“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 Gone are the animals we know, but they’ve been replaced by a variety of newcomers, each descended from something we’re used to.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slender, some bats have entirely atrophied their eyes in favour of more impressive sonar, and the large herbivores have been replaced by the genus of gigantelopes, elephantine antelope-descendants with unusual and complex horned structures on their heads.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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“Being A Beast” by Charles Foster (2016)

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“I am a human.”

Humans have a confusing relationship with every other animal species on the planet. There’s nothing else quite like us, which is either a good or bad thing. Some other animals we’ve domesticated, others we watch with awe, and quite often we anthropomorphise them and give them tweed jackets and a knowledge and society they can’t possibly possess. Charles Foster has decided he wants to get to know animals better and so begins a mission to become something else, as best he can. This book documents his attempts.

To achieve this, Foster must try to think like other species. This is easier said than done, as other animals experience the world in ways we cannot imagine. Some have better noses than us, some are faster, and while the base urges are the same, they differ enough in their methods of completion to make it all a bit futile. Nonetheless, Foster gives it a go, taking on the roles of five different animals.

He digs a hole in the side of a hill and eats earthworms to mimic a badger. He swims through Devon rivers at night catching fish with his teeth to get to know otters better. He raids the bins of East London for leftovers to become a fox. He allows hunters to chase him down across the Scottish highlands to know how a red deer feels, and finally he makes an attempt to become a swift, eventually tracking them all the way to Africa.

As nature writing goes, it’s a very unique piece and there’s no getting away from that, but my primary thought throughout is, “What sort of breakdown is this man having, and why is no one coming to his aid?” Sleeping in bushes and shitting on riversides is one thing, but swallowing mouthfuls of insects from the tops of trees just because he’s seen birds do it, and leaping at voles whenever he sees a tiny hint of movement is not, in my opinion, the behaviour of a man with all his faculties in tact. I don’t think we ever really needed to know in so much detail what worms taste like.

Unfortunately, while I like the concept of the book, I don’t find Foster particularly likeable. Most of this stems from the fact that, for many years, he was a hunter and while he’s now obviously changed his mind on the subject, in the long passage where he’s describing what it’s like to track and kill a deer, there’s a barely-disguised glee regarding the whole thing. I’m not exactly a pacifist, and I’m certainly not a vegetarian, but I’m against killing wild animals for “sport”, and I can find no entertainment in it. Foster must also have a very understanding wife, as occasionally his children join him on his jaunts. One of his sons lives with him in their badger sett, and he also tells all his children that, when they need the toilet, to go and do it on the river banks like an otter would. At one point he doesn’t shave, cut his hair or trim his toenails for months so he can feel more like a deer with matted, mud-filled hair and overgrown hooves.

There are some interesting facts up for grabs about these animals though, and while Foster attempts to refrain from giving them personalities and emotions, some still slip through. However, he’s more objective than many nature writers, and we get a lot of facts and figures about how animals may experience their environments. Much of it, of course, is theory – we can’t really know what happens inside a fox’s brain when it smells a particular scent, or quite how swifts cope living at speeds we cannot imagine.

All in all, I find that a good piece of exploratory non-fiction should come to a fascinating conclusion and teach us something new. Foster basically ends by saying that trying to be an animal is fruitless and we can never know what it’s like to be another species. Which, frankly, seemed obvious from the start and made me wonder what part I played in his mental breakdown by buying the book. Definitely an intriguing concept for nature writing, but worryingly handled.

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.

Vintage Minis: “Drinking” and “Swimming”

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If you’ve been in a bookstore recently you may have noticed the collection of Vintage Minis. These are twenty tiny books that take selected highlights on full-length memoirs and novels to give you a sample of the writing. All human life is here, and some of the names behind them are particularly notable. Themes include “Home”, “Desire”, “Death”, “Calm”, and “Work”, with writers including Salman Rushdie, Nigella Lawson, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison giving their insights into their area of expertise. Intrigued by the concept, I bought the two that best fitted with my favourite activities. I read the first one a couple of months ago, but I present them both to you here now.

Drinking by John Cheever

“It was Sunday afternoon, and from her bedroom Amy could hear the Beardens coming in, followed a little while later by the Farquarsons and the Parminters.”

Taken from the anthology Collected Stories by John Cheever, this book gathers together all the excerpts that focus on alcohol and what it does to us. In “The Sorrows of Gin”, a young girl steals alcohol from her parents cabinets and lets the staff take the blame.  In “Goodbye, My Brother”, a family gather together and old wounds are reopened, and family is also present in “Reunion”, where a man goes out with his alcoholic, abrasive father for the last time. In “The Scarlet Moving Van” we see how dangerous alcoholism can be, and how it tears families and friends apart when it takes hold.

