The Bookshelf: Unwitting discoveries

By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan

Riveting stories are always about journeys. Miguel de Cervantes’s story of Don Quixote, considered a seminal work of modern Western literature (and which I have yet to read) sets out the classic plot of a literal expedition and the discoveries its protagonists make on their way from point A to B.

In others, the journey itself is the discovery. But perhaps nowhere else do characters uncover unexpected finds and realizations than in detective stories and science fiction.

Continuing my current reading habit of two genre authors, I went along a journey down two roads. One led to the early 20th century, and the other, millions of years in the past. And like the people on those trails, I was riveted by what I found. And what I found made me want to re-read them to see what I missed the first time.

The Secret of Chimneys

(Agatha Christie, 1925)

Cover of Agatha Christie The Secret of ChimneysChimneys is a centuries-old English mansion and, like in other Christie mysteries, the setting of a murder mystery. But this story starts farther down in South Africa, where a chance reunion thrusts two intriguing errands on adventure-loving Anthony Cade.

First was to deliver to a publisher in London the hand-written memoirs of a count from the fictional nation of Herzoslovakia. The Central European country was fresh from a revolution yet was already stirring for another upheaval. Then, Anthony has to return a stack of racy letters to a Mrs. Virginia Revel.

Both manuscripts are potentially scandalous, but hardly seemed connected. Little did Anthony Cade know that he has signed up for a bigger job than just a delivery. He learns, for one, that the letters and the memoirs are connected to a conspiracy at Chimneys.

Agatha Christie drops the revelations little by little like a trail of bread crumbs. We find that characters are not who they introduce themselves at first. And while the story follows Anthony Cade, even he is not safe from our suspicions of the culprit.

The story’s geopolitical bent introduces us not just to Englishmen and Herzoslovaks, but also to an American and a Frenchman. Even the bit players make lasting impressions. The handful of women, meanwhile, call to mind Agatha Christie’s template for heroines. Some turn out rendering more essential roles.

There are no dragging moments or long episodes that disconnect you from the flow of the story. The mysteries are aplenty, going beyond just a mere murder.

Does Anthony fulfill his two errands? How connected is he to this unrelated business? Who is the murderer? And why the fuss about Chimneys? That’s what we not only discover. But as we can expect from Christie, there’s always a love story somewhere in there.

End of an Era

(Robert J. Sawyer, 1994)

Cover of Robert J Sawyer novel End of an EraIn this contemporary setting, time travel has become a reality. And the first big jump or “Throwback” to the past takes the travelers way, way into prehistory—the Mesozoic or dinosaur era, some 65 million years ago. It only fitted that scientists were chosen for the ride.

They were biologist Brandon Thackeray and geologist Miles “Klicks” Jordan, associates-turned-rivals in both trade and in life. Aside from collecting specimens and documenting their 64-hour stop, they hoped to answer one big mystery—how did the dinosaurs die out?

The scientists explore as far as their feet—and a Jeep they brought along–can take them. They’re not even sure if they dropped into the right period. The Earth they arrived in had lighter gravity, explaining the great heights the dinosaurs grew to. A second moon lit the night. And did those dinosaurs just speak to them?

We read Brandon’s log of the journey, complete with his impressions and frustrations. Yet near the middle, the story reveals another narrative starring the same people in starkly different circumstances. The link between the past and the present grows clear as the story ticks a “countdown” toward Zero Hour.

The unfamiliar reader can get lost in the host of dinosaurs identified throughout the story. But the science behind the possibilities in this novel is compelling and convincing. It’s a blend of various fields–paleontology, astronomy, and physics. The book takes time to explain the mechanics of time travel, the device used, and the

Robert Sawyer also tackles some of science’s more popular assumptions about what caused the mass extinctions at the end of the Mesozoic era. Brandon and Klicks are even on opposite ends of the debate. Will they find out who’s right?

But beyond the mind-tickling prospects, Sawyer weaves personal and soul-searching issues into his tale, letting the less-scientifically-literate relate. The small cast makes life-and-death decisions and faces the complexities of tampering with time (a.k.a. The Butterfly Effect).

Ultimately, Brandon and Klicks find that their expedition has far-reaching effects not just on their lives but even on others they haven’t met.

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*My other reviews of Agatha Christie’s books:

Intro to Christie

Agatha Christie’s Heroines

*I also review Sawyer’s “Calculating God”. You can read it here.

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The Bookshelf: ‘Calculating God’

By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan

"Calculating God" by Robert J. SawyerWould we treat the truth differently depending on who tells it?

