“After Man” by Dougal Dixon (1981)

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“During the period immediately before and during the Age of Man the principal large-scale grazers and browsers were the ungulates, the hoofed mammals.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for prehistoric creatures. The dinosaurs are amazingly interesting, the evolution of birds and mammals is fascinating, and it’s always cool to see all the weird twists and turns nature took to get us to where we are today. A lot of people seem to treat what exists now as the end point, apparently under the illusion that evolution stops here, and what we have will carry on for the rest of time. Dougal Dixon is not one of those people.

In his breathtaking book After Man, he envisions a world fifty million years after our own, where humanity has died out, taking with it most of the large mammals and familiar creatures of the time. In this new world, where tectonic plates have shifted the continents into unrecognisable forms, animals have done much the same. Gone are the animals we know, but they’ve been replaced by a variety of newcomers, each descended from something we’re used to.

Rabbits have evolved and diversified into the rabbucks; deer-like creatures that now inhabit every major biome. They’ve been followed throughout by the predator rats, who have taken on the roles of the great carnivores of our age. Elsewhere, squirrels have become long and slender, some bats have entirely atrophied their eyes in favour of more impressive sonar, and the large herbivores have been replaced by the genus of gigantelopes, elephantine antelope-descendants with unusual and complex horned structures on their heads.

In the seas, the whales and dolphins are long gone, but fully aquatic and enormous descendants of penguins now fill those roles. Baboon relatives now stalk the plains of, what was, Africa, hunting and scavenging for meat. Rainforest pigs have developed trunks, one of the last cats, the striger, swings from tree branches like our gibbons, when a species of ant evolved to make its nests underwater, the anteater went aquatic and followed them. As usual, on isolated islands, evolution has particularly gone insane, in particular on the islands of Batavia, recently risen from the seas due to volcanic activity and now populated by bats who have evolved to fill every niche, from coastal waters and high branches, and also produced the terrifying night stalker, a one and a half metre tall predator with a curious arrangement of limbs.

The book is nothing, however, without the incredible intricate illustrations, that show the future animals in action, as well as in some more technical, scientific positions. Like all good nature works, we get to see them as real beings, not just stock images. Of course, these aren’t real animals. Not yet, at least. While we cannot predict with any certainty what creatures will survive us and how they will be further shaped, all of Dixon’s suggestions are based on a solid scientific grounding and while it’s not probable any of them will occur, it’s not impossible. He used this knowledge again in the wonderful TV series The Future is Wild, which took a similar premise of future evolution and is well worth a watch if you can find it.

All in all, a fascinating, fun and thought-provoking experiment in evolution.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” by Agatha Christie (1934)

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“Bobby Jones teed up his ball, gave a short preliminary waggle, took the club back slowly, then brought it down and through with the rapidity of lightning.”

And with this one down, I’ve only got two Christie novels left to read. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to think of a good introduction for this one, so unless you want to skip back and read my post about Agatha Christie herself, we may as well crack on.

Vicar’s son Bobby Jones is playing golf one misty afternoon when he hears a cry – a man has fallen over the cliff. Bobby rushes to his aid, but the man’s back is broken and it’s too late to do anything much. However, just before he dies, the man comes round and says, “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” Bobby doesn’t have much time to dwell on this, as he’s due at the church to play the organ, so he leaves another fellow, a passing Roger Bassington-ffrench, to look after the body and wait for help to arrive.

But soon after the inquest, there is confusion abounds. Was the dead man really who the courts thought he was? Who was the woman in the photograph he had in his pocket? And was it really all an accident? Bobby, along with his aristocratic childhood friend Lady Frankie Derwent, set about trying to prove that the man was pushed off the cliff. And when Bobby himself is nearly murdered, he realises that they’re closer to the truth than they realised. Frankie infiltrates the home of the Bassington-ffrench family and with Bobby stationed close by in disguise, they set about trying to solve the mystery.

Firstly, this novel does have one of the best and most evocative titles in the Christie canon, but while you think it’s going to be hugely important throughout, it really only plays a minor role. It’s also used well for humour. The book is set in Wales where Evans is a common name, and there’s a great moment where Frankie tries to find how many Evans’ there are in the town and learns there are over 480. Bobby and Frankie make for great amateur sleuths and there’s definitely something of the Tommy and Tuppence of them. As much as I like the established detectives, I do also enjoy the books where Christie gives us a new hero, especially such a likeable one.

