What You Can Get Away With » Books

With the Tour de France over for another year, I decided to stretch out the experience of it a little by reading Boulting’s behind-the-scenes account of reporting on the Tour from 2003 to 2010. He’ll be familiar to viewers of cycling on ITV4 as the main field reporter for the Tour de France, and also as the presenter of the Tour Series and Tour of Britain (which means he gives Colchester the briefest of mentions late in the book).

This is the story of how Boulting went from being an out-of-his-depth football reporter dispatched to cover the Tour (the ‘Yellow Jumper’ of the title comes from his disastrous first Tour broadcast) to a passionate fan of cycling. It’s the sort of book that could have descended into Partridgean anecdotage, but while I haven’t checked, I don’t believe ‘needless to say, I had the last laugh’ features anywhere in the book.

Rather than going into the day-by-day minutiae of each Tour he’s covered, Boulting instead presents a series of vignettes about life on the tour, most of which go on to reveal a much wider picture of one of the world’s largest sporting events. We get to see what goes on to bring the Tour to TV screens worldwide, from how Gary Imlach keeps his clothing crease-free to how much of a task it is to feed a small army of journalists every day. In the process, we see how Boulting goes from being almost entirely ignorant of professional cycling to an experienced and somewhat cynical reporter. Indeed, it’s his honesty that helps to lift this book above the humdrum, and you suspect that if he was working in a sport that wasn’t as routinely scandalous as cycling, his candidness (about doping, the personalities of some of the sport’s stars and the somewhat bizarre world of Team Sky) might see him uninvited from future events.

Boulting’s an amusing writer, and one able to keep perspective on his situation. While there are complaints about what it’s like to live on the road in France amidst a moving army for three weeks, he knows that most of his readers will envy him his job and the privileges that go with it, not pity him for it. The one thing the book lacks, though, is a definite ending. When he talks about the first rumours of Team Sky’s launch in 2008, it’s almost a foreshadowing of the end of an era, but the Tour remains on ITV4, with many of the same team who started covering it on Channel 4 in the 80s still there. For those of us who’ve been watching during those twenty-five years, it’s a good read and recommended.

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Not had much of a chance to read over the last few weeks, and when I have, my time’s been occupied by this rather detailed look at life in Britain during its time as part of the Roman Empire. The focus is a bit more archaeological than historical compared to my usual reading, but still had lots of interesting information about life during the period. Not one to read if you’re looking for a simple history of the period, but the wealth of detail does make it useful and interesting if you have the time.

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Helping me keep up my average of a book a week this year, The Inheritors is Golding’s second novel (after Lord Of The Flies) and like that, it’s also a look at some of humanity’s darker impulses. Here, though, the focus is on humanity’s beginnings as seen from the viewpoint of a group of Neanderthals encountering this new type of people for the first time. Golding expertly creates a perspective that’s non-human but understandable as what’s effectively a tragedy unfolds through a mutual incomprehensibility and fear. Definitely a classic novel, and well-worth a look.

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As you might have noticed, I was off on holiday last week and A Clash Of Kings was my selection of holiday reading. Not the sort of light stuff people normally recommend for holidays, but then I was in the Lake District rather than lounging on a beach.

As ever, spoilers follow, so look away now and don’t click the link for more if you don’t want to know what happens.

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This is the final book in the Romanitas trilogy – the first two of which I read last year and wrote about here – though it’s worth noting that the first two books have been reissued by a new publisher in advance of Savage City, and there has apparently been some re-editing of them for the new releases. However, as far as I’m aware there have been no changes in the story along the way.

Anyway, the full review is after the ‘read more’ link, and I would warn you not to click it if you haven’t read the book and are planning to, as it’s almost impossible to review without dropping some major spoilers (this review by Pornokitsch attempts it, however). In capsule, though, if you’ve read the first two books in the series then you should get round to reading this as soon as possible, and if you haven’t then take a look at my review from last year.

