A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup

A comprehensible survey of poisons and a celebration of the Queen of Crime.

a is for arsenic

Chemist Kathryn Harkup combines her scientific expertise and love of a good mystery in her first book, A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. B is for belladonna, and C is for cyanide, as Harkup works her way through 14 mysteries and 14 discrete poisons, with meticulous and informed explanations of the science behind each toxin’s effects (an appendix contains chemical structures). Each chapter also details famous real-life cases involving these deadly substances, including those that might have inspired–or been inspired by–Christie’s work, and analyses of how accurately the Queen of Crime represented the science within her stories. Generally the renowned writer does very well: as Harkup explains, Christie worked as a volunteer nurse in World War I and showed such aptitude that she was encouraged to continue her education and training as a pharmacist. By the Second World War, her work as a dispenser left her ample time to pursue her other profession, writing bestselling stories and novels.

Harkup’s writing style is accessible to the lay reader, although she does become technical when discussing poisons’ actions on the body, with full detail at the cellular level. She keeps these explanations short, however, and general readers will be able to follow along. For Christie fans, the review of famous mysteries is great fun, and the few spoilers come with ample warning. A Is for Arsenic is both informative science and a spur to read or reread the most popular mysteries ever written.

This review originally ran in the September 25, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 grains.

Teaser Tuesdays: Thunder & Lightning by Lauren Redniss

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

thunder lightning

This is a lovely, gorgeous art book, you guys, and isn’t weather fascinating? Clear win all around, and I can’t wait to share my review with you. For now, I couldn’t help but indulge in these lines, which cracked me up, in a men-Mars-women-Venus sort of way.

Look at men’s and women’s boots. The first chill in the air in September or October, women’s boot sales go right through the roof. Now, the weather’s still nice at that time of year in a lot of the U.S. Men’s boot sales don’t budge. Men’s boot sales move much later in the season, in late October or November when it’s really cold and really wet and men’s socks are getting wet.

(From a lengthy quotation by Frederick Fox, CEO of Planalytics.)

Even with intriguing and whimsical text, the visual art is the best part. Sign up for your copy now.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change by M Jackson

A scientist’s personal reflections on climate change and personal loss.

while glaciers slept

“I cannot untangle in my mind the scientific study of climate change and the death of my parents.” M Jackson is a scientist, National Geographic Expert and glacier specialist, but her memoir While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change rarely takes a scientific perspective and never claims objectivity. Rather, Jackson tells the story of losing both her parents when she was a young woman just embarking on life, and the trauma and extended grieving process that resulted.

Following a brief, lovely foreword by Bill McKibben, Jackson poetically conflates her loss with the slow and still mysterious effects of anthropogenic climate change. Her scientific background and explorations of fascinating places–Denali and Chena Hot Springs in Alaska, Zambia with the Peace Corps–inform her writing and yield striking images, as she runs on spongy Alaskan tundra or contemplates cryoconite holes atop glaciers. But it is the personal side of her narrative that allows Jackson to address society’s psychological difficulties with climate change.

Each chapter of While Glaciers Slept is a finely braided essay, considering an aspect of her parents’ lives or deaths alongside a facet of climate change’s challenges. Jackson mourns her mother with the help of Joan Didion’s writing; windmills offer possible “undulating answers” and comfort her on her drive home upon learning that her father is dying. She employs a disordered chronology that slightly disorients her reader, just as Jackson was disoriented. The effect is an evocative, lyrical work of musing and allegory rather than a scientific treatise.

This review originally ran in the September, 4, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 check marks in a dictionary.

Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime by Val McDermid

The science of criminal detection from a writer with expertise and connections in the field.


Scottish crime writer Val McDermid (The Skeleton Road) expands on her considerable experience with Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime. In it, she studies the fields encompassed by forensic science and the large role that such detailed evidence plays in the modern judicial system.

In writing fiction, McDermid routinely consults professionals in law enforcement and scientific experts; here, she delves into their worlds to examine the history and challenges of their work. Chapters focus on crime and fire scenes, entomology, pathology, toxicology, forensic psychology and anthropology, the courtrooms and legal systems of various countries and more. McDermid visits with experts in each of these fields, exploring their personal and professional experiences, which can include trauma as well as deeply stimulating and important work. She also covers specific criminal cases, ranging from serial killings and rape to common burglary, that illustrate the science in question, and offers impressions of her own.

McDermid is not a perfectly impartial judge of the professions she considers; the tone of Forensics is more admiring than journalistic. She provides a great service in reducing complex science to a narrative easily understood by laypersons, and thereby allows fans of television crime drama and detective novels a heightened appreciation of the genre. Details are often predictably graphic, but never gratuitously so, and should be well within the tolerances of murder-mystery buffs. Forensics is an easy-reading introduction to the science behind criminal detection and a fine companion to fiction like McDermid’s.

