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Review: British Rail: a new history - Christian Wolmar ****

If you're interested in railways - and it's hard to imagine why you would buy this book if you're not - this is a fascinating exploration of the rise and fall of British Railways/British Rail from nationalisation in 1948 through to privatisation in the mid-1990s. Along the way, we take in the phasing out of steam (and why, unlike many other countries we mostly converted to diesel), the infamous Beeching cuts of the network in the 1960s, successes such as the 125 mile per hour High Speed Train with the InterCity brand and more. What comes across most strongly is the way that interference from government has time and again messed things up. It's not that the railway management itself was without faults - particularly in the way that the old regions, reflecting the four private companies that were taken over, tried to still do things their own way. And Christian Wolmar is no fan of the many restrictive practices that had to be gradually removed in the face of resistance fr
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Review: Dear Bill Bryson - Ben Aitken ***

This is what they call a high concept book - you don't need many details to get the point, as what it sells is a clear, simple concept. In this case it's retracing Bill Bryson's journey from his 1995 book Notes from a Small Island , as much as possible staying and eating in the same places, seeing the same sights and having the same experiences. This book just jumped at me off the bookshelf - I love travel books that are humorous (the serious ones generally come across as far too worthy) and am a big fan of Bryson, even when he had the temerity to amble into popular science. As a result, I was a little unnerved when I read in Ben Aitken's introduction 'I mention this (the book being an irreverent homage, rather than a pious and gushing one) to give the more zealous members of Bryson's fan club a chance to back out now... Nor am I funny. If I ever seem funny, or write things that seem funny, it is almost always by accident.' So, it's arguable this introdu

Best writing advice

I saw on Twitter the other day (via someone I know answering it), the question 'What's the best writing advice you would give to someone who wants to become a writer?' My knee-jerk response was 'Don't do it, because you aren't one.' What I mean by this is that - at least in my personal experience - you don't become a writer. Either you are one, or you aren't. There's plenty of advice to be had on how to become a better writer, or how to become a published writer... but certainly my case I always was one - certainly as soon as I started reading books.  While I was at school, I made comics. I wrote stories.  My first novel was written in my teens (thankfully now lost). I had a first career that wasn't about being a writer, but I still wrote in my spare time, sending articles off to magazines and writing a handful of novels. And eventually writing took over entirely. If you are a writer, you can't help yourself. You just do it. I'm writ

Book for Swindon's Festival of Tomorrow

I'm delighted to be appearing again at Swindon's Festival of Tomorrow . This year I've a fun talk based on the book Lightning Often Strikes Twice , taking place on Saturday 18 February at 10.45am in the Egg Theatre at Swindon's Deanery Academy. We'll be exploring common misperceptions in science from the the title behaviour of lightning to toast falling butter side down, the suicidal behaviour of lemmings, the confusing nature of food packaging and far more. You'll even take part in a long-running science experiment. Book here - you need to 'Reserve a spot' for the day, then add tickets for the talk. £2 for adults, under 18 free! The full Festival is on over two days - you can get the big picture here . See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here

Review: The Appeal - Janice Hallett *****

Wow. This is the most original modern murder mystery novel I've read in a long time. When I opened it and found that the text was primarily made up of page after page of emails, my heart sank. Admittedly epistolary novels are hardly something new, dating back to the very first entries in the field, but while some can be delightful (one of my favourite Gene Wolfe books, The Sorcerer's House , for example), some can be heavy going. I shouldn't have worried, though - these emails, primarily between members of the Fairway Players amateur dramatics group - tell a story beautifully and extremely engagingly. The title is a double reference - much of the book is concerned with an appeal to raise money for a novel medical treatment for the granddaughter of the am dram group's leaders, the Haywards. However, the whole thing is framed as a collection of evidence that is being assessed by a pair of young legal associates, whose boss wants them to view the documents dispassionately

Has the war in Ukraine killed HVDC from Northern Africa?

Every now and then someone points out that you could power all the UK's needs, or even all of Europe with solar panels located in a relatively small area of North Africa. Of course, there is a technical problem with this - getting the electrical energy all the way to its destination. The preferred solution tends to be HVDC - high voltage direct current. Traditionally, we've used AC (alternating current) to transmit power, because it's easy to switch voltages of AC using transformers. High voltage is desirable for long distance transmission, because this reduces the amount of current required to carry the same amount of energy, and the lower the current, the less that is lost to heat. However, now it is far more practical to convert DC to AC, HVDC has become important because it can reduce both the cost of the transmission process and the energy loss. It is now used for many of the interconnectors that allow electricity to flow between countries. Perhaps more obvious than th

Review: Blurb Your Enthusiasm - Louise Willder ****

As someone with a good number of published books, I couldn't help be fascinated by Louise Willder's exploration of everything there is to know about book blurbs (and quite a lot about how books are presented that isn't about blurbs). But the good news is that you don't have to be in the business to find this chunky little hardback enjoyable. Willder has apparently written over 5,000 book blurbs (the bits on the back or dustcover flap that tell you about the book) and both knows the topic inside out and also delights in it. We discover the difficulties of getting a whole book across in a couple of hundred words without resorting to gushing praise, how humour can entice the reader in, how blurbs differ from country to country and far more. As suggested above, Willder also brings in things like cover design, titles and subtitles, front cover text, review extracts and even opening lines (and page 69) as examples of other ways a potential reader might be persuaded to first