A family vacation to Alaska is on my horizon later this summer, so it’s fitting that I read The Sinking of the Angie Piper by Chris Riley.
On that tripA family vacation to Alaska is on my horizon later this summer, so it’s fitting that I read The Sinking of the Angie Piper by Chris Riley.
On that trip I think I’ll stick close to shore.
Riley, a Sacramento-based writer like myself, creates a richly textured backdrop of Alaskan fishing culture against which he tells the tale of the Angie Piper and her crew of commercial crab fishermen working the Gulf of Alaska in winter. Narrator Edward Thurman, a young but not novice member of the crew, has brought his best friend Danny Wilson aboard as the ship’s greenhorn (new crewman)–an act met by the derision of one of the crew, because Danny has Down Syndrome. The reader gets into the ship’s rhythm of hard work and recovery amid terrible cold on the unforgiving sea, feeling the icy spray and alternating ecstasy and weariness of the men.
Then the weather changes.
Grievances and regrets fall away amid an escalating struggle to survive. Author Chris Riley steadily raises the stakes, pushing you to turn the pages toward a satisfying conclusion.
This book does an amazing job of transporting the reader to a distant and strange world on the crabbing vessel which feels totally real. Author Riley has personal experience as an educator working with Down’s kids, which shows in his tender but never maudlin portrayal of Danny. As narrator Ed learns to see that there is more to Danny than he thought, so does the reader.
The Sinking of the Angie Piper is a superb short novel that blends the best of literary and suspense fiction with dramatic themes of man vs himself and man vs nature, with redemption in the end.
Chris Riley got his start writing short stories, and he has written many. His focus is science fiction, horror, and weird/strange stories. Many have been published; explore his work here.
I read an advance copy of this book which I received for free from the author....more
I’m a big fan of Barry Lancet’s novels, the Jim Brodie series of international action thrillers that are largely set in Japan. Book #4 The Spy AcrossI’m a big fan of Barry Lancet’s novels, the Jim Brodie series of international action thrillers that are largely set in Japan. Book #4 The Spy Across the Table was just released. I opened to page 1 and in the first line I was reminded of why I enjoy Lancet’s writing so much: “Mikey was shot because he begged me for a favor and I complied.”
The narrator and protagonist, Jim Brodie, is a singular character in modern genre fiction. Brodie is most passionate about art and antiques, particularly the Japanese objects that he sells in his antiques shop in San Francisco. But the character (like the author) has also lived in Japan for a long time. Brodie’s father left him a private security agency in Tokyo, which Jim continues to own and operate. In previous books, it was this connection to the agency which landed him in trouble. In Spy, Brodie’s involvement begins with a personal tragedy–a vendetta to find out who murdered his friend. This quest quickly spins out of control into something much larger, involving governments and the Chinese super-spy of the title. Did Lancet know that North Korea and tensions in East Asia would make his plot so timely?
As with previous novels in this series, the book is full of insights into Japanese culture, art, and history. Also as previously, Brodie is a reluctant fighter but he is a master of hand-to-hand combat, and Lancet writes the fight scenes in spectacular fashion. What is different this time is a much darker tone. Spy is Brodie’s most wrenching experience yet, messing with his mind, his heart and soul, and definitely his body. If a character is revealed by the choices he makes in the most difficult circumstances, then Jim Brodie bares his soul in this book. After all he suffered, what kind of man will he become in the next book? We’ll find out in a year or two, I expect, with a book #5 which I will be eager to read.
I was given a free digital ARC of this book, with no promises....more
ScienceThrillers review: I was halfway through Chemistry, a novel by Weike Wang when it hit me: this is NOT a memoir.
The voice in Chemistry is so compScienceThrillers review: I was halfway through Chemistry, a novel by Weike Wang when it hit me: this is NOT a memoir.
The voice in Chemistry is so compelling that I thought I was inside a real person’s story. I was relieved to remember this is fiction, partly because I pitied the parents reading about themselves in this light, and partly because I recently read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and I was starting to wonder if all women in science are mentally ill.
No, they definitely are not, but maybe all writers are.
Anyway, Chemistry is a work of literary fiction, not genre or thriller, and is driven by character instead of plot. I review a lot of science thrillers but I found this slender book hypnotic and read it in two sittings. Is it because like the nameless main character, I have been a graduate student in a high-powered university science lab? Is it because I married into Chinese culture and have a fascination with the tiger mom stereotype? These elements helped, but I think Chemistry has an appeal that goes far beyond that.
