Six of the Best … Agatha Christie stories

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It’s Agatha Christie’s birthday, so how better to celebrate than with six of my favourite of her stories! Agatha Christie was born on 15th September 1890 and thirty years later she would publish her first novel (the first novel she wrote, Snow on the Desert, remains unpublished) and change the face of literature forever. She is only outsold by William Shakespeare and the Bible, making her – quite comfortably – the bestselling novelist of all time. The shocking thing is that so many people I speak to have still never read one of her books. I admit myself that I came to her later than many (I didn’t read my first one until I was 21), but surely everyone has had a look at one or two, at least.

Six of the Best, therefore, seems like a good place to introduce people to her work and give you a good place to start. Ordinarily, I would spend a lot more time talking about Christie here, but I’ve done plenty of that on the blog already, having reviewed most of her books here now, and also doing a special post with my twenty-five favourite facts about her, so instead let’s just press on.

Here are six of the best stories Agatha Christie ever wrote…

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was her sixth novel – seventh book – and sees Hercule Poirot finally making good on his promise to retire to the countryside to grow marrows. But, as with all the great detectives, wherever they go, murder is sure to follow. When his friend, the wealthy widower Roger Ackroyd is found murdered in his study, Poirot calls on his neighbour, the village doctor James Sheppard, to help solve the case. Blame seems to immediately fall at the feet of Ackroyd’s adopted son, Ralph Paton, and when the police are unable to find him, it only further suggests his guilt. Elsewhere, the details of the will come to light, a strange man was seen around the house on the night of the murder, and Poirot wonders if there is anything that James’s gossipy sister Catherine doesn’t know…

The reason that this one stands up as one of her most famous is because it saw Christie tear up the rule book and change everything about the murder mystery. Some saw her as a cheat, but most saw her as a genius. It wasn’t long after the publication of this one that she famously disappeared, and so that helped it raise to fame as well. Some people thought she went missing as a publicity stunt, but frankly she didn’t need to. She was already well on the way to being a household name and Roger Ackroyd cemented it, with or without a real-life mystery to accompany it. To many, this is considered her masterpiece.

A Caribbean Mystery

The books featuring Miss Marple seem to get somewhat discarded next to the Poirot novels, but this isn’t fair. In some ways, I actually prefer Miss Marple, although she appears in far fewer stories. A Caribbean Mystery is, as you can tell from the title, one of Christie’s books that takes us far from an English country house and out to the beautiful, sunny shores of St Honore. With her holiday paid for by her nephew, Miss Marple is enjoying meeting the other guests, including Major Palgrave, who has tales of murder and even asks Marple if she wants to see a photograph of a murderer. He, however, appears to spot something in the room and changes his mind. The next day, he is dead. Marple is convinced that he has been murdered, and must now work out what it was that made Palgrave have second thoughts, and who could have had reason to end his life.

Famous for one of the best misdirects in any of her novels, this is a great example of how Christie lays out every single clue for you but not necessarily how you want to see them. Every one of her mysteries is entirely solvable, but you need to have a mind that works the right way. I’m still terrible at it and I’m on my second read-through of them all! It also serves as an important reminder that while we immediately associate her work with England, the aristocracy and draughty old houses with everyone gathered in the library, her books took in many influences from her travels around the world, and her books set away from Great Britain are just as fun and wonderful as those that are homegrown.

The Mousetrap

There’s a legend that says if all the ravens leave the Tower of London, the White Tower will crumble and England will be plunged into chaos. (Actually, looking at the news lately, has anyone checked they’re still there?) The same could be said of The Mousetrap – if it ever closes, the West End will fall. First staged in 1952 with a cast that included Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim, the show has run continuously for the next 67 years. Christie herself gave it eight months and it broke the record for the longest-running play in the West End in 1957, which was acknowledged by a begruding telegram from Noel Coward to Christie that began, “Much as it pains me I really must congratulate you…” It is the longest-running play in history. It even changed theatres and didn’t miss a night, and all the while it is still on stage, it can never be adapted for television or radio.

But why has it lasted? That’s a mystery all in itself. Perhaps it’s just because it’s one of her absolute finest stories. The plot centres around a married couple who have just opened a new hotel in a very rural area. When a snowstorm comes in and cuts them and their guests off from the outside world, they begin to rub up against one another, and things get worse when a policeman arrives to tell them that there is talk of a killer in the area. As the group turn against one another, they realise they were all involved in some way with a case that involved the mistreatment of a foster child many years earlier. With the phone cut off and the bodies beginning to fall, tensions run high and no one can be trusted.

And Then There Were None

Quite rightly considered the jewel in the crown of Christie’s back catalogue, And Then There Were None is unparalleled in its ingenious plot. The novel takes us to a small island off the coast of Devon where ten people have been invited to dinner. The host, however, is nowhere to be found, and not long after learning that a storm means the island is now inaccessible from the mainland, a mysterious recording plays in the house, accusing all ten visitors of murder. And then the bodies begin to fall.

By the novel’s end, there is no one left alive on the island. But who is the killer? Who is the mysterious U. N. Owen who invited them all and how does he know about their sordid pasts? Are they really all alone? One of the most incredible stories I have ever read, it works whether you know the solution or not. If you don’t know, you’ll love trying to work it out, and if you do, you’ll love trying to see how she does it. As ever, the clues are all there, you just have to be able to untangle them.

Murder on the Orient Express

Aboard the most luxurious train of the age, Poirot finds himself in strange company. The other passengers are cagey, not necessarily friendly, and all have their own reasons for travelling. One of them is Samuel Ratchett, a distasteful man of the sort who believes he can solve any problem by throwing money at it. Convinced that his life is at risk, he asks Poirot to protect him, but Poirot refuses, simply because he does not like the man or his methods. That night, however, the train gets stuck in a snowdrift in Croatia, and the following morning Ratchett is found dead in his cabin. Someone on the train is guilty, and with nowhere to go and nothing else to do, Poirot sets about interviewing everyone on board to see if he can solve the case before the police get to them.

Murder on the Orient Express is another of the best-known novels, with a solution that’s probably better known than its plot. It’s a staple for anyone entering the world of Christie, however, as it explores much more fully than in many others Poirot’s sense of justice. It’s a fiendish solution, but the emphasis here is on character and how we deal with revenge, fairness and honesty. It rounds out Poirot into an even greater character than he was before and amply shows off how his reputation now precedes him. It’s also a key example of how Christie – and many other crime writers – used real world crimes to inspire their fiction. Both this and The Mousetrap take their inspiration from enormously famous and influential crimes, but each is given a Christie twist.

Cards on the Table

There is an assumption with Christie’s work that it’s better to suspect “the least likely person”. She knew that people thought this, and it had become a common trope in murder mystery fiction, so Cards on the Table was published in 1936 to entirely subvert it. The story begins with a wealthy collector, Mr Shaitana, inviting eight people to dinner and then to play bridge with him. By the end of the night, Mr Shaitana is dead. Nobody left the room, and nobody else came in, so the killer is there. Four of the guests, however, are detectives – Hercule Poirot, Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle and Ariadne Oliver. That leaves the other four as the suspects: and they’ve all got murky pasts with suspected murders in them. As such, there is no one who is less likely than any other. The rest of the novel progresses as normal, with the detectives working out which suspect has struck again. Fiendishly clever, if her reputation hadn’t already been assured, this one would have done it.


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This is a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

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Six of the Best … Morals from Mr Men books

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Anyone who knows me knows that I am, of course, a huge Agatha Christie nerd. There is, however, one fictional universe that I have loved for longer and much deeper than hers, and that is the one inhabited by the Mr Men. Ever since I was a small child, I have been charmed by this series. I continue to adore the series unironically and think that there aren’t many book series of children that can compare. I’ve even started sharing the joy with my friends’ young children. At first glance, you may wonder why I’m spending a post talking about this and can’t see what value there is in the Mr Men series, but that’s because I’m here to educate you. These books are not what they seem to be at first glance.

