ScienceThrillers.com review: “Big data” is making it possible to make all kinds of predictions based on correlations with variables that might not seeScienceThrillers.com review: “Big data” is making it possible to make all kinds of predictions based on correlations with variables that might not seem obviously connected. For example, data on Google searches can be used to predict outbreaks of seasonal flu; predictive policing uses computer models to anticipate crime.
In The Doomsday Equation: A Novel, technology & culture journalist Matt Richtel takes real-world computing capabilities one small step forward and posits a program that can predict global conflict, creating a brilliant premise: what if that program predicted the outbreak of WWIII in three days’ time? And what if the program’s creator was both discredited and uncertain whether the prediction is correct?
Combine this original and gripping hook with a psychologically intense point of view character, and you’ve got a five-star page turner.
Like Richtel’s previous smart thrillers (The Cloud, Devil’s Plaything), The Doomsday Equation is set in San Francisco, with Silicon Valley culture as a backdrop. Doomsday is tighter, leaner, more intense than the previous novels, and likely to appeal to a wider audience. The book’s distinguishing feature is the voice. We are locked in the point of view of protagonist Jeremy Stillwater, told in the third person but with a forcefully first person perspective. Jeremy is alternately infuriating and sympathetic, blatantly self-destructive and yet vulnerable. The reader may want to slap him at times (I did), but never abandon him, which is basically the the same effect Jeremy has on his girlfriend in the story. In The Cloud, author Richtel played with the notion of an unreliable narrator who suffers a head injury in the opening pages, making all his interpretations of events suspect. In this book, unreliability appears again. This time, the protagonist isn’t crazy, but he may be being manipulated. Or is he just paranoid?
One of Richtel’s strengths, then, is using ambiguity to create tension. It works well in Doomsday Equation. Conversations between characters are often both oblique and opaque, as they might be in real life. It’s left to the intelligence of the reader to interpret the subtext. Facts aren’t revealed, they’re implied. Readers accustomed to being spoon-fed a plot may be frustrated by this. As a consequence of this systematic ambiguity, the plots of Richtel’s novels don’t wrap up in tidy packages. As with his previous books, the ending of Doomsday is very satisfying but don’t ask me to explain exactly who did what to whom, and why. But the overall collection of antagonists and motives made sense.
I must mention one other distinctive feature of Richtel’s novels. He writes in the present tense. I think this is an important part of the book’s intensity, but it takes a little getting used to.
I find Richtel to be one of the most quotable science thriller writers and I always like to include some book excerpts in my reviews:
“Like so many in the valley, he’s just shy of fully slick, geeky enough to come across as authentic. This type of businessperson in Silicon Valley is like the do-gooder from college who goes to Washington, DC, and it becomes impossible to tell the difference between their ambitions for the world and for themselves.”
“A man in a fashionable red rain jacket chomps half a donut in a single bite, then looks around furtively,…guiltily wondering if someone might catch him eating too many carbs of the inorganic variety.”
“This development of mining and sifting the world’s conflict rhetoric could help answer an age-old philosophical question about the relationship between language, thought, and action…To what extent are the words we choose insights into what we think–not what we want to communicate, but what we really think?…All the linguistic data, unprecedented insights into the human psyche, a global ink blot test…”
For an intelligent thriller that borders on literary, you can’t do better. The Doomsday Equation creates a thoroughly contemporary flawed genius hero who is ill-suited to the high-stakes task before him: to save the world. As the doomsday clock ticks down, you won’t want to skip a single page.
Review based on uncorrected digital proof provided free to me via Edelweiss...more
In The Afflictions, Vikram Paralkar, a physician (hematologist) at the University of Pennsylvania, blends tFascinating, imaginative, thought-provoking
In The Afflictions, Vikram Paralkar, a physician (hematologist) at the University of Pennsylvania, blends the style and form of old-time medical writing with magical realism. The result is a series of very short, psychologically dense entries, each describing a fantastical "disease". The publisher's summary emphasizes the macabre aspect--and make no mistake, some of Paralkar's imaginings are extremely grotesque--but the spirit is reflective. Each disease explores some aspect of the human condition or the soul. Each is like a flavorful stock that's been reduced and concentrated. This short book (174 pages with plenty of white space) begs to be read in small bites, with the reader savoring and reflecting on each idea.
I found The Afflictions to be an engaging work of literary medical fiction, and my family ended up discussing some of the bizarre syndromes over dinner. Really imaginative stuff, though I'd say the strongest ones are in the first half to two-thirds of the book. The construct of an elderly librarian (who is the sole voice in the book) and a Central Library creates a mood and a structure to the book but is merely a scaffolding upon which the author can hang his entries. There is no "plot" or climax.
An excellent book for a book group, or for a classroom to discuss one piece at a time. For the solitary reader, The Afflictions will provide plenty of food for thought, even meditation.
Recommended for fans of Jorge Luis Borges.
A free copy was given to me for review with no guarantees that I would read or review....more
ScienceThrillers review: Nobody else can do what author Barry Lancet does in his Japan-themed thriller series. Lancet is an American who has lived inScienceThrillers review: Nobody else can do what author Barry Lancet does in his Japan-themed thriller series. Lancet is an American who has lived in Japan for over twenty-five years. He has a deep understanding of Japanese culture and history, and a strong sensibility for those aspects of Japan that seem most foreign to Americans. Tokyo Kill would be a very good thriller based solely on the plot and writing. Include the fascinating cultural context which permeates the story and you’ve got a must-read thriller masterpiece.
Lancet’s cultural understanding, and knowledge of Japanese art and artifacts, shines through in his main character Jim Brodie. Brodie is, unsurprisingly, an American who lives with one foot in the US and the other in Japan. He is professionally split as well, working as both an Asian art dealer in San Francisco and manager of a Tokyo-based private security/detective company that he inherited from his father. While Brodie’s bulldog persistence in the face of danger can seem foolhardy, it is his defining trait.
Tokyo Kill is a page-turning, absorbing read with enough plot questions and twists to keep the protagonist running and the reader reading. Plenty of thriller authors create books that do this. What makes Tokyo Kill special is the “mysterious Orient.” This book is a fine example of setting as character. Tokyo Kill could not take place in another city, much less another country, without eviscerating the story. Japanese culture and history are integral to the characters and the plot. The fate of Japanese soldiers (and war criminals) after WWII; looted treasures from the last emperor of China; the role of women in Japanese law enforcement; the importance of status relationships; the culture of kendo fighting; tea drinking; the history of swordmaking in Japan; all these are important. When Jim Brodie is led through the back alleys of Tokyo’s Chinatown, and when he dines with a dangerous spy in an elite Tokyo restaurant, the author’s vivid descriptions will transport you to this fascinating country far away.
Tokyo Kill is an intelligent, engrossing thriller novel with a sinuous plot leading from Tokyo to the Caribbean. Readers with even a passing interest in Japanese culture will love this book. If you eat sushi, read Tokyo Kill....more
ScienceThrillers.com review: Who knew that a "simple" little book for 8-12 year olds could be so brilliant?
The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. HolmScienceThrillers.com review: Who knew that a "simple" little book for 8-12 year olds could be so brilliant?
The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm (author of many things including the Babymouse series of graphic novels) is laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, inspiring, and science-y all in one. Buy this one and read it to the youngster in your life, or just enjoy it yourself and then donate it to a school library.
The setup and plot are simple enough. Ellie's grandfather, a scientist who has a fan club in Finland, has found the key to restoring youth in a mysterious, one-of-a-kind jellyfish. (This idea is based on real research about jellyfish that never age.) Grandpa Melvin is now a teenager in body, but he's still Grandpa in mind and spirit. This contrast makes for some fantastic conversations. "Teenage" Melvin in his old-man polyester pants says:
"You need good grades if you're going to get into a competitive PhD program."
