Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA – Brenda Maddox

Published November 21, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Our dark lady is leaving us next week; on the 7th of March, 1953 Maurice Wilkins of King’s College, London, wrote to Francis Crick at the Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge to say that as soon as his obstructive female colleague was gone from King’s, he, Crick, and James Watson, a young American working with Crick, could go full speed ahead with solving the structure of the DNA molecule that lies in every gene. Not long after, the pair announced to the world that they had discovered the secret of life. But could Crick and Watson have done it without the dark lady? In two years at King’s, Rosalind Franklin had made major contributions to the understanding of DNA. She established its existence in two forms and she worked out the position of the phosphorous atoms in its backbone. Most crucially, using X-ray techniques that may have contributed significantly to her later death from cancer at the tragically young age of 37, she had taken beautiful photographs of the patterns of DNA.

What did I think?:

Rosalind Franklin is unfortunately probably best known for not achieving the recognition she should have got in life for unravelling the secrets of DNA. Instead, two scientists called Francis Crick and James Watson boldly used parts of her work to find out the secrets for themselves and published their findings which led to them winning the Nobel Prize. Personally, I was aware of the dis-service that had been done to Franklin but did not realise until reading this book exactly how much her work had contributed to the unveiling of “the molecule of life.” The book tends not to focus too much on the early part of Rosalind’s life as it is when she becomes a scientist, the true nature of this independent, determined and highly intelligent woman is realised. However, a couple of things sprang to my attention from her early life. Firstly, a letter written by one of her relations describes the young Rosalind as:

“alarmingly clever – she spends all her time doing arithmetic for pleasure & invariably gets her sums right.”

Although the word “alarmingly” is probably meant as an endearment it resonates from a time when females were not expected to be clever as managing their household and pleasing their husbands was probably the best they could amount to. It is no wonder that Rosalind has become somewhat of a feminist icon. After all, being Jewish, female and a scientist in times which were not friendly to all three is a tremendous achievement. Being a bit radical also ran in her family as her Uncle Hugh, a pro-suffragist, attempted to attack Winston Churchill with a dog whip due to his opposition to women’s suffrage. Rosalind knew herself from the age of twelve that she wanted to become a scientist and certainly fit the criteria according to Einstein:

“a scientist makes science the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”

Rosalind Franklin (picture from mysciencebox.org)

She first began to make a difference during the war where she was employed by the British Coal Utilisation Research Association studying the porous nature of coal and the density of helium. Her work there led to coals being classified, predicting their potential for fuel and for the production of essential devices i.e. gas masks. In 1946, she extended her CV and broadened her skills by studying X-ray diffraction with the French scientist Jacques Mering, a technique that would prove crucial and valuable in her later work with DNA. It was during her next post with Kings College that she finally made her mark, discovering that there were two forms of DNA and that they were helical in structure. Indeed, her X ray photographs of the molecule were pronounced by J.D. Bernal to be amongst the most beautiful X ray photographs of any substance ever taken.

Enter Watson and Crick, who were currently working on producing a model of the structure of DNA but were having a few technical problems with discovering exactly where each bit went. Papers and photographs belonging to Franklin were given to Crick on the sly causing them to pronounce that they had discovered “the secret of life.” Shockingly, they then went on to publish their paper in the journal Nature in the spring of 1953 with only a short footnote regarding the “general knowledge” of Franklin’s contribution. Franklin’s paper did follow but due to the order of publishing, it seemed only support for Watson and Crick’s amazing discovery, rather than revealing who exactly had done all the legwork. Unpublished drafts of her papers revealed that it was she alone who had discovered the overall form of the molecule with the location of the phosphate groups on the outside. Rosalind went on to carry out brilliant work on the tobacco mosaic and polio virus but tragically succumbed to ovarian cancer in 1958 at just 37 years of age.

I found this book to be an absolutely fascinating read even if I did get carried away a bit at times with the injustice done to Rosalind Franklin and the tragic end to her life. She wasn’t particularly careful when using radiation and tended to just “get on with it,” neglecting to wear appropriate protective coverings or adhere to our now stringent safety requirements when dealing with such a hazardous substance. Could this have contributed to the development of her cancer? She was also a very interesting person, perhaps a bit prickly at first and difficult to get to know but she was immensely passionate about many things besides her beloved science – for example, travelling and climbing and was a fiercely loyal friend. For me, it was wonderful to read an interesting account of a woman that made such a difference even if it was sadly not recognised in her own lifetime.