Firstly, a little background on the series. Once upon a time, Roger Hargreaves was asked by his son Adam, “What does a tickle look like?” The result was the very first Mr Man – Mr Tickle. Inspired, the first seven characters arrived in 1971, and their number swiftly grew over the decade, being joined by their female counterparts, the Little Misses, in 1981. In 1988, Roger Hargreaves died and the marker pen was handed on to his son, Adam, who continues to run the empire, creating more characters under his father’s name. Since then, the series has spawned merchandise of all kinds including Mr Lazy slippers, Mr Bump plasters and Mr Sneeze tissues, and even became a much-loved television series, brilliantly narrated by Arthur Lowe.

The Mr Men and Little Miss characters are famously all named for their primary personality trait. The world they inhabit is one that is routinely fair and just, which means that these names will impact your story. If you have a positive name (Mr Happy or Little Miss Wise), your trait will be enforced. If you have a negative name (Mr Grumpy or Little Miss Trouble), your trait will be challenged and potentially even removed. If you have a neutral name (Mr Impossible or Little Miss Twins), that usually means you simply get to have an adventure. This is a world free of sex, drugs and death, where the biggest issue is rarely more than there not being enough cake. It’s a pleasant enough world to inhabit, but this lack of drama doesn’t mean it can’t teach us things.

Several stories including Mr Happy, Mr Muddle, Mr Wrong and Little Miss Scatterbrain have a strong emphasis on conformity, something that is otherwise ignored by the likes of Mr Impossible or Mr Daydream. Above all, though, the series I believe celebrates difference. Several of the stories focus on characters trying to find jobs that suit them. Mr Bump ends when he discovers he’s best at picking apples simply by bumping into trees. Mr Slow’s dream job turns out to be a steamroller driver. Little Miss Star longs to be famous, predating the vapid “celebrities” that come from reality television and have no genuine skill. Generally though, the books show that you are wanted and have a purpose, no matter your shape, size, personality or background. A frequent – and important – theme in the stories is about finding your own place in society.

Even topics such as body positivity can be shown through the texts. In Mr Greedy, the titular character is shown to be an enormous glutton who gets hungrier the fatter he gets. Unable to ever be full, he spends most of his time thinking about his next meal. There is little suggestion here that he is physically unhealthy, merely that an obsession with food is not a great way to live. After he finds himself the house of a giant and is forced to eat all the enormous food on the giant’s dinner plate in order to teach him a lesson, Mr Greedy discovers that perhaps gluttony isn’t the way forward and manages to slim down. Conversely, the hero of Mr Skinny is so thin that if he turns sideways, he becomes more or less invisible. Here, his lack of appetite is considered bad, but also shown to be a genuine illness of some kind. He is unafraid to seek advice from a doctor and in the end goes to live with Mr Greedy (presumably before his run-in with the giant – the chronology of the stories is all-but-impossible to establish) and learns to eat better. The books, therefore, establish that there is a healthy and happy medium. This all goes out the window, however, when Little Miss Greedy (originally known as Little Miss Plump) is brought into the universe. She is Mr Greedy’s cousin, and her story does nothing to say that her way of life is wrong. Indeed, with her high heels and flower-adorned hat, she is the poster girl for the “big, beautiful woman”.

The books remain an utter joy. The illustrations, all done in marker pen, are bright, beautiful and simple, and the stories are entertaining to small children, although according to some studies they’re on par with John Steinbeck in their complexity. I find them charming beyond belief, and have an enormous amount of merchandise based on the series, just because I find it all so cute. With over 100 million sales to date and another book sold every fifty-seven seconds, the characters have made their way indelibly into popular culture, and resulted in Roger Hargreaves being one of the bestselling authors of all time. Long may the books and their morals teach our children.

Here are six of the best morals we can learn from the Mr Men and Little Miss characters:

Have consideration for others

Mr Noisy is probably one of the most famous Mr Men. Not perhaps up there with the likes of Mr Happy and Mr Bump, but second tier for sure. In his story, we discover that his sneezes can be heard across the country and his alarm clock sounds like a fire engine. He stomps around his local town, slamming doors and yelling at people in shops. He’s not rude, necessarily, just doesn’t really think about how he’s coming across. The shopkeepers give him what he wants just to get rid of him. When two of them, however, decide to pretend they can’t hear him, he realises that he can get what he wants without resorting to volume.

His story is one of consideration for others. Mr Noisy goes about his own day without any apparent interest or even awareness of how he is affecting other people. Only when he discovers that he’s being annoying – no matter how passive aggressively the residents go about telling him – does he tone it down. He notably doesn’t argue or tell people that it’s a “free country”. He sees the problem and corrects his own behaviour for the good of the community. If that’s not a lesson that many of us need to learn right now, I don’t know what is.

Anger is futile

Mr Rude is a later addition to the series, arriving in 2003, and is one of the most unpleasant characters we encounter. Lacking entirely in manners, tact or anything approaching kindness, Mr Rude insults people, shouts at them, is always angry, and is like by exactly no one. When Mr Happy learns of his behaviour, he settles himself into Mr Rude’s house without invitation and a large grin plastered permanently on his face. Mr Rude begins by shouting at his “guest” and insulting him, but Mr Happy doesn’t react, meaning eventually Mr Rude has to ask him what he wants, and even begins to develop a friendship of sorts with him. This is an extreme way of teaching him manners.

It also teaches us that anger is futile. Mr Rude shouts and screams at Mr Happy, but Mr Happy simply doesn’t react. Mr Rude seems to have been the way he was to get a rise out of people and cause an argument, but when he meets someone who isn’t affected by anything he says or does, the wind is taken out of his sails, and he begins to see that there are other ways to get what he wants. As someone who has spent a long time in customer service, I long ago learnt that the best way to deal with a rude person is to be perfectly polite. Don’t give rude or angry people the satisfaction of ruining your day.

It’s OK to ask for help

Like all the characters, Little Miss Stubborn is the walking form of her surname. Unwilling to take advice from others and never prepared to change her mind once she has decided on something, her story sees her taking a wrong bus because she won’t accept someone else saying it’s the wrong one, getting caught in an avalanche, and eating an omelette that is too big for her.

Although this is one rare occasion where she doesn’t seem to completely learn her lesson, the book does teach us that it’s alright to ask for help once in a while and to accept the advice of people who might know better than you on something. As it is, she continues to move through the world ignoring everyone else and pretending that all the bad decisions she makes are the ones she meant to make after all and she’s happy with their outcome. We should all take help now and again, and never be afraid to ask for it, as sometimes we don’t always know what the best option is, even if we think we do. Like the lesson we learn from Mr Noisy, this also feels like one that is particularly relevant right now.

Don’t worry

Mr Worry joined the collection in 1978, bringing with him a case of anxiety so bad that his forehead was permanently etched with worry lines. As suggested by his name, he will worry about absolutely everything, not limited to the weather, money, forgetting things and health. As is sometimes the case in these books, one day he meets a wizard who asks him to write down everything that worries him (it is an incredibly long list) and the wizard promises to make sure none of those things happen. This leaves Mr Worry happy for a few days, before beginning to worry about having nothing to worry about.

The overall moral is that worrying is pointless – in the words of Baz Luhrmann, it is “like trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum” – and it’s especially futile to worry about things we have no control over. The book does, however, give good advice on how to handle worries. Writing a list and getting these things out into the open can really help clear your mind, as often things seem smaller on the page. To-do lists, for example, always seem more manageable when written down rather than just being held in the mind.