"PhD program? She's eleven years old!" my mother says.
Unfortunately, Melvin the kid has been kicked out of his research lab because nobody believes he is Melvin the doctor. He needs to get inside to snatch the jellyfish so he can publish his data. Meanwhile, he's living with his daughter and granddaughter and going to Ellie's school.
Around this premise, author Holm weaves a surprisingly subtle and complex tale about change vs stasis, what it means to grow up and grow old, the power of science to transform the world for good or for ill, the importance of ethics and thoughtfulness in research, parent-child relationships, and the power of possibility. Holm invokes Marie Curie, Robert Oppenheimer, Newton, and Jonas Salk.
For me as an adult reader, the best parts of The Fourteenth Goldfish were the pitch-perfect portrayals of a crotchety genius with a soft spot for his granddaughter, a man who might win a Nobel prize but can't handle any deviation from his diet of Chinese take-out moo goo gai pan. As a science-y person, I loved the deft incorporation of science biography and history as a natural part of the story, not as something preachy or "educational" added on.
A rare gem of great storytelling and science content in a middle grade novel. Highly recommend....more
ScienceThrillers.com review: I heard author Tom Avitabile speak on a panel at ThrillerFest in New York in July and picked up this latest book in his “ScienceThrillers.com review: I heard author Tom Avitabile speak on a panel at ThrillerFest in New York in July and picked up this latest book in his “Quarterback Operations Group” series, which began with The Eighth Day and Hammer of God. QUOG is a powerful, top-secret US organization led by “Wild Bill” Hiccock, special science advisor to the President. (QUOG reminds me a bit of James Rollins’s Sigma Force.)
In The God Particle, tough-as-nails FBI agent/QUOG operative Brooke Burrell fights for her life in shark-infested waters of the Indian Ocean after being blown off a ship while on an undercover mission to recover evidence of illegal trafficking in nuclear weapons technology. Brooke remains the book’s primary protagonist, and she is an attractive one, displaying equal amounts of intelligence, skill, grit, and compassion. (According to Tom Avitabile’s website, Brooke is so well-liked he is spinning off a new book series just for her.) Back in Washington DC, Hiccock and his close associate Joey Palumbo are asked to advise about a potentially risky particle-smashing experiment planned at CERN, the European supercollider where evidence for the Higgs boson (so-called God particle) was found.
The plot has many angles–not twists, more a series of plot lines that intersect, sometimes in ways that rely too much on coincidence to be believable–so there is plenty of action in a range of interesting foreign locales. The book has a cinematic feel, especially in the dialogue. With the variety of subplots, which get wrapped up episodically at different points in the book, it reminded me a bit of the structure of a TV series.
This book’s greatest strength is its portrayal of the military. If I had to put the QUOG books in a single category, it would be military action-adventure, not science thriller (though they are both). Avitabile uses plenty of military terminology, and nods to a variety of traditions and everyday conventions in the service. In particular in this volume, submarine warfare operations are used to great effect. (Loved those scenes on the sub!) I know nothing about this field, but I certainly came away with the impression that Avitabile did his homework and has the details right. Also, the submarine’s noble commanding officer, who becomes Burrell’s love interest, is a worthy match.
One thing I appreciated about this book is that the federal authorities are not evil/corrupt/murderous etc. Too many thrillers I’ve read portray psychopathic “public servants,” a trend that I believe both reflects and feeds public suspicion of the government.
Avitabile’s writing style is lean, his dialogue concrete and to the point. I would describe the overall tone and POV of the book as masculine, in the way Clive Cussler’s books are masculine (without Cussler’s 1970s sexist streak). Which is not to say that the female lead character isn’t well written; she is well written.
Tom Avitabile’s Quarterback Operations Group thrillers are an excellent choice for readers who like a little bit of science with international intrigue, military themes, and action.
If you like THE GOD PARTICLE / QUOG, you might enjoy: The Calypso Directive (Book #1 in Think Tank series) by Brian Andrews...more
ScienceThrillers.com Review:On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss is an extraordinary, unclassifiable, vital book that deserves to be widely readScienceThrillers.com Review:On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss is an extraordinary, unclassifiable, vital book that deserves to be widely read and reflected upon. Written by a critically acclaimed essayist, On Immunity is a memoir, an essay collection, a history, a social commentary, a parenting guide, a literary work…The author herself has a hard time succinctly answering the question, “What is your book about?”
I’ll tell you what On Immunity is about by telling you why it’s an important book. As a scientist and medical professional myself, I “believe” in vaccination. My kids get their immunizations on schedule, I get my flu shot every fall. I bristle when I encounter anti-vaccine people and propaganda. And like many other people in my shoes, I look at the data on the benefits versus risks of vaccination, and I wonder why “those people” don’t get it. Essentially, I’m asking, “What is WRONG with those people?”
But did I ever truly, honestly explore the question from a more neutral perspective, not, what is wrong with vaccine refuseniks, but, why do they perceive the world so differently from the way I do?
Fortunately, Eula Biss has deeply explored this important question, and in unfailingly beautiful, intelligent prose, she has answered it with a depth and breadth that astonishes.
Clinical study data have nothing to do with it, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone. In how many aspects of our lives do we ignore data and make decisions based on other considerations? Many–no, most.
Biss makes crucial insights into the numerous complex streams that feed the anti-vaccine movement. To begin, she uses an ongoing metaphor of the vampire. The act of injecting a foreign substance into the body is fraught with metaphysical significance. Biss links it to violation, corruption, and pollution. Historically, others have, too. An Anglican bishop in 1882 referred to a smallpox vaccination scar as “the mark of the beast.” (Her analysis of the history of vaccination amply demonstrates that vaccine refusal is not new.)
If there is one idea that Biss contributes which is most novel and most important to the conversation about vaccination, it is this: the decision to vaccinate is not a private one. It is intimately a part of our how we view ourselves in relation to our community, our government, and our institutions. Indeed, Biss argues that our own bodies are not as individually disconnected from the body public as we believe. She links immunization to our membership in a group, to the fundamental connectedness of people. She likens universal vaccination to a blood bank. Each person donates part of her own body to protect the health of another. Ultimately, she shows that “immunity” isn’t something that happens inside our bodies. It happens to our community. And certain privileged members of this community have a responsibility to act for the benefit of those who are less so.
As difficult as it is to summarize this slender volume, it’s even more challenging to highlight the best or most important passages. I swear I highlighted, commented, or dog-eared half the pages in the book. Profound ideas and syntheses follow one after another.
This is an intellectual book. It is ill-suited to soundbites, and is painted entirely in shades of gray, something our over-opinionated culture finds discomfiting. Therefore it will not appeal to every reader. What makes On Immunity the perfect book for the conversation on vaccination is, the author herself is a member of the class most likely to refuse vaccination: educated, married, white mothers. She writes as one of them, and communicates in a way that should appeal directly to the intelligent, socially concerned, well-read women who object to vaccines, women who experience a modern American trauma of “feeling responsible for everything and powerless at the same time.”
I hope that many book groups consisting of such women will have the courage to engage with this book. It speaks to them from the heart, and it understands how they feel. While Biss explicitly rejects the idea of a middle ground on the question of vaccination as a false peace, she remains utterly grounded in and sympathetic to the worldview of those who want to protect their children. Her persuasion has nothing in common with the data-haranguing of the medical/scientific establishment. She asks for a larger view of the self, and an embrace of the community.