Would I recommend it?

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

Short Stories Challenge – The Fly, and Its Effect upon Mr Bodley by Michel Faber from the collection The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories

Published November 20, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s The Fly, and Its Effect upon Mr Bodley all about?:

Michel Faber revisits the world of his bestselling novel The Crimson Petal and the White, conjuring tantalising glimpses of its characters, their lives before we first met them and their intriguing futures. You’ll be desperate for more by the time you reluctantly re-emerge into the twenty-first century. The Fly, and Its Effect Upon Mr Bodley follows Mr Bodley as he has an epiphany on life after watching a fly in the most peculiar of places.

What did I think?:

I’ve had a bit of trouble deciding how exactly I’m going to write this review but I’m going to carry on typing and see where the momentum takes me! Our main character is Mr Bodley, a regular “user” of the prostitutes at the infamous Mrs Tremain’s brothel in Fitzrovia. One morning, Mrs Tremain opens her door to a quite different gentleman, “bleary-eyed,” and “desperate-looking,” which is considerably different from his usual demeanour. Furthermore, it is rather early on the whole for him to be contemplating a bit of a good time and he is without his partner in crime and best friend Mr Ashwell which in itself is rather disturbing as the two men are known to be inseparable. Upon further interrogation, it is clear that something terrible must have happened to Mr Bodley:

“The willingness of comely girls, the novelty of foreign flesh, the smell of strawberries – none of these things can mean anything to me now… In this house, the candleflame of my manhood was snuffed out.”

Of course this is incredibly worrying for Mrs Tremain, Mr Bodley being one of her best customers and all, so she begs him to tell him what has happened so she may set it right. He explains that when he was last at the house and things began to get er… slightly more intimate with one of the girls, a fly came in and settled itself on her left buttock. Mrs Tremain’s defence of her establishment is one of the most hilarious passages I have read:

“We keep a clean house, sir. The Queen’s palace won’t be so clean, I’ll wager. But we must keep it ventilated, sir. That’s part of good health: ventilation. And where there’s an open window, a fly may enter. And even be so bold as to settle on a girl’s bottom.”

But Mr Bodley does not think it is the fly so much, after all he left feeling rather satisfied, job completed. It is only afterwards that he begins thinking about things more deeply. Flies and what they feed on, flies laying eggs, and how when we die our decomposing bodies crawl with maggots that arise from the eggs that are laid by flies! Even the offer from Mrs Tremain of the same girl who she assures him is very much alive and maggoty-free, or a new girl, Lily free of charge cannot tempt him or cheer him in any way. We live, then we die – what is the point in it all? Luckily for him, Mrs Tremain has an answer and a prescription for his melancholy that has him soon sleeping soundly, quite literally.

I think as with all the stories in this collection, you need to have read the author’s fantastic novel, The Crimson Petal And The White, as it involves the same characters. Fans of The Crimson will love it and the humour in it is knock your socks off, laugh out loud funny, so is definitely worth a read. I also love that Michel Faber is not afraid to explore the dark side of human nature, take a few risks and be blatantly crude in places. However, it probably isn’t for the easily offended or innocent! Really enjoying this collection so far, and looking forward to the next.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

NEXT SHORT STORY: Busted by Karin Slaughter (stand-alone)

 

The Martian – Andy Weir

Published November 8, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Apollo 13 meets Cast Away in this grippingly detailed, brilliantly ingenious man-vs-nature survival thriller, set on the surface of Mars.