The plot holds up well and is served up with more red herrings than a meeting of the Communist Fish Party. As usual, the hints are all there, but some of them are desperately subtle, and I certainly didn’t catch most of them until they were explained. It always seems so obvious at the end, doesn’t it? It would be another good one to start novice Christie readers off with, as it’s a simple premise which introduces us to a raft of interesting characters, as well as one of the best surnames in fiction – Bassington-ffrench.

It’s a short review today, simply because I run the risk of giving away spoilers if I say much more, but I promise you it’s certainly worth a read.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig (2017)

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“I am old.”

It was years ago when I first picked up a Matt Haig book, The Humans, thinking it sounded like a funny concept. I wasn’t prepared for what a profoundly wise and beautiful book it was, nor that he would become such an important part of my life, and the lives of countless other readers. I’ve plowed through his stuff since, and we finally now arrive at his latest offering, How to Stop Time. Everyone else seems to have read this a couple of months ago, so I’m a bit behind, but nonetheless, here it is. And it was worth waiting for.

Tom Hazard was born in 1581 and is still alive in 2017, although only looks about forty years old. He is an alba, a person born with a condition that means they age very slowly. It is a difficult life and one that involves having to constantly move around and change identity so people don’t notice that you don’t age, a task made all the more difficult by the modern world.

Tom works, reluctantly, with the Albatross Society who find other albas and protect them from scientists who would long to learn the secret of advanced lifespans, but he’s had enough and asks to be retired. He takes up a position teaching history at a London school, where he finds himself smitten with the beautiful French teacher Camille. But Camille is sure she recognises Tom from somewhere – somewhen – else, and Tom is reminded of the fact that any “mayfly” (normally aging human) who finds out about the albas tends not to have their lives cut even shorter…

One of the risks of writing books about people who have spent a long time in our history is the temptation to have them stumble across every major historical figure and befriend them. Haig resists this, and it is far more a story of the ordinary people. However, that’s not to say there aren’t famous cameos, but they are kept to a respectable minimum. Tom works for Shakespeare briefly, and travels to Australia with Captain Cook, but otherwise his interactions with history’s great and good are downplayed. He meets the Fitzgeralds in a French bar in the 1920s, and the Dr Hutchinson he meets in 1891 was a real man, but most everyone else is thoroughly normal.

In the same manner as the non-fiction series of history books by Ian Mortimer, history is brought to life by these interactions with the “ordinary people”. We experience witch hunts, plague, the jazz age, voyages of discovery and Elizabethan entertainment from the ground level, with descriptions that conjure up all the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. Haig paints an immersive, exciting world, and it’s an honour to be able to join him in exploring it.

As with everything Matt Haig writes, it’s phenomenally profound and beautiful with a lot to say about the nature of humanity, particularly with how we don’t change, loss, love and aging. It’s bang up to date, with mentions of fake news and Donald Trump, and Tom’s worry that the 21st century is just turning into a cheap copy of the 20th. Via Tom, Haig argues that humanity has not advanced in a straight line from idiocy to enlightenment, but that it’s been more of a rollercoaster, although there’s a fear we’re heading into a new Dark Ages, with new susperstitions and witch hunts under different names with different targets happening once again. There is, however, in there somewhere a sense of hope, and an exploration of why we should keep on living and trying to better ourselves. One line I adored, as a bibliophile, was, “Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.”

And with people like Matt Haig still writing, I feel the world is a little safer still.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012)

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“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Winchester. It’s a city with several affiliated historical residents, such as King Arthur, William II and Jane Austen, the latter two I encountered the graves of. But there was a name I came away with instead: Anne Tyler. She’s more associated with Baltimore, where all her books are set. On the first day there, I stumbled into her books in a bookshop and was oddly captivated by the covers. I put her on my tertiary list: will buy one day. In the pub the next evening, the people on the table next to me started a conversation about Anne Tyler. The following day, a woman was reading Vinegar Girl over her breakfast. I know when the universe is talking to me, so I went back to the bookshop and selected one at random.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying, “Hey guys, I’ve just read some Anne Tyler.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye introduces us to Aaron Woolcott, an editor who has recently lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree and their sunporch. Hampered by grief and not quite sure what he’s meant to do with his life now, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, and ignores the damage to his house and his heart. Eventually, after Nandina nags at him, he hires a contractor to start rebuilding the house, and soon things are moving on.

