“Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor (2013)

Leave a comment

“There have been two moments in my life when everything changed.”

Be honest, we all want a go in the TARDIS. Everyone has that one point in history they’d like to go back and experience first hand. For me, I’ve got several. I’d love to go and experience the London Frost Fair of 1814 (as seen in this week’s Doctor Who, incidentally), to hang out with the Ancient Greeks, and to have a picnic on a Jurassic hill, watching the sauropods pass by. We all know the rules though – look, don’t touch. This is the rule that has led to the creation of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, where we will be spending the duration of this review.

Madeline “Max” Maxwell is a history doctorate, specialising in Ancient History. With a slightly mysterious background, she is an expert in her field, and on day called upon by an old teacher, Mrs De Winter, to join St Mary’s. She soon discovers that this is historical research with a difference – they can go back in time and observe contemporaneously. After rigorous training and an entire shake-up of her worldview, Max is soon a qualified Historian, finding herself being sent back in time to get the real answers about history.

Along the way she falls for techie Leon Farrell, befriends many of her fellow St Mary’s recruits, and becomes one of the first humans to ever see the dinosaurs alive. But all is not as it seems, and Farrell has a secret. He is from the future, sent back to prevent a rival organisation from meddling with the timeline to fit their own means. Suddenly dinosaurs are the least of her worries.

This is such a neat concept, and one that has been twisted and shaken by most science fiction writers over time. I enjoy the concept of these jaunts into the past merely being observational and, of course, being human, they can’t help but intervene, with History all the while pushing back against the new arrivals and trying to ensure the timeline is kept in tact. There are also some genuinely funny quips and one-liners. However, and I wish I didn’t have to say this, there’s something distinctly lacking about the whole thing.

The plot is disjointed and sprints around all over the place, with occasional scenes added simply for the sake of it. I wonder if the books saw much in the way of an editor, and I was surprised to learn that while this book was published in 2013, the eighth installment was released last month, implying not much proofreading is going on. There are a couple of sections where the use of pronouns and lack of dialogue tags completely flummoxed me and I couldn’t work out who exactly was speaking, or who they were speaking about. The time frame, ironically for a book about the importance of time, is also unclear. The novel races through Max’s training, giving the impression (unless I missed it) that it’s all being undertaken in a matter of months, or even weeks. It becomes clear later that the novel has covered at least five years of time. The list of main characters in the front contains several of their ages, but it’s not clear at which point in the story they are the age noted.

Several times people seem to come to conclusions, make decisions or have knowledge of things that it seems they otherwise shouldn’t. Characters often go by two different names, depending on who’s speaking. There’s an unexpected fantastical addition towards the end of the novel, and at one point there’s suddenly an incredibly graphic sex scene out of the blue in an otherwise fairly chaste novel. Max’s own history is absent, with just a few mentions that lead us to surmise she had a terrible childhood and apparently doesn’t speak to any family, but it’s never made clear what the situation is. On the last few pages, something else entirely otherwise unmentioned happens and is supposedly important, but at the moment it’s hard to tell how.

I don’t want to put the whole series down, as there’s a good chance I’ll return here and see what happens next, but I think I expected better.

“Dead Man’s Grip” by Peter James (2011)

Leave a comment

“On the morning of the accident, Carly had forgotten to set the alarm and overslept.”

It’s only been a month since I last read Peter James, which makes a change from seemingly having a year or so between each outing. There may be a couple of spoiler-y points below as this is the seventh in the series, so if you’re really interested in protecting your narrative interests, go back and read up to this point. If you’re not fussed, then please, continue!

One rainy morning in Brighton, Tony Revere is killed on his bike in a road traffic collision. The vehicles involved are a car with a drunk driver, an articulated lorry with a driver who is overtired, and a white van that lost its wing mirror and quickly fled from the scene. The tragic event is made worse, however, when it turns out that Tony Revere is the grandson of New York’s current Mafia “Godfather”, and his family have some powerful connections.

Upon learning about the death of their son, the Revere’s set about plotting revenge. DS Roy Grace and his team are trying to find the driver of the white van, but when they do find him, it’s too late, he’s already dead. Not long later, the body of the lorry driver is found too, brutally murdered in a very inventive manner. Carly Chase, the surviving driver of the collision, is told that she should go into hiding and may even have to change her name and start a new life to avoid being killed, as someone has clearly got it in for anyone involved in the death of Tony Revere. But Carly is determined that she will not be scared underground, a decision she may come to regret as a mother’s worst fears begin to be realised…

Once again, Peter James makes use of his astounding attention to detail, bringing every single location, character and plot point to a fully three-dimensional state. While the main characters of Roy Grace, Cleo Morey and Glenn Branson are all excellent and hugely developed, there aren’t any characters, really, who simply fade into the background. Almost all characters have a name and are introduced with an appearance description and some nugget of information or two about them, even if we only see them for one chapter. The exposition never feels heavy-handed though, just incredibly immersive.

