Audiobook of the Month Double Bill

Audiobook of the Month time! I actually have a double bill audio book review for you all because I have been particularly good at listening this month and have steamed through two absolute crackers.

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First up is A is for Arsenic: the Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup. Upon learning of this book I thought it seemed like a rather thin premise for a publication. After getting about three pages in I realised that it was a genius idea and couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been done years ago. The world of Christie has been picked over from all sorts of angles over the years; the psychology of murder, the macabre fascination of the reader, the style, the language, the relationship between the characters and the life of the author herself. I have often pointed to the archaeological context of many Christie stories as inspiration for my own interest in history and digging about in exotic corners of the globe. Why wouldn’t the world need a book looking at the real life chemistry behind Agatha’s preferred method of bumping people orf?

Agatha was a dispensing chemist during the Frist World War, through which she developed and subsequently maintained an interest in chemicals, medicines and poisons. Dr Kathryn Harkup is a trained science writer, who presents talks and runs a rather humorous blog. Needless to say she is well placed to get a publishing deal to read everything Christie has ever written and talk about poison. The book is a A-Z style compendium in which every letter covers a different poison and then goes on to explore the Christie story where said poison is deployed, the effect the poison has on the human body and also any real life cases which may have either inspired or been inspired by Christie.

Cards on the table – I’m not a science person. I think in abstracts, feelings and moods. I can’t visualise molecules, how my pancreas secrets hormones or how neuroblockers break down particles to an atomic level and subsequently create black holes that bend space and time and make parallel universes a reality. Or whatevs. Apologies here to several of my close friends who work in the sciences, one of which is a particle physicist; you do great and important work – I just have no idea what it is. However, even for a bonefide, just go and sit in the corner and talk about Parks and Rec at the party dunce like myself, this book is interesting. If you understand more than the chemistry of a Lush bath bomb (sodium right? Makes shizz fizzy?) you will find this book fascinating. For the rest of my artificially minded brethren you will have lots of fun assessing each poison for its merits should you ever choose to take your own life, obviously in a beautiful Millais Ophelia guise after a particularly tragic romance with a poet in Florence. Alternatively you could plan how to carry out the perfect murder and get away with it, involving at some point coolly fleeing to South America in a trench coat and big hat while the handsome detective watches you board a plane with a mixture of admiration and confused lust as he fails to find any evidence to convict you. Sorry, what are we doing again? Oh yeah, audiobook of the month.

If, like me you have pretty much read everything Christie has ever written, you will certainly get a lot out of the work as you merrily bob through the medicine cabinet of murder and fondly go – oh yeah! I remember that guy – he was killed with toilette water on the eve of the masquerade ball, wasn’t he played by Charles Dance? Even more interesting are the real life stories that parallel the events of the Christie publications. Who knew there were such varied and ingenious murders going on? Not I, and I’ve just finished The Invention of Murder for gawds sake. I think most of us like Christie novels because they seem to exist in some sort of heightened dramatic reality where people plot to kill their great aunt over the family jewels with a bottle of furniture polish and some clever deception with a figgy pudding. I think we have to believe that it is all terribly quaint and am dram in nature because our domestic lives would be far too scary if we thought out loved ones might actually try to do us in with our choice brand of dishwasher salts on Christmas eve, but this stuff actually happens! There are real stories in this book more chilling than anything Wes Craven could create – keep Freddie, it’s Mr Peabody from Surbiton with the car wax I’m scared of. And that’s what Agatha was trying to tell us all along – ‘in an English village, you turn over a stone and have no idea what will crawl out’.

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Staying with the theme of dastardly deeds of human nature is my second audio book of the month – The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Moriarty: The Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes’s Nemesis edited by Maxim Jakubowski. Mammoth ain’t kidding. This book is big! It’s 37 short stories from different authors exploring new takes on the unknown life of Moriarty. If this seems like another way to spin a buck out of the severely over flogged and mortally wounded horse of the Sherlock franchise, you would be wrong – it’s actually bloody good and entertaining and fun. Sure you have to forgive every author using the phrase ‘The Napoleon of Crime,’ trying as they do to crib authenticity from quotes of the original Conan Doyle text, but hey, you say unoriginal, I say continuity.

The great thing about short story compendiums is that if you have a short attention span like my good self (or are fickle, like my good self) you don’t have a chance to get bored of one style and are constantly being plopped into fun new scenarios. One moment you are in the company of Moriarty and Hitler, then Moriarty the manipulative schoolboy and then to modern day Abu Dhabi where Moriarty is an immortal vampire responsible for the 2008 economic collapse. Like I said, it’s good and fun and very easy to become engrossed with. In short it is the perfect book to read over Christmas, particularly if you are visiting family and don’t have to do much except get bought cups of tea while sitting on a sofa and eating all the fancy biscuits. Obviously just make sure you don’t have any assets in a gold mine before you accept a hot beverage from a long lost nephew…

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Audio Transcripts: The Invention of Murder

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Audiobook of the month is here! Even though it is a bit more like audiobook of the every six months recently. That is now due for a change however, as my days are affording me a little more time to listen to books as I womble about.

I always think that books are better in the autumn for some reason. Holiday reads are light and fun, but Autumn reads transport, mystify and inspire you. Murder is always better when it is cold out too; a crackling fire, a tin of Quality Street and a good old grisly murder mystery. This fact was the main motivation for me picking up The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders.

