The addition of real-life cases and comparisons to Christie’s works make this a nice little murder mystery of its own. Fear...

A IS FOR ARSENIC

THE POISONS OF AGATHA CHRISTIE

Chemist Harkup’s first book is the product of her passion for the work of Agatha Christie and her broad knowledge and research in the matter of poisons.

Christie was a volunteer nurse in a hospital dispensary in Torquay during World War I, a position that required she pass exams to qualify as a dispenser. In those days, prescriptions were made by hand, so she had a strong working knowledge of drugs and poisons. With the publication of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), Christie received one of her most cherished compliments when the Pharmaceutical Journal and Pharmacist praised the correctness of her writing. Harkup devotes each of 14 chapters to a particular poison (belladonna, cyanide, ricin, thallium, and others), and she explains each thoroughly, including its origins, how to extract it from the most potent part of the plant, and its benign uses (for humans) such as pesticides. Then the author explores the most effective ways of dosing, whether by injection, dissolved in food, tea, or inhalation, and the effects on victims. She also lists antidotes, if there are any. Post-mortem testing is a large part of determining if a murder has been committed, and Harkup lists tests available at the time the books were written (many are still in use). This would be a perfect reference for anyone writing murder mysteries and is scientific enough to be used as a textbook, which is also its only drawback. Technical explanations will daunt average readers with little knowledge of chemistry (the author also includes an appendix with drawings of each poison’s chemical structure), but the narrative is informative, and the author’s easy style of writing makes up for the slow bits.

The addition of real-life cases and comparisons to Christie’s works make this a nice little murder mystery of its own. Fear not, she’s careful not to spoil the endings of the classic novels.

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4729-1130-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: June 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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