In “Calculating God”, authored by science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer (of “FlashForward” fame), a Canadian paleontologist is surprised to find he is the first human being asked for by the first extraterrestrial who visits Earth.

When Dr. Thomas Jericho meets Hollus, a Forhilnor from a planet in the constellation Hydrus, he is surprised to learn that the alien is also a scientist here for research. What startles him more is the alien’s research goal: to find God.

He is used to hearing it from other humans. Now the atheistic Jericho is forced to confront arguments for an intelligent designer of the universe from not just one, but two other species more scientifically advanced than humans.

He soon learns from the Forhilnors and the Wreeds (of a planet in the constellation Pavo) that all their races had developed—evolved—simultaneously, and that crucial cataclysmic events intervened in their history at the same times. What they don’t know is why.

Jericho faces his own beliefs about God as his interactions with Hollus deepen and he comes to terms with his own mortality.

The question of God’s existence is hardly a given in science. Often it is a personal matter and one supposedly confined to the realm of religion and opinion. In one of Hollus’ and Jericho’s early conversations, it is the alien’s turn to be surprised that a creator is not considered scientific fact here.

“There is no indisputable proof for the big bang,” Hollus told Jericho. “And there is none for evolution. And yet you accept those. Why hold the question of  whether there is a creator to a higher standard?” Jericho knows no good answer.

Robert J. Sawyer navigates this search for God well—acknowledging it as a single person’s journey, yet never forgetting the global repercussions. He probes thought-provoking questions and puts in a backgrounder of the creation-evolution debate.

Artist James Beveridge's impression of the extraterrestrial Hollus and human Dr. Thomas Jericho from Robert J. Sawyer's novel "Calculating God"

Hollus and Dr. Jericho as drawn by artist James Beveridge.

More admirable are the well-thought-of details: how the aliens look like and how their minds work as a result of their biological makeup. Hollus even pokes fun at popular culture’s images of extraterrestrials and how they are hardly different from humans.

As Sawyer presents what seems to be the majority view of the scientific community against divinity, he also goes the other way. Jericho’s wife is a churchgoer whose belief in God is a source of comfort but is not overtly deep.

Sawyer devotes more space to the other end of the spectrum: “Christian” extremists who resort to bombing abortion clinics and even natural museums. To them, fossils are “tests”, deceptions created by the Devil.

One question undeniably comes up when reading—on which side does Sawyer lean? He ends up portraying a different image of God, which accompanies Dr. Jericho’s “see it to believe it” mindset.

Then again, Jericho’s thoughts also answer that by pointing to “Contact,” a novel by U.S. astronomer Carl Sagan. There the known atheist writes that an intelligence “antedates the universe”.

“Carl was no more obliged to believe what he wrote in his sole work of fiction than George Lucas was required to believe in the Force,” mused Jericho.

The God they find might not meet the expectations of those with a firm belief of the divine. For others, it may be as real as they expect it to get. The book is fiction, yet the question of what to do about God is the query of the ages.

It does seem that to the believer, no evidence will be necessary, and to the unbeliever, no evidence will be enough. But like the climax of “Calculating God”, the day will come that this question will be answered beyond any doubt.

Previous “Bookshelf” picks:

The Bookshelf: Great expectations, great discontent

By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan

Book Cover: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens c/o Penguin ClassicsWho doesn’t want instant fortune? The rags-to-riches dream is so ingrained in popular culture we spot it from game shows to get-rich-quick schemes. One ‘90s Hollywood movie where Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda split a lottery ticket as a tip puts it this way: “It Could Happen To You”. What if it did?

That’s the surprise that met Pip. An orphan raised by his domineering sister and her blacksmith husband, the teenage Pip one day learns he has “come into fortune”.

The catch–Pip cannot know who the source of his fortune is until his benefactor says so.

Pip’s self-told story takes him from the foggy marshes of Kent to the seedy apartments of 1800s London, where he tries to shut out his erstwhile life and pursue his dream of becoming a gentleman.

Still, the past catches up with him through the characters he meets in the city–each holding connections to his childhood. Some have never left his mind–most especially Estella, Pip’s unrequited childhood love.

But Pip’s supposedly-unlimited fortune slowly alters him and how he treats those close to him. Only his devotion to the indifferent Estella grows, fed by a notion that her hand is part of his “expectations”.

Then his patron shows up one night.

Charles Dickens first released “Great Expectations” in weekly installments over nearly nine months. It explains the novel’s length and the plot’s intriguing twists and turns.

Dickens relies heavily on descriptive scene-setting to transit us between acts. But it can go too far for the 21st-century non-native English speaker, who has to read aloud through many an “accented” dialogue.