I am becoming increasingly fond of the characters Norman Potting and Kevin Spinella. Neither of them are pleasant people – Norman is on his fourth marriage and still has old-fashioned views on sex and race, and Kevin is every inch the kind of journalist that gives the rest a bad name – but they still manage to be somewhat sympathetic. Norman, for example, seems to be experiencing the breakdown of his latest marriage, and despite his views, remains an excellent copper and seems to be very lonely, spending more time at work than necessary so that he can feel wanted. Kevin is nasty, but here you can’t help feel a little sorry for him when Roy lashes out at him; it is his job to sell newspapers, of course. ACC Rigg, Roy’s boss, is also a great addition to the series.

James’s level of detail is not limited only to descriptions, but also he’s very aware of the history of these characters. Throughout, references are made of the cases in the previous books. A lesser writer would have them forgotten about, but here some of them are just starting to go through the courts. There’s also a really smart insertion of a character from the previous novel who got away with his crimes and is still living unmolested in Brighton. His name isn’t given, but it’s quite obvious who it is. Little touches like this are smart, and bring home the fact that all these stories are taking place in the same city, so there are bound to be some overlaps. We also get to learn a little more about Roy’s missing ex-wife Sandy, and James knows how to end on a cliffhanger, for sure.

The story does take a little while to get going, I felt, but once the killings start, things are impressively gory and the methods of execution are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’d worry about what goes on in James’s head, if it wasn’t for the fact I don’t want them to stop. The fact that the minutia of the novel is so realistic means that when the more bizarre incidents occur, you completely buy them, no matter how scary or shocking.

Seven books down, and the thirteenth has just been released. I’d better get a move on.

If you like tales of macabre murders, may I be so bold as to suggest my novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, which gives murder a slightly more magical twist.

“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

Leave a comment

“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.

“Passenger To Frankfurt” by Agatha Christie (1970)

1 Comment

“Fasten your seat-belts, please.”

Some things get better with age; a wine fine, a smelly cheese, unwashed jeans. Other things are better then they’re younger, and I hate to be the one to say this given my overwhelming love of her, but Agatha Christie is definitely part of the latter group. It’s suggested now that by the end of her life she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, but it was never diagnosed at the time. It’s without question though that even for a fan, her later books simply do not stack up to the earlier ones. I’ve noted this before with Postern of Fate and Nemesis, but I think it’s especially evident here.

The story begins with diplomat Sir Stafford Nye flying home from Malaya. His plane is rerouted, and while waiting for the next connection, he is approached by a woman who wishes to borrow his passport and cloak so that she can get home safely and avoid the people who are trying to kill her. Nye decides that his life needs a touch of excitement, and agrees.

However, without knowing, he has endangered his own life, and a while later he meets the woman again, although this time she has an entirely different name and it’s quite clear he’s not meant to acknowledge their having met before. Soon, Nye is caught up in an international mystery that will take him and his new companion around the world on the hunt of an invisible and dangerous enemy. There is much danger afoot, with stories that the student protests going on around the world have a much more sinister motive. And could it be that the rumours are true – did Adolf Hitler really survive the war?

This book was released for Christie’s eightieth birthday and it makes me wonder if people were now too afraid to edit her, given her reputation as such a great author. Robert Barnard, crime writer and critic, noted; “Prizes should be offered to readers who can explain the ending.” Unfortunately, I have to agree with him. The novel bounces around a whole host of characters, many of whom seem to have more than one alias (although that might just be me being confused) and covers all manner of topics. The beginning is engaging enough, but I found my attention wandering quite a lot until you reach a point over halfway through when you’re wondering why they’re talking about Hitler’s possible son who was raised in Argentina with a swastika branded on his foot and why no one’s been killed in an old country house.

One particularly notable inclusion is Mr Robinson, a secretive financier who seems to have fingers in a lot of pies and knows a lot about the world’s money. He is notable in that he ties together much of Agatha Christie’s fictional universe, having had dealings with Poirot, Marple and Tommy & Tuppence over the years. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book isn’t actually part of the story. It features an introduction in which Christie herself explains to the reader how she would ideally answer anyone who asks her, “Where do you get your ideas from?” As a writer myself, I found it honest and hilarious.