Love yourself

Mr Tall suffers terribly with his height. Able to step over trees and sit on cliffs with his feet on the beach below, he is far and away the tallest person in the world. He longs to be “normal”, but after meeting with Mr Tickle, Mr Nosey and Mr Greedy who all share with him the reasons why they love their big arms, nose and belly (respectively), he realises that his legs are what make him special, meaning he can walk forty minute in four minutes without tiring. This is one of the most important lessons children can be taught.

We all look different and have different abilities, and when you’re young especially this can make a person insecure. Mr Tall teaches children that just because someone doesn’t look like them or is differently abled, it doesn’t make them any less special. Indeed, it might mean they have a whole other way of looking at life, or are able to do things that others couldn’t imagine. Mr Tall also strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mr Small, and between them they are able to find a way to get through life together by helping each other. That is, until Mr Tall forgets he was out with Mr Small, and the latter has to do the walk home that took Mr Tall four minutes. Mr Small takes a year. This raises a considerable number of questions that the logic of the universe can’t handle, so let’s not analyse that further.

Don’t be afraid to take risks

I’ve always had a particular fondness for Little Miss Dotty. Created in a similar vein to the other “unusual thinking” characters like Mr Nonsense and Mr Silly, she too lives in Nonsenseland where the grass is blue and pigs play tennis. She decides to enter the Nonsense Cup, a competition seeking out the silliest ideas. The contest this year is specifically looking for something dotty, so she decides to enter. She eventually settles on covering her own house in 999 coloured dots, and is declared the winner.

Although other characters enter the contest, it is her literal interpretation of the subject that cinches it for her, and it’s quite brilliant. She takes a risk by going up against some people with a great knack for nonsense, but uses her own brand of individuality to claim victory. Spending so much time painting her house could fail her, but she persists and the effort is worth it. She is an icon to anyone who thinks they shouldn’t enter a contest because “they won’t win”. The only way to guarantee you won’t succeed is by not playing the game. Take a chance, join in, and see if you get surprised. There is a second moral in here as well about being yourself. She wins because she plays to her strengths and doesn’t pretend to be something she isn’t. Being yourself (unless you’re someone like Mr Rude) is always the right thing to do.


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This is a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

Six of the Best … London bookshops

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London has an enormous literary history. From the days when Chaucer was pounding the streets, all the greats seem to have found their way here. Shakespeare had his theatre on the south bank. Dickens lived there and turned the city into a character of its own. Agatha Christie called it her home for much of her life, and along with many of the other detective writers of the era, founded a club for them to meet and socialise. To this day, it is an absolute haven for book lovers. I do apologise for the London-centric focus of this post, but I just felt I had to discuss the best bookshops in this great city.

The British Library is the beating heart of London’s literary body. By law, the library receives a copy of every book published in Britain and Ireland, meaning mine are in there too, which is probably my proudest achievement. It also contains a very charming bookshop, but really this is just a bonus. All bibliophiles should stop in here, because their collection is remarkable. Where else can you see the Magna Carta, some of Leonardo da Vinci’s notes and Jane Austen’s writing desk?

Daunt Books gets an honourable mention, just for being so damn beautiful. There are a number of branches across London, but the first and most impressive is the Marylebone branch. Notable for its long oak galleries, large skylights and William Morris prints, it takes the breath away. It specialises in travel books, but caters to many other needs, too, and has in the last decade also begun publishing its own books. If it’s travel-based books you’re really after, however, I suggest Stanfords in Covent Garden, which will cater to your every whim.

I also can’t not mention Foyles, which to many people is the London bookshop, and the first place to stock my novel on its shelves. The company was founded in 1903, and gained a reputation for “anachronistic, eccentric and sometimes infuriating” methods of bookselling, but these have simply served to make it famous. The flagship store in on Charing Cross Road, but there are several smaller ones around the city. The most famous owner was Christina Foyle who had control of the company from 1945-99, implementing many of the wacky business practices that made it so notable, including the fact that customers had to queue three times to purchase anything because sales staff were not allowed to handle cash, not allowing orders to be taken over the phone, and the truly bizarre decision to shelve books by publisher rather than author or even title. Famously, in the 1980s, rival bookshop Dillons ran an advertising campaign with the slogan, “Foyled again? Try Dillons.”

Where is the heaviest concentration of bookshops in London, however? There are so many streets in the city dedicated to specific things – Denmark Street for music, Saville Row for high-end fashion, Hatton Garden for jewellery – there just has to be one for books. And there is. It’s called Cecil Court (informally dubbed “Booksellers’ Row”) and can be found near Leicester Square, linking St Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross. A small street with Victorian fronted shops, it has existed since the seventeenth century, and now houses around twenty second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, . It holds another singularly cool claim to fame: Mozart lived there for four years.

The city has also seen the loss of some of its finest bookshops over the years. Murder One (1988-2009) was a shop specialising in “hard-to-find and collectable crime, mystery, romance and science fiction literature.” It was the first UK bookshop to specialise in crime and mystery, and was at its opening in 1988, the largest “genre” bookshop in Europe. It closed in 2009 when the owner retired, but still exists online as a mail order service. Elsewhere, we have lost Silver Moon Bookshop (a feminist bookshop that was later folded into Foyle’s), the Poetry Bookshop (1913-1926) which did exactly what it says on the tin and sold hand-coloured rhyme sheets for children, and Henderson’s, founded in 1909 and otherwise known as The Bomb Shop, that was known for selling and publishing radical left and anarchist writing. It’s sad to have lost so many specialists, but we’ve still got plenty to explore.

And so here are six of the best bookshops to visit London:

Skoob

If you like browsing the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, then Skoob is for you. A basement shop near Russell Square, this paradise of the printed word houses over 55,000 uncatalogued books, meaning you never know what you’re going to stumble up against. Primarily it is a place for academic textbooks, but there is all manner of fiction here too, and I’ve spent a good deal of time browsing the shelves, especially those (pictured) dedicated to the famous orange paperbacks from Penguin. There’s also a section of their green paperbacks, all of which are crime novels. The Bloomsbury institution even offers its own gift vouchers, and promises that all books are priced at half (or less) of what they would be new. It’s a genuinely thrilling place to explore, right in the heart of that most literary corner of literary London.

Gay’s the Word

Speaking of Bloomsbury, we come to the most specialist shop on the list. Gay’s the Word is the only specialist LGBT bookshop in the whole of England. Founded in Marchmont Street in 1979 by gay socialist group, the Gay Icebreakers, the bookshop has since become a cultural cornerstone for London’s queer community. In 1984, Customs and Excise took it to be a porn store instead of a bookshop, and seized thousands of pounds worth of stock, including titles like The Joy of Gay Sex and works by Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. It was the meeting place for the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in 1984-5, who’s story is told in the amazing film Pride. The bookshop continues to go from strength to strength and is a vital stopping off point for anyone who wants to branch out from reading the same old straight, white men. Sitting on the shelves of this shop are many authors who have been sidelined, but are worth checking out.

Waterloo Bridge Book Market

You would imagine that a bookshop that is permanently outside would be a bad idea in Britain, given this country’s tendency to be somewhat wet, but an ingenious solution has been found that means this bookshop can open every day, whatever the weather: put it under a bridge. Open every day until seven (sometimes earlier in the winter) whatever the weather, despite being on the main thoroughfare of the Southbank, it has somehow remained one of London’s best open secrets. It has a wide range of paperbacks and hardbacks, including some collectables. There is something for everyone here, from children to crime nuts, romantics to fantasy lovers. as well as extras like beautiful book-based art prints. Like all good bookshops, the emphasis is on the shop’s browsability, a term I’ve just devised. It doesn’t matter how inclement the weather, if I’m in the area, I have to have a quick browse of the tables, and have picked up several rare and unusual books here.