This is a deeply introspective novel. The narrator is emotionally flawed and aware of her flaws. She’s brilliant yet foolish, an achiever who sees failure in her life. She is coming of age but afraid of true adulthood. She wants to be happy but doesn’t know what happiness looks like. To quote from blurbs on the back cover, “How do we learn to love if we haven’t been taught?” About the voice: “by turns deadpan and despairing, wry and wrenching” “unflinching and painfully self-aware” “insight and charm.”
I approached this book with trepidation, worried that it would be another whiney millennial voice. That a sense of entitlement and precociousness would sour the whole thing. Not the case. The narrator is clearly messed up (hence the psychiatry visits), but she is the opposite of a whiner. Her pain doesn’t make her lash out at the world. She beats herself up instead. (Her lovingly portrayed dog helps!)
Science–trivia, history, culture–permeates the book. Science-y interjections pop up on almost every page. Some readers may find them too abstruse, unrelated to the surrounding text. I did occasionally, but I never felt the author crossed the line into pretension.
Chemistry definitely has a lot in common with Lab Girl. Fiction vs memoir. Chemistry vs botany. While the botany essays in Lab Girl can’t be topped, overall I enjoyed this book much more. The brief length, which perfectly suits the subject matter, helped.
Chemistry, a novel by Weike Wang is an elegantly written, sensitive work of literary fiction in the LabLit genre. If you read a lot of science thrillers and are willing to try something different, I recommend this book....more
Kent Lester, debut author of The Seventh Sun, and New York Times #1 bestselling author James Rollins currently have the same literary agent representiKent Lester, debut author of The Seventh Sun, and New York Times #1 bestselling author James Rollins currently have the same literary agent representing their work. Sharing an agent isn't the only thing Lester and Rollins have in common. Fans of Rollins' Sigma Force will find a lot to like about The Seventh Sun.
The protagonist Dan Clifford is a level-headed scientist with a strong sense of ethics and a claustrophobic streak. Completely dedicated to his work (which has something to do with a massive detection and computer processing system that might predict earthquakes, among other things), Clifford doesn’t really want to stick his nose into the shady financial and political dealings of his corporate boss. But he does, scheduling a scuba diving trip to Honduras in order to visit the company’s manufacturing facility there. While diving, he finds a dead body. (In a book where the idea of “black swans” comes up repeatedly, this belief-shattering coincidence is perhaps a good example of such an unlikely event, but this reader was happy to forgive the coincidence as just one of those things you sometimes have to accept to make a good story unfold.)
Lester writes plenty of action and intrigue in a variety of arresting scenes that tickle the imagination. His settings include laboratories, rock climbing cliffs, scuba diving, boats of all kinds, deep-sea submersibles, medical facilities, a computer chip factory, a Congressional committee chamber, and more. (I don’t know if MOBIDIC, the Mobile Infectious Disease Interdiction Center is a real thing or not, but it totally should be!)
Of course I’m attracted to the science elements of the story. I’m pleased to say such elements are abundant, accessible, and accurate. How can I not love a novel in which the origin of eukaryotic life is a major plot point? Most impressive of all, in this book Lester successfully navigates what I call the “killer virus ending” problem. Plenty of plague thrillers release a deadly infection on the world, but few of them plausibly put the cat back into the bag. Lester manages this with technical sophistication and flair.
The Seventh Sun stumbles a little with actions that can’t quite be justified but are required by the plot, and an odd story structure which makes the book feel like two novels in one with a preliminary climax halfway through.
But these flaws are far from fatal. The Seventh Sun by Kent Lester successfully joins real science with action, exotic settings, and the threat of a global catastrophe. I enjoyed every page of this smart, fun thriller novel.
An advance copy of this novel was given to me by the publisher...more
I write, publish, and review science-y thriller and suspense fiction. But I’m interested in any literature that has a science worldview or themes. SpeI write, publish, and review science-y thriller and suspense fiction. But I’m interested in any literature that has a science worldview or themes. Specimen is a wonderful example of this kind of book, sometimes called LabLit. Written by a working scientist who also holds an MFA degree, it’s a collection of short stories plus one novella all written by Dr. Kovalyova. The stories are literary, artsy, sometimes beautiful, sometimes weird, and always intriguing. While not all of the stories are heavily or obviously science-themed, they all have science aspects and certainly a scientist’s way of seeing things embedded in the text.