I was given a free advance copy of this book but did not guarantee that I would read it or that I would write a review, positive or negative....more
ScienceThrillers Review:No Time to Die by Kira Peikoff is a slick, well-paced, well-written thriller that should satisfy fans of science thrillers. TScienceThrillers Review:No Time to Die by Kira Peikoff is a slick, well-paced, well-written thriller that should satisfy fans of science thrillers. This is a book that I enjoyed reading and was eager to pick up again. A classic beach read: fast, intriguing, not too demanding, and nicely wrapped up in the end.
No Time to Die balances several point of view characters. The main protagonist, but not the only one, is Zoe Kincaid. Zoe is twenty years old but as we learn in the opening chapters, she stopped aging biologically at fourteen. To Zoe, this arrested development seems a curse as she is trapped in a child’s body. To others, it looks like the Holy Grail of anti-aging research: a natural mutation in the “master regulator gene” which controls development to adulthood and then beyond into the dysfunction of old age. If the responsible genes or mutations could be identified in Zoe’s DNA, human existence might be fundamentally changed.
Zoe’s first conflict is with her parents, who are strangely resistant to finding answers to what ails her, and to letting her seek help when answers are found. In the absence of their support, and with the tacit approval of her beloved, sympathetic grandfather, she takes matters into her own hands. But forces beyond her comprehension are at work and she becomes embroiled in a battle between The Network, a group which makes scientists disappear, and sends taunting postcards to their opponents, the Justice Department’s Bioethics Committee.
No Time to Die dabbles lightly in some larger themes. Peikoff’s characters briefly comment on the profound implications of a successful therapy to stop humans from growing old, but the analysis remains superficial. Interestingly, Peikoff takes a stand about regulation of science that is contrary to the zeitgeist of a lot of popular entertainment: scientists are not always the “bad guys,” and sometimes those who impose restrictions on scientific investigation with the intention of protecting the public are not, in fact, doing what is best for the public. (Peikoff’s father was a close associate of Ayn Rand, and a staunch advocate of laissez faire.)
Peikoff confidently and competently incorporates science into this story. There is enough techno-lingo, correctly used, to thrill the SciThri fan, but not too much to turn off the non-scientist reader. As is true with all good science thrillers, the author takes liberties with scientific timelines (you can’t make knockout mice in a few weeks, or even months) and details (such as the current impossibility of altering genes in an adult human, even when a mutation is known), but this is done in the service of telling a story.
In many ways, No Time to Die deserved a four-star rating from ScienceThrillers.com but a variety of subtle issues weakened the narrative for me. To begin, I felt some confusion about the main character Zoe’s mental age. Does she have the mental maturity of a an early teen, or a young adult? This is important because it’s a legal question in the story, and also because the reader is trying to interpret her actions and motivations, which alternately appear childish and adult. Should the reader support the characters who infantilize the girl because she really cannot make her own decisions, or should the reader root for Zoe’s emancipation? Minor points: Zoe’s seizure disorder is used as a plot device for tension but is ignored in the question of what the effects of her genetic mutation might be; she is described repeatedly as being short and having the body of a child, but if she stopped aging at 14, that seems unlikely. Most of the 14-year-old girls I know are well-developed and approaching their adult height. A more believable age of developmental arrest would be 12, or even 10. The motivation of the story’s villain is not believable. This is not how sadistic psychopaths are made (if they are made at all, not just born). To avoid spoilers, I can’t describe a key plot element but I found the setup hard to swallow, especially the aspect that involves people with no ties binding them to the world around them.
On the positive side, a hero is introduced in this book who is very appealing, and his re-appearance in Peikoff’s next novel will be welcome.
No Time to Die is a worthy addition to the SciThri genre. If you’re looking for the perfect thing to keep you occupied on your next long flight, this is an excellent choice.
ScienceThrillers.com Review: Sleep Donation is an ebook-only novella (“Kindle Single”) that has received a disproportionate amount of media attention,ScienceThrillers.com Review: Sleep Donation is an ebook-only novella (“Kindle Single”) that has received a disproportionate amount of media attention, including a full-length feature on NPR. I didn’t hear the NPR interview but somebody told somebody who told me the basic premise of this story, and I had to read it.
I don’t know if authors like Karen Russell get insulted when their work is categorized as science fiction (a genre ghetto, gasp!), but I see no other way to categorize this story. It’s literary in form but 100% science fiction in content.
Some aspects of this story (I won’t say book–it’s about 1/3 the length of a typical novel) are brilliant. Enough aspects, in fact, to compensate for the anemic plot and ending. I’m glad I bought and read Sleep Donation and I think most ScienceThrillers.com readers would like it too. Here is what you need to know to decide:
The science fiction premise of Sleep Donation is terrific and it kept me hooked throughout. Put simply, the author took the entire real-life set up of blood transfusions (the critical need, the ethics of donation, matching types, screening donors and the possibility of contagion) and switched it to sleep. In the story’s alternate US, an epidemic of sleeplessness is killing people. They’ve found a way to collect REM sleep from donors but there are various problems with the supply. Author Karen Russell uses accurate parallels from the early years of the AIDS epidemic to complicate matters in the sleep donation tale. Her portrayal of the epidemiology, sleep collection infrastructure, and mass hysteria of the public are spot-on.
Because the social universe Russell created is deep and well-thought out, she is able to touch on a number of interesting and thought-provoking social issues related to health and disease, waking and sleeping, social good vs individual benefit.
The problems? Although this novella is longer than a “short story,” it conforms to many of the norms of literary short stories–and some of those norms are kind of irritating to genre fiction fans. For example, there is often a pretentiousness of both language and plot. Here, Russell displays her writing talent with language that is 90% intelligent and only about 10% needlessly showy. I’m fine with words like “avuncular” and “empirical” and “credulity” but when I got to “nacreous,” that was a bit much. Most of Russell’s poetic constructions hit the mark of being descriptive but not too flowery. Some of her clever sentences, however, merely draw attention to themselves.
The bigger problem with Sleep Donation is plot development. After building a compelling and totally believable world in the first part of the story, the plot later wanders to an ending that is incomplete and unsatisfying. Aspects of character and future plot developments are hinted at but not developed. A lengthy sequence near the end of the story unfolds between the protagonist Trish and Mr. Harkonnen, Baby A’s father. The two wander through the Night World and share a series of minor experiences that appear to be fraught with significance or symbolism but honestly the meaning escaped me and the whole thing seemed bizarre.
Despite these flaws, I recommend Sleep Donation on the strength of the imaginative, fully realized SF premise which is more than enough to carry the brief length of the tale....more
ScienceThrillers.com review: If you're a fan of science-themed or techno-thrillers but you don't know author James Rollins and the Sigma Force series,ScienceThrillers.com review: If you're a fan of science-themed or techno-thrillers but you don't know author James Rollins and the Sigma Force series, it's past time to join the party.
Rollins is easily one of the top three writers of science-themed action thrillers working today. The phrase "the next Michael Crichton" has been horribly overused, but Rollins has a legitimate claim to the title. The Sixth Extinction, his newest Sigma novel, is a masterpiece of imaginative, suspenseful storytelling with plenty of science and science fiction elements.
The Sixth Extinction is as good as or better than any other book in the Sigma Force series. I was particularly entranced by the science themes, which focus on synthetic biology and bioengineering. (Bringing microbes and molecules into a story is always a plus with me!) Strange life forms, both micro and macro, aren't the only newcomers to this Sigma novel. Rollins introduces Jenna Beck, a California State Parks ranger who has brains, courage, resourcefulness, and a search-and-rescue dog named Nikko. (Rollins, who was a veterinarian in his previous life, has started writing great dog characters. Check out his Tucker Wayne stories, featuring military dog Kane: Bloodline (Sigma Force), Tracker: A Short Story (Sigma Force Novels), The Kill Switch: A Tucker Wayne Novel (Sigma Force Novels).)
