“After Man” by Dougal Dixon (1981)

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“During the period immediately before and during the Age of Man the principal large-scale grazers and browsers were the ungulates, the hoofed mammals.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for prehistoric creatures. The dinosaurs are amazingly interesting, the evolution of birds and mammals is fascinating, and it’s always cool to see all the weird twists and turns nature took to get us to where we are today. A lot of people seem to treat what exists now as the end point, apparently under the illusion that evolution stops here, and what we have will carry on for the rest of time. Dougal Dixon is not one of those people.

In his breathtaking book After Man, he envisions a world fifty million years after our own, where humanity has died out, taking with it most of the large mammals and familiar creatures of the time. In this new world, where tectonic plates have shifted the continents into unrecognisable forms, animals have done much the same. Gone are the animals we know, but they’ve been replaced by a variety of newcomers, each descended from something we’re used to.

Rabbits have evolved and diversified into the rabbucks; deer-like creatures that now inhabit every major biome. They’ve been followed throughout by the predator rats, who have taken on the roles of the great carnivores of our age. Elsewhere, squirrels have become long and slender, some bats have entirely atrophied their eyes in favour of more impressive sonar, and the large herbivores have been replaced by the genus of gigantelopes, elephantine antelope-descendants with unusual and complex horned structures on their heads.

In the seas, the whales and dolphins are long gone, but fully aquatic and enormous descendants of penguins now fill those roles. Baboon relatives now stalk the plains of, what was, Africa, hunting and scavenging for meat. Rainforest pigs have developed trunks, one of the last cats, the striger, swings from tree branches like our gibbons, when a species of ant evolved to make its nests underwater, the anteater went aquatic and followed them. As usual, on isolated islands, evolution has particularly gone insane, in particular on the islands of Batavia, recently risen from the seas due to volcanic activity and now populated by bats who have evolved to fill every niche, from coastal waters and high branches, and also produced the terrifying night stalker, a one and a half metre tall predator with a curious arrangement of limbs.

The book is nothing, however, without the incredible intricate illustrations, that show the future animals in action, as well as in some more technical, scientific positions. Like all good nature works, we get to see them as real beings, not just stock images. Of course, these aren’t real animals. Not yet, at least. While we cannot predict with any certainty what creatures will survive us and how they will be further shaped, all of Dixon’s suggestions are based on a solid scientific grounding and while it’s not probable any of them will occur, it’s not impossible. He used this knowledge again in the wonderful TV series The Future is Wild, which took a similar premise of future evolution and is well worth a watch if you can find it.

All in all, a fascinating, fun and thought-provoking experiment in evolution.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Superfreakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2009)

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superfreak“Many of life’s decisions are hard.”

There are many questions in this life that still need an answer. We can turn to all manner of scientists and assorted experts to give us some of the answers, but sometimes the right answers are much harder to find than we may first think. It may be that we’re looking in all the wrong places, and applying the wrong rules. In some of those cases, it might be time to bring in the economists.

Superfreakonomics is the sequel to the popular Freakonomics, written by journalist Stephen Dubner and rogue economist Steven Levitt. Instead of looking at money and banking, the area you’d expect economists to deal primarily in, these guys tackle apply the rules of economics to everything else and see what they can come up with. The argument is, of course, that we might be getting the wrong answers because we’ve been asking the wrong questions.

This book covers such diverse topics as prostitution, global warming, altruism and whaling, exploring each with a strange, sideways glance and seeing what we can learn from one industry about another. Dubner and Levitt explain why a prostitute is like a shopping mall Santa, whether drunk driving is safer than drunk walking, how to track down suicide bombers using their bank accounts, how we can engineer the oceans to stop hurricanes, what Al Gore and volcanoes have in common, and whether people are willing to give up money they haven’t worked for to a total stranger.

Perhaps the most controversial chapter is about global warming. While studying different ways that it could be halted, the pair find out that, in truth, we might not even need to halt it. It might be completely normal. It might not even be happening at all, and our efforts to cool the planet down are actually doing the opposite. The book is actually packed with controversy, as they point out that children’s car seats might not actually be that effective, that the supposed witnesses of Kitty Genovese’s murder weren’t as useless as psychology textbooks like to make out, and that a sex change can affect your standing among your peers.

It’s a quick read, easy to digest and utterly fascinating throughout, packed with the sort of trivia it’s nice to have on hand to trot out at cocktail parties, even if most of it is about car crash victims and hand washing in hospitals. If you’re the sort of person who likes spotting the links between entirely unrelated things, then this is for you. If not, then come along anyway. You won’t be disappointed.

“The Book On The Bookshelf” by Henry Petroski (1999)

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bookshelf-book“My reading chair faces my bookshelves, and I see them every time I look up from the page.”

Although I started this blog in 2013, I started keeping track of what books I was reading at the beginning of the decade, in 2011. I read sixty-six books that first year, which feels paltry compared to the ninety-five I got through last year. But this book here is particularly special as this review marks the five hundredth book I’ve read this decade – so far. It feels impossible, and yet, it feels about right. I debated for a while about which book deserved the accolade of such a comfortable and pleasing round number, but there seemed to be only one real answer to that – a book about books.