The collection has lots of variety, too. Kovalyova experiments with different story structures. In particular, science-y folks will love “Peptide P,” a work of short fiction told entirely in the format of a scientific journal article. It’s brilliant, original, and effective, and like all great short stories, throws a twist at the end. My second favorite story was “The Side Effects,” a love story and psychological/medical suspense tale told from the point of view of a psych patient.
The final thing I’ll mention is the stories also have a Russian/Eastern European influence. I’m not a literary scholar so I can’t give you much more detail, but it’s there in settings and tone.
If you like Specimen, you might enjoy: The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar...more
As many followers of ScienceThrillers.com know, I run a very small, boutique independent publishing company that specializes in stories with science (As many followers of ScienceThrillers.com know, I run a very small, boutique independent publishing company that specializes in stories with science (ScienceThrillers Media). I’m also very involved in my local Sacramento writers’ community. Therefore when I heard about Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living edited by Manjula Martin, I immediately went to my library’s website to request a copy. In the publishing business, money is like an STD: some people definitely have it, but no one wants to talk about it. Writers have little or no idea how much income other writers actually earn from selling books. In this vacuum of ignorance, expectations inflate. No, you won’t earn much money even if you get a “big” advance (typically spread out over several years, and diminished by taxes and agent fees), nor even if your book makes a best seller list.
According to the cover, Scratch aspires “to confront the age-old question: How do creative people make money?” A highlighted quote claims, “Manjula Martin…has done more than perhaps anyone else to shed light on the financial nitty-gritty of the writing profession.”
Well, I don’t know what Manjula Martin has done in general, but I can tell you that in this particular book, the only light that was shed came from a flashlight in your dad’s glove compartment powered by a couple of five-year-old C cells.
In other words, the cover copy lied. In this collection of essays, there’s no financial nitty-gritty. Actual numbers are as rare as snow in July. Instead, the essayists tiptoe around pragmatic questions of money to instead navel-gaze about issues of privilege and class. Several of them explicitly repeat the problem this book was supposed to solve: they flatly refuse to discuss specific financial details.
Now, I understand why a person wants to keep her income information private. But then don’t write an essay for a book that purports to reveal data about income or advance money.
Part of the problem is the working writers chosen to contribute to this collection are pretty much all traditionally published writers of literary fiction. The Iowa-NYC-MFA crowd. None are scrappy indies of the kind who are sweeping the amazon Kindle bestseller lists. And almost none of them write genre fiction, which is were the money, such as it is in the book business, can be found. They share a proud disdain for money, acknowledging it as a necessary evil but definitely unclean. As you might expect, this makes it rather difficult to have an honest, open conversation about “the financial nitty-gritty of the writing profession.” These people write beautiful essays, I’ll give them that. But they’re not essays that are of any use–and that (I thought) was the point of this book.
Compounding my dissatisfaction, the essayists in general make some of the most titanically bad financial decisions that parts of the book could be re-issued as a cautionary tale in poor personal financial planning. I’d rather take medical advice from Huck Finn with his dead cat in a graveyard than take financial advice from these folks. Is it because these people are creatives? Is it because they’re living in an MFA bubble? I don’t know. Plenty of indie writers have embraced the practical side of the writing business. The fact that many of the essayists are also Park Slope-dwelling millennials, a group not known for its get-up-and-go tenacity, does not help.
For once, the publisher’s summary does not overstate. I Contain Multitudes, written by one of my favorite science communicScienceThrillers.com review:
For once, the publisher’s summary does not overstate. I Contain Multitudes, written by one of my favorite science communicators, Ed Yong, IS astonishing and it DOES change the reader’s view of nature. Heck, I have taught microbiology at the college level and it STILL changed my way of seeing life on Earth.
The surprise, for me, was how this book covers not only the science of the human microbiome, but spreads its net more widely across all forms of life. This is a good thing, because Yong has a gift for choosing, organizing, and telling stories about microbiome science. I loved his stories about desert woodrats and creosote poison (microbes to the rescue!), about human breast milk as a fertilizer for “good” gut bacteria, and about the profound importance of the microbiome for insects. His collected tales range far and wide but weave together in a tribute to microbes and their underappreciated importance–nay, necessity–for life. He also brings in just enough description of the scientific method to make experiments comprehensible. And he avoids hype, telling a nuanced tale that includes wonder for what microbiome science might yield in the future with caution against overselling what we actually know now.
