Adventures in wonderland

15th March 1996 at 00:00
100 GREATEST . . . SERIES Explorers. Medical Discoveries. Women. Men Dragon's World Pounds 8.95 each Age range 10 - 14 RECORD BREAKERS series Earth and Universe. Machines and Inventions. People and Places. The Living World Watts Pounds 8.99 each Age range 5 - 11

Poor old Martin Frobisher. He wasn't a lucky man. The Elizabethan navigator risked his life to bring 1,500 tons of black Newfoundland rock back to England and then discovered that it didn't contain gold after all.

But at least Frobisher survived to tell his woeful tale, unlike many of the adventurers whose exploits are recorded in 100 Greatest Explorers. Vitus Bering died of scurvy, Bartolomeu Dias's ship sank off the ironically named Cape of Good Hope, Henry Hudson disappeared after being cast adrift in an open boat by mutineers, and the now forgotten Richard Chancellor drowned after surviving a 1,300 kilometre-trek to visit Ivan the Terrible.

Their lunatically brave expeditions make for fascinating reading, but this book and the others in the series are let down by some eccentric choices (Anita Roddick makes the 100 Greatest Women list but Margaret Thatcher and the Bront sisters do not) and some shocking spelling errors eg Yuri Gregarin and heards of bison.

Such errors would never have slipped through the much finer-meshed editorial net that surrounded Recordbreakers. The creators of this series are Gradgrinds with flair. The scale illustrations of the animal and industrial worlds' biggest and smallest, fastest and slowest are beautifully drawn and there are enough facts to fill the world's biggest supertanker, the Jahre Viking, one of the listed leviathans.

Most primary children will not need to be persuaded to dive into The Living World and read about the heaviest-ever mammal (the 11-ton Indricotherium) and the tiniest (the 6cm pygmy white-toothed shrew). But after a few weeks in the school library the index-finger prints will probably be smudged around the picture of the biggest-ever carnivore, Andrewsarchus, a four-metre cross between a wolf and a tiger that should have been the last animal to become extinct.

Machines and Inventions brings us bang up to date with information on the fastest planes (America's X-15 has flown at seven times the speed of sound) and the Hubble space telescope, which can detect light from a small torch 400, 000km away. This book, however, confirms that even the NASA scientists have not been as inventive as the Chinese. They created the first paper, umbrellas, matches, kites, wheelbarrows, gunpowder, the mechanical clock, playing cards, parachutes and the decimal system. And they even produced pasta long before the Italians.

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