I'm an amateur cricket fan. I love international tests, but I don't follow the county game and I know very little about players beyond the most famous English ones. Yet I can listen to commentators discussing these sorts of details on Test Match Special for hours and become totally immersed - as much for the culture of the sport as anything.
Fire in Babylon wouldn't appear to be aimed at me. It's the story of the West Indian cricket team through the 1970s and 1980s. While I recognise some of the household names (Viv Richards, Ian Botham), this era of cricket is otherwise unknown to me, and I've never had any particular interest in the history or detail of the game.
Yet I've really enjoyed reading this book over the last month or so. Simon Lister writes about a specialist interest in a very readable and entertaining way. The subject is never dumbed down, yet the story is always clear - even when it involves relatively obscure cricket jargon. The writing is reasonably unadorned, yet never dull. The tone of voice is understated and controlled, yet there are some great moments of wry humour and high drama.
The result is hugely effective - and it's a great example of how non-fiction writing about a specialist subject can appeal beyond its core fanbase. Part of the key to this is telling the stories behind the primary subject, revealing the universal human interest that anyone can relate to.
Wine writers know about this, and it gets discussed reasonably frequently, yet most wine writing remains pretty niche. Fire in Babylon is a fine example of how a niche can cross over to the mainstream. It would be great to have an equivalent book for the world of wine - and perhaps it needs someone like Simon Lister to write it.