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

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“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.

“Stone Spring” by Stephen Baxter (2010)

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stone-spring“The comet swam out of the dark.”

Stephen Baxter is terrifyingly prolific as an author. Since 1991, he seems to have produced at least one novel a year, and in many cases two or three. If these were short novellas one might be less in awe of him, but they are all enormous, well-researched pieces of science fiction. Indeed, I’ve only read four of his tomes and already that means I’ve clocked up 2,182 pages of his writing. I first came to him with his novel Flood, and its sequel Ark, and later fell for his huge, sprawling blockbuster Evolution. I arrive now on the shores of Doggerland, almost ten thousand years before present day, reading myself onto a coast no living human has ever seen.

Doggerland, or as it’s known in the book, Northland, is the bridge that connects Britain to Europe and disappeared several thousand years ago when it was swallowed up by rising sea levels, cutting the British Isles off from the main continent. Ana is fourteen and is about to undergo her bloodtide, the time in which a child becomes an adult and is chosen by their Other. She is assisted by her grandmother and sister, but more than anything she misses her father, who disappeared months ago while out fishing. At her bloodtide, her Other is declared by the priest to be the owl, a bad omen – a symbol of death.

The small community of Etxelur is shaken when members of the nearby Pretani tribe come to stay, with the possibility of seeking out wives, and soon numbers expand futher as Ana’s father returns with a young woman, Ice Dreamer, in tow from a legendary continent far off to the west, and a slave boy, Novu, from the strange walled city of Jericho join the ranks of the peaceful Northlanders. Everything changes however when the sea turns against its people and a tsunami washes across the village, destroying everything and killing countless members of the community. Ana is left in charge of her people, and she comes to a staggering conclusion: if Jericho can build a wall to keep people out, it surely wouldn’t be impossible to build one to keep the sea out? Her dreams and then her actions will shape the course of history, and lead Earth down a very different path to the one that occured in our history.

As always with Baxter, the book is enormous and appears daunting, but the language flows, the setting and characters are engaging, and you find yourself pulled along willingly as the plot swims around you and tangles itself up in its embrace. Baxter is notable for long passages that contain no dialogue and just describe the world in immense detail, but even these aren’t dull. He paints a fascinating and vivid picture of a world long gone and, to our history at least, mostly never having existed.

His real skill though is how he builds up the various human factions. Each one feels distinct and identifiable. The Northlanders are mostly a matriarchal tribe who each have an animal spirit that guides them. The snailheads engage in artificial cranial deformation by giving themselves pointed heads, and name themselves after body parts (Knuckle, Cheek, Eyelid, etc).  The Bone People wear the bones of their ancestors as accessories. The Pretani, who resemble the Picts of ancient Britain, are aggressive and give themselves tree-centric names (Root, Bark, Acorn, etc), and they live in fear of the Leafy Boys, mute green-stained denizens of the canopies who attack anyone who gets in their way. Naming conventions also are particularly obvious with the True People (Ice Dreamer, Dolphin Gift, Moon Reacher, etc) and the People of the Great Eel (Wise, True, Honest, etc). The fact that we also see the world’s people as being in different stages of development is also great, and factually correct. Indeed, while those in America are hunter-gatherers, those on the European coasts have become fishermen, but the Middle East already had cities.

The book starts with disparate people but quickly brings them together so we can witness our ancestors (or rather, our ancestors in this timeline) doing what humans do best: being human. As with any era, humans are flawed and troubled, as once we developed sapience we also begun to experience love, jealousy, anger, fear, hatred and a hundred other emotions. These things are not new, and these people can feel them just as strongly as we do now. They are different from us in many ways, but they are also incredibly like us.

A beautiful work of art, and an engaging story. There are two sequels, Bronze Summer and Iron Winter, which leap further ahead in time to see what becomes of this world that contains a whole new patch of land that we lost early on. I’m interested to see what will become of Ana’s people over time.

“The Swimming-Pool Library” by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

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swimming-pool“I came home on the last train.”