And that’s the last of your warnings. Look away now if you don’t want to know the result.

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I have been debating whether to count this as an entire book for the purposes of numbering as it’s quite short, but deciding on including it if only to stop things from getting too complicated. However, it also says something about the story itself – Pullman has an interesting idea here, that Jesus and Christ were twins who history later conflated, but the depth and complexity of an idea like that isn’t addressed in the way you’d expect a novel to do so. In that way, it’s much more of a novella, and for me it suffers a bit from the simplicity. I often found myself comparing it to Russell T Davies’ The Second Coming – another story written by an atheist about the relationship between humanity and a self-proclaimed Messiah – and how that managed to wring a lot more interest out of similar material.

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Another bit of my attempt to widen my historical knowledge, this book does exactly what it says on the tin an provides a good overview of 200 years of Roman history. There’s obviously a limit to how much detail Scullard can provide in this overview, but he does a very good job of linking the different trends in Roman society and politics together to explain how the Republic began to crumble under the pressures its expansion had put in under, how the early Empire emerged from that process and then how it stabilised itself.

Scullard does presuppose some knowledge of how the Republic worked, so perhaps not one to read if you know nothing of the Roman systems, and sometimes the pace of events and the tide of similar sounding names can get a bit overwhelming. He also has a tendency to moralise on occasions, and I sometimes suspect that he wished he could be back in the midst of the events, advising the Senate about where they were getting it wrong and how the Republic could survive if only they’d listen to him.

Also, while Nero as the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors does seem to mark an appropriate point to stop, it does bring the narrative to a rather abrupt halt in the midst of a crisis. There’s a quick summing up of the Year of Four Emperors and the rise of Vespasian, but it perhaps needs a bit more detail to wrap up the historical narrative and show the future course of the Empire. Though as with any history of Rome, any end date is somewhat arbitrary.

All in all, a rather good history and a useful guide to the period.

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I’ve had this book sitting on a shelf for ages since someone gave it to me with the recommendation that I might like it. So, when the TV adaptation of the series began and got great reviews I decided it was time to finally give it a go, because as I don’t have Sky Atlantic it’ll be sometime before I get to see it and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

And now I regret having left it on the shelf for so long because it’s a truly great book. More discussion follows, but there will be plenty of spoilers so don’t read further if you want to remain pure.

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Only time for a quick review of this one, the final book in Stross’ Merchant Princes series, which I found a bit disappointing. The series as a whole has been pretty interesting, but has suffered from a certain amount of narrative sprawl, as sub-plots spawn sub-plots, which makes it somewhat to pick up the threads again at the start of each book. This is the last book in the series, but it feels more like it ends at a convenient point rather than reaches a climax – maybe he’s leaving it open for a series of sequels – and I was left with a feeling of ‘oh, is that it?’ at the end.

That’s not to say there aren’t some fun and interesting bits on the way – and, if nothing else, he’s created a fascinating universe in this series – but the whole seems somewhat less than the sum of the parts and I found myself wishing he’d wrenched more out of the scenario and the questions left unanswered at the end. Some of which was exacerbated even more by reading some of his initial notes and ideas for the series, of course.

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Back in the 90s, I can recall reading a review of one of the novels in Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series and thinking that it sounded like an interesting read. Over the years, I’ve seen copies of different books in the series in various shops and thought ‘ah yes, one day I’ll find the first one and start reading that’. Of course, since then, the books have drifted out of print and sightings have become rarer and rarer, but someone out there has clearly been thinking of people like me, as they’ve now returned.

In fact, they’ve returned bigger than before – what was originally an eight book series, cut down from a planned nine, has now returned as a reworked and re-edited series that’s planned to contain a grand total of twenty books. From what I understand, this isn’t a doubling of the original series, more releasing what were originally doorstep-sized novels split into two with some new material added. Son of Heaven is the first of these, and I understand that it’s almost entirely new material, created to serve as a prequel and a curtain-raiser for the larger story that is to follow.

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