As readers expect in Sigma tales, the action in Sixth Extinction is wild and nonstop and set in several exotic locales. In this installment, Antarctica and the Brazilian Amazon are key settings. My favorite setting is actually the one least exotic to me: California's eastern Sierra Nevada, including Mono Lake, the village of Lee Vining, and the ghost town Bodie.
Readers will recognize strong echoes of Crichton's Jurassic Park and Micro in this novel. Rollins displays impressive creativity in constructing worlds teeming with predators that are believable and terrifying. He also uses his story to thoughtfully explore some important issues about how humans might or are responding to what many believe is a real-life sixth great extinction happening right now. See his notes at the end of the book for discussion.
There is generally less development of Sigma team member life stories in this volume (though there are wedding bells in the air) but there is a setup for more stories to come.
In his Sigma Force thrillers, Rollins is known for mashing together crazy mixtures of real science and history and turning them into action-packed plots. Sixth Extinction is no exception. What I found particularly appealing about this installment of the series is the science focus on biotechnology. I'm a sucker for DNA stories. Rollins plays games with real science, taking bits of truth and sometimes stretching them into pure science fiction. In this book, the stretches are shorter, maybe because (as he points out in the end notes) science reality in the field of synthetic biology is perilously close to fantasy. Hence the 4 biohazards rating, higher than Sigma usually gets from me. Rollins actually had me looking some stuff up (CRISPR-Cas technology, to be precise) and I enjoyed learning about the new technology.
In short, take it as a given that if you follow the ScienceThrillers website, you should be reading James Rollins. The Sixth Extinction may not be the best place to start, given the long history of the characters in the series, but then again, it's a fabulous page-turner and who cares if you don't know all the details? Pick up whichever Sigma novel you can get your hands on and get started....more
ScienceThrillers.com Review: Fictional portrayals of forensic science and medical examiners are popular in TV, movies, and books these days. Have youScienceThrillers.com Review: Fictional portrayals of forensic science and medical examiners are popular in TV, movies, and books these days. Have you ever watched CSI or a similar program and wished you could have drinks with a forensic pathologist and get her to talk, telling real stories from the strange world of death?
Then this book is definitely for you.
Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner is Judy Melinek's story of her training in forensic pathology at an extraordinary place (New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner) at an extraordinary time (2001-2003, spanning the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Amerithrax anthrax attacks, and the crash of American Airlines Flight 587). Written with her husband and co-author TJ Mitchell, Melinek's memoir is a sensitive, human story which illustrates how medical examiners are real doctors who serve the living with compassion, even though their patients are dead.
Of course, Working Stiff is packed with true stories from the morgue, some funny, some pathetic, some deeply tragic, all human, and all appealing to the reader's curiosity. The reader must bring a touch of morbid to their curiosity as well: descriptions of the nuts-and-bolts anatomic business of doing an autopsy are an essential part of this book, so I can't recommend it for those who are easily grossed out. Melinek and Mitchell do a masterful job of conveying the thrill of solving a medical mystery using clues left in the body and at the scene of death--and also relaying the frustration when the evidence leaves no definitive answers.
These stories are so good, I can imagine how the authors were bursting to tell them but couldn't do so in the ordinary dinner conversation type of way (for obvious reasons). For example, who can resist the Mysterious Case of the Maraschino Donkey Dongs?
Throughout the book, Melinek reveals her admiration for her mentor Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, a medical examiner and teacher of the kind we all wish we had, a man of clarity and precision who lectures about things like "speculation built on a foundation of assumption."
A great strength of Working Stiff is the narrator's voice. Melinek comes across as a person we can relate to (except maybe for her tolerance for gore), and through whose eyes we can experience the world of death investigation. She says:
I get a kick out of fictionalized accounts of what I do for a living. The female ME with bedroom eyes, stiletto heels, and a lot of cleavage shows up at a gory, atmospherically ill-lit murder scene. Her diagnoses are instant and ironclad, the banter with her colleagues witty...I wore sensible shoes and a Medical Examiner windbreaker.
Melinek shares her apprehension of pet cats:
Your faithful golden retriever might sit next to your dead body for days, starving, but the tabby won't. Your pet cat will eat you right away, with no qualms at all...I've seen the result.
(as a cat owner, I somehow sense this is true...)
On the question of whether her job makes her fearful in daily life:
It freed me from our six o'clock news phobias. Once I became on eyewitness to death, I found that nearly every unexpected fatality I investigated was either the result of something dangerously mundane, or of something predictably hazardous...Staying alive, it turns out, is mostly common sense.
The majority of the book takes place in ordinary time (or what passes for that in NYC), but readers will be especially drawn to the final chapters which are set during the overwhelming tragedies of September and October 2001. Melinek and Mitchell tell the story of DM01 (Disaster Manhattan, 2001) with honesty and accuracy, with pathos, not melodrama. The authors handle this emotionally difficult territory successfully, eliciting tears in this reader while hitting the right notes of courage and hope. Readers will get a new understanding of the magnitude of the disasters, and the titanic nature of the forces unleashed when the planes crashed.
Working Stiff is a page-turning, engrossing book that reveals a hidden world and shows that the work of understanding death is actually a labor of life.
If you like forensic pathology, you should read: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach; the Temperance Brennan novels by Kathy Reichs (Deja Dead, etc.)
FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review....more
ScienceThrillers.com review: Matt Richtel is a science journalist who covers Silicon Valley for the New York Times. In 2009, he wrote a front page stoScienceThrillers.com review: Matt Richtel is a science journalist who covers Silicon Valley for the New York Times. In 2009, he wrote a front page story about distracted driving. The story went viral in part because the subject touches so many of us. Richtel was one of the first to put a mirror in front of us, making us unwillingly recognize the ways in which we have allowed our technology to control us and to put us at risk both physically (while driving) and emotionally (in our relationships). His one story became a series, and a Pulitzer Prize followed.
Richtel is fascinated by our uneasy coexistence with digital connectedness and invasive communication. He has spun this interest and expertise beyond world-class journalism into fiction with several brilliant science thriller novels (The Cloud, Devil's Plaything). Now with the release of A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention, Richtel brings his thoughtful, articulate writing to book-length narrative nonfiction.
A Deadly Wandering might change your life.
Most of the words in this book tell the stories of people affected by a horrible car wreck in Utah in 2006. The primary focus is on Reggie Shaw, a 19-year-old Everyman who was texting while driving and crossed the center line, killing two people. In the style of a well-written true crime tale, A Deadly Wandering explores the characters: Reggie, his family, the victims and their families, neighbors in the small community, law enforcement, legislators, judges, and jailers. These stories of tragedy and its aftermath make for a page-turning read.
But Richtel does more than tell the story of the 2006 crash. Using that incident as the example that illustrates the rule, Richtel weaves alternating chapters about the larger story of distracted driving and the even bigger story of our relationship with modern communications technology. With the help of neuroscientists who study the brain and its ability (or inability) to pay attention (some of the most interesting characters in this book), Richtel asks, why is it so hard to lock away the phone when we’re driving? Is social technology addictive? An extreme compulsion? Or simply habit forming?
The author says:
All the tweets and Facebook updates, the emails, the YouTube videos, and texts are not creating themselves. They are enabled by technology, sure. But they are driven by the humans pressing the buttons, asking for a tiny piece of the fractured spotlight.