I Contain Multitudes is a splendid work of popular science. Accessible, entertaining, literate, and important, I highly recommend this book....more
A valiant effort by a Berkeley sociologist to climb over the "empathy wall" and explain the worldview of Tea Party people to coastal/blue state/BerkelA valiant effort by a Berkeley sociologist to climb over the "empathy wall" and explain the worldview of Tea Party people to coastal/blue state/Berkeley types. In my opinion, the author succeeds (to the extent that it is possible at all). She brings two qualities most commentators lack: real kindness/courtesy/respect, and an understanding that self-interest and logic are less important than the "story" people tell about themselves....more
You’re probably thinking, sure, Amy, I’ve heard this one before. Novel begins with main character waking up with no memoryScienceThrillers.com review:
You’re probably thinking, sure, Amy, I’ve heard this one before. Novel begins with main character waking up with no memory, no identity, in a strange place, usually with people trying to kill him. Big deal.
Wayward Pines by Blake Crouch is kind of a big deal.
I hear that FOX turned the Pines trilogy into a TV show that maybe wasn’t particularly good. Let me tell you–the book is really really good.
This isn’t high art or a towering work of intellect. It’s an absolutely arresting page-turner that will tie you in knots wondering WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN WAYWARD PINES and HOW IS HE GOING TO GET OUT OF THIS. (Once in a while a smaller inner voice will say, “That makes no sense. Why doesn’t he just…” Ignore that voice. Keep reading.)
Yes, this is a masterpiece of suspense writing, especially for people who think perfection is suspicious. For the first many pages, creepy is the operative word. Slowly, excruciatingly, creepy evolves into disturbing, then terrifying. I can’t tell you more about the plot. You’ll find plenty of tightly written chase scenes, mysteries, and a fair amount of horror/gore. Good news: although you might at times think there’s no way to pull a satisfying conclusion out of this cobweb, the author does. In the end, the reader’s questions are answered. Made me wonder how book #2 (Wayward by Blake Crouch) could possibly follow up to this gem. I haven’t read it yet but my hubby swears it’s as good as or better than book 1. Sounds like I’ve got something to do in the wee hours of the night.
By the way, if you’re a fan of the 1960s British TV series The Prisoner, you’ll love this book....more
ScienceThrillers review: The Human Side of Science, subtitled “Edison and Tesla, Watson and Crick, and other personal stories behind science’s big ideScienceThrillers review: The Human Side of Science, subtitled “Edison and Tesla, Watson and Crick, and other personal stories behind science’s big ideas,” is ‘lite’ history of science. Essentially this is a collection of mini-biographies of famous scientists, with an agenda. The agenda is to convey the messiness of doing science in real life. Personal conflicts between brilliant minds make good stories. Based on the many, many bits of biographical information contained in this book, such conflicts were not uncommon.
Unfortunately the authors of this volume are not themselves good storytellers. I finished this book and took away some interesting ideas (and themes, which I’ll get to in a moment). But I was disappointed because I had high expectations for the stories that could be told with the material at hand. As it is, information in the book does not flow in narrative form. Anecdotes are chosen and told but not prioritized in an artful sequence. Several times I was left hanging with key questions that I felt were not answered in the material provided.
Thematically, though, the book succeeds in conveying how people we look back on as “obviously” geniuses were not born with the word “genius” stamped on their foreheads. Like everyone else, they began as youths trying to make their way in the world, struggling through problems with school (a remarkable number were poor students), families, money, jobs, and girlfriends (’cause this is a book about men–see below). If you want to inspire kids to press forward with their ideas in spite of resistance, you’ll find plenty of role models here.
A nice part of The Human Side of Science is a broad cast of minor characters, people who worked with, worked against, supported, stole from, and fought with the heavyweight scientists featured in each chapter. Most of them I’d never heard of so it was fun to be introduced.