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he’s stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive–and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills–and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit–he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

What did I think?:

I first heard about this book through a podcast I listen to regularly, Books On The Nightstand (which I highly recommend, by the way). So when Richard and Judy picked it as part of their Autumn Book Club 2014, I was pleased to bump the book a little further up my huge TBR list. The premise of the book is nothing short of thrilling – Mark Watney is an astronaut on a mission to Mars with his crew when unfortunately something goes terribly wrong and his crew, believing him dead, return to the ship leaving him stranded. For Mark is very much alive, and now abandoned on Mars with little hope of ever getting home again. The novel is mainly based around journal entries made by Mark as he continues to battle the toxic atmosphere and come to the reality of the hopeless situation he now finds himself in. Luckily, his training and intellect as an astronaut assists him as he calculates what to do with his meagre rations of food and water, contemplates how to get a message to Earth and consider starting Mars’ first potato farm! He deduces that he is unlikely to have enough food or water to survive on until the next mission to Mars comes passing by so has to improvise and do it fast if he wants to survive.

Mark is a fantastic character with a wicked sense of self-deprecating humour that had me chuckling many times as his journal entries continued:

“My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.”

Of course there are problems and danger involved, hey it would be a pretty boring and unrealistic account for the readers if there weren’t. However explosions, highly volatile gases and extreme radioactivity never get our protagonist down for a moment. He carries on regardless, toughing it out until a solution can be found to get him home. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that he does manage to make contact with Earth, and becomes somewhat of a celebrity as the entire world becomes involved in his fight to return. The sections of the novel set with the bigwigs at NASA were slightly less compelling but still made for an exciting read. I think the only thing that made me give it a slightly lower star rating than it perhaps deserves was purely my opinion on the scientific elements. I am a scientist in my other life and appreciated the research that must have gone into creating a story like this, but sometimes it was a bit too much and a lot of things went slightly over my head especially when it turned mathematical. I am certain however that this would be a big pull for other readers, who would find this particular element fascinating. In general, it is an exciting, interesting, realistic and beautifully imagined story of one man’s fight to survive in a hostile environment that has everything working against him. I’ll finish with my favourite quote of the book where Mark is communicating with Earth:

NASA: “Also, please watch your language. Everything you type is being broadcast live all over the world.”

WATNEY: Look! A pair of boobs! -> (.Y.)

Would I recommend it?:

Probably!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

Kindred – Octavia E. Butler

Published November 4, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.

What did I think?:

I’ve only recently started reading more science fiction as I didn’t consider it a genre I was particularly interested in. However, I have been pleasantly surprised from the recent books I have read and this is no exception. Many thanks to the lovely people at Book Bridgr and Headline Publishing for allowing me to read a copy and although I have never come across the author’s work before, I am now eager to try some more. The story is set across two main time frames – the current, contemporary period (1970′s) and 19th century Maryland where our main character is a young black woman called Dana. When celebrating her birthday with her husband Kevin all of a sudden she is transported back to the South at the height of the slavery period, obviously a very dangerous time for a black woman to be on her own. First of all however, she must find out why she has travelled back in time in the first place. It appears that whenever the son (Rufus) of a rich plantation owner is in danger, Dana materialises and she deduces that she must be travelling back in order to save his life.

Dana’s first trip back in time where she saves Rufus as a young boy lasts merely minutes but with each subsequent journey her stay in the South becomes longer. This heightens the danger that she is in as being a young black woman without an obvious white owner may lead to her being beaten, raped, even killed. Rufus himself is not a particularly likeable character as he grows up and takes on the mantle of his terrifying father and although he grows close to Dana with every visit, there is a risk that he may become just as much of an adversary to her. In the contemporary time, Dana’s husband Kevin is also desperately worried about the effects of her time travel, especially when she comes home with injuries having run into the path of the wrong (white) man. He is determined to be with her the next time she leaves, even if they both have to be careful regarding the particulars of their relationship as he happens to be white. He manages to time travel back with her successfully but cannot reach her side quickly enough (they have to be touching) for the return journey home leaving him stranded in the past, his only hope of return being Dana coming back. Attempting to guess when Dana will next return is highly unpredictable and when she does, her life is increasingly at risk to a point where the likelihood of her FUTURE self even being born is becoming more and more unlikely.

As a science fiction novel, I thought this was a good addition to the genre. I enjoyed the parts set in the 19th century South better than the contemporary story as I felt the latter felt a little thin and under-developed. As historical fiction it is beautifully written and captures perfectly the voices of all black people kept as slaves in a dark and shameful part of our history. I found that some characters were drawn better than others, for example Rufus, whom I ended up despising by the end of the novel was a fantastic “love-to-hate” character compared to Kevin, Dana’s husband and the “goodie” of the story who just felt a bit wishy-washy and slightly two-dimensional. However, the novel was exciting and intriguing enough to keep me turning the pages and I would definitely try something else from this author.

