Book Reviews: Expedition Records, Or Agents On The Side

April 29, 2024




Guinness World Records 2024

Which Side Is Up? by Zapiro

Agents Of The State by Mike Nicol

Spire by Fiona Snyckers

My Great Expedition by Justin Fox


It was inevitable that what began as a collection of notable achievements in fields that mattered to a large number of people – athletic prowess, agricultural outputs, wonders of Nature and so on – would steadily widen its scope to recognise the efforts of those engaged in more niche pursuits. But though that path took succeeding collections of Guinness World Records past some very entertaining milestones, the contemporary form of the concept has gone past “over the top” and wandered happily into “silly” territory. There are whole spreads dedicated to a single freestyle football expert; to ‘super seniors’, to a vegetable burger and to merfolk (mermaids and mermen), among much, much else. That’s the sort of weird conglomeration of topics served up by an Instagram algorithm and perhaps that’s the point – if that’s where the large numbers of consumers are, that’s where the marketing aims itself. Trying to cater to a non-traditional reading audience may also explain publishing decisions like having some of the layouts read horizontally and others require readers to hold the book sideways (as though looking at a centrefold) to read text arranged from the bottom to the top of that page). This no longer feels like a publication of record or the standard in its genre, as it absolutely used to be. If the market that supposedly prefers this approach is buying copies of the book, good and well, but if not, a reversion to classic type might be a worthwhile idea.


Zapiro, as a year full of new and well-deserved plaudits underlines, remains exceptionally good at his job – drawing out the marrow from the morass of lies, misdirection and laziness that makes up so much of media reportage and presenting truth, filtered through often brutal satire, in his cartoons. What he cannot control is the nature of the raw material he is given to work with. In South Africa in 2019, the bulk of the news headlines – or certainly the hard news Zapiro is tasked with examining – centred on the shenanigans of the country’s politicians. At best, this meant the reasonable mockery of ineptitude. At worst, it required the calling to order of infinitely more damaging behaviour – corruption, almost always, and disturbing, callous evil at the darker end of the scale. As a result, this collection of cartoons published by Daily Maverick over the course of the year is, while clever and beautifully detailed, also depressing. There is nothing here to recommend the leadership of this country (or the USA or England, for that matter) or the state in which they have left or will leave their respective charges. Hopefully, Which Side Is Up? will play a role in waking readers up to a state of affairs that requires immediate and sustained action if it is going to improve.


There is a breed of person who finds a life of intrigue exactly right for them, getting fired up off the danger and pressure. And working in any sort of position where secrecy about your day to day action adds to the excitement. Put two such people together in a relationship, though – one as close to a spy as we get in the modern age and one a private investigator – and matters quickly become complicated. Still, though, to a greater or lesser degree, this pair, Agent Vicki Kahn and PI Fish Pescado respectively, are trying to make things better; to improve the lot of those they’re working with if they can. Getting the state – the government – involved, however, blurs every line and more or less guarantees a greater level of darkness; of flat-out evil, even; than most everyday criminals are capable of. Mike Nicol examines this poisonous malaise through the lens of some characters flawed enough that there is no clearly defined hero or heroine; just some options who are a better buffer between hopelessness and something better. The action in Agents Of The State takes place in South African and Germany and combines old-fashioned spycraft and newer, more sophisticated cover-ups. Nicol’s trademark touch with dialogue and blunt, brutal action remains, and the concerns (or confirmation of suspicions) about what is going on behind the scenes at government level – in South Africa, in this case, but such shenanigans are common around the globe – raised by this plotline will linger long after you’ve closed the book.


Spire – named for the facility in which the entire story takes place, South Pole International Research Establishment – contains deadly viruses and a smart, capable scientist trying to solve an apparently insurmountable problem. It’s the set-up for a hundred zombie apocalypse films and television series. But this is a very different spin on the idea. This scenario offers the opposite to the conditions in which a virus can make a noticeable difference. The scientist in question, Dr Caroline Burchell, finds herself marooned in the Antarctic, abandoned there by her employers and only intermittently able to connect with her dysfunctional inner circle. It’s an intimate apocalypse, and one that requires an enormous amount of energy and initiative to survive, taking one day at a time. In that respect, the story is a little like Andy Weir’s The Martian, and has the potential to be made into a similarly tense film. The bulk of the narrative focuses on Burchell and the massive challenges she faces, and works well. Some of the handling of the more mysterious external factors that have an impact on her wellbeing are less satisfactory, but these issues are minor, and don’t take away from a taut thriller that also breathlessly brings to life the deep dread of discovering that you are alone and forsaken.


Justin Fox was the editor of Getaway magazine and the author of a number of other books focused on exotic locales or some of the more interesting or bizarre aspects of his time on the road. My Great Expedition, a children’s book, illustrated by Lucy Stuart-Clark, paints a picture of the foundation of this enduring fascination with travel and the exploration of different destinations and cultures. Fox travelled around Europe as a six-year-old with his parents and the continent’s great capitals, as well as the Greek Islands clearly left an imprint on him. This includes a knack for the observation of minutia and a talent for expressing those observations in creative ways – see “Our boat glides over broccoli water…” during the Greek Island leg. Wonderful armchair travelling for young readers.