Books: Non Fiction

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The Independent Culture
Tiny eyes are sharper than adults', and children love to pore over intricate pages, but the work of Stephen "Incredible Cross-sections" Biesty is now miniaturised to the point of madness. On every page of Incredible Everything: How Things are Made (Dorling Kindersley pounds 12.99, text Richard Platt) there are scores of boilersuited figures, usually no more than a centimetre high. Turn over, and a medieval cathedral is stripped to the skeleton, alongside features on trainers, bricks and wigs. More room is given to the shaping of a doughnut than to the structure of a timber- framed house, but then this probably corresponds to a child's interests. It's all very tiring and (to this adult, at least) pointlessly small, but undeniably absorbing.

History: The Really Interesting Bits (Dorling Kindersley pounds 12.99) has mercy on weary peepers: Brian Delf's detailed figures are at least four centimetres high. Despite the sub-title, this is not the sort of book where toilets, tortures and underwear are stressed instead of the deeds of great men. This is sober, fact-filled orthodoxy ("Extravagant Queen Marie Antoinette dominated the King"). Still Richard Platt (him again) finds space to slip in the news that Nero used to drink a traditional charioteer's potion of boar dung.

DK also publishes the exhaustive Science Encyclopaedia (pounds 29.95), over 400 pages themed around topics such as ecology, space, "How Living Things Work" and "Forces and Energy", all with clear illustrations, boxes and charts.

Royal Castle: The Inside Story of Windsor by John Farndon (Viking pounds 14.99) traces the 900-year history of the castle from motte-and-bailey up to the Great Fire of 1992. The section "Upstairs, Downstairs" looks at staffing in Victorian times; pictured is the small army of staff. Albert was the first moderniser, streamlining the organisation and cutting down on staff perks such as free candles. It too is busily illustrated, but a good read.

Inside Story: Extraordinary Buildings Unfolded by Nicola Baxter, illus Luigi Galante and Simone Boni (Franklin Watts pounds 12.99) combines detail with elegance. The blank wall of a Norman keep opens out to reveal what's happening in the great hall, the dungeons and the soldiers' quarters. (There's always someone squatting in the garde-robe in these books.) Less obvious are the peeps inside a Sultan's palace in Moorish Spain, a Japanese Prince's country residence in 1640 and a Fifties New York apartment block.

Bringing history closer to home is The History Detective Investigates Local History by Martin Parsons (Wayland pounds 9.99). A canine cartoon detective, the bloodhound Sherlock Bones, leads the young sleuth through clues such as unusual buildings, pub signs, place-names, gravestones and old photographs right through to the serious archival work involved in trawling through old censuses and school log-books.

Julia Waterlow's A Family From Bosnia (Wayland, pounds 8.99) shows history in the making. A collection of necessarily downbeat photographs, it tells the story of the Bucalovics, "an average Bosnian family". For the cover photo, the Bucalovics, grandparents, parents, and two-year-old Nadja, placed all their shabby belongings in the street outside their crumbling apartment block. The family didn't use their living room much during the conflict, as it was on the side most likely to be hit by shells. There is a picture of Nadja and a friend playing snipers through a hole in the wall with a plastic machine gun. The book ends on a cautiously optimistic note: "Nedzad and Nadja are happy that the war seems to be over."

Books about vehicles always appeal. Panorama: A History of Ships from Log Rafts to Luxury Liners by Fiona Macdonald, illus David Salariya (Macdonald pounds 10.99) is a painstaking survey of developments from the coracle to the battleship. Steve Parker's High in the Sky (Walker pounds 8.99) tells the story of flight from hot-air balloons to the Boeing 777. Perfect in-flight reading.

Fatal Forces by Nick Arnold, illus Tony de Saulles (Hippo/Scholastic pounds 3.99), part of the Horrible Science series ("Science with the squishy bits left in!"), tells the story of test pilot George Franklyn Smith, who in 1955 baled out at supersonic speed: his watch, shoes, socks and helmet were ripped off by the force. "Even his blood became heavier ... Heavy blood squirted from his heavy blood vessels ... He was so bruised that his head swelled up like a purple football." He lived. Well, it's one way of learning about science. In the same series are "Blood, Bones and Body Bits", "Chemical Chaos" and "Nasty Nature".

Time and the Universe by Mary and John Gribbin, illus Nick Dewar (Hodder pounds 3.99) is in the What's the Big Idea? series (others include "Animal Rights", "Virtual Reality" and "Nuclear Power"). It's a wacky, comic-book guide to some boggling notions. Not quite so chuckly is Kjartan Poskitt's The Gobsmacking Galaxy, in the series The Knowledge (Scholastic pounds 3.50). I liked "Build your own solar system" - did you know that if the sun is a washing machine painted yellow, Pluto would be a pin-head two and a half kilometres away? Suzi Feay

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