He cites research that “the motivation to disclose our internal thoughts and knowledge to others” is inherent to our species. We have a deep, primitive desire to communicate. For millennia, our technical ability to give and receive communication was proportional to our brain’s ability to process it. This is no longer the case. Each click, each ping, “gives a little rush, a tiny dopamine squirt,” a narcotic-like pleasure to our brains, but our attention is overwhelmed.
A Deadly Wandering also explores questions of justice and forgiveness, and the emergence of legislation to restrict phone use while driving. Richtel highlights the problem that hands-free cell phone use is no less distracting than holding a phone to your ear, and that automakers are introducing ever more distracting technologies into the cockpits of our cars, and that from a neurological perspective, multitasking is a myth.
After reading this book, I’ve examined my own use of social technology and am approaching not only cell phone use in the car but all my digital interactions with a new trepidation. The message, I think, is one we all pay lip service to but are challenged to act upon: Be fully with the people in your presence. Simplify. And pay attention....more
ScienceThrillers.com Review: Because science-themed YA fiction is so rare, Death Spiral: A Faith Flores Science Mystery made my day when I heard abouScienceThrillers.com Review: Because science-themed YA fiction is so rare, Death Spiral: A Faith Flores Science Mystery made my day when I heard about it, and I was not disappointed in the reading. Set in Philadelphia, Death Spiral features a tortured but believable protagonist, sixteen-year-old Faith Flores, whose dogged pursuit of the truth about her mother’s death puts her on somebody’s hit list. I’m not a regular reader of YA fiction, but this novel seems to do a good job with teen dialogue (not hitting you over the head with slang). The usual teen-centric themes of ‘belonging’ and ‘becoming’ run strong in the story.
Author Janie Chodosh passes the science test. Death Spiral is a mystery that can only be solved by getting answers to the science questions. I love that. Chodosh handles the science gently but accurately so readers should not be put off by tech. The science revolves around a clinical trial for treating heroin addiction. Antisense RNA, gene therapy, and genome sequencing are all relevant. In a nice touch, the author brings up issues related to genetic testing. What happens if you know you’re at risk for a genetic disease? Would you want to know?
The story’s climax is set in the most delightfully unconventional place: the ballroom of a major science conference during a keynote address. I loved that this seemingly dull setting was charged with excitement. In this scene, the sharing of scientific information takes on paramount importance. The scientific logic of the criminal, as it is finally revealed, makes sense on paper so I was satisfied. But in practice, the scheme would be needlessly complex and impractical to achieve the bad guy’s goals…
A few minor complaints: One of Faith’s defining characteristics is the way she shuts down her feelings and locks other people out. While this makes sense given her past, it does become grating at times; the reader wants to shake some sense into her as she self-inflicts wounds on her relationships. A minor character experiences an unbelievable recovery toward the end of the story, but this didn’t matter much. I also think the title doesn’t do this book any favors. It’s bland.
Clinical trials are experiments, but I wouldn’t describe enrollees as being “experimented on.” But this is a thriller/mystery novel so no surprise to find some big bad pharma and a “mad” scientist. The scientist and physician characters, of which there are several, are, as in real life, a diverse bunch of people, good, bad, well-intentioned, conflicted, and everything in between.
Faith Flores would fit right in. This reader was touched by Faith’s solid sense of self and is rooting for her and for millions of real-life teens to take the plunge and pursue the study of science.
A lovely quote from the text: “Sadness, with an atomic mass heavier than plutonium, settles in my chest.”...more
ScienceThrillers review: In order to evaluate The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes, it’s critical to first define the book’s audience.
Here’sScienceThrillers review: In order to evaluate The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes, it’s critical to first define the book’s audience.
Here’s a useful indicator: tell me, what is a eukaryote? A prokaryote?
If you have no idea, this book is NOT for you. Move along.
Like many of the microorganisms it describes, Amoeba in the Room occupies a small, specialized niche. It is neither popular science with broad appeal, nor is it a textbook of microbiology. The book begins with a sort of pastoral musing by a microbiologist contemplating the exotic, invisible life in his Ohio backyard pond. Over the pages the author takes us on a global tour of the microbes, highlighting the incomparably strange and amazing features that are commonplace and ordinary among very small forms of life. He structures this journey by environment, from pond, to ocean, soil, fresh water, air, the insides of humans, and extreme environments, selecting a few striking microbes to highlight in each place while emphasizing the incomprehensible diversity and complexity of each ecosystem.
But Amoeba in the Room is both much less and much more than an inventory of remarkable microbes. (Author Money makes clear how foolhardy such an endeavor would be.) This book has a consistent message that culminates in the end with a call to arms. Money’s goal is to change the reader’s way of seeing the world, and especially to change the way we teach (and study) biology. One microbe at a time in the text, he gradually succeeds.
The tone is folksy and conversational but the content is intended for people who are fairly knowledgeable about biology in general and microbiology in particular. The author is trying to reach teachers of science, to open their eyes to the fact that biology education is stuck in the 19th or even 18th century with its emphasis on the life that we can see, even though every plant and animal in our daily experience is, in fact, trivial to the biosphere as a whole. Life on earth is overwhelmingly microbial by any standard: the most diverse; the most numerous; the most massive; the most widespread; and the most important for regulating the cycling of nutrients, the composition of the atmosphere, the pH of the oceans, the viability of the planet itself.
Money makes an excellent case for a dramatic re-evaluation of taxonomy. The classification of life into kingdoms Prokaryotes, Eukaryotes, and the “new” Archaea, with the eukaryotes grouped as animals, plants, fungi, and protists, in the author’s words, “hasn’t been a serious reading of the facts for a long time, but it has shown remarkably tenacity.” He mentions the eight “supergroups” of eukarya, which were new to me, and clearly have not been adopted by the educational establishment.
Amoeba in the Room grew on me. I found myself reading a few pages every night, never arrested by the narrative, but always curious to read a little more. By the time I reached the end, the author had succeeded in making a rather profound and permanent change in my world view.
If you are involved in biology education at any level, including elementary school, I recommend you read this book. Like the microbes themselves, Amoeba in the Room is easily overlooked but carries an important message.
Representative quotes from the book: “During my lifetime we have learned that a far greater repository of biological diversity exists among the unicellular organisms and the viruses than we find throughout the animal and plant kingdoms. Yet, even in the twenty-first century the majority of professional scientists are preoccupied with macrobiology. This is a problem.” “Ecosystems, like individual animals, don’t work very well without microbes…Ecology cannot be taught any more without considering the importance of microorganisms.” “By adding microbes to the public discourse we may get closer to comprehending the real workings of the biosphere and the growing threat to their perpetuation…If extinction is the thing we are trying to forestall, we would be better placed in trying to save habitats.”
If you like Amoeba in the Room, you might like: microbiology science thriller Petroplague by Amy Rogers; Bad Science by Ben Goldacre; Deadly Outbreaks by Alexandra Leavitt; The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson...more
ScienceThrillers review: I get a lot of requests for reviews of indie (self-published) novels. Only a handful make it into my TBR (to be read) pile. SScienceThrillers review: I get a lot of requests for reviews of indie (self-published) novels. Only a handful make it into my TBR (to be read) pile. Something about The Neanderthal’s Aunt caught my interest. Once I started reading, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Gina DeMarco’s new novel is the most fun book I’ve read in quite a while, and possibly the best indie novel I’ve ever read.
Now, before any critics start flying off the handle, yes, I acknowledge the ebook (currently this title is only available in digital format, and only at amazon.com) has a lot of typos. I did not fail to notice. However, the extraordinary voice of the narrator and the many times I laughed out loud were more than enough reward to ignore those editorial oversights.