Another problem with the book is the scientists are almost exclusively male. While this isn’t normally a big deal for me, in this case it felt like a major oversight. Marie-Anne Lavoisier is credited for her work assisting her husband Antoine; Rosalind Franklin, the “dark lady of DNA,” gets a mention inside the chapter on Watson and Crick; Mileva Maric is featured not for her status as a physicist, but as Albert Einstein’s first wife; Lise Meitner gets two pages for her study of nuclear fission; Vera Rubin gets a paragraph for work on dark matter; a SETI astronomer named Jill Tarter gets two sentences. Inexplicably, a woman named Ann Druyan who worked as cowriter and TV producer for Carl Sagan gets a page, and the actress Hedy Lamarr gets two, which makes the absence of a chapter on Marie Curie, two-time winner of the Nobel prize, all the more glaring. And where is Barbara McClintock? In the authors’ own words, “In this book we have chronicled almost four hundred people’s interactions over twenty-five hundred years and in dozens of countries of the world.” About ten of those people are women. I’m not impressed.
Despite its weaknesses, The Human Side of Science is a decent book with a welcome approach to making science interesting. An easy read, definitely worth checking out from your local library.
Most interesting thing I learned from this book: Einstein’s firstborn child “disappeared”–thriller novel, anyone?...more
I first discovered author Robert Kroese when his independently published science thriller Schrodinger’s Gat came to me forScienceThrillers.com review:
I first discovered author Robert Kroese when his independently published science thriller Schrodinger’s Gat came to me for review in 2013. I loved it and am kicking myself for not reading more of Kroese’s work (an ebook of his novel Starship Grifters languishes on my computer–so many books, so little time). Kroese is now a hybrid author; his new release is published by Thomas Dunne Books, one of the big players in the publishing world. I gave The Big Sheep a try and was totally hooked by the end of chapter one.
The Big Sheep is science fiction, set in a mildly dystopian (but quite recognizable) future Los Angeles. It’s also a mystery/suspense novel that shamelessly pays tribute to both LA noir crime fiction (Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) and to Sherlock Holmes. By adapting those influences to SciFi, The Big Sheep is fresh and original.
Absurdity and humor (including moments when I laughed out loud) begin in the opening scene at a laboratory where we meet Erasmus Keane, self-described “phenomenological inquisitor” whose quirkiness and brilliance are a clear tribute to a Holmes-like private investigator. We see everything through the point of view of Keane’s Watson-like sidekick, Blake Fowler. Fowler’s voice carries the novel. He’s loyal, sensible, capable, snarky at the right times, and a force of sanity in Keane’s life. Like Watson, he also makes a good foil for Keane to show how clever he is. Heart and brain, these two make a great team.
The plot gets going when Keane and Fowler are visited by Priya Mistry, LA’s hottest starlet. In possibly my favorite scene of the whole book, Fowler is discombobulated by Mistry’s charisma while the oddly distracted young woman describes her fear that someone is trying to kill her. Questions abound as Keane and Fowler are drawn into a web of media powerhouses, warlords, scientists, and of course, sheep. Kroese’s storyline unfolds unpredictably and with plenty of delight. The author builds an interesting future world and creates future science that extrapolates nicely from what’s real today. Multiple plot threads come together for a satisfying climax that emphasizes words and thoughts over gunplay and chases.
I love Kroese’s writing style. To give you a sense of what he does, here are a few quotes:
“There had been a lot of technological advancements in firearms over the past twenty years, from biometric authentication devices to smart bullets that could go around corners, but for my money nobody in the past hundred years had really improved on the basic idea of making a hunk of metal go really goddamned fast in a straight line.”
“After all, paranoia was just the flip side of narcissism: it’s a short walk from ‘everybody loves me’ to ‘everybody is out to get me.'”
“I felt like hugging her, but something told me that would be wildly inappropriate–not to mention logistically difficult, since she was hunched down in a chair on the other side of my desk.”
The Big Sheep is an innovative and entertaining blend of science fiction and detective story. Smart readers of genre fiction will love the buddy pair of Erasmus Keane and Blake Fowler. With just enough snark and plenty of sheep jokes, Robert Kroese’s book will be a favorite for fans of Philip Dick, Terry Pratchett and Hitchhiker's Guide.
Note: The Big Sheep has much less foul language than Schrodinger’s Gat.
If you like science-themed fiction set in Los Angeles, you might enjoy: Petroplague by Amy Rogers
FCC notice: A free copy of this book was given to me for review. ...more
I’m a fan of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels. Recently I ran into two unrelated mentions of another of her books, The LeftScienceThrillers.com Review:
I’m a fan of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels. Recently I ran into two unrelated mentions of another of her books, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) (including this one). Because I had not heard of this novel before, two encounters seemed like a sign. I checked out a copy from my library.
