA. Alongside these men of intellect are the daring test pilots (and a few monkeys, mice and a dog) and alongside these daring men are their machines, from rocket cars to V-2’s to X-planes, Gee Whiz soap car simulators, Highman balloon capsules and an array of mighty rockets there is a real spread of gadgetry, innovation and aircraft to get your teeth into.
I am really blown away by the way this book balances narrative and information. A really compulsive story, excellently and engagingly told, effortlessly carries the burden of fact and detail with as much deceptive ease as a Redstone Rocket. Expertly taking you from start to finish without dragging or slowing down, the writing hits just the right tone and never goes out of tune. This I found to be an excellently crafted and addictive read, a real blast of a book that to be honest I liked from the first sentence and would be an excellent gift. I will have no hesitation in recommending this book in the future.


Book Review: Warriors of the Storm by Bernard Cornwell

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins (8 Oct. 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0007504071


First off it’s confession time, I’ve never read a Bernard Cornwell book in my life. So it was a great surprise if not a privilege for Harper Collins to send his new book my way.
Nice job on the cover by the way guys. The whole production is just tops, and I always applaud a publisher that decides to match a cover picture to the era inside. I’m not naming names, but some people should really find the difference between a Napoleonic uniform and an early 18th century one, that’s all, and absolutely nothing to do with Warriors of the Storm. Having admitted my ignorance, I will now qualify that I have of course heard of Cornwell, I am familiar with what people have to say about his writings and know a few people that are fans. All say the best things about his books, and overall everyone seems impressed by his original idea to focus a series on Britain in early Saxon times. Including me.
Fans will know him first because his name is on the front and his photo is in the back, and also by the long and distinguished list of books forever attached to his name. The well known Sharpe series, the Grail Quest series, the Warlord Chronicles which is set at the time of King Arthur… Whenever that was, and not forgetting the Starbuck series which flies somewhat below the radar these days thanks to more popular series’. It’s the thrilling tale of how a barista travels back in time to the American Civil War. Alright no it’s not about that, it’s just about the American civil war.
Most recently though he’s been writing The Last Kingdom Series. Formerly known as the Warrior Chronicles. So far Warriors of the Storm is the 9th instalment of the adventures of Uhtred of Babbenburg (no it’s not the origin of the cake, that’s Battenberg), easily outnumbering his other stuff except for Sharpe.
So what can Cornwell fans look for in this? Strong characters? Yep! Pithy, action packed story lines? You betcha! Lots of men standing dressed in mail with beards under stormy skies in drizzling rain talking about their feelings? Well… sort of.
Seriously, Cornwell knows what he’s doing here, it’s well paced, fast moving and full of violent action, tough guys, bad guys, and backed up by the usual array of strong female enemies and allies most of whom are or where entranced with the hero at some point or another. Actually tough guys doesn’t quite describe most of the characters, who would make most other fictional tough guys dissolve into a sobbing jelly. We should bear in mind that this is an evolving story, and as such others will be better placed to see it in the larger picture, my take is that in long series’ some books focus on different things, this one is driven by the story, the hero and the enemy rather than exploring nitty gritty details and sub characters, allowing a developed character to flex his muscles a little and have some free rein. This is intelligent, unapologetic and gritty writing, yet the prose outside of the rough and tumble dialogue has the natural elegance of an expert storyteller, and there are echoes of the evocative Saxon poems that partly inspired the novel. Uhtred for a start lives in a brutal age were violence and cruelty is fairly normal. He’s a Pagan, but one who reluctantly seems to fight alongside Christians against whom he is supremely bigoted. This element in itself is interesting as old Pagan Britain collides with the ideas that will dominate her religious future until the present times. Uhtred and most of his cohorts are quite willing to kill prisoners, enslave children and take the women home for the lads, or if in a good mood cut off the sword hands of prisoners. Which is what one would expect of an experienced warlord of this time. It’s a characterisation well done, though in truth it raises the question is he any better than the Norsemen he’s fighting? Who is the bad guy really? Is there such a thing? It is all a far cry from the legends of King Arthur.
In this book, Arthur is just a legend and Alfred is dead, that’s King Alfred, and the Kingdom is faced by invasion. A great Norse warlord has gained an alliance with an Irish Chieftain and has come to carve out a kingdom for himself. Uhtred is the only man who can stop them, and must battle old personal enemies as well as the Norse, the enemies of his people to preserve the kingdom. For fans, all the Cornwell hallmarks are there to enjoy, for newcomers… Why are you starting with book nine?