Word on the Water

I only stumbled across Word on the Water last year and couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it before. It is one of the most unique bookshops in London as it is found on a barge. Before it acquired permanent mooring, it used to move to a different spot in the canals every two weeks, but it now has dropped anchor just behind Granary Square at King’s Cross for the foreseeable future. Founded in 2011, it is certainly one of London’s quirkiest bookshops and sells both new and used books. The roof of the barge has also become the perfect place for any number of events including interesting talks, live music, readings and poetry slams. It’s very quickly become one of my favourite places in London to spend time.

Hatchards

In Britain, you know somewhere is going to excel in quality when it’s used by the Royal Family. Founded in 1797, and trading from the same location since 1801, it claims to be the UK’s oldest bookshop. It holds three Royal Warrants, a sure sign of its quality. There is something about the shop and its decor that sends you back in time, despite the modern books on the shelves. It is a haven of peace in Piccadilly, and hosts regular signings and events with authors. It is the kind of place where you get the sense the booksellers really have read everything on sale. If you head a few paces down the road, you come to the final entry on our list.

Waterstones Piccadilly

Given the sheer number of bookshops in London, it might seem odd to then pick the market leader for this list instead of a small independent, but I’m afraid I simply can’t go without mentioning it. This is the bookshop in London I have spent the most time in, and is an absolute haven for any bookworm. It is reputedly the largest bookshop in Europe, and it has the statistics to back it up. 200,000 titles are sold across six floors and eight miles of shelving. Along with the books, it also contains two cafes, a bar, and a Russian Bookshop. Housed inside a 1930s art deco building that is Grade I listed, it’s the kind of building, like the Natural History Museum, that would look great whatever you put in it.

There are, of course, numerous other branches of Waterstones in the city, each with their own quirks. The Tottenham Court Road branch is the “hipster” cousin, with exposed walls and pipes, as well as one of the funniest business-based Twitter accounts ever. The Gower Street branch is another one that stretches over five floors, and has reading nooks, skeletons manning one of the tills, and an art gallery. In the Bromley store, you’ll find a lot of events catering for children, and the Islington branch has its own fish tank. Tim Waterstone, the company’s founder, said he wanted to create a company that was big but felt small, with very knowledgeable staff, comfortable surroundings, and masses of choice. I think we all agree that he’s done that. Of course we must support the independent shops, but there is something  magical about Waterstones that has ensured its survival and success.


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

Six of the Best … Constrained Writings

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Writing a novel is bloody hard work, and I would be wary of anyone who said it was easy. I’ve done it twice – there’s a third on the go – and I honestly wonder how I manage to do it at times. However, there are some people who simply aren’t content with just writing a novel. They want to make it harder. Today, we’re talking about constrained writing.

Constrained writing is a literary technique that sees the writer bound by a condition that forbids something, or ensures a particular pattern. One of the most famous of these constraints is a “lipogram”, where a particular letter is forbidden. This seems easy when the letter in question is Q or J, for example – Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven actually features no Z but this doesn’t appear to have been intentional – but to really challenge oneself, you can ban the use of a much more common letter. Or the most common letter of all – E. Gadsby is a 50,000 word novel by Ernest Vincent Wright which was published in 1939 and doesn’t use the letter E at all. Annoying for him, however, there are two in his name. The opening paragraph is as follows:

If Youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.” A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.

The thing I find oddest about lipograms is that you think they’ll sound nonsensical, but actually they often read just fine. Unfortunately for Wright, eagle-eyed readers have discovered a few E’s in the book. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive task, and inspired a similar project that I’ll discuss below. Lipograms, however, are not the only type of constrained writing available. There’s of course it’s opposite, the anitlipo, in which each word must contain a specific letter, although I couldn’t find any novel-length examples. For completions sake, a sentence or work containing all the letters of the alphabet is called a pangram. Since most works do this without any effort, the challenge here is to produce the shortest possible, the current record (involving no abbreviations) is the twenty-eight letter sentence, “Jived fox nymph grabs quick waltz”. More on these below.

Alliteration, as we all remember from language lessons, is when a series of words all begin with the same letter or subset of letters, and are difficult to do over prolonged works, although the best one I’ve found is below. Perhaps you would rather not constrain yourself based on letters, but on something apparently more esoteric, like word length. Pilish is where the number of digits in consecutive words match the numbers of pi. Mike Keith wrote a short story called “Cadaeic Cadenza” which used the first 3,835 digits of pi. The novel Not A Wake got to 10,000 places, and is the longest verified pilish work in existence. If you really want to challenge yourself, you can remove an entire aspect of language. In 2004, the French novel Le Train de Nulle Part was written by Michael Thaler and doesn’t use a single verb.

Just when you think you’ve reached a point where it seems they’ve made it difficult enough for themselves, along come authors like Jerzy Andrzejewski and his novel The Gates of Paradise, which contains just two sentences. The novel is about 40,000 words long and the second sentence contains four of them. Or how about Never Again by Doug Nufer, in which no word is used more than once.

And then there are the really tricky ones. Bilingual homophonous poetry is where a poem makes sense in two different languages at the same time by only using homophones. “One syllable article” writing is unique to the Chinese language, using words that are all homophones of one another, meaning it looks normal written down, but spoken aloud will produce a single sound over and over. A particularly famous example is The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den, which has 92 characters, all with the sound “shi”. It doesn’t even have to be words: Peter Carey’s book True History of the Kelly Gang doesn’t use a single comma.

If you feel like trying this out for yourself, then actually it’s a great bit of fun and it can be an interesting writing exercise. The website Quadrivial Quandry is perhaps a good starting place, as it uses the mandated vocabulary style, giving you four words a day to try and incorporate into a single sentence. And no, they’re not easy words. Alternatively, pick a random letter and try and remove it from a page of writing. You could also have a go at twiction, writing stories that can fit into a single tweet (which used to be much more of a challenge when the 140 character limit was in place). Ready that thesaurus!

And so, here are six of the best constrained writing books!

Ella Minnow Pea

In Ella Minnow Pea, we decamp to the island of Nollop, just off South Carolina, where the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is preserved on a memorial statue to its creator, Nevin Nollop, and is taken very seriously by the island’s people. When the letter Z drops off the statue, the government ban its usage. This doesn’t affect too much in society, but then the Q drops. And then J. Then D. As letters disappear from the sign, so too they disappear from the novel which is made up of a series of letters between residents, and before too long the islanders find themselves in a position where they can only use the letters L, M, N, O and P. Someone else needs to come up with a new pangram, and fast.

Author Mark Dunn is someone who doesn’t shy away from a challenge, having also written the novel Ibid, which is composed entirely of the footnotes to a work that has been lost. Much of the humour of Ella Minnow Pea comes from the characters altering the language to suit the new rules. While sometimes they just simply remove whole words, other times they change spellings (when F is lost, they begin to spell “after” as “aphter”, for example), and the fear of being found using a banned letter is very real, with themes of totalitarianism and freedom of speech beautifully explored in a unique scenario. Because of its emphasis on language, I therefore find it surprising that it has since been turned into a musical and, as of 2019, a film is in the works. This is, I think, the first constrained writing novel I read, and as such the one I hold in the highest regard. It’s funny, twisted and very unusual.

A Void

A Void by Georges Perec is one of the most famous lipogrammatic novels in the world, but what makes it even more impressive is the frequent translations. Originally published in 1969 in French as La Disparition, the novel follows a group of friends who are trying to find their companion Anton Vowl, but the novel doesn’t contain a single letter E (except the four unfortunately found in his name). At around three hundred pages in length, this is a particularly awesome accomplishment, and I struggled to do it just in my short review of the book, so I can’t imagine the pain of doing it for a whole, fully-functional novel. It was finally translated into English in 1995 by Gilbert Adair, but his was not the first attempt and three other translations – called A Vanishing, Vanish’d! and Omissions all exist.