The pieces are wonderfully moving, and often drinking doesn’t even play a major part in the story, perhaps showing how insidious the habit of reaching for the liquor bottle has become in much of society. Drinking seems to be one of the ties that bind us all together as humans, and a number of us have on more than one occasion, tried and failed to find solace at the bottom of a bottle.

One of the stories, “The Swimmer”, in fact inspired…

Swimming by Roger Deakin

“The warm rain tumbled from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat.”

The excepts from Swimming are taken from Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog. In this, the only book he published in his lifetime, he decides to explore the British landscape by swimming through it. Thus begins a journey through rivers, streams, lakes, lochs and around the coast to experience the island through its’ remarkable waterways.

We are treated to several great excerpts here, such as his dip into the Atlantic Ocean off the Scilly Isles and discussion about what the locals do with shipwrecked cargo, his argument with locals in Winchester who feel the rivers should be off-limits to people not willing to pay for their use, meeting an otter in Suffolk, and a dip in the North Sea on Christmas Day. He has a beautiful way of writing and showing us the true beauty of our countryside. It makes you appreciate our waters and shows the island from a new angle, bringing to the fore some of the most wonderful denizens of the water, including salmon, water voles and even porpoises. It’s actually compelling enough that I’m tempted to buy the full version, proving that these books seem to be doing what they were made to do – get us excited about literature.

Hopefully these quick summaries will inspire you to pick up a Vintage Mini and dive into a topic you’re passionate about. I doubt these are the last ones I 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.

“Spectacles” by Sue Perkins (2015)

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“My first memory of Dad was him approaching my cot.”

Humour isn’t the only thing I look for in a book, but everyone would rather laugh and cry, I’m sure. As such, I am automatically attracted to books about funny people. Sue Perkins is one of those. I’ve always been vaguely aware of her and her comedy life partner Mel Giedroyc, but they didn’t properly cement themselves as favourites until The Great British Bake Off, by which time everyone else had taken them into their hearts as well. I’ve always enjoyed their friendship from afar, and their easy banter, and so since one of them has a book out now, I decided to take a dip.

Spectacles is like many other autobiographies. Let’s be honest, they’re all, broadly speaking, of a type. We learn about the writer as a child, relive their school days, see them fail and deal with setbacks in their career, before being granted National Treasure status. In those respects, Perkins tells a story we all know. However, there’s something else going on here that puts it on a pedestal above others I’ve read.

There are laughs from the very beginning, where she openly admits that she’s changed a few details to “protect the innocent” and “make you like me”. Then we see the moment she tells her family she’s writing the book, and how they all worry about their appearance. Her father wants it to be known he’s tall (he isn’t), and her sister would rather not be mentioned at all. This version of events lasts three pages, before the far more interesting and messy reality sets in. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Perkins has a sublime way with words that I envy, and even when you think you can see a punchline coming, she’ll sidestep you and reveal something even funnier.

Her relationship with Mel is painted in wonderful colours, showing its natural progression. They are clearly very much in love in the way that few best friends can ever claim to be, but she still manages to find the time to explain, almost every time Mel’s name comes up, that Sue is the younger of the pair (by two years). From performing shows at Edinburgh with one person in the audience, to chasing one another around a white marquee in an attempt to lick out the bowls, they are silly, lovely and sweet. Have they ever had a cross word with one another? You wouldn’t think so reading this, and I’d be prepared to accept that it’s the truth.

She is modest, too. Almost nothing is made of her time as President of Cambridge Footlights, a topic that I’m sure would be hugely interesting. She’ll focus on how she has nearly cocked up her career several times by turning down big shows and instead hosting dross – even she can’t really bring herself to remind everyone about Don’t Scare the Hare. She gives us a tantalising glimpse into the worlds of Supersizers and Bake Off, providing a light sprinkling of celebrity anecdotes that leave us hungry for more. But, as ever, I understand that the book is about her, and frankly she’s plenty interesting enough.

Despite the comedy, she’s also very open about the struggles she’s dealt with. Her father’s ordeal with cancer, the decline and death of her beloved beagle Pickle, the breakdown of her relationships and the discovery that she had a brain tumour that had left her infertile. You don’t laugh at these pages, and they provide the balance that show life isn’t all joy. She is brutally honest about the pain these moments caused, and I just wanted to give her a hug.

Charming, honest, hilarious, brave and moving. You cannot get a better combination.

“Veni, Vidi, Vici” by Peter Jones (2014)

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“Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded.”

So far this year, I noted that I’d been pretty low on non-fiction fodder, having worked my way through just three non-fiction books based on the future, economics and poison. Part of this is because I’ve been going through some stuff this year, and my default position is to hide inside fiction, and I’d made myself very comfortable there, escaping into imaginary worlds. However, I decided to step out and headed back in time to learn about the Roman Empire.