Would I recommend it?:

Probably!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

Short Stories Challenge – Partial Eclipse by Graham Joyce from the collection Tales For A Dark Evening

Published November 2, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s Partial Eclipse all about?:

Partial Eclipse is a story about aliens – but not as we know them, and about the primal importance of dreaming.

What did I think?:

Graham Joyce has a real talent for blending a little bit of the supernatural into the lives of ordinary people and from the very first line of the short story Partial Eclipse, we are taken on a journey that will have an “other-worldly,” element:

“I know that Myra goes to bed every night and whispers, “Dear God please let the aliens come back.”

This is not just your typical alien story. These aliens are probably unlike anything you’ve ever read about before and were doing a very important job in our world. That is, they were the source of mankind’s creativity, storytelling, music, religion, scientific ideas and even jokes suggesting to our characters their visions through dreams. Unfortunately, they have now left and with them they took all opportunity for man to create something new.

The story focuses on a married couple, Jonathan and Myra who is pregnant with the couple’s second child. Each morning when they wake up they are desperate to know if the other has dreamed as it may suggest that the aliens have returned and things can return to normal. But seven years have passed since the aliens left Earth and when they ask each other the question, daring to hope after such a long time, there is a standard negative response. The desire for “something new,” seems to lie with the new generation who were born after the aliens departure and theatres are usually sold out when a new child prodigy performs, the audience desperate to hear something they haven’t already heard before. After seeing yet another suspected prodigy turn into bitter disappointment as the stories he tells are recognised, Jonathan begins to ruminate on the day the aliens left. Everyone can remember exactly what they were doing as is always the case with big events and the aliens appeared to each person in a dream in the form of a person/animal the dreamer has loved. They apologised for such a brief stay on the planet (five hundred thousand years to be exact), and hoped that each individual had enjoyed “the fruits of their presence.”

“Since then our stories have dried up. Our music has frozen, Our science is arrested. No one has had an original notion in seven years. We are lodged in the mud of time, fossilized. We are consigned to limbo, and the cold wind of uncreation howls in our ears like a demon. Our species, all of humanity, has become the preterite, the passed over. Our psychic teeth, pulled.”

The quote above, which is one of my favourites in the story, explains precisely the state that humanity now finds itself in. Myra even suggests that there were never really any aliens but that the voices in their dreams was the voice of God that gave them everything and then left them abandoned. It’s certainly an interesting concept and could be compared to an apocalypse or the end of the world as we know it. I don’t want to say too much more about the story but for some reason, this particular tale got right under my skin. I loved the unique way in which Graham Joyce’s imagination ran riot with this idea and I found myself wondering what it would be like to live in a world where we’ve “heard it all before,” and there is no scope for something original and different. For me the ending was absolute perfection and really rounded everything off quite nicely while suggesting hope for the future. Read this story and it will definitely stick in your head for a while, hard evidence of a master storyteller at the top of his game.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

NEXT SHORT STORY: The Fly And Its Effect Upon Mr Bodley by Michel Faber from the collection The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories

 

 

Beth and Chrissi’s Points of View on Point Horror: #1 Thirteen Tales of Horror – T.Pines (Editor)

Published October 31, 2014 by bibliobeth

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Happy Halloween everyone! Every so often Chrissi and I will be revisiting Point Horror, a series that we loved as young adults. On each of our blogs, we will post our Points of View on the story. We are starting with Thirteen Tales of Horror, a short story collection on my blog and The Perfume by Caroline B. Cooney on Chrissi’s blog. We hope you enjoy our trip down memory lane…

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What’s it all about?:

You don’t really want to read this …do you? The masters of horror are waiting to take you on a terrifying ride, and there are 13 stops.

Meet the new guy in town, very handsome, very sexy, and very deadly.

Dine on sweet and wonderfully inviting confections – they’re good to the last breath.