The Left Hand of Darkness does what the greatest SF novels do so well. It takes a speculative setting (another planet in an unspecified future), adds a deeply developed civilization that is almost human but not quite, and uses this setting as a way to explore aspects of the human experience. In this case, the novel is about love.
As mentioned in the summary, the defining difference between the humans of the planet Gethen/Winter and the rest of us is their indeterminate gender. With the exception of rare natural “perverts,” every person on Gethen is neither male nor female, but both and neither. With the regularity of a menstrual cycle, Gethens enter kemmer, a period of a few days when they become sexually active—basically in heat—and they sexually differentiate into either a man or a woman in a semi-random fashion, and sexual reproduction follows in the usual way. Therefore everybody on Gethen can be both a mother and a father at different times in their lives.
LeGuin notes that sexual duality influences human society in profound and subtle ways, and presents Gethen society as a vision (neither “better” nor “worse”) of how this lack of duality might manifest.
To my surprise, however, sex is not a major, overt theme of this story. Rather the focus is on a (nonsexual) relationship between a (male) human and a Gethen individual. The first 2/3 of the book is a setup for the extraordinary final third. In the beginning, the author builds a world and a society, sets up political intrigue and conflict. The world-building is masterfully done, though I wondered a little about the languid pace at times.
The novel abruptly changes at the halfway point, when the protagonist’s fate takes a dramatic turn for the worse. For many pages I couldn’t put this book down. Then things slowed again during a prolonged journey across a glacier. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that this section which seems devoid of plot is actually the big payoff of the whole book. In understated and psychologically profound ways, LeGuin shows what is intimacy, what is love. She pulls it all together for an appropriate conclusion that carries a heavy authenticity and emotional resonance for the reader. I think the feeling I got of slogging through the long journey as a reader is precisely the effect that the author was going for, as it is necessary for the emotional finish.
In summary, a splendid work of literary science fiction with a few thriller elements that I’m very glad I decided to read....more
ScienceThrillers.com review:The Prisoner of Hell Gate hooked me with an original history of science premise. Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant workiScienceThrillers.com review:The Prisoner of Hell Gate hooked me with an original history of science premise. Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant working as a cook in turn-of-the-century New York. A survivor of typhoid fever herself, she was an asymptomatic carrier of the deadly bacteria. Because of poor sanitation and her work in the kitchen, she inevitably caused outbreaks of typhoid in the homes where she was employed. In the pre-antibiotic era there was no cure for her condition. When she stubbornly refused to give up her work as a cook, a public health officer named George Soper tracked her down and had her sent to quarantine, where she spent the rest of her life.
Author Dana I. Wolff takes this compelling true story and asks, what if Mary Mallon were still alive, somehow lingering on the now-abandoned island in New York's East River? What if a descendant of the man who imprisoned her came into her clutches?
In general terms, the setup of this novel is horror cliche. A group of young people are stranded on a creepy island. They're stalked by a killer. The girls are even wearing swimsuits.
But The Prisoner of Hell Gate is no cheesy slasher tale. Written with literary flair and superb characterization, this chilling, elegant horror story is a delight. Though the final destination of the plot may not be in doubt, the journey is a gripping escalation of tension, with psychological twists to boot. Wolff's use of the present tense, while slightly disorienting at first, gives the story a happening-right-now urgency. His use of language and description are decidedly more literary than genre fiction. This is horror for readers who appreciate good writing.
If you like The Prisoner of Hell Gate, you might like: Seeders by AJ Colucci
If you're interested in Typhoid Mary, you might like: Deadly by Julie Chibbaro (YA historical fiction about a teenage girl working as Soper's assistant)
FCC notice: A free copy of this book was given to me for review. I made no promise that I would write a review, good or bad....more
Hawaii fascinates me. While I enjoy the artificial perfection of the beach resorts as much as the next tourist, it's glimpses of the real Hawaii, oldHawaii fascinates me. While I enjoy the artificial perfection of the beach resorts as much as the next tourist, it's glimpses of the real Hawaii, old Hawaii, that keep me coming back. Hiking at Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, spending a few days in the Hana area on Maui, visiting upcountry on the slopes of Haleakala, are experiences that let an outsider like me understand the state's culture a little. In KAPOHO: MEMOIR OF A MODERN POMPEII, Kakugawa reveals a whole other side of "real" Hawaii, in a community of quiet, hardworking, tight-knit Japanese-Americans who endured the ignominy of WWII (but unlike their California cousins, were not rounded up and imprisoned in camps) and then carried on as modernity crept up on them as surely as the lava flow from Kilauea which ultimately buried their town.
