Book Reviews: Astonishing Horse Endurance, Or A Magic Bull In Paris

December 20, 2020

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The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things: The Caine Prize for African Writing

How To Fly A Horse by Kevin Ashton

Endurance by Scott Kelly

We’ll Always Have Paris by Emma Beddington

The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom

Sorting The Beef From The Bull: The Science Of Food Fraud Forensics by Richard Evershed & Nicola Temple


This collection of short stories can not be given a single rating. The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things contains stories that are superb and others that fail to reach that standard. This is a collection of prize-winning short stories written by African writers. The Caine Prize judges have awarded writers from Nigeria, Zambia, South Africa, Somalia and other countries. This book reflects the high standard of writing on the African continent, exposing the African mind, culture and feelings and is a good read. In this mix of stories, my rating ranges from 6 to 8 out of 10. – DB


As an interesting miscellany of fascinating behind-the-scenes stories about innovators, inventors, pioneers and the myriad contexts in which their contributions to their areas of expertise, How To Fly A Horse is an entertaining, easy read. Author Kevin Ashton, a high-profile MIT technologist, is fascinated with the motivation provided by a solution that does not yet exist, and there is a recurring thread in the book that sees various individuals turn the world upside down – often having to fight against prevailing wisdom to do so – by being especially creative in their thinking, but not only that. Ashton would have readers believe that such milestones are not the result of momentary inspiration, but rather outcome of years of hard graft that finally comes to fruition – a sort of modification of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10 000 hours rule. But his intent and his narrative don’t add up. Some of his examples superficially support his claim, but the conclusions he draws from the descriptions he gives are often ambiguous at best. And sometimes, while the trivia he reveals are eye-opening (for instance, the fact that the vanilla industry as it is today may not exist at all but for a discover by a slave), his insistence that his over-arching hypothesis holds true throughout is palpably false (the discovery was probably an accident, and certainly didn’t require the slave to spend years of his life in preparation). As a motivational tome with a twist, then, this book doesn’t quite hold up, but as a curated haul through some little-visited corners of history, it’s worth a look.


Endurance is an in-depth account of the life of an astronaut, his deeply personal history of his growing up and his developing passion for space travel, his training and his triumphs and the personal costs. “Endurance” is a fitting title for this absorbing book. The journey from his birthplace in Oregon, USA to the International Space Station via Kazakhstan was tortuous. Life with his brother was a series of escapades, landing them both in hospital and in trouble. School education was a bore. The first experience of college was equally uninspiring. At this point, at 18, he happened to pick up a book, The Right Stuff, giving him the outline of a life plan. His grades began to improve, and soon he was accepted into the State University of New York Maritime School. A new world was opening up. He becomes a pilot with the US Navy, achieves new academic qualifications and gains experience which will fit him for greater  challenges. He is, after a rigorous selection process, taken into the NASA space programme, is part of various space missions, and becomes in due course a candidate for the greatest mission yet – three astronauts (one American, one Japanese and one Russian) spending a whole year in space. The book is an account of the technology and engineering, the international cooperation, the science and the humanity that are all parts of these extraordinary project. The three crew members are immaculately prepared, fine-tuned to the rigours of life on the craft. We are given in-depth knowledge of their lives: what has shaped them and what they have made of their talents and abilities. Their relationships with their Earth-bound families play a huge role in their preparation. Their health is under constant scrutiny, not only for the sake of the mission but also for scientific analysis and understanding. Kelly deals with the overall design and construction of the craft, the day-to-day challenges of checking and maintaining it and the real risks which this mission poses, all in readily readable language. The narrative gives life and personality to the amazing international team at Baikonur, and the human drama of the preparations and the launch. And the book begins and ends with Scott Kelly and his family, his departure and his re-entry, and the huge price they all pay for his involvement in this enterprise. This is a book which blends so many elements, the history of space travel, the men and women involved, the tragedies and the aspirations. It is intimate and at the same time broad in its reach. Deeply absorbing. – RH


Whereas déjà vu conveys the sense of feeling like you have already experienced something, and jamais vu that you have never encountered it, there does not seem to be a word that describes the certainty that you are not who or where you are supposed to be. Emma Beddington is a Yorkshire-born freelance writer and blogger who, as a teenager, had a lightbulb moment that her purpose in life was actually to be French. With remarkable tenacity she pursued her newfound dream, to the extent that she finds herself living in Paris with her French boyfriend and their two sons. However, true contentment remains tragically elusive, and life, as many people know, often doesn’t go quite as we plan. In We’ll Always Have Paris, she is bravely honest about her journey, and while encountering another’s existential crisis can sometimes be too much like surgery without anaesthetic, her candidness and strong style carries the narrative. While the subtitle reads “Trying and failing to be French”, Beddington has succeeded in delivering a poignant and searching memoir. – KD


A fantastically (literally) entertaining epic tale, The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto could succinctly be described as Forrest Gump meets The Book Thief – with guitars. Frankie Presto is a wonderful character, a child from a tough background who, using an almost unmatched musical talent, rises to greatness, if not middle of the road fame. Author Mitch Albom weaves Frankie’s life through real-life international timelines, placing him at milestone events and having him meet – often by bizarre chance – famous people who readers will already feel they know. Presto is a complex, flawed character; a sensitive artist exposed to the trials of huge celebrity and a sweet, approachable man with a somewhat tortured psyche. It’s a story that can be appreciated on many levels – for the skill and imagination in the writing but also for the fascinating dips into history and certainly, for music fans with any sort of general knowledge, for the nods towards vibrant personalities, interesting trends and historic events that altered the course of popular culture as it happened in reality, and which would have done so even more had Frankie Presto been involved. The supernatural element suggested by the title is yet another successful thread – one that could be clumsy and frustrating if badly handled, but which in Albom’s hand is lyrical, adding to the transcendent quality of music in general and of the imagined, life-changing talent of this narrative’s protagonist specifically. A book to re-read and pass down to new generations.


An absorbing and important topic, food fraud affects anyone who eats, and insights into what to look for. There is so much garbage – of all sorts, and in all sorts of quantities – in what we eat that Sorting The Beef From The Bull could have the impact of anything between a sort of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not collection and a horror novel. Anywhere in that range, it would be a pleasing read. But unfortunately – purely from a style and ease of reading point of view – the publishers and authors have chosen a far denser, more academic way of presenting a tidal wave of facts. And while everything they say is pertinent to readers’ awareness of how what they are eating affects their health, budgets and possibly chances of survival, the heaviness of the text means reading this book becomes a scholastic endeavour rather than something more leisurely.

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