“Destination Unknown” by Agatha Christie (1954)

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“The man behind the desk moved a heavy glass paperweight four inches to the right.”

Agatha Christie is, of course, most known for her murder mysteries, but she never limited herself to just one genre. She wrote romance stories under a pseudonym, dabbled in supernatural fiction and ghost stories, and now and again wrote thrillers, as the Sunday Times said, “just to show that she can.” Her best one, as I’ve gone on about on the blog before, is The Seven Dials Mystery, but Destination Unknown is to be ignored at your peril.

The world is in crisis. Leading scientists from across the world are disappearing, and those working in international intelligence are completely stumped. Bodies are never recovered, so there’s no consensus on whether these people are dead or alive, and a whole host of countries are losing their greatest biologists, chemists and researchers. Mr Jessop, a shady figure in the British government, is at his wits end. That is, until he encounters Hilary Craven.

Hilary sits in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her attempts are interrupted however by Jessop who lets himself in and declares he has a more exciting way for her to die. She is to pretend to be Mrs Betterton, the wife of one of the missing scientists who is believed to be on her way to find her husband. However, in her travels, she has died in a plane crash, leaving the space open. Hilary is asked to take over the role and find out where Mr Betterton, and presumably the other missing scientists, are being held. With nothing left to lose, Hilary agrees and soon finds herself embroiled in something much larger than anyone could have imagined. With no idea who she can trust or who is working to what ends, Hilary is soon brought before Tom Betterton – and his reaction is perhaps the most surprising thing of all…

OK, so it’s not the most famous or well-regarded of her novels (indeed, it’s one of only four to never receive an adaptation for screen, stage or radio), but it’s still an interesting adventure story. Penned less than ten years after the end of World War Two, its events are shadows over what happens here. A character is introduced with ideas that may not be particularly welcome to many people, but Hilary finds herself almost hypnotised by the rhetoric, even going so far as to mention the similarities to Hitler – the words were ordinary, but the way he spoke was apparently very engaging. In a week where we’ve seen Nazis and white supremacists marching openly in America, it really struck home how dangerous words can be in the wrong hands. I try not to bring up topical events while discussing books, but the reason we read is to better understand the world, I think, and sometimes the parallels are too real or shocking to ignore.

The final scenes feel a bit rushed, and some of the explanations as to how the solution came about bypassed me really, but it doesn’t matter. How we got there is fascinating enough, and it’s a great look at how the real rulers of the world are those with the money, rather than those in obvious positions of power. As the book says, “one is never surprised to find out that behind the importance and magnificence there is somewhere some scrubby little man who is the real motive power”. Judge not on appearances, trust no one, and know that things mayn’t always be as they seem.

A quick read, a fun jaunt with inspiration obviously taken from Christie’s own travels, and a story that, while titled Destination Unknown, shows that journeys in novels so often end in the same place.

“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818)

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“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

“I’m reading Frankenstein at the moment,” I said over Thursday afternoon cocktails (because that’s the sort of life I have). My friend looked at me from over his Manhattan and said, “Boring, isn’t it?” I sighed. “Yes.”

“Thing is,” he explained. “You have to read it through the lens of Frankenstein’s own hubris. He is melodramatic and you’ve gotta go with that to make it tolerable.” Yes, not only is this history’s first science fiction novel, it’s also probably the first emo committed to paper. Frankenstein spends the vast majority of the book moping, hand-wringing, cursing the universe, sobbing and generally wallowing in despair, leading him to be rather an unpleasant and irritating hero.

Cultural osmosis is such that when people think of Frankenstein, and this includes myself, they tend to picture a spooky castle, a stormy night, the hunchbacked assistant Igor and the birth of the Creature. Turns out that this is entirely becuase of the films. The novel is a different beast altogether. There’s no Igor here, and Frankenstein certainly doesn’t appear to be living in a castle. He’s much younger than I anticipated too, having been not long out of university, not even completing his degree, so any title of “Doctor” is a misnomer too. The actual event of him reanimating the Creature feels almost “blink and you’ll miss it”. In fact, I’m loathe to say, I did. It was only when Frankenstein encounters his creation in the Alps later on that I realised his experiment had been a success. I had to go back and read the pages again and there, buried beneath more pages of crying scientist, is a short section where it’s noted that life was indeed created, but Frankenstein immediately freaked out and hid in his bedroom while the Creature fled.

The action is really three stories, each nested within one another. It opens with Captain Robert Walton sailing a ship to explore the North Pole. He is writing letters to his sister, and details that he and his men saw a large, humanoid figure piloting a dog sled across the ice. Not long after, they take on board the very ill Victor Frankenstein who then tells his story.

Frankenstein tells of his life and his scientific experiments. A lot of time his given over to his family life and history, so the science almost seems to become incidental to the story. His tale is interrupted in the middle when he meets the Creature again. The Creature then tells his story and explains that since he ran away he’s been living in a hovel next to a cottage of some poor people, learning to read and speak, and about the world, from their conversations. He demands of Frankenstein that he make him a wife to love, as he doesn’t want to be the one being in the world who is forbidden from having anyone to love.