I’ve never really understood what is meant by “literary fiction”. That is, I understand what books generally get classed as such, but I’ve never understood why. It feels snobbish, and implies a seriousness about the works that renders “genre fiction” – all the really good sci-fi, fantasy and crime – somehow beneath these “proper books”. I only mention this, because Alan Hollinghurst is one of those writers who is apparently writing literary fiction, and yet still seems accessible and good fun. I read The Line of Beauty a few years ago and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d pick him up again, and the fact that this title contains two of the places I most like to spend time, it felt like I was on to a winner.

Will Beckwith is young, gay, jobless and horny. Living off the vast wealth of his family and not bothering to make himself into a useful member of society, he spends every day swimming at the Corinthian Club and sleeping with the men and boys that he finds there. One day while potentially soliciting in some public toilets, he saves the life of an elderly peer who collapses. When he finds the man, Lord Nantwich, at his swimming club, he finds himself befriending the old man. But there is more to this than mere friendship, and Nantwich has a job in mind for young Will.

Nantwich wants someone to write his biography before he dies, and so hands off all his old diaries and notes to Will to read through and see if he’s up for the task. In between bedding his latest beau, the muscular and shy Phil, Will reads the old man’s diaries and finds himself coming up against some harsh truths about his privileged lifestyle.

Plotwise, the book is pretty slow going and things that seem to be leading somewhere have a habit of tailing off, which I suppose is much like life – you never get all the answers out here, but in books you tend to expect them. I liked the characters a lot from the off though. Will is attractive, slightly arrogant and apparently unable to learn from past lessons, but also human enough to be tolerable as a narrator, even if you wouldn’t want to spend too much time in his company. Because the story is seen through his eyes, many of the older gay men are painted with unfair descriptions and almost all come across as lecherous, past their prime and desperate. Will’s best friend James remains my favourite character, a rather sweet doctor who is insecure and seems to put up with a lot from Will, often getting little in return.

The book is deeply sexual in nature, dealing not just with changing (or rather, unchanging) attitudes to homosexuality, but also describing the acts that Will and his many partners perform during the course of the book. Sometimes these are brushed over, but other times they are very explicit. Oddly, and something I shamefully only seemed to realise towards the end of the book, there are no women in this book. I think you once get a phone conversation with Will’s sister, but otherwise I don’t recall there being a single female character. This seems to emphasise the fact that Will has eyes only for other men, and seems to live in a particular bubble, where everyone is gay and there’s no wider world to be seen. Will’s narrow way of looking around him almost proves to be ruinous – he is a man who sees only what he wants to see.

I found it an interesting read, with several parallels to My Policeman which I read last year, and it’s always shocking to be reminded of how society acted towards gay men only a few short decades ago. While occasionally a bit dry, Hollinghurst does have a wonderful turn of phrase. Two come to mind. In one, Will observes a street of people all doing such “nameable activities”, suggesting that they look like a picture designed to teach foreigners the basics of the English language. In another, after Will has been in a fight, the loss of one of his front teeth is said to make him look like a “defaced advertisement”. I’ll take many pages of dry discussion on old authors and changing room showers for lines like that.

“Progress” by Johan Norberg (2016)

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progress“Terrorism. ISIS. War in Syria and Ukraine. Crime, murder, mass shootings.”

I’ve said enough along these lines on this blog already, but 2016 was a big pile of crap. All around us the news is full of doom and gloom, always telling us that humanity is going down the drain, becoming more intolerant, stupid and lazy. The rich get richer, the fat get fatter, the poor get poorer. It’s the same old story. But what if I was to tell you that, actually, it’s not all bad? Would you believe me? Try this book.

My friend gave me this book for Christmas with the statement, “You worry about this stuff more than us”. Given I’ve been in rather a black mood for the last few weeks, I decided that 2017 wasn’t going to push me around and I’d begin the year by looking at things a bit more positively. In this book, Swedish academic Johan Norberg takes a look at ten aspects of the modern world and shows that we’re actually improving on pretty much all fronts. He looks at food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the next generation and concludes, with the help of graphs and endless statistics, that things are improving left, right and centre.