More accurately, I suppose, Henry Petroski’s book is actually about something most people don’t even consider – bookshelves. Oh yes, books about stationery and fake languages now seem almost mainstream compared to this level of specificity. Here, Petroski is discussing the history of how humanity has stored its texts, from the earliest scrolls and clay tablets up until the modern era (well, 1999 anyway). He covers the evolution of books from scrolls and codices to the invention of the printing press, discusses how books were read in monasteries and what happened when they became more widely available to the general public, makes a study of studies and some of the world’s most famous libraries, as well as then discussing the engineering know-how required to build bookshelves that don’t sag, allow plenty of light to show off the books, and eventually developed wheels to make the most of the space. He ends with a look at how people treat books – with a particular look at bookmarks – and then the appendix lists a variety of ways to store your books, whether by author name, size, colour, order of purchase, enjoyment level or any other method.

Like a badly made bookshelf, it sags a little in the middle as the topic is fairly dry, but it’s full of enough hugely interesting facts to keep any bookworm going. One of the oddest things he discusses is that, well into the 1500s, books were stored with their spines facing inwards, and before that they would all be chained to the shelves so they couldn’t go missing. Petroski is clearly a man who loves books and seems to have a particular interest in their treatment throughout the centuries. Books have always held a kind of reverence, or so it seems, and people have spent a lot of time and money on ensuring the best way to store and display their libraries.

Obviously, given that the book was written in 1999, there is little in it about the development and proliferation of the Kindle and its ilk. At the time he was writing, it becomes clear that e-books are already in existence but in a very minor way, so he speculates a little on what may happen, suggesting that eventually bookshelves will have fewer and fewer books on them until they resemble the old carrels of the medieval period where a student would sit at a desk to read the book without having to move it. History moves in circles, of course. It would be interesting to see an update to this book and get Petroski’s take on these new developments.

It all made me very aware that my bookshelves are in little order. An author will have all their books clumped together, in general, though looking up I can see it’s untrue of Ben Aaronovitch and Patrick Ness immediately. Agatha Christie has a shelf all to herself, of course. I have one wall that is entirely bookshelves, as well as two more long shelves on another wall, a bookcase against a third, and then two more piles of books on my desk. Books now lay horizontally on top of their vertical colleagues who came first, old and new rub covers with one another, and everything’s a little bit too dusty as, as has always been the case, books are dust magnets. I haven’t counted in a while, but this lot coupled with the boxes in the attic add up to around one thousand books.

So, let’s raise a glass to this milestone of five hundred books, five hundred adventures and five hundred tales that have all had a hand in making me the man I am today. Here’s to the next five hundred.

“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.

“Tilting At Windmills” by Andy Miller (2002)

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There's a sport for everyone.

There’s a sport for everyone.

“In the summer of 1984, three teenagers went to war.”

I would never go as far as to say that I hate sport as a concept, but I’m definitely not a fan. Oh sure, I’ll pay vague attention to the Euros or World Cup because my family usually have a sweepstake and money makes everything more interesting (this year I had Iceland, which started out more promising than I imagined). And I quite like the Olympics, too, if only for the spectacle of the thing and my nerdy love of lists and trivia, the Olympics being a non-stop barrage of medal tables and facts about the highest, longest, fastest, biggest, and so on.

But other than that, sport basically leaves me cold. I believe that if footballers are going to get paid that much then they should at least have the decency to be good. I don’t get how cricket can last five days and still end in a draw. I think wrestling is a waste of time, boxing is needlessly violent, golf is a good walk ruined, American football is actually just a stream of advertisements with twenty seconds of play in between, and I reserve a special hatred for tennis, with its weirdly intricate scoring system and all that bizarre grunting. PE lessons were the bane of my life at school, and while since then I have tried my hand at swimming, badminton and squash, the only physical activity I get very excited about is crazy golf.

The same is true of Andy Miller. A self-proclaimed sports atheist, he doesn’t understand anything to do with sport or why it’s so popular. It’s drilled into his head at school, where he is belittled by psychotic games teachers, that real men love sport and anyone who doesn’t is, well, a bit weird. Andy becomes determined to find a sport he enjoys and settles on miniature golf, which turns out to be less “windmills and water hazards” and more “specific equipment and competitive Germans”.

While getting in too deep with organisations that run miniature golf tournaments, Andy finds his game improving and starts learning to love the game, even. Along the way he begins regularly attending the football matches of Queen’s Park Rangers, finds himself reminded that to visit Wimbledon is to spend the day queuing, discovers that the Boat Race is fine as long as you’re drunk, marvels at the sheer spectacle of WWF wrestling, and even interviews a couple of PE teachers who turn out not to be psychopaths.

Genuinely funny, and insanely detailed in places when covering the games of miniature golf he and his new friends play, the book is a real laugh. As a fellow sports atheist, I can relate to him on so many levels, from his horror of having to take part in hockey lessons at school, to his English awkwardness on a Danish crazy golf course with some very loud Europeans. But he shines a light on some aspects of sports that I’d never considered, and his summary of how all sports are basically the same is a masterpiece.

A ball must be thrown or hit or pushed with a hand or foot or some kind of stick. Two individuals or two groups of individuals compete against one another on land or water or even in the air. They must ensure that they perform this activity within some designate lines or on a table or in a ring. In general, they must try not to fall over.

Truth is, ask me to the park on a warm day for a kickaround, or a friendly game of cricket and I’d probably be up for it, unless I’m in the middle of a particularly good book, which I usually am. Hell, let’s go swimming. I always enjoy a dip. But I think, like Andy realises, that what ruins sports more often than not is the people and companies around them. Capitalism has a lot to answer for, and sucking the fun out of sport is just one more of them. After all, a sport is really just a game with the fun removed anyway. Like Andy, I will never fully understand this world, but I guess millions can’t be wrong. Roll on, Rio 2016!

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