DAVID CROZIER reviews the fast, the brave and the ancient

WITH the Tour de France now galloping, if that s the right word, towards its conclusion, Matt Rendell s new book Blazing Saddles (Quercus, £9.99) is the ideal purchase for any cycling-mad members of your family. Subtitled The Cruel and Unusual History of

WITH the Tour de France now galloping, if that's the right word, towards its conclusion, Matt Rendell's new book Blazing Saddles (Quercus, £9.99) is the ideal purchase for any cycling-mad members of your family.

Subtitled The Cruel and Unusual History of the Tour de France, Rendell's book takes a sprint through the race's 105 year-history from its humble beginnings (organisers had to drastically cut the length of the race, halve the entry fee and offer expenses before many showed any interest) right up to the 2007 event.

Rendell - Best New Sports Writer of 2003, according to the National Sporting Club - makes a good fist at turning what could be a fairly tedious ramble into a rollercoaster ride right down to the thigh slippery lycra and aerodynamic neoprene pixyboots.

One word of warning: This is possibly the heaviest, in weight terms, of any small book I've come across for years. So if you buy it for someone else, be prepared for a hefty postal charge. Or, better still, bike it over yourself.

o Another heavy book, although in this case more due to its size and subject matter, is Jonathan Black's The Secret History of the World (Quercus, £9.99).

It's an alternative history full of hundreds of nuggets of information such as this one, that human beings breathe on average 25,920 times per day which is the exact number of years it takes for the sun to complete a full cycle of the zodiac, thus demonstrating how the rhythms of the cosmos are built biochemically deep into human nature.

Most Read

Whether that sort of thing makes you laugh or think, it's certainly entertaining.

o Here's a poser for you: Why did the well-bred daughter of a New England factory owner brave the U-boat blockades in the North Atlantic in the bitter winter of 1941?

Well all is revealed in Spitfire Women of World War II by Giles Whittell (HarperPerennial, £8.99). It tells the story of all those women who, as they weren't allowed to fly in combat, did other daring deeds like deliver planes for the Air Transport Auxiliary to the RAF bases from which male pilots flew in battle.

Dozens of these women died, among them Amy Johnson, Britain's most famous flyer, but the survivors shared some extraordinary times, described here in this equally extraordinary book.

o Extraordinary is a good word to describe Sherlock Holmes and his creator's letters appear in Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters by Daniel Stashower, Jon Lellenberg and Charles Foley (Harper Perennial, £12.99)

Now out in paperback, the book is a fascinating glimpse at the life of a man whose exploits were almost as odd as those of his fictional hero. On the jacket, Stephen Fry claims he would "walk a mile in tight boots to read (Conan Doyle's) letters to the milkman". Not sure I'd go that far but it's certainly well worth dipping into.

o Hollywood's Ancient Worlds by Jeffrey Richards (Continuum, £25) tells the history of the Ancient World epics from the silent screen successes of Intolerance and The King of Kings, through the epics of the 1950s (Cleopatra, Quo Vadis etc) right up to Gladiator and the like. Author Richards, Professor of Cultural History at the University of Lancaster, clearly knows these films backwards and while those with even a passing interest in the mechanics of the movies will find much to entertain, you really need to have seen and enjoyed the films themselves to get the most out of it.

As someone who spends far too much time reading to waste nearly four hours peering at Cecil B De Mille's The Ten Commandments, I must confess to having avoided most of these classics up until now so much of the finer detail passed me by.

David Crozier