At his publishing house, Aaron’s team are working on adding to their Beginner’s series; a set of books that deal with an introduction to any topic you can imagine, from The Beginner’s Wine Guide to The Beginner’s Kitchen Remodelling. As they seek out more ideas, Dorothy begins to reappear to Aaron, and he starts to wonder if there shouldn’t be a book on how to get over a spouse.

Short and sweet, despite the subject matter mostly being about the death of the loved on and the grief that stems from that, it’s actually weirdly beautiful and uplifting. Oh, the emotions are raw and it feels a very realistic exploration of what happens when you lose a spouse. Neighbours and friends tip-toe around the subject. Aaron is besieged by casseroles and cheesecakes piling up on his doorstep from people in the street who want to feel like they’re helping. And there’s the inevitable attempts of friends to set him up with new people, most often a woman called Louise who lost her husband on Christmas Eve. People seem to think that widowhood is a good basis for a relationship, but as Aaron says, “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we could share.”

Aaron and Dorothy’s relationship is also fascinating. They’re both intelligent and independent people, who marry after a quick courtship despite seeming to have very little in common and then continuing their lives as if they were both single, rarely displaying affection. Aaron doesn’t like being mollycoddled, and Dorothy, a radiologist, has no intention of doing so. Their marriage is a happy one, though, if not perhaps completely healthy. But then again, I’m single, so what do I know? Whether Dorothy is really coming back to see Aaron or if it’s all in his head is never quite explained, but I know which interpretation I prefer.

I’m also particularly fond of the scenes set in Aaron’s offices. The staff form a strange little family but they’re all oddly familiar. In some ways they’re cliches – the fussy secretary, the beautiful colleague, the solid family man – but Tyler writes with great economy and I feel we get to know them quite intimately with just a few words. It’s clear that the stuff they publish is hardly going to change the world – they’re mostly a vanity – “private” – publishing house, but it’s great that they still feel they want to help old soldiers get their memoirs out there, even though they’re identical to every other military memoir on the shelves.

Honest and sometimes brutal, I think it served as a good introduction to Anne Tyler. I’ll be back.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Strangers On A Train” by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

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“The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.”

While most people would never act on murderous impulses, should they have them, it’s fortunate that this is the case. Quite a fun (purely theoretical) exercise, however, is to come up with the “perfect murder”. I’ve discussed some true ones before, and my extensive time spent reading crime fiction and books on how to write crime fiction means I’ve got a couple of ideas. But don’t worry, you’re not in any immediate danger.

In Patricia Highsmith’s classic, Strangers on a Train, we open on a locomotive tearing across the American south. On this train are architect Guy Haines and alcoholic Charley Bruno. Guy is on his way to finalise his divorce with his estranged wife, Miriam, although admits to himself that it would just be easier if she was dead. Bruno feels similarly about his hated father – why can’t he just disappear? Buoyed by alcohol, Bruno makes a proposal – the two men should swap victims and kill for each other. There would be no evidence leading to either man, as no one need ever know they’ve met, making it a pair of perfect murders.

Guy thinks Bruno is talking rot, and ignores him, but Bruno is not a man who gives up easily, and when Miriam is found dead a few days later, Guy is convinced that Bruno is behind it all. His new acquaintance now seems unable to leave him alone and begins to insidiously creep into Guy’s life, and both men are driving to madness and into actions that they may come to regret…

I love a good murder, and this is a really clever twist on the whole thing. It’s not a horror by any means, but it’s definitely a creepy thriller. You find yourself in the minds of Guy and Bruno, both apparently very different men who seem to perhaps have more in common than they’d like to admit. The idea of “swapping murders” is a good one, and has been copied and parodied endlessly since. I’m aware that Hitchcock turned it into a film, but from what I’ve read of that, he changed several major plot details, and what happens in the book is easily better. It’s quite clear what attracted Hitchcock to the text though; it’s just haunting enough to lodge itself behind your ear and bug you for days.

One of the most startling aspects of the book, for the time it was written anyway, was the sheer amount of homosexual subtext. Bruno, in particular, seems to be infatuated with Guy, even going so far at one point to think about killing off Guy’s second wife Anne so that he and Guy can be together. Their personalities become entwined quite marvellously, to the point that I wondered if there was going to be a sudden twist that revealed one of them didn’t exist and the other had just gone completely mad.