Writing style aside, he weaves a classic morality tale of how wealth can corrupt and how gaining the world never guarantees satisfaction.

We watch Pip trickle then tumble down, wondering if he’ll turn back. Yet he narrates with a certain naïveté that you think he remains the child who was terrified by an escaped convict at the beginning. I had to visualize him a little older as the chapters progressed. But even early on he describes his surroundings with a measure of wit and irreverence mature for his years.

While Pip is faulty and can be stubborn to change, we feel for him and take his side. And no other aspect of his story makes the reader relate to him more than his feelings for Estella.

Pip and Miss Havisham, played by Helena Bonham Carter in the most recent movie version of Great Expectations (Courtesy Telegraph.co.uk)

Pip and Miss Havisham, played by Helena Bonham Carter in the most recent movie version (Courtesy Telegraph.co.uk)

“Great Expectations” also hits at the reality of love’s expectations. Case in point: Estella’s guardian Miss Havisham, a rich old spinster embittered by a lover’s deceit. Under her influence, Estella grows up to spurn Pip’s unwavering affections.

Pip’s other relationships have bright sides nonetheless. We admire friends like Joe, Biddy, Wemmick, and Herbert, who stay behind him through his slips and slumps. Amid the restlessness and uncertainty of Pip’s future, their scenes also lead us to smile, chuckle, even shed a happy tear.

They make us trust that second chances are possible. And we hang on to see if these chances happen in the end. They can be a fresh start at making a living, a chance to love again, or a redemption from past wrong.

Like Pip, his friends, and their “great expectations”, our own collective discontent is a hint at something better ahead.

(I read the free e-text version of the book at Project Gutenberg. Get it here.)

*Past bookshelf reviews:

The Bookshelf: Agatha Christie’s heroines

By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan

Stephanie Zimbalist (right) as Anne Beddingfield in the movie version of "The Man in the Brown Suit"

Stephanie Zimbalist (right) as Anne Beddingfield in the movie version of “The Man in the Brown Suit” (From AgathaChristiereader.wordpress.com)

(Here’s the next installment in my Bookshelf series on Agatha Christie’s mystery thrillers. Read the first one, “Intro to Christie,” here.)

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In her first few novels, Agatha Christie has this thing with young, spunky women. It may be the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, when females broke from Victorian restrictions.

Sure they’re romantic and swoon for “strong, silent” men (Romance is never lost in the stories).

But Christie’s heroines are into the chase less for the sake of finding out who did it, and more for the thrill of experiencing something new.

Likely they are also strong pegs for Christie’s female readers, who at the time were slowly embracing a bigger part in society.

Murder on the Links (1923)

In this novel, it’s a girl introduced as “Cinderella”. A little crass, a little unorthodox for one so young, she opens the novel saying “Hell!”

She intrigues returning character Arthur Hastings when he meets her on a train in France. Then she springs up much, much later at the scene of a murder.

Yet Hastings and Cinderella are just side stories to the investigation by the also-recurring Hercule Poirot.

Poirot brought Hastings along to aid a Frenchman who, fearing for his life, asked for the detective’s help. The day they arrived at his home, the man had been found stabbed and his wife knocked out and tied to her seat.

The sleuth thinks there might be a different culprit other than the apparent.

The suspects range from the Frenchman’s son to an enigmatic mother and daughter who live nearby. The reasons–inheritance to an affair.

Even Cinderella has a surprising connection.

Following the suspicions lets the reader meet some piquing female characters. And as much as Christie presents many of them as strong, she also hides some sappy sparks just behind the whodunits.

The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

 Anne Beddingfield, the lead of this story, is less the smoking, outspoken gal like Tuppence Crowley-Beresford of The Secret Adversary. But they share the smarts and derring-do of amateur detectives in the making.

Newly-orphaned, Anne wants to see the world. Her first adventure? London.

There she witnesses a man fall to his death at the underground rail. Then a lady is killed at a house for rent, the last person seen with her a man in a brown suit.

Police and the public dismiss any link between the two events. Anne is convinced they are connected. All she holds are some scribbles on a piece of paper and some snooping of her own.

With some license from a newspaper she promised a story, Anne follows the trail of the paper and uses her remaining money to board a ship leaving for South Africa.

The novel pieces Anne’s first-person reminiscences with excerpts from the diary of another character, Sir Eustace Pedler, a rich man who owned the rented house where the lady was killed.

As in The Secret Adversary, the reader looks for a hidden antagonist who here just might be one of the people in the boat. Is it indeed the man in the brown suit?

