“Time Travel: A History” by James Gleick (2016)

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“A man stands at the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods…”

Time travel feels like it’s been a mainstay in popular culture since the dawn of time, but the concept didn’t really get going until the publication of H. G. Wells’ world-changing novel The Time Machine. I’ve covered my favourite books regarding time travel already, but I thought it was high time I did a little more research into the whole thing, which led me to Time Travel: A History.

In this fascinating and fairly comprehensive tome, Jame Gleick pulls back the curtain on time travel and explores it from every angle, studying the stories that have used it and changed the way we think about it, as well as then looking at the philosophy and physics of the concept and how humans have attempted to travel in time already. Gleick attempts to define time and get to grips with what it actually is, as well as taking a look at the problem of paradox (and why you shouldn’t try to kill your grandfather), what happens when you meet yourself, whether or not travelling to the past or future would be better, and what exactly we mean when we say “now”.

The implications of time travel are enormous. While physics still hasn’t been developed enough to allow it, many scientists believe that technically there is nothing in the laws of the universe that forbid it. Philosophers, however, have now spent many years wondering what time travel can tell us about free will – is the future already written and waiting for us to explore, or are we making it up as we go along? From Rip Van Winkle to Doctor Who, Gleick checks in with everyone who had something to say about time, including H. G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Aristotle and Ursula K. Le Guin.

While the whole book is a cavalcade of trivia and theory, some of it more interesting than others but all of it still mesmerising, the more interesting chapters actually arrive when he discusses things that seem a little unrelated, but are actually spot on. One chapter tries to understand the metaphors we use for time. Is it like money (we do save, waste and spend it, after all) or more like a river (it flows). And if it is a river, what are the banks? Can we get out? Elsewhere, he explores how language simply doesn’t have enough tenses to deal with time travel, or why not every language assumes the future is ahead of us and the past is behind. A particularly intriguing chapter takes a look at time capsules and how humanity has been trying to communicate with an uncertain future for decades.

A must-read for anyone with a science fiction bent, or just anyone who has longed for a TARDIS of their very own.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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“A Morbid Taste For Bones” by Ellis Peters (1977)

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“On the fine, bright morning in early May when the whole sensation affair of the Gwytherin relics may properly be considered to have begun, Brother Cadfael had been up long before Prime…”

Detectives seem to have it easy these days. CCTV, fingerprinting, banking data, DNA evidence, tracing of mobile phone locations … there are any number of ways they can reach their conclusions and solve crimes. We forget how recent a lot of this is. Miss Marple didn’t have any of it in the fifties. Sherlock Holmes would have dreamed of DNA testing in the Victorian era. Miss Gladden would have longed for GPS. So imagine now we strip this back even further. This book takes us back to the year of 1137. King Stephen is on the throne of England, and religion reigns supreme across the island. Things might look a bit different, but people are still people.

Brother Cadfael is a monk at Shrewsbury Abbey, responsible for running the herb garden. This is little about plants and their properties that the wise monk doesn’t know. There’s much more to him than life in the church however. Before he took up residence in the monastery, he travelled much of the known world and is very educated. When another of the monks has a vision that Saint Winifred has called for the Benedictine order to uncover her burial ground and move her bones to the safety of the abbey.

Convinced that this is the right thing to do, Prior Robert declares this to be a great idea and so sets off to the Welsh village of Gwytherin to ask for the relics of the long dead saint. They are met with suspicion and caution, with the Welsh not sure whether they are ready to sacrifice Winifred to the arriving Englishmen. Things become even more fraught when Prior Robert offers monetary compensation and it is taken as a bribe. With the Welsh villagers divided on what to do, tensions rise, and then it all comes to a head when the the leading opponent to the grave’s relocation is found dead. Some say that Winifred herself did it, but Cadfael is sure that there is a much more earthly solution. Using his intelligence and skills as a detective, he must solve the murder and restore trust and order to the community.