If Bridget Jones were a scientist, The Neanderthal’s Aunt would be her diary.
The Neanderthal’s Aunt is a wildly entertaining combination of family sitcom, social satire, geek humor, real science, and remarkably touching philosophy about what it means to be human. Loosely, it’s the story of one year in the life of Dr. Sara Nicoletta, a Boston-dwelling PhD scientist who is a molecular biologist and expert on viruses. During this time, her own somewhat pathetic life is overshadowed by the public adventures of her recently-widowed, New York socialite sister who has announced that she is going to be the mother of a Neanderthal baby.
Hilarity, with a heavy dose of snark, follows. The story encompasses “birdstorms” (dead flocks falling out of the sky), a jealous chimpanzee, how to cook placenta, an escaped convict, a man’s belt on Craigslist, handheld RNA sequencers, emails from a dead man, glow-in-the-dark dogs, artificial chromosomes, cytokine storms, disco dancing at a genomics conference, and the funniest baby shower you’ve never been to.
A basic tension keeps you reading until the very end: is the Neanderthal baby a hoax, or not?
The plot threads and characters all weave together. The doorman, the dead husband, the priest brother, the would-be lover are all crucial in the end.
If the book has one problem, it’s a slight miscalculation of tone. Mostly this is a funny, funny piece of satire. But it also has a ton of heart, sincerity, and love. Balancing those two elements is hard and there were a few moments when I thought it could have been done more gracefully. And of course, if you’re one of the types of people skewered in the writing, you might not find it as funny as I did.
Gina DeMarco, the author, is writing under a pseudonym. She claims to be a working scientist. I have no doubt about that. I’d be willing to guess that she’s also a science blogger and that this might not be her first book. I hope she’s also a teacher, or works with the media, because she clearly has a gift for explaining science in ways that are both accurate and totally understandable.
I highly recommend this book, especially to smart, sensible women in any profession. Best entertainment bargain you’ll find anywhere.
Gina DeMarco, whoever you are, keep on writing!
Memorable quotes from Dr. Sara Nicoletta, narrator:
“I didn’t see why having one seventy pound German shepherd was considered normal but having ten seven pound Chihuahuas was weird. It’s the same amount of dog.”
“I wondered how Liz’s dinner parties would go if everyone else was eating organic barley and seitan pilaf and a Neanderthal child was at the table tucking into a deer’s liver. They might get jealous.”
“Geneticists, anthropologists, and bioethicists weighed in briefly, but most of the conversation was dominated by celebrity pundits with a distinct emphasis on strong rather than informed opinions. One woman kept confusing genetic engineering with embryonic research but they kept inviting her back. And a man on the street objected because he had heard the term Homo Neanderthalis and thought the whole project was part of the gay agenda.”
“The trainer at the gym said that I had a functional level of cardiovascular fitness but imbalanced muscle tone. She said it very gravely but I did not think that it was a dire enough condition to warrant buying the personal trainer package.”
“Hanlon’s razor tells us to never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
“’Our collaborators are mailing me some frozen rats next week. They’re infected.’ This is how scientists flirt.”
“Catholics don’t have anything against evolution. A literal interpretation of the Bible, the kind that says the earth is six thousand years old, has never been a part of our religion, at least not since St. Augustine warned against preaching idiocy to Pagans in 415 AD.”
Alert: some (LOL funny) adult sexual content ...more
ScienceThrillers review: Singularity (The Jevin Banks Experience Book #2) is a thinking person’s suspense novel. Author Steven James once again demonsScienceThrillers review: Singularity (The Jevin Banks Experience Book #2) is a thinking person’s suspense novel. Author Steven James once again demonstrates his superior skills at creating a sense of foreboding, along with thoughtful exploration of profound philosophical issues related to technology and transhumanism.
Singularity is the second book following Steven James’ intriguing protagonist Jevin Banks. Banks is an illusionist and escape artist, of the caliber that he has his own headline show in Las Vegas. His ability to get out of (literally) tight places proves useful. Supplemented with TaeKwonDo hand-to-hand combat skills and a large bank account, he’s a bit of a superhero, albeit one perpetually subdued by melancholy. (In the opening chapter of the first Jevin Banks novel, Placebo, the reader learned about the death of his wife and children.) Banks is a character with heart and soul, and he is surrounded by a wonderful cast of associates, too. His “day” job–doing death-defying escapes on stage–allows the author to inject plenty of tension and foreshadowing, not to mention creating sets loaded with dramatic possibility.
In the first two chapters/scenes of the novel, author Steven James managed to make me gasp or quail in horror not once but twice. Impressive, especially since he’s not the kind of writer to use cheap graphic horror for shock. Let’s just say he knows how to make use of the things we fear most. Snakes and scalpels are are both good material to start with.
The plot of Singularity is convoluted and not the book’s strongest point. Individual scenes are masterfully written but the overriding plot thrust–Jevin Banks’ hunt for a killer–is lost in the complexity of villains and subplots which are not entirely believable, nor are they resolved in a clear way. The story’s villains are far less interesting than Banks and his friends. The main villains are psychopathic and unsympathetic. In particular the hypersexualized female assassin is a too-familiar type.
So why is this book a science thriller? The title “singularity” refers to, as the author says, the time (perhaps in the middle of this century) when “machines reach strong artificial intelligence–that is, they’re able to have emotional intelligence, language acquisition, and pattern recognition on the same level as human beings.” In other words, when our machines become like us, and may be self-aware. As a popular concept, the singularity is closely related to transhumanism, which is the flip side of the same coin. Instead of making machines more like us, transhumanism is about making humans more like machines. It’s begun already, as we use mechanical and electronic devices to replace broken human parts like hip joints and heart valves. There is no theoretical limit on how far we can go, both to correct “disease” and to enhance native human capabilities with something superior.
James spends a fair amount of time letting his characters discuss the implications of the singularity and transhumanism. These discussions are related to the plot, sort of, but they should be read as fascinating in their own right. (If you enjoy this sort of thing, Mark Alpert’s page-turner Extinction treads the same waters.)...more
ScienceThrillers.com review: Dr. Alexandra Levitt narrates the true stories of seven medical mysteries solved by field epidemiologists, investigatorsScienceThrillers.com review: Dr. Alexandra Levitt narrates the true stories of seven medical mysteries solved by field epidemiologists, investigators for the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service. These stories demonstrate the importance, danger, and excitement of public health efforts to understand infectious disease outbreaks and other disease clusters. Levitt unashamedly admits that one goal of this book is to inspire young people to consider careers in public health.
On that count, Deadly Outbreaks succeeds. Put this book in the hands of a high schooler who already is thinking about a STEM career and you might make a convert.
Personally, I love this stuff. Several of these stories I'd heard before (the Sin Nombre virus, Legionnaire's Disease) but I was delighted to read in more detail about the scientist/physician/detectives who actually were on the ground in the center of these outbreaks, trying to assemble the knowledge needed to stop the deaths. Most of the tales were new to me and carried a lot of emotional impact. Babies dying in a Canadian hospital. Laborers paralyzed by work in a pig slaughterhouse.
This is a fascinating book, easy to read in one chapter pieces, perfect for the bedside table. It's competently written but it lacks the narrative genius of a Malcolm Gladwell or Mary Roach popular science book. It also has a fair amount of real science in it. Thus I recommend this book for people who like science especially microbiology, but it might not appeal to readers who do not have a pre-existing interest in the subject matter....more
ScienceThrillers.com review: In The Cure, successful indie author Douglas E. Richards breaks into the majors with a hardcover release by science fictiScienceThrillers.com review: In The Cure, successful indie author Douglas E. Richards breaks into the majors with a hardcover release by science fiction publisher Tor/Forge. As he did in his mind-bending novel about superhuman intelligence Wired, Richards once again gives us a smart, effective heroine who possesses scientific information of supreme importance–information that puts her in the crosshairs of powerful enemies who are not always what they seem.