Despite what we see on the news – and Norberg argues well that the main reason we think everything is so awful is because of news media – violence and poverty are down, and literacy and life expectancy are up. It may look awful when you see that there are still millions of people living in poverty, but when you consider how many more of us there are now, the proportions show that we’re actually doing fine. Of course, not everyone is rich or free or safe from disease yet, but the trends are looking good, as long as we take the current issues as a blip and focus on keeping everything moving forward. Humanity has advanced further in the last 100 years than it did in the first 100,000.

Norberg is blisteringly positive. He does concede, as I said, that only if we continue to fight the bad things will we continue to see progress, but this is a man who manages to even put a positive spin on the increase in the number of robberies in developing nations (they are proof that now even the poor have something worth stealing) and cancer (people never used to live long enough to develop it, which is why we’re now seeing an increase). He’s not saying that cancer itself is a good thing, it obviously isn’t, but it’s an interesting way of looking at things.

So while it may not be the lightest book to delve into first thing in the year, it’s definitely worthwhile and positive. Norberg is a skilled writer and weaves statistics and anecdotes together to create a readable book that might just remind us that things aren’t as bad as all that. Onwards and upwards, everybody.

“The Knowledge” by Lewis Dartnell (2015)

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knowledge“The world as we know it has ended.”

Twenty sixteen. The year that keeps on giving. The Mayans said the world was going to end in 2012, and maybe it was meant to and we’ve been on borrowed time since. After all, it’s not like things have gone smoothly since 2013 started. In fact, one of the few constants has been this blog, and I doubt that’s holding together the fabric of the universe in the way David Bowie was. The planet seems to rarely have been in such turmoil, and so my eyes found themselves drawn to this book that has sat on my shelf for a few months. It is, after all, best to be prepared.

The premise of the book focuses around the idea of the end of the world, which is common enough in fiction but I’ve seen explored little in non-fiction. Lewis Dartnell has written this book for the pockets of survivors who have clung on through whatever destroyed civilisation, realising that most of us, indeed none of us, will be able to build society back up again. Humans have invented such complicated devices and evolved such deep theories and practices that we don’t know the basics that have got us to this point. Never mind being unable to use your iPhone, how does one go about building one? Would you know how to mine the metal for it? I very much doubt you would.

Taking humanity back to basics, Dartnell teaches us how to get farming and make fertiliser to reboot agriculture, develop basic medicines, extract metals from rocks, produce paper and ink, get electricity, tell the time and make clothing all using the first processes that led to the world we have today. While he says that at first we’ll be able to make use of what has been left behind, it won’t be long before we can no longer rely on the stocks of food and materials that humanity left behind.

While, I won’t lie, parts of the book are rather dry, especially those going into intricate chemical processes which make me realise just how long ago it was that I did my Chemistry GCSE, but it is absolutely full of amazing nuggets of information that I’ve been throwing at people all week while reading this. My three favourites are probably:

  1. Humans inherited the common cold from horses.
  2. Popcorn was invented by a South American culture 6000 years ago.
  3. A woman didn’t survive a C-section until the 1790s, despite the practice being as old as the Romans.

While it would naturally take more information than can be held in this book to restart civilisation properly, it’s a great thought experiment and full of some genuinely useful and interesting science. We have become so detached from the processes that govern our daily lives that it’s almost humbling to get a refresher course like this. Dartnell also stresses that just because society did it one way last time, there’s no reason that the world will come back the same way. Maybe, if we go so basic that we lose everything, we’ll develop different measurements, never invent telescopes to discover the planets, or invent buttons. But if we know a little, we may be able to leapfrog the dead ends that science had to struggle through last time. It’ll also naturally have to be an entirely different reboot, as this time we don’t have massive coal, oil and gas reserves to allow an Industrial Revolution like last time – the next civilisation will undoubtedly be a lot greener.

A fascinating, exciting look at the world we take for granted that, with things as they are right now, is never leaving my side again.

“Death Comes As The End” by Agatha Christie (1945)

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This murder is ancient history...

This murder is ancient history…

“Renisenb stood looking over the Nile.”