While not the greatest murder tale I’ve ever read, it’s nonetheless interesting and worth a look if you like that sort of thing. Just don’t go getting any ideas.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

25 Facts About Agatha Christie

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If you’re a regular reader to this blog, you’ll know that my favourite writer is Agatha Christie. Like pretty much everybody, I was vaguely familiar with her work and had seen the odd episode of Marple, but I didn’t actually read one until about 2009, while I was at university. We’d studied her in one seminar, and around the same time there was that Doctor Who episode about her, which is still one of the best episodes ever.

Some people actually are surprised that I came quite late to Christie given my fanatical love of her. The first novel I read was Death in the Clouds, and it cemented a love that has now meant just a few years later I’ve read all but three of her novels, which will all be coming later this year. Christie is the bestselling author of all time, with only The Bible and Shakespeare outselling her. Over four billion of her books have been sold, with And Then There Were None racking up over 100 million of those alone, making it the bestselling mystery book of all time. People often ask me why I’m so in love with her, and it’s an easy one to answer in some ways. She was a phenomenal plotsmith, her stories are engaging, easy, clever and accessible, but actually a big part of it is down to the woman herself. The fact that she wrote seventy-three novels, twenty-eight short story collections, three books of poems, two memoirs, and sixteen plays is perhaps the least interesting thing about her.

In a first for this blog, but perhaps not a last, I have collected here twenty-five of my favourite facts about the Queen of Crime in honour of her birthday.

  1. She was named Agatha at the suggestion of her mother’s friend and it was something of an afterthought. Her full name (at birth) was Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller.
  2. She had a choppy relationship with her publisher. She occasionally disagreed with him on book covers and publication dates, but he also once bought her a new car after seeing the wreck she had been driving around in.
  3. She is the only female playwright to ever have three West End shows on at the same time: The Mousetrap, Witness for the Prosecution and Spider’s Web.
  4. The Mousetrap is the longest running theatre production of all time, having run every night for over sixty years. It even moved theatres at one point, and still didn’t cancel the performance that night.
  5. She was once nearly arrested on charges of spying during World War Two. Her book N or M? is about codebreakers and she named one of the characters Major Bletchley, which was seen as possibly a hint to the enemy. It was purely accidental – she’d been stuck on a train at Bletchley once for a long time and in revenge named a nasty character after the place.
  6. Graham Greene asked her to help in writing propaganda during World War Two. She refused, saying she “lacked the single-mindedness to see only one side of a case.”
  7. She wrote romance novels under the name Mary Westmacott. The secret was upheld for fifteen years.
  8. Her favourite book she wrote was Crooked House, which will be adapted for the first time ever this year.
  9. Before her hair went grey, it was red. She also had grey eyes.
  10. As a young girl, she wanted to be a pianist or an opera singer, but her voice was too weak for opera.
  11. The first novel she finished was called Snow Upon the Desert, but it was never published.
  12. She wasn’t sure that writing under her own name would be a handicap for detective fiction, and for a while thought about using the pen name Martin West.
  13. She was one of the first British people to surf standing up. Until then, surfing was done laying on the board, but she learnt the technique whilst in Hawaii and was one of the first to bring it across the world.
  14. She went missing for eleven days in 1926 and, after a nationwide manhunt, was found in a hotel, signed in under the name of her husband’s mistress. She never explained where she’d gone or what happened and the incident is entirely ignored in her autobiography.
  15. She trained as a pharmacy dispenser during World War One, and even went back to do the same job again during World War Two, despite being famous by then.
  16. Once, while under training, she noted that the doctor who was in charge of her ward mixed up a medicine incorrectly, meaning it would be fatal to whoever drank it. Because of the time, it would not be right for a woman to correct a more senior man, so she worried about the consequences. When she was handed the tray with the medicines on, she dropped it and crushed the medicines beneath her feet. As she’d hoped, it was taken as an accident and the medicines were remade, correctly this time.
  17. She wrote the final stories of Marple and Poirot (Sleeping Murder and Curtain, respectively) during World War Two. If she died during the war, they were to be published, with the profits of Marple going to her husband, Max, and the profits of Poirot going to her daughter, Rosalind. Obviously, she survived the war, but the books were still the last two published.
  18. She became the President of the Detection Club in 1957, under the proviso that she never had to give a speech.
  19. She didn’t drink or smoke, and had no appreciation for either, not liking the taste. She did, however, sometimes hint that she wished she could enjoy them, as she saw how relaxed they made people, and she was very shy.
  20. Her favourite drink was cream. If you visit her home in Torquay, her cream jug is still at her table.
  21. She once arrived at a party held in her honour and was barred entry because the people on the door didn’t recognise her. Instead of causing a fuss, she sat in the hotel lobby until someone came out of the party to find out where she was.
  22. She first flew in a plane in 1911.
  23. She grew to loathe Hercule Poirot, but didn’t follow the example of Arthur Conan Doyle by killing him off, but instead continued writing him because she knew her readers loved him. She said they owed each other much – Poirot didn’t exist without Agatha, and Agatha didn’t have any money without Poirot.
  24. In 1928 she went to the Middle East alone to travel. A love affair began with the area, and with the man who would become her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan.
  25. If you ever find yourself stuck in one of her novels (hey, it happens), head to the kitchen. No one ever dies in the kitchen in her books, probably because it would upset Cook, and to do that would be unforgivable.