The Cure is a fast-paced thriller that raises questions about medical ethics and about what it means to be human, but the issues are not explored deeply. If Wired tired your brain with its elaborate mental puzzles, you’ll be pleased to sail through this book without strain because it reads more like a conventional thriller. Without giving any spoilers, I’ll emphasize that while The Cure has some real science in it, this novel is solidly in the speculative fiction/science fiction category.
Protagonist Erin Palmer and her new companion Kyle Hansen use their wits to survive as they are chased across the southwest United States by a violent, shadowy criminal organization while trying to reunite with their scientific patron, who also has been keeping secrets from Erin. The romance that blossoms between Erin and Kyle feels improbable, but the various plot twists work well and will keep you guessing.
Erin commits to years of research inside a prison by what the cover copy describes as a “devastating encounter with a psychopath as a child.” Although graphic details are toned down, some readers may find the scene of this encounter, depicted in the prologue, too emotionally fraught for their reading taste. This scene is not at all representative of the tone of the novel, which is not unusually violent or edgy for a thriller. If you’re concerned, skip the prologue and dive into the actual story in chapter 1.
The Cure cites the wisdom of Star Trek and will give you a new definition of long-term planning. This is a fast read with plenty of surprises....more
ScienceThrillers review: I initially told the author I would not review Schrodinger’s Gat. I have so, so many books in my pile that “no” is my defaultScienceThrillers review: I initially told the author I would not review Schrodinger’s Gat. I have so, so many books in my pile that “no” is my default answer. Yet something about this book nagged at me, and I read a few pages. I was hooked.
This slender, 200-page science fiction novel doesn’t fit in a tidy niche. It certainly has strong elements of both a mystery and a thriller, but it’s also full of lengthy asides on topics like quantum indeterminancy, the double slit experiment, Jainist ideas of karma, Newton and the Deists, Decartes and dualism, Skinner and behaviorism, Kant and Hume, and of course Schrodinger’s thought experiment about a cat in a box that has been poisoned (or not). Miraculously, these asides totally fit with the flow of the story. If you disagree, Kroese gives the reader an out: he has the narrator identify where certain intellectual excursions begin and end in the text to make them easy to skip.
I didn’t want to skip any of them. I totally enjoyed this strange, mind-twisting tale about cause and effect, free will, morality, and the nature of the universe. Sounds a little “out there,” I know, but Kroese tells a cracking good story along the way. His main instrument is the narrator he created. Schrodinger’s Gat is told in the first person present tense by a guy who is delightfully sarcastic. He’s messed up and suicidal but never comes off as pathetic. Because the narrator truly has nothing to lose, he is free to act without constraints. The novel is also set in San Francisco–always a bonus for me.
Is Schrodinger’s Gat a good choice for you? Read the opening and you’ll be able to tell. The profanity-laden narration has a distinctive feel that will either appeal or turn you off. Here are a few quotes from the novel to give you the flavor of the book:
“It’s complicated. And I don’t mean, like, Mah-Jongg complicated. I mean quantum physics complicated.”
“What we call probability is, I think, just a description of the proximity of alternate universes.”
“The idea of the space-time continuum actively rejecting paradoxes had occurred to us, but it was only an academic possibility.”
Kroese never explained why he changed “cat” to “gat” in the title, but it’s a good idea. The odd consonant substitution sparked my curiosity. ...more
ScienceThrillers review: Contrary to what a deviant reader might wish, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz AgeScienceThrillers review: Contrary to what a deviant reader might wish, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum is not a how-to book. It is, however, an eye-popping work of science and history that weaves together the origins of modern forensic medicine with unforgettable stories of real people in 1920s-1930s New York City. The Poisoner’s Handbook is structured around the careers of two remarkable men of science at Bellevue Hospital–Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler–who wrested power from the corrupt, unscientific coroner’s office to create the modern medical examiner system. The scientific study of cause of death using bodies as evidence that we take for granted today in real life and popular entertainment was invented in the Jazz Age.
And what a time of macabre plenty that was for medical examiners. I am stunned by the stories of death. Today, when many Americans are careful to the point of paranoia about what substances they will put in their bodies, or how much risk is acceptable in an activity, it’s hard to believe that less than a century ago people routinely died horrifically from poisons. To murder using poison was easy; fatal doses of a variety of toxins were widely available in commercial products. Accidental deaths were astonishingly common: cyanide deaths from routine fumigation of the neighbor’s apartment; chloroform deaths from casual use of anesthetic; mercury from accidental ingestion of a topical drug; carbon monoxide from unlit gas lamps; plus an obscene number of cases of blindness and death among people who drank illegal spirits during Prohibition. Bootleg “gins” made from “denatured” grain alcohol were tainted with toxic wood alcohol and other poisons added at the behest of the U.S. Government. Breaking the law of the 18th Amendment became, in effect, a crime punishable by death.
The most striking tales in this book are from industrial workplaces in what seems like a distant past. In 1924 Standard Oil started producing leaded gasoline to minimize engine “knock”. In the first year of production, three-quarters of the workers at the lead plant were hospitalized or dead. At the Radium Corporation, vibrant young women painted the dials of wristwatches with radium-containing luminous paint, sharpening their brushes with their lips. The women became glowing, radioactive beacons themselves and died horribly. (At the time, radium was widely touted as a miracle cure. It was added to tonics and lotions, and uranium was purposefully dumped into therapeutic hot springs to generate radon gas.)
I greatly enjoyed reading this book because the content is so interesting. Author Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prizewinner and professor of science journalism, so the writing is quite good. Blum is not a scientist, however, and she occasionally gets small tech details wrong. For example, she ascribes the suffocating action of cyanide to its binding of hemoglobin. In fact, cyanide doesn’t disrupt oxygen transport, but rather poisons oxygen utilization by knocking out cytochromes in the mitochondria.
My only real complaint is the book’s awkward structure. Chapters are named after individual poisons, yet the actual narrative is loosely chronological. Although Norris and Gettler’s work is the thread that ties the whole book together, The Poisoner’s Handbook is more a collection of anecdotes than a single narrative.
But with anecdotes like these, I’m happy to recommend this work of popular nonfiction....more
ScienceThrillers review: The Dinner by Herman Koch is a Dutch literary thriller novel recently published in English. This book definitely has people tScienceThrillers review: The Dinner by Herman Koch is a Dutch literary thriller novel recently published in English. This book definitely has people talking. There’s an unusually even distribution of online reviews, a lot of 1, 2, and 3 star reviews in addition to the 4 and 5 star ones. Thus I warn you, your experience of this book may be different from mine. I think The Dinner is a must-read for suspense writers, and an excellent choice for anyone who likes page-turning literary fiction.
The plot? Hard to say much without ruining the reading experience; see the publisher’s blurb below. The entire book is one long reveal of secrets–secrets hidden by the characters from each other and from society, but mostly secrets hidden from the reader. This aspect of an unreliable narrator drives some readers crazy; I thought it was done masterfully and made the book one I couldn’t put down. Author Herman Koch is clearly manipulating you, the reader, and he’s very good at it. (Again, I think this turns some people off.) I loved it. I let him lead me into the story, into the narrator’s head, all the while knowing I had blinders on that prevented me from seeing the truth. I knew I might blunder into something dark and terrible. And of course I did.