I had worried that a cast of monks would lead to a book that gave us a set of boring, pious characters, but fortunately twelfth century monks are still human and you can give them a habit and tonsure if you like, but they’re still going to express lust, pride and wrath. Cadfael is an intriguing addition to the pantheon of literary detectives and feels like a man out of time. He is cunning and clever, gentle with those he likes and impatient with big-headed superiors. Many of the other characters – and there seem to be a lot – bled into one another, however, and only the ones that were really pivotal to the story stood out to me. It took me a while to unpick who was who, which isn’t necessarily what you want when you’re trying to solve a murder.

Throughout history, death is often suggested to have been quick and cheap, so it’s actually nice to see someone caring about a specific death and realising that there’s something suspicious about it. Brother John, a fellow monk, seems at first to take on the role of his Watson, but by the end it seems more fulfilled by Sioned, the victim’s daughter. Naturally as a book centred around a Benedictine order, there are very few women in it – I think there are three with any dialogue – but she does good work and is a strong character. At one point, when someone comments on the weakness of women, Cadfael steps up to point out that there are just as many weak men and women are capable of great emotional strength. It’s a small touch, but it’s appreciated.

It’s an interesting concept for a novel and it’s definitely a unique motive for murder, but I can’t say I’m enthralled enough to continue with the series. The writing style doesn’t suit me, which is not to say that it’s bad. People may be people wherever they are in time or space, but this felt just a touch too removed for me.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Golden Age Of Murder” by Martin Edwards (2015)

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“On a summer evening in 1937, a group of men and women gathered in darkness to perform a macabre ritual.”

Crime fiction has held a key spot in book sales for decades, now. Changing tastes may have seen a switch from detective stories in English country manors to blood-soaked thrillers on the mean streets of New York, but at their heart sits the puzzle that people still clamour for. It was in the 1920s and 1930s, however, that detective fiction took off in a big way, with figures like Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley and Ngaio Marsh enjoying incredible fame and success with their detectives. But they were far from the only ones, and their novels were not as cosy and conventional as many people now believe they were. The greatest detective writers of the age needed an outlet, and together they formed the Detection Club, an exclusive London society for all the luminaries of the genre. This is their story.

As regular readers of the blog will know, I am an enormous fan of murder mysteries, particularly those of the Golden Age, and this book was therefore an inevitability for me. It explores the history of the club and discusses the world of detective fiction when it was at its peak between the two world wars. Combining literary criticism, true crime, biography and trivia, Martin Edwards – the current President of the Detection Club – takes us into the society’s inner workings to meet and mingle with the superstars of the age and learn about their lives, all of which seemed just as fascinating and mysterious as their novels.

Top of the class, of course, sit Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and, naturally, Agatha Christie. Each of them remains well known today, but they were all fascinating people with murder on their minds. Each of them also took a secret with them to the grave, and in the case of Christie and her disappearance, the puzzle yet to be resolved. But while much of the biography focuses on these three superstars, we also get to spend time with others of the group including G. K. Chesterston, partners in writing and matrimony G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, Freeman Wills Crofts, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Baroness Orczy, E. C. R. Lorac, Val Gielgud and even, perhaps surprisingly, A. A. Milne, who wrote one detective novel that was deemed brilliant enough to allow him membership. We also get to experience second-hand the initiation ceremony of the group which involved a skull with glowing red eyes and a solemn oath that promise not to make use of “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God”.

The book uncovers not only the mysteries of this group, but also does away with all stereotypes and assumptions made about the genre from people who clearly have never read any. Many of the books are these days labelled “cosy crime”, a term I’ve definitely used too, but when you look properly, there is absolutely nothing cosy about these. Across thousands of novels, the authors discussed everything from religion and the death penalty, to extramarital sex, fetishes, suicide, Nazism, justice, and feminism. They get typified as being uptight, conservative members of society and while some of them definitely were, their numbers included many people on the political left. Some were university educated, others had had no official schooling at all. Some were wealthy, others struggling. Some shy and retiring, some gregarious and gossipy (I’m looking at you Christianna Brand). Among them, all they had in common was a love of writing detective fiction.