This review originally ran in the July 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 pairs of gloves.

Still Life With Insects by Brian Kiteley

The subtle, sublime life of an amateur entomologist, in tiny glimpses.


Leah Hager Cohen (No Book but the World) selected Brian Kiteley’s first novel, Still Life with Insects (originally published in 1989), for reprinting by Pharos Editions. In her introduction, Cohen gracefully outlines the strengths of this slim, quietly powerful book.

Elwyn Farmer is an amateur entomologist, forever wandering off to peer under dry leaves or dig in riverbanks. Still Life with Insects consists of his journal entries, spanning 40 years: from 1945, when his 43rd birthday has just been celebrated, to 1985, when his vision begins to fade. The entries record his quiet rejoicing in the ephemeral glory of the natural world, the beetles he collects and, through and around them, the details of his fragile life. Following several nervous breakdowns, he tells stories in which grandchildren and tragic death figure at an equal level with the Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus marginatus), or the Asian Stink Bug his family encounters in a Hungarian resort.

Although a bug collector’s field notes may not sound like an imaginative or exhilarating backdrop, Brian Kiteley’s distinctive style plays well to such a challenge. His greatest accomplishment is understatement. In a mere 103 pages, a sensitive, complex man becomes a brittle old man, fully experiencing the passing of time and life. The stories that fill these journal entries, sparse and widely spaced over decades, are necessarily mere vignettes, bare sketches. Still Life with Insects is a deceptively simple story, characterized by restraint, but with many layers of allegory available to the close reader.

This review originally ran in the May 19, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 boxes.

A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm by Dave Goulson

A celebration of biology and the joy of discovery–and a reminder to tread lightly.

Dave Goulson follows A Sting in the Tale, about his years studying bumblebees, with A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm. In 2003, Goulson purchased a 33-acre property with a decaying farmhouse and barn, and turned it into a private nature reserve; here he describes the multitude of wildlife he shares those acres with. His goal is to celebrate the wonder of the natural world–especially insects, which make up roughly two-thirds of known life on Earth.

Goulson charmingly depicts the mating practices of dance flies and the many butterfly species he sees on his daily run, and elucidates the habits of the famously cannibalistic female mantis with added knowledge gained through his own studies. A Buzz in the Meadow is both a descriptive work and a call to arms, a reminder that all species are precious and necessary, even the tiny ones. Goulson repeatedly states that conservationists should look beyond large and charismatic creatures like whales and tigers; he perhaps overstates that “the extinction of the giant panda… would not have any knock-on consequences. There would perhaps be a tiny bit more bamboo in a forest in China,” but his point is well taken–that insects make up the majority of life and play an outsized role in the interconnectivity of biological systems worldwide. Goulson’s tone is personal, even humorously self-effacing, but clearly expert. A Buzz in the Meadow accessibly presents natural science and gracefully offers an earnest wake-up call to conservation.

This review originally ran in the April 28, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 dormice.

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

Family dynamics after a diagnosis of Huntington’s disease, exquisitely portrayed with poignancy and tenderness.


In her fourth novel, Inside the O’Briens, Lisa Genova (Still Alice) introduces a traditional Irish Catholic family who have to cope with a neurological disease.

Over several years, Joe O’Brien, a proud, hardworking Boston cop, has been increasingly irritable and quick to anger, and has trouble concentrating on his paperwork. He starts stumbling and dropping things; there are murmurs of drink or drugs. When they finally see a doctor, the O’Briens learn about Huntington’s disease, an inherited neurodegenerative disease that over the course of 10 to 20 years will rob Joe of his ability to move, speak and eat on his own. It’s been causing his short temper and confusion. And there’s a 50-50 chance that each of his children has it.

Each of these young adults has a decision to make: they can be tested for the gene marker that predicts Huntington’s or they can live with uncertainty. The eldest has been trying to conceive; a baby would be at risk, too.

Sympathetic, absorbing, multifaceted characters compel the reader’s compassion. While Genova’s background in neuroscience allows her to portray medical issues accurately, the heart of the O’Briens’ story is human: how each member of the family copes with the news of Joe’s pending mortality; whether each child chooses to be tested; how knowing or not knowing guides how they live their lives. Their insular Irish Catholic community is likewise evoked with sensitivity and precision.

Poignant and painful, warm and redemptive, Inside the O’Briens displays Genova’s established strengths in bringing neuroscience to the lay reader, and portraying the power of love.

This review originally ran in the April 14, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 sippy cups.

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