The book has since been translated into various other languages, with every translator imposing a similar rule on themselves. Because E is such a prevalent letter in many languages, that’s usually the one that gets removed, but the Spanish version removes the A, Russian the O and Japanese the I. In 1972, Perec penned a novella called Les revenentes which uses E as the only vowel. He joked that he used up all those that he’d saved during the writing of La Disparition. This, too, was translated into English with the title The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.

Alphabetical Africa

Ages ago an archaeologist, Albert, alias Arthur, ably attended an archaic African armchair affair at Antibes, attracting attention as an archaeologist and atheist. Ahhh, atheism … anyhow, Albert advocated assisting African ants. Ants? All are astounded. Ants? Absurd.

Something strike you as odd about that? That’s a paragraph from the opening chapter of Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa. The first chapter sees every word beginning with A. In the second, words beginning with A and B are both allowed, and so on. It all starts to sound kind of normal by about chapter nine when words beginning with I get introduced. In the middle, everything is allowed and then, starting from Z, the primary letters disappear once more. It sounds difficult enough, but when you consider that many basic words can’t appear until really late in the text (“the” in chapter 20, “what” in chapter 23, “you” in chapter 25), it seems impossible.

Despite all this madness, a plot still shines through about a journey through the African landscape, an invasion by Zanzibar and torture by Queen Quat. Because of the limitations, some of the plot can be predicted, such as knowing when Zanzibar’s troops will arrive and when Queen Quat will have to disappear from the narrative, but it doesn’t make it any less absurd and wonderful.

Eunoia

Christian Bok’s Eunoia (named for the shortest word in English to contain all the vowels) is perhaps the strangest on this list, as it does the opposite of A Void but five times. Each of the five main chapters uses one vowel each, which allows each letter to showcase its personality, as they all produce startlingly different sounds. Here are five sentences, one from each chapter, that reveal what a mad project this is…

A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.

He engenders perfect newness wherever we need fresh terms.

Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script.

Dons go crosstown to look for bookshops known to stock lots of top-notch goods.

Ubu mulcts surplus funds (trust funds plus slush funds).

Bok gives himself further rules, too. Each chapter is about the art of writing, must avoid excessive repetition of words and use as many as possible (the postscript says 98% of available words are used) and the letter Y is entirely banned too, so it can’t serve in its part-time position as a vowel.

And if that wasn’t mad enough, in the final chapter called “Oiseau” (the shortest word to contain all the vowels in French) contains further insanity, including a poem called “Vowels” where the only letters available are those in the word vowels, a lament to the letter W, and a list of all the words in English that contain no vowels at all. This is perhaps the most ambitious constrained writing project here, if not ever.

let me tell you

All of these books are obviously hampered by a limitation of the words they can use, but what if we bring it down to the words used by one person specifically. In let me tell you by Paul Griffiths, we get the story of Hamlet but from the point of view of Ophelia – but only using the words that Shakespeare gave her in the original text. Opening with “So: now I come to speak. At last. I will tell you all I know…”, she discusses her love for her father, and her confusion regarding the Prince of Denmark himself, all the while increasingly feeling like she needs to escape the narrative she’s trapped in. With such a restricted vocabulary, the novel takes on musical qualities as words reappear over and over again in different contexts. This concept is so great, I wonder if I couldn’t be applied to other fictional characters – the smaller the role, the tougher the challenge.

Green Eggs and Ham

Dr Seuss was famous of books with simple language and catchy rhyme schemes, but perhaps his most famous title was written as the result of a bet between Seuss and his publisher, Bennett Cerf. Following on from The Cat in the Hat which used 236 different words, Cerf bet Seuss that he couldn’t complete one with even fewer. Green Eggs and Ham was published in 1960, with just 50 different words used in the whole text. Despite this stringent limitation, by 2001 it had become the fourth-best-selling English language children’s hardcover of all time, and by 2014, over eight million copies had been sold.

And for those who are really curious, the 50 words are:

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

Six of the Best … Fictional Vehicles

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Characters in books rarely stay in one place for long, unless they’re stuck in prison. How they get about, however, is often of enormous interest to readers. In our world, we are limited by fuel, time and distance, but in fiction the same rules don’t necessarily apply. You can travel at colossal speeds and cover massive distances given the right technology or magic. Cars can fly, submarines can sink to impossible depths, airships can …  well … they can be feasible. Even an elevator can serve as a spaceship with enough ingenuity. We’re also not limited by travelling through space, as time travellers need a vehicle too, and they’re inherently cool.

Rarely is a vehicle the main focus of a book, although exceptions could possibly be made of the Thomas the Tank Engine series. Still, enough have vehicular titles. Many of us would recognise titles such as Murder on the Orient Express, Three Men in a Boat, Strangers on a Train, and The Little Engine That Could.

Transportation often features heavily in fiction as it is not without its risks. Trains were occasionally locations for murders in Agatha Christie’s novels, and few of us can forget the dangerous driving in The Great Gatsby. Despite all this, there is something fantastic about vehicles that inspire humanity. Literature is where we’ve let our imaginations run wild. Books are already an escape from reality, so giving us a cool car, train, boat or spaceship is just adding to that. China Miéville created an ocean-less world in Railsea, where long trains trawl eternally across the planet’s dry surface, acting like boats do for us. Great ships like the Pequod in Moby Dick, the Walrus in Treasure Island, or the Jolly Roger in Peter Pan stir the imaginations of anyone who’s ever wanted to cast anchor and set sail for new shores. The Nautilis submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea so inspired people that numerous real ships and submarines have been given the name, which is ironic as the fictional one got its own name from the first practical submarine, built in 1800 by Robert Fulton.

Above all, a vehicle in fiction has to be cool. James Bond is of course particularly notable for his exquisite taste in cars, and will forever be associated with Aston Martins. Elsewhere, Lord Peter Wimsey drives V12 sleeve-valve Daimlers, and Australian flapper and detective Phryne Fisher traverses her books in a bright red Hispano-Suzia. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo tear through the desert in cars named The Great Red Shark and The Great White Whale, which are cool just for their names, even if the rest of the book lacks.

Before we get on with the list of my six favourite fictional vehicles, I’d like to first run through some honourable mentions. First up, on the left, the shoe car driven by Mr Funny. It would be a great as a statement vehicle, but it has very little practicality, with no luggage space, room for one person only, and apparently no doors. I also avoided putting the TARDIS on the list as, while there are Doctor Who novelisations, it’s better known as a television series (although I go against this reasoning with one of the other vehicles on the list, so, whoops). The TARDIS is remarkable, however. Able to go anywhere and everywhere in time and space (not that you’d necessarily believe it given how much time it spends in modern day London), it is as much a character of the show as anyone. It is the ultimate in travel, even if the pilot doesn’t necessarily know what they’re doing with it. I also left off the titular bus of my first novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus. Formerly nothing but a horse and cart, every piece has been replaced over the years until it now resembles a London bus, except for the sheen of blood over everything and the cannibal driving it around Britain at breakneck speed.

And now, on with the list!

Hogwarts Express

J. K. Rowling not only gave us an enormous amount of spells, magical creatures, beloved characters and mouthwatering foods when she created the Harry Potter universe – she also gave us a huge plethora of ways to get around. Wizards never really have to walk anywhere as they’ve got dozens of ways to get from A to B. They can use a Portkey, travel through the Floo Network, ride on the back of a thestral or hippogriff, pilot a broomstick, or catch the triple-decker Knight Bus. This is still before we come to Mr Weasley’s flying Ford Anglia, Sirius Black’s enchanted motorbike, the submersible Durmstrang ship, the enormous Beauxbatons carriage pulled by winged horses, flying carpets, and the Vanishing Cabinet. If all else fails, they can learn to apparate, although this always comes with a danger of splinching.