The book traces Victorian Britain’s interest, verging on obsession, with real life crime and how the reporting of these cases and their subsequent portrayal in literature created the cannon of crime fiction we know today. Within the book infamous murder mysteries such as the Road Hill House murder, which was bought to the attention of modern audiences via the Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and of course Jack The Ripper are interspersed with lesser known cases, including the sweet shop poisoner of Brighton and a frankly disturbing number of domestic (i.e. wife) murders perpetrated by husbands.

The book is long, really long. It took me ages to get through. While the content is incredibly thorough and the compilation of so much original source material in one place undoubtedly useful, it does feel a little dry. The chapters move through the reign of Victoria chronologically, covering a murder at a time. The reader is given a description of the murder, an account of the court case and then the reporting of it. It is a little formulaic in places, to the point that (due to the annoying Audible chapter vs sections breakdown) I lost my place on many occasions and because I had literally no idea where I was in the narrative, had to go back over the same material multiple times (this also contributed to why it took quite so long to get through). I think this may be one of those books that merely fails work well in audio form. Without the text and photographs on front of you, the dialogue becomes a fairly monotonous stream of dates and newspaper quotes.

The infuriating thing is that I found the content very interesting indeed, it was just the method with which it was fed to me that I found hard to swallow. Who wouldn’t find it interesting? There are tales of Burke and Hare, megalomaniac doctors feeling a cross the Atlantic on ocean liners, and scheme upon scheme of scoundrels bumping off the neighbours for the insurance monies. I don’t mean to be glib. I realise that these were real people who were cruelly killed, often by those closest to them. However the book focusses in part on the ture crimes, but more fully on the wealth of garish literature and theatre which resulted from them; the Pennybloods, the Victorian villains and the poor innocent maiden archetypes. Dickens, Wilde and Doyle were all as susceptible to the salacious goriness of the crimes they read about; Dicken’s most popular spoken word piece was Nancy’s murder, during which Dickens would apparently become almost manic with rage during his many public performances.

Of course as a reader you can’t help but compare the cultural zeitgeist of the Victorians to our own. The Victorians are characterised by a buttoned-up attitude towards sex (grossly inaccurate in my view) and a love of the gothic, the macabre and the scary. Well, just like ‘us’ then really? Our society loves an unsolved murder. We would never say so openly, that’s not polite. But we sure as heck print it in all of the papers, we discuss it when Granny calls for a catch-up and we certainly have our own personal judge and jury bellowing pronouncements whenever a potential suspect is paraded before us. There was nothing that extraordinary about the Victorian’s ‘invention’ of murder, they merely were the first to create a cultural art form from it.

Next time: A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup

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Audio Transcript: Mastery by Robert Greene

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It is Audiobook of the Month time! It has been a while I know but this bad boy is back with a vengeance now that I again have time to listen to said audiobooks regularly.

To kick things off I went with Robert Greene’s Mastery. Reading the blurb, I was drawn to the case studies of historical figures such as Darwin, Mozart and Di Vinci who Greene profiles in order to illustrate the various positive characteristics necessary in order to gain mastery. ‘Well’ I thought ‘that sounds a bit Bill Brysony, I did like a Short History of Nearly Everything after all so I might as well give this a go’. However, I rather underestimated the self-help and business strategist element of the work, which is very stupid considering Greene’s previous titles, especially the 48 Laws of Power and the Art of Seduction. Much of Greene’s work has previously been adopted by successful business types, largely male and largely in the entertainment industry. The Art of Seduction has in part filtered into the ‘Seduction Community’ and is referenced by Neil Strauss in The Game *shudders*.

Whilst the titbits of historical biography are interesting to a point the heavy overlay of strategic guidance sits rather awkwardly and not entirely coherently on top. The rules that Greene advocates seem often overlapping and not altogether logical – ‘have a mentor you trust, look up to and are inspired by, but wait, don’t like them too much, have tense and sometimes stressful relationship and eventually leave them’. Similarly, to short hand another message – ‘go your own way, break all the rules, but also follow rules’. It’s all a bit jumbled and hard to follow. At one point, I had to leave the room with the audio still playing and when I came back and tried to find my place I literally had no idea where I was or if I had heard this stuff before. I’m still not sure. All in all I guess it’s just a bit dull and incredibly repetitive. All of the advice is so laboured that to follow the guidance accurately you would probably need to sit in a white room and just constantly think about your actions, reactions, demeanour and practices 24/7 leaving little time to actually achieve anything.

To be honest this book left me feeling a bit ick. I’ve generally stuck to the principle of know your stuff and be nice to people to get along in life and that’s served me pretty well up until now. All of the tactical game playing in this book feels contrived, manipulative and pseudo-Machiavellian. I don’t want every interaction I have with another person to be prescribed by certain rules and ultimately geared towards further self-promotion. But maybe that’s why I’m going to die alone covered in cats rather than from head injuries after driving into swimming pool of gold coins Duck Tales style.

Overall, it’s worth a listen/read if only for the historical bits as well as profiles of contemporary ‘masters’ such as Teresita Fernandez. Also some of the Zen Buddhist teachings about acceptance of others gelled with my own outlook (well I try) and perhaps I’ve let the more manipulative nature of the advice overshadow some actually quite sound pointers on life. If you happen to live in a particularly cutthroat environment then maybe the tactical aspects of this work may serve you as well. However for me, being as I am a resolutely British death before discourtesy type, it’s all just a touch to self-affected.

Next Month I’m going to dive into:

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime written by Judith Flanders. Sounds jolly doesn’t it?

xxx

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