It’s a heartwarming book in many ways, as Edwards delves into the relationships between the members of the Detection Club, he uncovers evidence that they all had a strong bond with one another, referencing one another in their books, jumping to each others’ defence when they got a bad review, and even collaborating to write books together to raise funds for the club. They enjoyed discussing murder together, sharing ideas, and trying to solve true crime cases that the police had failed to find answers to.

This book is really quite something and, as Edwards himself says, it’s impossible to cover everything about these people and their projects, but it’s nonetheless a pretty comprehensive introduction. With something interesting on every page, rare photographs, and some genuinely funny stories and phrases too (a particular favourite is, “…Agatha Christie, a quiet, pleasant woman who was easy to read unless you wanted to know what was going on in her mind.”) it’s a real treasure for anyone interested in crime, either factual or fictional.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Mythos” by Stephen Fry (2017)

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“These days the origin of the universe is explained by proposing a Big Bang, a single event that instantly brought into being all the matter from which everything and everyone are made.”

I return again to the Greek myths. No culture on Earth has produced a mythology quite like this, as far as I’m concerned. I’m doing a lot of research into Egyptian myth lately for a project, and they’ve got some fun stories, but for me the Greeks really have it all tied up. Stephen Fry turns his talented hand to retelling the stories in a modern language for us to enjoy once more, and he does it with all the skill, humour and wit that we expect from him.

Starting from Chaos, Fry takes us on a journey from the first beings like Gaia, Ouranos and Nyx, through the reign of the titans, to the rise of Zeus and the Olympians and into the Silver Age where gods mingled with mortals and neither tended to come out of it well. We meet and learn the stories of everyone who matters including Hades (misunderstood Lord of the Underworld), Hera (the most jealous wife in history), Midas (the cursed king), Sisyphus (the twice-cheater of death), Arachne (who dared call herself the world’s greatest weaver) and Helios (the driver of the sun’s chariot).

What I always found most amazing is that these stories manage to explain pretty much everything that existed in the Greeks world, and make the mundane magical. The Atlas mountains are the remains of Atlas himself. Echo was once a woman who talked too much. The Sahara desert only exists because of an accident with the sun’s chariot, and even tiny things get an explanation, such as why the river Pactolus is a natural source of electrum, and why chaffinches have pink cheeks. It all makes me wonder what stories they would’ve come up with had they ever encountered penguins, kangaroos or computers. Everything from the seasons to spiders becomes more fascinating if you think of it in mythological terms.

There’s something particularly wonderful about the Greek myths because the gods, despite being, well, gods, are impossibly human. They have flaws and jealousies, rages and rivalries, and generally aren’t exactly the most pleasant of beings. And yet this makes them all the more compelling. We can see ourselves in their stories, and see that humanity was indeed made in their image, even before Pandora opened her vase and released the bad things into the world. There are tales here of revenge, hubris, betrayal and lust. The Greek myths form the first soap opera, and it’s one that I adore.

Fry is, of course, one of those modern polymaths who can do absolutely anything he turns his attention to – except for, apparently, singing and dancing – and he clearly takes a lot of joy in retelling these tales, adding his own unique spirit to them. They don’t need much in the way of adaptation to be palatable for modern audiences, so he instead revels in adding inconsequential details and silly jokes, all of which are hugely appreciated.

Whether you’re new to the myths, or already fell in love with them, this is vital reading.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“A Short History Of Drunkenness” by Mark Forsyth (2017)

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“Before we were human, we were drinkers.”

My fondness for alcohol is well-documented. The best job I ever had was working, briefly, for a spirits magazine which involved perhaps an inordinate amount of tasting different tipples. But I also found the world of alcohol fascinating, rather than just loving the fact it’s so readily available and easy to drink. In this book, Mark Forsyth reveals what we’ve always known – humans are a species that are very fond of their drink and always have been.