It helps if you have some awareness of recent political trends in Western Europe (a resurgence of right-wing extremism) but not necessary.
The Dinner is a perfect Book Club novel because there is so, so much to talk about. Many layers of interpretation, many aspects that irritate or disturb, and of course plenty of controversy between those who think the book is brilliant and those who think it’s an overrated, self-indulgent piece of foolishness.
Weaknesses: The Dinner has some plot issues that I was willing to ignore. For example, the dinner in question would never have been arranged in a public place. Certain criminal acts are left unpunished in a way I can’t imagine happening in a civilized country. Certain medical claims are made which have no basis in reality.
I highly recommend that you read the opening pages and if you’re not hooked, quit–this book isn’t for you. But if you’re like me, you’ll sit down to devour this Dinner. ...more
ScienceThrillers Review: Before I go all reviewer-geeky and dissect this new science-themed thriller novel by David Wellington, I want to say I thorouScienceThrillers Review: Before I go all reviewer-geeky and dissect this new science-themed thriller novel by David Wellington, I want to say I thoroughly enjoyed reading Chimera. The old saw about a good thriller being one you stay up late to finish held true for me on this one. Chimera is an excellent example of a satisfying, conventional modern thriller.
In fact the more I think about it, the more Chimera looks like a book that successfully follows all the “rules” that make a strong thriller novel. Perhaps the only problem with this approach is the author doesn’t take any real risks or break any fresh ground in the genre. But who cares? This is a terrific book.
Chimera opens with a suitably action-driven scene that shows the escape of a group of mysterious detainees from some secret government facility in New York state. Author David Wellington artfully reveals little about who these detainees are, and the reader is immediately hooked with questions. Next, he introduces our hero, former Army Ranger Jim Chapel, a war hero who lost an arm in Afghanistan and who now has a desk job with a military intelligence agency.
Captain Chapel is the epitome of a sympathetic action thriller hero. He’s morally upright, obviously brave, has overcome tremendous obstacles, and yet he’s vulnerable because he’s an amputee who feels washed up and lonely. Never for a second does the reader think Chapel will do anything except the right thing. You can’t help rooting for this guy.
Chapel is teamed up with two additional hero(ines) who don’t steal the show but who definitely shine brightly and are wonderful supporting characters. I fell in love with both Julia and Angel. Julia, a veterinarian by profession, plays the modern role of strong damsel in distress, rescued by Chapel but then becoming a powerful ally. (She’s also necessary for the requisite thriller romance subplot, which works fine in Chimera. Parent alert: this book has sex scenes described in some detail.) Julia is an appealing blend of vulnerable, strong, resourceful, and clever. Above all, she keeps her head under pressure–no panicky female here.
Angel is equally good in a crisis but she is a more innovative character. A disembodied voice linked to Chapel by cell phone (and more), Angel works for the “higher ups” in this intelligence operation. A master of all things hackable, she seems to be all-knowing and all-powerful. She is deliciously ambiguous–what secrets is she keeping? Whose side is she on? She also is a useful device for the author to deal with mundane practical issues in the plot, such as getting taxis and buying winter coats and handling the local police following one deadly mess after another.
Problems? Sure. Chimera suffers from some of the maladies common to this genre. Characters occasionally do things that don’t make sense or border on stupid (e.g., Julia entering the house in Atlanta); the villains are thin bad-guy stereotypes; the hero exhibits unrealistic physical stamina after injury; etc. As I read, a lot of questions came to mind related to the internal logic of the plot. Most of them were answered later, almost as if an early reader of the book told the author it was important to resolve this or that illogical bit. Not terribly satisfying, but Wellington writes well enough that readers who like thrillers shouldn’t have trouble with suspension of disbelief.
You may be saying yes, yes, Amy, but what about the science? Two biohazards (out of 5) on that. Don’t be fooled by the science-y title. Chimera is a traditional action thriller with a little science sprinkled in. It’s no spoiler to say that the escaped detainees were the subject of some kind of military science shenanigans. This science is “explained” late in the book but it’s SciFi bunk. That’s fine. I was more bothered by the preposterous medical bits related to injuries (especially a blood transfusion scene) and the infection subplot. Also, I didn’t like the way scientists are portrayed with two of the most pernicious scientist stereotypes: mad/unethical and socially deficient.
Note on structure: Chimera has no chapters, only an overall four-part structure and many tiny breaks defined by location/time stamps that are happily set in the format T+hr/min. (Date stamps with an actual time and date make me crazy as I can never remember how they relate to other dates in the story without looking back.) I liked this structure and wish more authors would use it.
Overall: Chimera is more than the sum of its parts. It follows genre conventions without feeling too formulaic and maintains a high level of curiosity in the reader. The themes of government secrecy and “black” intelligence operations feel timely in light of the recent Snowden affair. All in all, a highly satisfying read.
An advance reader copy was given to me for review....more
Japantown has a classic thriller form: an amateur protagonist thrust into an evil global conspiracy, a motive to avenge his wife's death, himself andJapantown has a classic thriller form: an amateur protagonist thrust into an evil global conspiracy, a motive to avenge his wife's death, himself and his daughter in peril. Taken as a typical thriller, it's extremely well written. Here's what's fresh: the "voice."
Welcome to the exotic Orient.
Japantown is a Pacific Rim thriller. It's set in San Francisco and various places in Japan. These settings, and their local cultures, are central to the story. (This aspect and parts of the writing reminded me of Raymond Chandler and his Los Angeles.) Author Barry Lancet is the right man to pen this novel: he's an American who lived in Japan for over 25 years, in the business of publishing books on Japanese culture for a Western audience. He not only knows the language and the esoteric facts of Japan and Japanese history, he clearly has an intuitive understanding of what is in many ways a closed society. The unwritten rules of power and influence in Japan are a major theme of this novel.
The use of a kanji, or Japanese language written character, is a brilliant plot device. Here's an excerpt of a conversation the protagonist has elucidating clues from this single handwritten bit of calligraphy:
"First, the awkwardness you so correctly noted suggests that the writer does not pen the character frequently." "So when he does write it, it's probably for a specific purpose?" "That would be my assumption. Moreover, the inconsistent hand and dullness of line point to a limited education, probably ending in the sixth or seventh year of schooling."
The conversation goes on to analyze other possible interpretations of the scribe. All of them are believable and backed up by subtly informed facts about the Japanese art of calligraphy, Japanese education, and the Japanese diaspora abroad.
Telling details about Japanese culture abound. For example:
"Tejima gave me the standard Japanese greeting followed by a slip of a bow that ungraciously put me in my place as a low-level guest. He would not expect a Causcasian guest to know the difference."
FYI Japantown is a fairly violent novel, but not particularly graphic in its descriptions of the violence. It has no profanity. The main weakness that stands out in my mind is the inability of the (many) bad guys to kill the protagonist. Especially in the overly-prolonged final climax, villain after villain skips his chance to just put a bullet through the guy's head. But hey, that's what happens in thrillers and of course I wanted the good guy to win.
A distinctive and well-written debut novel with a fresh take on the international thriller genre. Recommend. ...more
I got this book for my 12-year-old son. Once he started, he could not put it down. We were on vacation and he tried to take a hike while reading the bI got this book for my 12-year-old son. Once he started, he could not put it down. We were on vacation and he tried to take a hike while reading the book. He read instead of playing video games (now that's an endorsement). He says this book may be for an audience a little older than the Percy Jackson series. Only complaint: last line of the book is "to be continued." Well, he's too young to ever have had to wait for the next Harry Potter book so I guess this is his burden. He will have to wait for the next volume!...more