The story then goes back to Frankenstein’s exploits and how he becomes haunted by the Creature and his plans to bring to life a bride for his creation. Eventually deciding that he doesn’t want to bring about anymore monsters, the Creature then begins to extract revenge and make his creator’s life a living hell. The story ends with Captain Walton writing to his sister again, telling her Frankenstein’s story.

The thing is, the bits that don’t involve Frankenstein are easily the best bits. The Creature has a wonderful way of speaking and is deeply insightful, but I have so many questions. How is it he has to learn about to read and write and speak all over again, when he was once living before? He knows nothing, which seems a bit bizarre to me, although given the whole nature of the novel, it seems odd to focus on something like that. Frankenstein himself isn’t a likeable man, I felt, and many academics have since claimed that he’s really just written to mock Lord Byron, who Shelley knew well. An overemotional drama queen who dropped out of education because he thought he knew better than everyone else, and hated when things didn’t go his way? Sounds about right.

I’m not sorry I read it, but my brief love affair with the classics has, possibly, come to a natural resting point again. It’s remarkable how little of the original novel has seeped into popular culture, but then I suppose that’s the power of film, and maybe this is one where, to get the real sense of drama and horror, it needs to be more visual.

Of course, in this case there is a version of Frankenstein that is definitely better than the book. Morecambe and Wise did it years ago with guest Ian Carmichael. The usual nonsense occurs, with Ian occasionally slipping into song, Eric convinced that he’s in a pantomime, and Ernie being the least terrifying incarnation of the monster ever. Take it away, boys:

“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.

“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…

“The House Of Sleep” by Jonathan Coe (1997)

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house-sleep“It was their final quarrel, that much was clear.”

When I was in sixth form I studied Psychology, and one of the most interesting aspects of the course was the module on sleep. It turns out that no one really knows why we sleep, what purpose it serves, what dreams are, why they happen, or what benefit sleep has. For something so ubiquitous in our lives, it seems insane to think that we have never worked out what it’s for. In this novel, we explore some of the more unusual aspects of what is already a very unusual scenario.

Ashdown is a house for students. They come and go, but the bonds they form are deep and long-lasting. In one room is the narcoleptic Sarah, who has such vivid dreams that she is convinced that they happened for real, getting her into trouble with others, not least housemate Robert, who loves Sarah deeply and will apparently stop at nothing to win her love. Elsewhere in the house is Terry requires fourteen hours of sleep a night, and there’s also Gregory, a psychology student who aspires to greatness.

Twelve years later, Ashdown is now a sleep clinic, where Dr Gregory Dudden now studies and treats people who are struggling with narcolepsy, insomnia, sleeptalking, sleepwalking and a whole host of other conditions. But he’s not the only one that has returned, and soon it seems that these four are destined to be reunited at the house where they grew up, only to find that things are not quite as they were. Chapters alternate between their student days, and a time over a decade later where they’ve all grown up and, for a time, lost contact with one another. But secrets have lain dormant for years, and soon their lives are interconnected once more, whether they want them to be or not.

I feared when the novel began that it was going to be another one of those novels where an author attempts to show off his intelligence through the well-read, political, culturally-aware student characters. You know the sort. While there is a little of this from one character in particular (two if you count a character who has an encyclopedic knowledge of film), I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn’t going to just be world-weary students sitting round like they’d got everything figured out. Like all good books, it treads that fine like of being very funny, as well as breaking your heart a tiny bit too, all while making you want to turn the page and devour the next chapter.

Gregory Dudden is entirely unsympathetic, a scientist with a one-track-mind and an obsession that has got out of hand and led him down a very dark path indeed. Apparently disrespected by fellow students and then later by his staff, he seems to care little about what people actually think of him and so hasn’t realised what an insufferable, unpleasant, smug creep he is. Despite dating Sarah presumably because he was attracted to her, it later transpires he mostly bothers with her so he can study her condition, as well as indulge in a sexual game that only he enjoys that involves pressing down on her eyelids. This act scars her for life and has a strong impact on her future relationships and psychology.

The other characters are more pleasant, although all flawed in their own ways. Terry has gone from being someone who needs a lot of sleep to an insomniac, and like Gregory, has an obsession that has consumed much of his life, although he at least seems to be handling it slightly better. Sarah is perhaps the least flawed character, but even she seems able to act in spite and not really think through what she’s doing. Robert is kind, but needy and can’t accept that Sarah won’t ever love him. Her relationship with him at university has a huge impact on his future and his life is changed forever by her vivid dreams.

The novel does seem to rely rather heavily on coincidence, and a small cast of characters keep overlapping one another and finding themselves magnetically drawn to others who have links to their pasts and yet, somehow, it works. It makes sense. Besides, I can’t complain about that. My own novel relies extensively on coincidence for the later plot to work. So despite this minor niggle, I really enjoyed the story. The characters feel well-rounded and when it ended I found myself wishing that there was more. The ending is somehow bittersweet, and you can’t claim happy endings for everyone, but there’s definitely a sense of hope there.

A dream, rather than a nightmare.

“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.

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