There’s a touch of fantasy about this one, and it’s all a little strange and unwieldy. A completist would, of course, find it necessary to read this, but in general, Christie’s novels of the 1970s are not ones you’d ever really recommend. They can’t all be winners, I suppose.

 

“The Five People You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2003)

Leave a comment

“This is a story about a man named Eddie and it behind at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun.”

Given how many books I have unread on my shelves, I always feel a bit guilty re-reading something. However, this took me a single evening and half an hour the following morning, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Plus, it’s totally worth it. I think I last read Five People either while I was at university or perhaps even earlier. I recalled fragments, but I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered.

The story opens on Eddie’s 83rd birthday. He is the head of maintenance at Ruby Pier, an old amusement park that still attracts a great number of tourists. He continues on his day, not realising that soon he will die. When one of the rides malfunctions, Eddie rushes forward to save a small girl from death, but in the process, loses his own life.

He wakes up in the afterlife, where he learns that he will, one by one, meet five people who somehow made a big impact on his life. Between them, they will teach him lessons and explain what his life meant. Some of them he will know, others he will not, but each of them changed his life forever. As Eddie encounters his five people, he is forced to look back on his life and perhaps re-evaluate what that life was really like. Only when he’s met the five will his life make complete sense, and he can move on to whatever the next stage is.

While a quick read, the morals and messages will last longer. I can see already why parts of this story had stuck with me for so long; just a few tired synapses working hard to make themselves known at times of importance. Eddie is a sympathetic character, and in many ways the book and his life are tragedies, but there is hope there too, and love, and above all the feeling that no one is insignificant and everyone matters. There’s a huge emphasis on how all our stories are interconnected, which I’ve always loved to think about. You are only the protagonist in your own story; supporting cast in the story of everyone you know, and a background extra in millions more. But everyone’s story is important, and they all create changes in others.

It’s heartbreaking and beautiful. I’ve read Mitch Albom a couple of times before, and I always find his prose to be wonderful. He doesn’t waste words, but with the merest explanations and descriptions paints vast images for you to swim in. I don’t know why, really, I feel guilty about re-reading books, because I believe that many times a book comes along just as you need it, and maybe my brain knew that I needed to read this again right now. I implore you to find a copy and find some peace. Because if nothing else, this book will teach you the most important lesson of all, and the one that we all need to be reminded of now and again – you matter.

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

Leave a comment

“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…

“Whispers Underground” by Ben Aaronovitch (2012)

1 Comment

“Back in the summer I’d made the mistake of telling my mum what I did for a living.”

Any review of a book that’s in the middle of an on-going series requires a certain amount of preamble, although I’m far too lazy to provide a fresh synopsis of what you’ve missed so far, so either duck out of this review now until you’ve read the series, or if you’re happy to get potential spoilers or would like a brief rundown on what came before this, then click for reviews of the first two books, Rivers of London and Moon Under Soho.

And breathe.

Whispers Underground reunites us with Peter Grant and the supernatural side of the Metropolitan Police. After Abigail Kamara, a nosy young girl from his housing estate, tells him that she’s seen a ghost, but Grant is soon pulled away from this discovery when a young man is found dead, stabbed, on the platform at Baker Street tube station. James Gallagher was an art student with no known enemies, but unfortunately for the police, his father is a US senator, and soon the FBI have descended.

The cause of Gallagher’s death certainly seems to be in Peter’s remit, which becomes more obvious when it turns out that Gallagher’s housemate is half-fairy and doesn’t seem all that keen to help the police with their inquiries. Meanwhile, Peter is still struggling to get used to magic and Lesley’s half-face, the FBI agent seems to be on a mission of her own and should definitely not be allowed to know about magic, there are some shifty looking traders down the market who swear they can do you a good deal on some unbreakable pottery, and Christmas is just around the corner. Just another day, then.

More than anything this time round, I felt a lot of similarities to Peter James’s novels featuring Roy Grace. The research into the working of the police force is evidently greatly detailed, and whereas those books show the familiar streets of Brighton, here we get to explore London. The true joy comes from the supernatural elements that most of society ignore, partly because the police are very good at hiding the truth, and partly because people would rather not deal with anything out of their comfort zones.

The style remains flippant and genuinely funny, packed with pop culture references, and there’s a real joy in these worlds. When I reviewed the first book, I said that something was missing, and I think I know what it was now. The books are not separate entities; they are complete continuations, and if they all existed in the same tome, while it would be heavy to read in the bath, it would make just as much sense. The ending is great, setting up things for the fourth book, and the final line sends a shiver down the spine. Clever, clever stuff.

Older Entries Newer Entries