Racing through history, from the first farmers to American Prohibition, Forsyth explores not just what humans have been drinking all this time, but also how, why, when and with who. We (in Britain at least) associate alcohol with evenings and the weekend in particular, although pretty much any time after noon when we’re not at work seems acceptable. This hasn’t always been the case. In the Middle Ages, Sunday morning was the time to get drunk, and the Romans and Vikings were at it pretty much all the time.

The book is packed with fascinating facts about the history of boozing, covering all the major types of alcohol including ale, beer, mead, wine, vodka, whisky, gin and cocktails. We learn about how alcohol was never meant to find its way to Australia (a plan that got as far as Plymouth), that in London, gin was once served out of dead cats, why you originally had to drink ale through a straw, and even how alcohol may have been responsible for the entire of civilisation. After all, hunting and gathering is all very well, but it takes time to brew beer, and you can’t do that when you’re constantly on the move.

As well as being incredibly interesting, the book is also very funny. Forsyth is open about the fact that he doesn’t understand all the science behind how alcohol affects us, nor even some of the history that doesn’t directly relate to booze, but he does know what he’s talking about when it comes to popping the cork or opening a cold beer. With wit and humour, he dashes away the rumours that Prohibition was a failed crusade, explains how to get served in the Wild West, and why the saloon of the movies never existed in reality, shows that the Egyptians loved to get drunk and partake in orgies in their temples, and that even the Middle East failed to curtail people’s alcohol intake, despite strict laws against it.

As he says, humans have been drinking since before we were human, and it changed our path forever. And I for one am not sorry about that at all. Cheers!

“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain” by Ian Mortimer (2017)

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“As you lie down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration Britain, you will notice the quiet.”

The older I get, the more I wish I’d studied history beyond its compulsory years at school. At the time, I wasn’t that fussed, but now it’s easily one of my favourite topics to read up about. I’m not especially talking about the history of warfare, and I’m definitely not talking about the history of trade – one of the few subjects in the world I can’t get interested in is the textiles industry – but more about what life was actually like back then. Ian Mortimer is the king of this subject. This is a history book with a difference.

Mortimer has in previous books covered Medieval and Elizabethan England, and now turns his attention to Britain during the years 1660-1700: the Restoration. The Commonwealth is over, Cromwell is dead, the monarchy has been restored, and the theatres have been reopened. It is a time of great social, cultural and scientific change, with great leaps abound thanks to figures like Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Milton and Robert Hooke. It also sees some enormous shifts in the landscape, as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroys much of the old London and it is rebuilt from the ashes. But unlike most history books, there is little focus here on these great figures and what they did – this is a guide to ordinary life.

Think of this book, like his others, as a guidebook for history. This isn’t a potted history of the political landscape, but a very real guide to the era. If you were to wake up tomorrow and found yourself in the late 1600s, you’d hope to have this book alongside you. This book focuses on the ordinary people, and teaches you how to blend in: what should you wear, do, think, say, eat, play? Thanks to this also being the era of the first great diarists in figures like John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and, of course, Samuel Pepys, the detail we have is rich and varied.

Mortimer captures with impressive ease the world from the ground up. This is a cold time in history – the Little Ice Age is in full effect, and Frost Fairs are held on the frozen Thames – and we see how clothing changes to reflect that. We see what people eat, and how, with cutlery, particularly forks, going from unusual to commonplace over the period. We get a sense of how much things cost, and how banking becomes a legitimate career path. We find out what people do for entertainment, what illnesses they get struck down by, and how they get from place to place – and, indeed, how far people can generally travel. It’s packed with interesting facts, one of the most surprising for me being that the iron has just been invented, but the mangle, clothes horse and even the ironing board are still in the future. From the peasants eking out a living to the lords and royals with enormous houses and lands, everyone is covered. Using historical records from death certificates to diaries, Mortimer builds up a living, breathing past, where we come face to face with our ancestors and fellow humans, not just statistics of a bygone era.