Despite all this, I think we can all agree that by far and away the greatest vehicle in the series is the Hogwarts Express. The scarlet steam engine is one of the most iconic symbols of the series, even gracing the front cover of the first book. While home to some pivotal scenes in the novels, including Harry, Ron and Hermione’s first interactions, a Dementor attack, and a fight with Malfoy, it’s broadly speaking a very safe space, watched over by the trolley witch, and anyone who’s read or seen Harry Potter and the Cursed Child knows what she’s capable of! The train seems to have very few particularly magic powers, having been stolen from Muggles in 1830. According to supplementary material, the operation required the use of the biggest concealment charm ever performed in Britain, and 167 memory charms, creating a brand new train station at Hogsmeade that hadn’t existed the day before, and leaving the railway staff at Crewe with the feeling that they’d misplaced something.

The Hogwarts Express might not be the most magical of things in the series, it represents something enormous, as it is the literal way Harry moves between the Muggle world he hates and the wizarding world he loves. Despite the lack of inherent magic, who wouldn’t want to set off from the fabled Platform 9¾ at eleven o’clock on September 1st, eating Chocolate Frogs and Pumpkin Pasties with your best friends, watching the British countryside swish by, as you head to the greatest school in fiction? No one, that’s who.

The Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, as surely many of you know, is credited as being one of history’s first computer programmers, working alongside Charles Babbage. She was the first person to realise that a computer could do more than pure calculation and is responsible for writing the first algorithm. As a fun aside, she was also the daughter of flamboyant romance poet Lord Byron. It was, therefore, absolutely fitting for Nick Harkaway to name his code-breaking train the Ada Lovelace in his astounding novel Angelmaker.

Eleven carriages long and containing “a kitchen, bathrooms, and two carriages of strange machinery”, the train tears through the countryside of Britain, never stopping, “occupying empty sidings and blank slots in the timetable, rolling and slipping around the edges of the map”. Although designed to be perfect, the materials used to make it are not, so the entire train is maintained by hand. It’s a fascinating idea to basically put Bletchley Park on wheels, as it’s then never where it was five minutes ago and it makes it a lot harder to trace. Although it “is narrow and sways with a strange eerie motion”, I think living aboard the Ada Lovelace is something I could definitely get used to.

Death’s bike in Discworld

Since the Second World War ended, the motorcycle has been seen as the coolest way to travel. In Terry Pratchett’s novel, Soul Music – part of the Discworld series – Death rides a motorbike that has been created in accordance with the tropes of rock music. As such, it isn’t designed to slow down, never mind having the ability to stop safely, and is specifically designed to crash at the end of the eighth verse. Even weirder, the bike itself falls apart pretty early in the story, but the idea of it remains, appearing simply as light reflecting off a machine, but without the machine.

Otherwordly figures almost by their very nature have to have bizarre and awesome vehicles. It’s worth pointing out as well that in another of Pratchett’s works, Good Omens, the demon Crowley has a Bentley that is protected from damage by his infernal powers – at least until it drives through a “wall of fire formed by a highway shaped like a diabolical sigil”. After that, it only completes its final journey through sheer force of will and by the end no longer resembles a Bentley – or a car.

Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang

I know I said I was leaving the TARDIS off the list because it was better known from television, but I’m allowing this car famous from a film onto the list because the book categorically came first. Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang was published in 1964 was written, perhaps surprisingly, by Ian Fleming. Yes, that Ian Fleming. Inspired by a series of racing cars also called Chitty Bang Bang, it was Fleming’s final work but he did not live to see it published.

The titular car is named for the noise it makes when it starts – the engine noise coupled with two loud backfires – and has been restored to glory by the inventor Caractacus Pott. The car, however, soon begins to exhibit signs of sentience, performing independent actions. When it instructs Mr Pott to pull a lever when stuck in traffic, the family learns that the car can fly. Later, on a beach, it develops hovercraft tendencies. Chitty is also able to track enemies when in pursuit and lock onto their location. The book ends with implications that it has many more secrets still to be revealed…

Flying cars are still absent from the real world, despite decades of promises from scientists that they’ll be along soon, so for many of us, fantasising about flying in Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, even if it is off to a country where children are forbidden and Benny Hill is inexplicably in work as a toy maker, is the closest we’ll get. And as if it wasn’t strange enough that Ian Fleming had written the book, Roald Dahl then penned the screenplay and the car soared into the hearts of people everywhere.

Thursday Next’s Speedster

Like the Hogwarts Express, this is one that is simply in here for being impossibly cool. Thursday Next, my favourite literary heroine, owns a 356 Speedster, that she is compelled to buy after seeing a future version of herself driving it. She claims that she was never much of a car person, but “this one was different”. Described as having a spartan interior, it is painted in red, blue and green. It takes her only a few hundred yards driving the car for them to be “inseparable”.

Beautiful and unusual, the car then features prominently in the series, even turning up on two covers – each book actually features a vehicle of some kind on the cover, usually a cool car – and taking part in one of the only car chases to ever appear in literature. Car chases are ten a penny in films, but in books it’s much harder to get the action right. Still, Fforde manages it, and with a car like this, how could he not?

Bookjumping – the act of reading yourself into a book – is still the coolest method of getting about in the whole series, but it doesn’t count as a vehicle. Unless you flag down a TransGenre Taxi, of course. That might.

Heart of Gold

It wouldn’t be possible to complete this list without the only vehicle possibly more remarkable than the TARDIS – the Heart of Gold. Springing from the pages of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it stands out among the other strange spaceships that Douglas Adams dreamt up as being the only one powered by improbability. Other ships present in the series include the Starship Bistromath, which runs on the laws of “bistromathics” (the specific mathematics of factors in restaurants), Golgafrincham B-Ark, a two-mile long generation ship built to exile a third of its home planet’s population, and Hotblack Desiato’s entirely frictionless Space-Limo which is so cool that Zaphod and Ford are compelled to steal it.

Heart of Gold, however, still rises above the rest for me. Described as the first ship to successfully use the Infinite Improbability Drive (an early form was used in the Starship Titanic, but due to the nature of infinite improbability, the ship stopped existing before it had even been launched), it was devised as a secret project on Damogran, before being stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox at the launching ceremony. The faster-than-light drive was invented following research into finite improbability, which was often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess’ undergarments leap one foot simultaneously to the left, in accordance with the theory of indeterminacy”. The Guide itself states that a lot of respectable scientists wouldn’t stand for that sort of thing “partly because it was a debasement of science, but mostly because they didn’t get invited to those sort of parties.”

The drive works by ignoring space and travelling through every point of every possible universe at the same time, meaning you’ll never be completely sure where you’ll end up or who you’ll be when you arrive. As Adams says, it is “therefore important to dress accordingly”.

I think we can all safely agree that however you travel through fiction, you’ve gotta do it in style. Happy travels!


Thanks for joining in and reading the third entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

Six of the Best … Time Travel Stories

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Who among us hasn’t dreamed of travelling through time? Not necessarily to change anything, but just to have a look. Many of us would love to leap forward and see the consequences of our actions, or find out what happens to the planet. Maybe we even want to just get a look at the lottery numbers. Similarly, don’t many of us want to head back through time as well, to meet the late, great heroes of history, or maybe just to find out exactly what dinosaurs tasted like. It seems, however, that time travel – particularly into the past – will remain something that we find only in fiction. As Isaac Asimov said, “Time travel is theoretically impossible, but I wouldn’t want to give it up as a plot gimmick.”