So there you have it, twenty-five things you may not have known about Dame Agatha Christie. I’m not one of for belief in an afterlife, but if there is one, I hope she’s gathered with the other great writers, at William Shakespare’s right hand, chatting amiably with Douglas Adams and Mary Shelley. Happy birthday, Agatha. You will never be forgotten.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton (2014)

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“The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends.”

I’m very poorly-travelled in the real world, preferring to do my travelling via literature. As such, I’ve never been to Amsterdam in reality, although I keep stopping in. In just the few years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been there on a stag weekend, hidden from Nazis with Anne Frank, and on one occasion just stopped in for dinner. I returned again this week, but it’s an Amsterdam I’m not familiar with from my readings. For this review, we’re stepping back in time.

It’s 1686, and Nella Oortman, an eighteen-year-old from a small village has arrived at a large house in Amsterdam where she is to live with her new husband, the rich trader Johannes Brandt. Nella is unfamiliar with the ways of the city, but is prepared to do her wifely duty. Her new husband, however, is vague and distant, and hardly seeks her out for conversation. His sister, the stern Marin, is anything but friendly so the best welcome she receives is from Cornelia, the maid, and Johannes’ black manservant, Otto.

Johannes, however, realises that his new wife is bored and purchases for her a beautiful doll’s house, and Nella sets about finding a craftsman to make furniture and dolls for it. She is shocked, however, when the furniture that arrives from her mysterious benefactor matches perfectly the furniture in her new house. Indeed, even the dolls are exact replicas. And then more parcels begin to arrive, with other things for her doll’s house that she didn’t request. It seems that the maker, the miniaturist, knows something that Nella doesn’t, and when the house’s many secrets begin to spill out, she isn’t sure if the miniaturist is sending a warning or a threat.

As much as I read pretty much anything, there probably is a certain pattern to what I read, and The Miniaturist at first glance seems like it’s going against that pattern. It doesn’t feel very “me” but something about it obviously stirred interest in my gut when I found it on a second-hand stall at a train station platform. It’s sat on the shelf for about two years, but then when I started it I was instantly captivated. The characters are vivid in their description, and the whole novel is permeated with a strange sense of foreboding. Like Nella, you wonder what is going on, who this miniaturist is and what they could possibly want with the family, and what secrets are being kept from the wider world.

I was sympathetic to Nella immediately, but I was particularly taken with the character of Marin. She is foreboding and unpleasant, but her manner hides something else and she becomes something else. Indeed, everyone inspires pity, but for very different reasons. With a couple of exceptions maybe, sugar plantation owner Frans Meermans being one of them. Amsterdam is painted as a living, breathing city, but one where there are always eyes watching everything that happens, a fact emphasised by the doll’s house figures, each laced with secrets that the maker could not possibly have known.

I was oddly moved by the novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve been reading a little less lately due to a vain attempt to catch up some other media I’d been ignoring, but this was the first book for a couple of weeks I’d purposely set aside a little more time to read, not just using train journeys to plod through it. A charming and special novel, it is a simple story told beautifully and I’m pleased to have added it to my pool.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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