This is Mortimer’s gift, really. For the third time he brings history alive. It’s all well and good looking at these people as another species, but we are only here because these people were there first. Suddenly the mistreatment of women, the love of blood sports, and the high infant mortality levels become something else entirely when we realise that these were humans, just like us. We might think of this era as one of powdered wigs, new discoveries like chocolate, tobacco and champagne, and a scientific revolution, but it’s more complex than that. Women are still considered their husbands’ property, it’s possible to die of toothache, tensions between religious factions are as high as ever, and heads of executed criminals still sit on spikes on London Bridge.

If you really want to experience history, this is a book for you. It’s incredibly fascinating, richly-described, and in many places downright gory (Samuel Pepys’ bladder surgery will stay with me for some time), and well worth a read. My only advice is that if you are planning a trip into the past any time soon, I’d skip this century. It’s all about to get quite a bit better.

“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier (2009)

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“Lightning struck me all my life.”

History, as we all know, has given women a rough ride of it. One could read through numerous history books and believe that, aside from the occasional queen or witch, women hadn’t appeared until the 1920s. This inequality is the reason that Watson and Crick are considered the discoverers of DNA leaving out Rosalind Franklin who did most of the preliminary research, or why Charles Babbage is hailed as the first computer scientist, leaving Ada Lovelace often ignored. Fortunately, we are now righting these wrongs, and one of the women who, after her death, achieved great notoriety is the fossil hunter Mary Anning, whose discoveries shook the scientific community to its core. Tracy Chevalier explores her life in this novel.

Anning shares the duty of narration with Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil hunter who specialises in fossil fish (and was also a real person, but whose story has been eclipsed by that of Anning). When Elizabeth’s brother marries, she and her sisters Louise and Margaret are sent to live in Lyme Regis, a quiet coastal town, because that’s what happened in the early 1800s. There, Elizabeth discovers she has a love for finding fossils on the beach, but her skills are nothing compared to that of young Mary Anning who, despite the age gap of twenty years, she strikes up a curious friendship with.

As the two women grow, they make more discoveries and when Mary’s brother encounters a fossil of a creature unlike anything anyone has ever seen, it becomes the talk of the world and centuries of religious doctrine begin to look a little shaky. Is it possible that animals can go extinct? Did God make some creatures only to kill them off? Is it possible that God made a mistake? The ideas are sacrilege to many, but Elizabeth and Mary are determined that the world should see their fossils and hear the theories. Unfortunately, they’re women, but their passion and loyalty to the fossils ensure that the truth will out.

As they grow, they find much more than just fossils, learning about their places in the world, the meaning of heartbreak and how friendships can be as brittle as any of their findings.

I knew a little of Mary Anning before beginning the book – her face and her fossils are all over the Natural History Museum – but Elizabeth Philpot unfortunately was new to me, although no less interesting. Neither she or Mary ever married, and instead dedicated their lives to their fossil hunting even though, because of their sex, they would never be welcomed into the Royal Society or be allowed to write scientific papers. Philpot, in fact, discovered fossilised ink sacs inside belemnite fossils and even worked out how to revive the ink for use. Anning had the harder life, arguably, being from a very poor background and losing her father at a young age. She however became the first person to find skeletons of both ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons, and the first pterosaur skeleton in Britain. Her legacy is one that should be heralded for what it did to science and the advancement of knowledge.

The story itself adds much colour to both ladies, as well as the scientific men around them, and Chevalier freely admits that she has embellished much of what happened in their private lives, but that’s not a fault, as it just gives the women more depth. Parts of the story do drag a little, I can’t deny that, but in general it’s an interesting read featuring two remarkable women. Chevalier has a good eye for metaphor and the two narrators are wonderfully distinct in their styles.

A fascinating and thoughtful look at some figures many may not have heard of, but should have.

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