Peter Jones provides us with a whistle-stop tour of Ancient Rome, from the mythical Trojan War that started the whole thing in 1150 BC to the empire’s fall in 476 AD. He covers almost every aspect of the time, including politics, religion, entertainment, economy, hygiene, architecture, war, literature, discovery, mythology and diet. Each chapter is divided into bite size chunks of information regarding a particular aspect of the time period.

This is probably where I fell down with this book. It seems to be designed to be dipped into, not read all in one go, as I’ve spent the last week doing. It’s interesting, for sure, and Jones has an engaging writing style, but in places it’s really quite dense, and there are so many names in here, most of them fairly similar, that before long I found I couldn’t keep up with the rotating cast list of emperors, politicians, philosophers and writers. That’s all on me though, and I don’t claim the book to be boring at all. It’s just rather a lot to take in.

I think Ancient Rome for many people means Julius Caesar, public baths, slavery, Pompeii and gladiatorial fights. All of these are discussed in detail here, of course, but there’s also a lot regarding some of the more obscure or nasty emperors, the role of women in society (they had no power and were generally believed to be sex-crazed) and the fact that sexuality was defined entirely different here than it is today. There’s no distinction between “gay” or “straight”, and men had sex with men as a matter of course, just as women slept with other women. Heteronormativity was right out the window with the ancients. It was also great to learn more about Hadrian, whom I know for building a wall and not much else.

Other historical figures also make appearances, emphasising just how long the Romans ruled for. Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ and Attila the Hun all play pivotal roles in the story of Rome, and there’s much to be made of the fact that in 1000 BC, Rome was just a small collection of huts on some hills. It is remarkable that the small town ended up dominating much of the known world at the time, and the ramifications of that dominance are still in evidence today, found in our calendar, language and architecture.

If you want a quick introduction into the world of the Romans, this is the book for you.

“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.

“A Is For Arsenic” by Kathryn Harkup (2015)

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“The name ‘arsenic’ has become almost synonymous with poison – it could be argued that it represents the gold-standard of criminal poisoning.”

Do you ever find yourself reading a book or watching a film and there’s a character in it with an unusual job and you go, “I could do that”? It happens to me with alarming regularity, but it really kicked into effect with this book. I found myself wishing I could redo everything and have studied science for longer at school and gone on to be a toxicologist. Of course, I’m sure this desire will last only as long as it takes for this book to fade a little from my memory, but suffice to say at this moment, there’s a part of me that wants to dive back into education and switch from artistic pursuits to scientific ones.

My Agatha Christie obsession remained forefront as I delved into A is for Arsenic, which takes a look at a bunch of poisons and both describes how they work and how Christie used them in her stories. Not everyone knows that Christie worked as a pharmacy dispenser during both wars, and it was here that she picked up all of her detailed knowledge on the world of poisons. The most common cause of death among her characters was poison, and she always did her best to ensure the science was correct. As Kathryn Harkup recounts here, it seems that most of the time she was spot on.

The fourteen poisons covered in the book are arsenic, belladonna, cyanide, digitalis, eserine, hemlock, monkshood, nicotine, opium, phosphorus, ricin, strychnine, thallium and Veronal. They form a blend of very well known killers, and some that are downright obscure. For example, ricin and thallium were both unheard of as methods of murder before Christie wrote about them. However, it seems that sometimes her stories gave rise to ideas in the real world, and there’s been more than one killer caught because he had one of her books stashed away in his study. Conversely, on a few occasions people have been saved by recognising the symptoms of poisoning from reading a Christie novel. While there are some people who consider her detailed use of science to be damaging, her books are generally highly praised for their accuracy.

Each chapter studies a particular poison, giving details of where it can be obtained, how it was discovered, how exactly it kills, and whether there is an antidote. Among these, we also learn about real life cases involving the poison, and it all gets related back to one of Christie’s plots and how accurate she was. There are some surprising facts here, not only about the poisons, but about Christie herself, and we learn a little more about her scientific mind. The poisons are the real stars though, and it’s fascinating to learn about the very close relationship between morphine and heroin, quite how poisonous pure nicotine is, how best to mask the bitter taste of cyanide, and which poisons are still used today. Hemlock, for example, while being quite famous for its toxic qualities, hasn’t been recorded as being used to intentionally kill someone since the days of Socrates. Christie made use of it in Five Little Pigs, one of my favourites.

Although for the most part Harkup avoids sharing spoilers, there are a few present, but always headed with a warning to skip ahead if you don’t want to see “whodunnit”. Generally we aren’t told, but sometimes the solutions need to be explained to give an extra detail on how the poison is used within the story. For anyone with an interest in Christie’s work or toxicology (or ideally, like myself, both), this is a startlingly good read. If not inspiring me quite fully to become a toxicologist, I am at least inspired to return to the murder mystery I started writing. I believe there is some cyanide in a cocktail I need to sort out…

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