Agatha Christie lived an interesting life. After her first marriage broke down, she found happiness with Max Mallowan, an archaeologist of some renown. Being fourteen years her junior never seemed to stop either of them from being incredibly happy in one another’s company and soon Christie was joining him on his digs to North Africa and the Middle East. Her novels Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile and Appointment with Death all make use of her knowledge of archaeology and the landscape she and her husband were visiting, but then one book took this to a whole new level. Unique among the canon of Christie, Death Comes as the End is the only one that doesn’t take place in, what was to her, the modern day. Instead, we are catapulted to 2000 BC to the shores of the Nile, where we are soon to learn that humans haven’t actually changed all that much in the intervening four millennia.

Young Renisenb has returned to the home of her father Imhotep, a priest, and her extended family. Her brothers Yahmose, Sobek and Ipy live here still with their wives, along with her grandmother Esa, and several other workers around the house including the bright and charming Kameni, the doting and wise Hori, and the snivelling, creeping Henet. Things seem much as they were when Renisenb left eight years ago, but soon her father returns from his travels with a stranger in tow, his new concubine, Nofret. This new woman soon has turned everything in the house upside down.

However, soon things go from bad to worse when Nofret’s body is found at the foot of a cliff, crumpled and dead. Imhotep is adamant that it’s an accident, but Renisenb has other ideas. It seems too convenient that a woman who was so hated has suddenly died, and it’s only when other members of the household start to be killed off one by one that everyone becomes a lot more wary. Murder is hardly a new thing, and here we are, thousands of years in our past, dealing with a serial killer and a complex web of lies, in classic Christie fashion.

As I said above, this is a Christie novel that is in many ways unlike any other, but then again, it contains all the usual hallmarks of her work. Human nature never changes, which is something Miss Marple in particular always notices, so it’s great fun to see a classic murder mystery set somewhere entirely different. The outcome remains the same and the issues of love, family, jealousy and murder are just as at home here as they are in a little English village in the thirties. Esa, indeed, as a character reads a lot like an Ancient Egyptian Miss Marple, and Renisenb has much in common with the spunky, adventurous girls of her modern books. The characters are almost archetypes – the domineering wife, the doting mother, the spoiled child, and creepy servant – and yet each character also manages to be fully fleshed out.

The murderer in this novel, unusually, has a wide range of methods of murder at their disposal, rather than picking one and sticking to it. Christie makes excellent use of her knowledge of the time period and while she occasionally seems to dip into more exposition than is necessary for the story, such as listing of gods or going into detail on burial practices, it actually just adds to the colour rather than distract and feel like showing off.

Christie has done something entirely different and it has worked. This might be one of her novels that I like best. Fresh, smart and a touch creepy.

“Dublin Folk Tales” by Brendan Nolan (2012)

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dublin“It is very hard to be a storyteller in Dublin for everyone has a story to tell if you will but listen.”

Earlier this year I read Sussex Folk Tales, which was exactly what it said on the tin. About this time last year I was in Dublin and picked up this addition to the series because, well, I like a story.

As in the Sussex book, it lists a number of stories that have survived down through the ages that took place in and around Ireland’s capital. Most of them seem to take place more recently than those from Sussex and are far more focused on people than on fantastic creatures. Granted, there are a few about ghosts, pig-faced women, and monstrous creatures that stalk and kill through the streets at night, but the vast majority look at some of the city’s more eccentric residents.

Some of the characters here are well known, like Molly Malone, and it seems Dublin has hosted numerous famous people from the annals of history such as St Valentine and Little John, of Merry Men fame. Most of them, though, are just ordinary people. There’s Bang Bang, a simple-minded man who would pretend to shoot city residents with a key, delighting when they joined in and shot back or pretended to die. There’s the unsolved murder of Sarah Kirwan who may or may not have been drowned by her husband, the tales of headless coachmen who came to claim the bodies of the dead, the legend surrounding the famous Ha’penny Bridge, and the story of the coal that seemed to produce a miracle, and the Devil’s personal visit to the city’s Hellfire Club.

The stories aren’t ordered by area or age, but form a mixed bag of stories both entertaining and interesting. Dublin is a beautiful, colourful city and it is tales like this that will ensure it remains so. Just a short review today, but if you like Ireland, tall tales or spooky events, give this a go.

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