While less political than the Adversary novel, here Anne also learns she is up against an organized group. But she’s not short of allies she’ll make.

The change in perspectives at blocks throughout the novel might leave the reader either wanting more or just restless to go back to the other narrator.

It has the typical Christie resolution owing to keenness and a little luck. And again, one can expect another romantic swoon just to keep those interested readers happy.

Yes, Christie’s heroines are spirited, but can go sweet. Is that something I should also expect from the next 40-plus stories? Why not?

The Bookshelf: Intro to Christie

By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan

* The Bookshelf is PinoyJourn’s long-overdue attempt to work something out of this writer’s stunted reading habit. I’ve long been reading before I started writing, , and am ever thankful to reading for my affair with words.

When I began to work, I began to re-read the tales I enjoyed abridged as a kid and to expand that horizon of books. I’ve put it upon myself before reading more to churn out reviews shorter than my usual word length as [1] writing practice, [2] writing lessons, and [3] self-assurance that those flights into fancy still produced a sense of rumination.

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Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Crowley

David Suchet as Poirot

Detective mysteries probably embody the best elements of the story.

You follow the hero/ine’s search for answers to the baffling premise. Cliffhangers keep you around for more. And gradually, you marvel with the other characters as the clues slowly piece together.

The detective mystery accommodates romance, oddity, and action—physical and intellectual. And it works for either gender—protagonist or reader.

Having gone through the exploits of Sherlock Holmes at least twice, I decided to dip next into Agatha Christie–dubbed the Queen of Crime.

She’s only outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare, so her 70-plus works must count among any reading list. I started with her first two novels, to be reviewed here.

Christie lived and based her stories on the first half of the 20th century. And so they mention cars and short skirts, as against Doyle’s 1800s horse-drawns and Victorian primness.

But Christie’s English setting, with its stone villages, telegrams, nobility, and the Underground sometimes reads like a dead-ringer for Doyle had his writings gone past 1930.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

 A provincial manor, a disjointed family, and a dead matriarch–a classic jump-off for a mystery. Here, Christie introduces Hercule Poirot, an eccentric Belgian detective who becomes her most famous sleuth akin to Holmes.

The story is told Watson-esque through Arthur Hastings, a close friend of Poirot’s who introduces him to the scene of the crime and follows his investigation.

Hints of a scandal rivet the reader’s suspicions to certain characters at the outset. But in the course of the novel, the probe leads one to doubt almost everyone in the story. Which leads to surprise when Poirot reveals the culprit.

Much like Holmes, the detective seems to dally on details that leave Hastings (and the reader) to wonder about their relevance. Other times, clues are rarely or breezily mentioned that the careful reader has to backtrack and find them.

A conscious tracking of the trail might deter enjoying the read, but it’s the conflict and intrigue that grant the human interest worth following till the end.

And much like Holmes, Hercule Poirot begins and remains detached from the tumult of characters. Hastings is left to notice the emotional nuances in the story.

Yet, Poirot’s handling of each revelation eventually hints that he’s not all as mechanical as he seems.

The Secret Adversary (1922)

The Secret Adversary cover by Agatha Christie Meet the Young Adventurers, Ltd., Christie’s dynamic duo in their debut story. Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Crowley are childhood buds who meet again after World War I and decide to form a “joint venture” bent on adventure.

Their combined ages “would certainly not have totaled forty-five.” But Christie immediately pits them–by serendipity–against the socio-political shifts of fragile post-war Britain.

They’re assigned to recover a lost treaty that could dictate a change of government, as well as a girl named Jane Finn who holds the key to where it is. They face ruffians supposedly led by the faceless “secret adversary,” Mr. Brown.

Trust issues again creep up in this tale, which is more caper than political, but the smaller circle of characters leaves few choices on who Mr. Brown is.

Maybe it’s their youth, or their spunk, but Tommy and Tuppence manage to get themselves out of situations those same qualities got them tangled in the first place. And for young amateurs, they beat the authorities to solving the case.

It’s not just their ages that let me relate with the Young Adventurers, but also their personalities and “duonamic” (credit to Elbong Torrayno).

Tuppence is the liberated, outspoken 1920s girl who runs on instinct even before she thinks about it. Tommy is laidback, silent, and cautious. But so close is their team-up that when they’re split up during cliffhangers, Tommy learns to trust his gut and Tuppence, to calculate her moves.

The setup seems to benefit the lady when the two go together. But at crucial times Tommy’s cool head gets the upper hand. And their propensity to tease and seemingly treat each other cavalierly only masks a deeper affection.

(Book cover shots from AgathaChristie.com. Also, read my first review, on “A Tale of Two Cities.”)