Time travel didn’t originate as a science fiction concept, however, and has been around a lot longer than you may realise. In Hindu mythology, there is the story of King Raivata Kakudmi who visits Brahma in heaven, only to return home to find that “many ages have passed”. The Japanese fairy tale Urashima Tarō – first recorded in the eighth century – features a protagonist who spends three days in an undersea palace, but returns home to find himself three hundred years into the future.

When the concept begins to slip into science fiction territory, it at first focuses on characters who fall asleep for great lengths of time, only to wake up in the future. Examples include Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving (20 years into the future), Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (113 years into the future), and The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells (203 years into the future). Wells, of course, changes everything with the writing of The Time Machine in 1895 – see below for more on this – by giving the protagonist some agency in his travelling. He, however, wasn’t the first to produce a time machine. In 1881, the story “The Clock that Went Backward” by Edward Page Mitchell introduced a clock that, when wound, transported people nearby back in time. The first vessel actually engineered specifically to travel in time, however, appears in El Anacronópete, a Spanish novel by Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau. It predates The Time Machine by just eight years. Since then, science fiction has expanded the nature of what makes a time machine hugely, giving us such greats as the TARDIS and the Back to the Future DeLorean, easily two of the coolest time travel vessels in fiction.

So, how does time travel work? Truthfully, we don’t know. We’re trapped in our forward linear progression of one second at a time. Of course, minds greater than mine have explained what happens when we start moving at the speed of light, but I’m not even close to understanding any of it, so instead I’m going to focus on fiction and what happens in other time periods once we get there. Depending on the story you’re reading (or writing) there will be various “laws” of time travel. There are, broadly speaking, five sets of rules and most works fall into one of these categories.

  1. In the first set of rules, it is impossible to change the past, as since the past has already happened, you’d already done anything that you went back to do. (Time travel is also notorious in making tenses incredibly uncomfortable, so bear with me.) An example of this is in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry and Hermione go back in time to save Sirius Black from death, and are able to do so only because they already did. History cannot be changed. (The later Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stage play, however, ignored this entirely.)
  2. Secondly, you’ve got a situation where time can be changed, but there are people or forces in play that ensure it doesn’t happen. A good example is 11/22/63 by Stephen King, where the larger the change one is trying to make in the past, the more the past resists, relying on contrived coincidences to keep the timeline “normal”.
  3. The third idea is that of the “rubber-band theory”. That is, you can change history but it will snap back and undo most of the changes. This is mentioned in Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak as the reason there’s no point in killing Hitler – someone else will just fill that role instead.
  4. The fourth idea is one in which history can be changed but you can also go and play around in it and affect nothing. It seems to run on rules beyond our understanding or any given explanation. This is probably also why it’s the kind that features in the Discworld novel, Night Watch.
  5. Finally, you’ve got the chaos theory version of events, in which even the tiniest changes will have unpredictable, massive effects on the future. The most famous example of this is Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder”, which I’ll discuss below.

And then what about the changes you made – if you were able to make them at all? Sometimes you’ve overwritten your present (which opens a whole barrel of snakes regarding paradoxes and whether this means you would have been alive to go back in time in the first place),

There’s still so much I could discuss here regarding wormholes, paradoxes, quantum physics and multiverses, but we’ve all got places to be. Suffice to say, there’s always time to mention how time travel works in the Thursday Next series of books by Jasper Fforde. For the first four books of the series, it works in such a way that people can travel freely through time, passing through anomalies and such, and sometimes being entirely wiped from history and never having existed at all, despite their children still surviving. The absolute highlight of what is already a very funny and clever series of books comes in the fifth book when it turns out that time travel has only been being used on the assumption it’ll be invented one day, and when travellers reach the end of the universe and find it was never actually invented, they have to close down the departments and stop it all from happening. Simply genius.

So what are some of the best books about time travel? Let me introduce you to six of the best…

A Sound of Thunder

If you’ve never heard of Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder”, you’ve almost certainly heard of the concept it birthed – “the butterfly effect”. In 2055, Time Safari Inc. is a company that lets wealthy adventurers head back into the past to hunt extinct creatures. Unsure as to how much they may impact the future, they specifically target creatures that would have died minutes later anyway, trying to change as little as possible. Told to keep to the prescribed path, one traveller panics and as he flees, crushes a butterfly beneath his boot, sending a ripple effect through time that changes the present in ways no one could have comprehended. It’s a brilliant book that explores the nature of causality. It also raises the issue that we seem to worried about making tiny changes in the past, apparently not realising that the things we’re doing right now, in our present, are sending ripples of change down into our future.

Time Salvager

Wesley Chu does wonders with time travel in Time Salvager by drawing attention to some aspects of it that seems to be forgotten. Set in 2511, it follows James Griffin-Mars, a chronman who travels back in time to rescue artefacts and power sources from history so they can be reused in this dying future. He finds himself on the run, however, when he breaks the first law of time travel and brings someone from the past with him into this desiccated new existence. I primarily remember the book for being the only one I’ve ever seen to take location fully into account with time travel and understanding that if you travel back to the exact same spot, the whole planet will be absent, as it is constantly moving in space. Loaded with science fiction tropes of all kinds, the book plays up the fact that humans are the great survivors and will whether whatever storm comes their way.

Man in the Empty Suit

How time travel came to be in Man in the Empty Suit is left unanswered – we simply know that our unnamed protagonist can and does flit around the timeline, only returning every year on his birthday to a hotel in New York in the year 2071 to party with sixty or so versions of himself. Things go wrong, however, when he arrives on his 39th birthday to find his 40-year-old self dead. The versions of him that are older are still present, however, and warn him that he’s got a year to solve his own murder, as by the time the next birthday rolls around, this will be him. Sean Ferrell then weaves a beautiful, dark and very clever time travel murder mystery in which the same man is the victim, investigator and all the suspects. It’s been some years since I read this, but the unique premise has stayed with me ever since.

Making History

One of the most commonly recurring ideas in time travel fiction is that of Hitler’s early demise. It seems that every other writer has contemplated killing off Hitler and stopping World War Two, usually to find the present they return to is radically different. Making History is Stephen Fry’s attempt at the notion and is one of the most intriguing. Here, a male contraceptive pill is sent back in time and put in the well in Braunau am Inn so that Hitler’s father drinks the water, is sterilised and Hitler is never born. The timeline shifts to an alternate future where, in the absence of Hitler, another even more charming, patient and effective leader founded and took control of the Nazi party, using the water from the well to sterilise Jews and wipe them out in a single generation. Utterly chilling, it is a brilliant and spooky alternate universe that maybe makes you realise that things could always be worse.

The Time Machine

The first novel to really popularise the concept of a vehicle that has been specifically designed to travel through time, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine is one of the keystones of the genre. Beginning in Victorian England, the Time Traveller (as the protagonist is known) leaps ahead to AD 802,701 where humanity has divided into two species. On the surface live the Eloi, small childlike beings with a fruit-based diet and no curiosity regarding the world around them. Underground and in caves, we find the Morlocks, simian troglodytes that only emerge at night to hunt the Eloi. When the Morlocks steal his time machine, he must seek out a solution in this weird world to get it back again. Broadly speaking, the novel serves as an allegory for the class system, but is enjoyable on its own merits if you don’t feel like having political ideology interrupting your reading.

The Time Traveller’s Wife

Perhaps my favourite example of time travel fiction – or at least the one that has made me cry the most – The Time Traveller’s Wife is, in my opinion, a thing of beauty. In it, we meet Henry who has a genetic disorder that displaces him from time, sending him to other points within his life with not even the clothes on his back along for the journey. When he’s 28, he meets Clare for the first time and has no idea who she is. She, however, has known him since childhood. Now their relationship can begin in earnest, if Clare can learn to live with Henry disappearing without warning at any time. Simply, this is one of the most beautiful and powerful love stories I’ve ever come across, and in many ways the time travel is incidental, as if it’s a far more banal disease that Henry suffers from. It doesn’t feel like science fiction, and Niffenegger manages to construct very human and realistic characters and situations from a very unusual premise.