Learn that some spells can never be broken…

Inside you’ll find the works of 13 masters of horror. Let Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine and the rest of our macabre crew show you the beauty in your worst nightmares – and the terror in your most exquisite dreams….

Beth’s Points of View:

  • My favourite story in this collection has to be Collect Call: The Black Walker Parts I and II which I read over and over again as a teenager.
  • Creepiest read? Probably The House of Horrors. You’ll never look at mannequins the same way again…
  • The authors this book showcases were among the top names writing in the Point Horror genre at that time including one of my favourites R.L. Stine.
  • The strangest story in the collection for me is probably Where The Deer Are by Caroline B. Cooney. I’m still trying to figure that one out!

Chrissi’s Points of View:

  • I like how it’s a collection of Point Horror short stories. You can easily dip in and out of it.
  • Wide range of topics
  • Incredibly dark stories, perfect for Halloween!
  • There’s a story about a doll by Carol Ellis that sticks so vividly in my mind. If you’re scared of dolls DON’T READ IT!

If you’d like to know our Points of View about The Perfume by Caroline B. Cooney, visit Chrissi’s blog HERE.

Would WE recommend it?:

BETH: Probably!

CHRISSI: Yes!

BETH’s Star Rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

CHRISSI’s Star Rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

 

 

Beth and Chrissi do Kid-Lit 2014 – OCTOBER READ – Anne Of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Published October 30, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

“Matthew had taken the scrawny little hand awkwardly in his; then and there he decided what to do. He could not tell this child with the glowing eyes that there had been a mistake. . . .”

When eleven-year-old Anne Shirley arrives at Green Gables with nothing but a carpetbag and an overactive imagination, she knows that she has found her home. But first she must convince the Cuthberts to let her stay, even though she isn’t the boy they’d hoped for. The loquacious Anne quickly finds her way into their hearts, as she has with generations of readers, and her charming, ingenious adventures in Avonlea, filled with colourful characters and tender escapades, linger forever in our memories.

What did I think?:

I was very excited when Chrissi and I picked Anne of Green Gables as part of our Kid-Lit 2014 as it is one of my favourite children’s books ever and I remember reading it over and over again, delighted by the story and utterly charmed by Anne Shirley. It’s certainly a book that you can re-read quite easily as an adult and has definitely stood the test of time for me personally. The story begins with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a brother and sister team and owners of a farm called Green Gables. Time is marching on and Marilla begins to worry that her brother needs a little help around the farm so she has the brilliant idea of requesting a boy from the local orphanage that they can give a home to and that can assist Matthew as and when required. Matthew goes off to the station in the buggy to meet the new arrival (closely watched by Rachel Lynde, who has to know everyone’s business). Imagine his shock when waiting for him on the platform is a small freckled girl with red hair. The hair becomes important, believe me. Matthew is a quiet, shy sort of man especially around the female of the species and does not have the heart to leave Anne (spelled with an e) Shirley in the station so takes her home to Marilla, who is better at this decision-making thing. By the time they reach Green Gables, Matthew has become slightly enamoured with the bold, chattering little girl and decides to himself he wouldn’t mind having her around. Not so with Marilla. She is dumb-struck at the sight of Anne’s white, hopeful little face who is carting her “worldly goods” in a small bag with her. When Anne realises that they were expecting a boy she is devastated/in the “depths of despair,” but strangely enough, her funny little speeches, empassioned and straight from the heart strike something in Marilla who finds herself quite amused by the orphan and they decide to keep her.

The rest of the book follows Anne story as she grows up at Green Gables. She gets herself into a lot of interesting situations and learns a lot along the way. Some of my favourites and stand-out moments were when Gilbert Blythe teases her about her hair colour so she proceeds to crack her slate over his head, then later on she attempts to dye her hair but it goes horribly wrong, finally the scene where she gets her “bosom friend” and “kindred spirit,” Diana, hideously drunk on what she thinks was raspberry cordial makes me laugh every time I read it. It is also lovely to see her relationship with Matthew and Marilla grow and develop, especially in times of great sadness. Although Anne does grow and learn as a person through the book, she still remains the sweet and endearing character that she has always been and that is why I’m proud to say that she was one of my first literary heroines (and probably still is!).

For Chrissi’s fabulous review, please see her blog HERE.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

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