Thanks for joining in and reading the second entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

Six of the Best … Opening Lines

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You only get one chance to start a story. When I was studying Creative Writing at university, emphasis was sometimes placed on the first page of a novel. Books have to be engaging throughout because the writer naturally wants the reader to finish the whole book, so every page is a new challenge to make them turn over and keep going. If you can’t even sustain their interest to the end of the first page then something has gone very wrong. Even more so, then, you need a first line that grabs the reader and drags them into the adventure they’re about to undergo.

Probably the most famous opening line, used to begin many stories in the English language and popularised by fairy tales, is “Once upon a time…” When you give it some thought, it’s actually a bit of a nonsense phrase, but one we accept without question because we are all exposed to it from a young age. It’s deliberately vague, setting the following story in deep history, back when magic was real and animals talked. In other languages, however, the phrase isn’t ever used and they have their own curious phrases, some of them actually much more fun. In the Indian language of Telugu, fairy tales open with, “Having been said and said and said…”, implying the story has been repeated throughout history. In Korean, fairy tales begin, “Once, in the old days, when tigers smoked…” and Polish ones focus on a location rather than a time, beginning, “Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven forests…” Fairy tales are always meant to be out of reach of us mortals to visit. One of my favourites however is that of Chile, where the traditional beginning is, “Listen to tell it and tell it to teach it”, which focuses on the oral tradition and morality aspects of fairy tales.

Because life doesn’t have beginnings and endings the way fiction does, it can be interesting to see where writers choose to begin their stories. Common beginnings, however, can be setting up a location (Fantastic Mr Fox: “Down in the valley there were three farms.”), having the character waking up (The Way Inn: “The bright red numbers on the radio-alarm clock beside my bed arranged themselves into the unfortunate shape of 6:12.”) or perhaps already at the breakfast table (Third Girl: “Hercule Poirot was sitting at the breakfast table.”). Starting in the morning seems to make sense to us, and I can’t think of many if any books where the character’s first act is to go to sleep. Mornings, and breakfasts feel like suitable beginnings, although perhaps The Bible takes this to its logical extreme by beginning at the creation of the universe. It’s far from the only book to do so.

Another very common form of opening line is one that discusses the weather. “It was a dark and stormy night” is often thrown up as an example of purple prose, and is now often mocked and parodied. Washington Irving (writer of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) first used the phrase in 1809, but it reached its fame as an example of bad writing in 1830 with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford, which opens:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Bulwer-Lytton wasn’t all bad – he also coined the term “the pen is mightier than the sword” – but this opening line was so maligned that that in 1983, San Jose State University began the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a contest to find the worst opening line in fiction for each year. None of this, however, has stopped the use of weather in opening lines. In Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, writer Ben Blatt analysed the use of weather in opening lines and found that Danielle Steel is one of the biggest culprits, with 46% of her 92 novels opening with a description of the weather. Other well-respected novelists use the same methods – 26% of John Steinbeck’s novels and 17% of Stephen King’s begin with the weather, as do 10% of Charles Dickens’.

Blatt also explored the length of opening lines, are his findings are interesting. Toni Morrison averages five words in her opening lines; Jane Austen, thirty-two. Charles Dickens straddles it all, with A Christmas Carol‘s first line being just six words long, but the opening of A Tale of Two Cities being a sentence of “119 words, 17 commas and an em-dash.” Despite the extraordinary difference in lengths, both are considered classics, showing that really there are no hard and fast rules for what makes a good opening line.

So what is the best opening line of all time? This is a point hotly debated by readers and writers, but often the same contenders crop up again and again. I’ve tried not to include many of them in my list below and give some others a chance to shine, but they are still worthy of a mention. 1984 famously opens with “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” I’ve always been a fan of this, as it invokes the fact that you’re about to step into a world where everything is just a bit off. It’s immediately uncomfortable. Alert Camus’ novel The Stranger says enormous things about grief just with its first ten words: “Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Moby Dick, of course, opens with “Call me Ishmael”, which serves to simply make us ask more questions than necessary – there’s an implication that Ishmael isn’t the narrator’s real name. Immediately you’re curious to know what – or indeed if – he’s hiding. And Pride and Prejudice opens with “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, which is probably one of the most parodied first lines in literature, and very quickly establishes a lot about the plot, characters and culture of Austen’s world.

And with those out of the way, may I share with you six of my favourite opening lines in all fiction.

A Christmas Carol

Marley was dead: to begin with.

I’m not especially a fan of Dickens, finding him long-winded, but this is understandable given the man was paid by the word. He is, however, responsible for this opening line, which contains what is surely the best colon in literature. Death is so often the end, but here we know straight away that Marley is coming back in some form or other. It feels topsy-turvy – if you start dead, surely you can’t become anything else? Like 1984, it introduces an immediate sense of unease which then pervades the rest of the novel. You can’t not be captivated by this opening.

Slaughterhouse-Five

All this happened, more or less.

It’s been a long time since I read Slaughterhouse-Five, but it’s one of those books that has stayed with me and began an ongoing fondness for Kurt Vonnegut. A lot of great stories have unreliable narrators, and this first line gives the indication straight away that it’s one of them. As the old saying goes: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Here, we know immediately that things are not necessarily going to be quite as they seem, and details of Billy Pilgrim’s life may have been altered for the purpose. What is true and what is false, however, are left for us to decide ourselves.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

The Narnia books passed me by as a series, and I wonder if it’s too late now to head through the wardrobe and learn about Christianity through the eyes of a lion. Probably for the best, as I never liked Turkish delight anyway. This opening line, however, always makes me laugh, though as a friend once said, “That’s pretty rich coming from a man whose middle name is Staples.”

A name can tell you a lot about a person – and if you don’t believe me, then think of two people called Wayne and Percival and tell me you don’t have preconceived notions about what these people would be like – so to open with a name like that is a sure fire way to grab the attention. Like a lot of good openers, too, it brings about questions. Who is he? Why does he almost deserve his name? Why doesn’t he fully deserve it? There’s something silly about it, but it works.

The Day of the Triffids

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

The Day of the Triffids is still remembered but doesn’t seem to be held up in the same regard as other classic science fiction tales. Cool and terrifying, I’d forgotten the opening line entirely. It’s a great one though, upending the world immediately and throwing you in, once again, with a sense of concern. I also like that it suggests we all know a Sunday morning is a very different beast to a Wednesday morning. Like many traditional openings, we are of course starting with talk of the morning, but it quickly points out that this is not going to be normal. Whatever is going to happen has already happened in some respects, and now we’re straight in dealing with the fallout.

The Crow Road

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

I’ve never read The Crow Road and this opener came to me when I asked others for some suggestions of their favourites. It’s instantly captivating, shocking, weird, funny and makes you wonder what on earth is happening. There doesn’t seem to be any shock in the words, like this is something that happens regularly. It’s another one that instantly makes you want to know more.

The Beginner’s Goodbye

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

In a similar vein to A Christmas Carol, The Beginner’s Goodbye opens with someone not being quite as dead as they were first thought to be. Like The Crow Road, it takes something strange and normalises it. We aren’t meant to think that this is odd, or at least not if we’re siding with the hero. It’s everyone else that seems to have the problem. It’s cleverly worded, and I adore the use of the word “strangest” which you think should be about one part of the line but is actually about another. It also doesn’t feel creepy in the slightest, just makes you want to know how people reacted and, frankly, how his wife made it back.


Thanks for reading the first post in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!