Kakugawa's writing and sensibilities are poetic in spirit. Her recollections are detailed, alive, melancholy, and loving. Rooted in a unique time and place and culture, the stories in this collection are deeply evocative. They are, in a word, beautiful....more
Ted Koppel is a television journalist known to millions for his 25-year role hosting Nightline. His new, chilling, book-lengthScienceThrillers review:
Ted Koppel is a television journalist known to millions for his 25-year role hosting Nightline. His new, chilling, book-length work of investigation Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, reflects his TV news sensibilities, and not in a good way.
In many places, Lights Out reads like a transcript of a Nightline episode, with the needling questions and a response from a squirming official. Some useful insight emerges from this approach, but it remains superficial. Personally I prefer books written by thinkers with more of an academic bent.
Koppel achieves his main purpose, which is to frighten the reader into awareness of a terrorism threat that could make 9/11 look like a picnic. A cyberattack on the nation's electrical grid could suddenly send huge swaths of the country back to the 1800s. A terrorist-caused blackout could far exceed any natural disaster in scope and duration. We might face months or years of power loss over many states. How could urban areas possibly survive?
This question drives Koppel's investigation as he reveals that no one has an answer, or even a plan.
For raising awareness of this issue, Koppel gets my praise. However, chapter 1 of the book pretty much does the job. The rest of the pages are either repetitive, or they wander off topic. Koppel delves into the general issue of cybersecurity, and also devotes quite a few chapters to preppers, people and organizations who used to be called "survivalists." I personally enjoyed these chapters most of all, as the TV journalism style is well-suited to telling the stories of some folks in Wyoming, and the Mormon church, which takes preparedness as a point of doctrine.
Koppel's insistence that we need to do a better job with disaster preparation in general (for any kind of attack or natural disaster), is well taken. I agree with him that citizens no longer take enough personal responsibility for civil defense or preparedness, instead delegating to the state, which even in a perfect world cannot manage the task alone. His arguments for the government, military, and civil society to do more to beef up cybersecurity or specifically protect the grid fail to take into consideration the multitude of competing concerns, such as terror attacks on water supplies, or biological warfare, or a radioactive dirty bomb. We can only do so much to "keep ourselves safe," the vague standard by which many Americans now judge their leaders.
Most unsatisfying for me, Koppel left some big questions unanswered. I'm mystified as to the technical reasons why attacking the grid would affect such a large area. His use of analogies explained nothing. Also, he argues that the power companies' desire to protect privacy is hampering the effort. I ask, why is privacy such a big issue for them? What information do they have that is so valuable? Finally, the book is totally lacking in information that "you can use." Having convinced the reader that each of us needs to do something, he fails to direct that motivation into action.
But perhaps that's his point. We need a plan developed on high, so to speak, that will be communicated to all of us--before the power goes out.
I recommend this one as a library check-out, not a purchase. Read chapter 1 and the first couple of chapters of part 3, on Wyoming and the Mormons. Skim the rest if you find it interesting enough....more
Lab Girl had a well-financed launch by the publisher (loads of “buzz”), and as soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to rScienceThrillers.com review:
Lab Girl had a well-financed launch by the publisher (loads of “buzz”), and as soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to read it. The scientist-author of this memoir, Hope Jahren, is a woman about my age, who also grew up in rural southern Minnesota. I was eager to read her story about a life in science.
What did I think of Lab Girl?
I think it’s two different books inside a single cover. One of the books was mind-blowingly beautiful. The other, not so much.
What makes this book definitely worth reading are the chapters that are essentially free-standing essays about plant science. As others reviewers have noted, read these and you will never look at trees the same way again. Jahren’s appreciation of the plant world is as rich and deep as Minnesota soil. She will bring you into a tree’s point of view, create drama in a tree’s slowly unfolding life story, show you the complexity you cannot see with your eyes. I absolutely savored each one of these literate, scientific interludes in the book. Jahren artfully constructs each essay as a kind of link or metaphor for the surrounding chapters–plant science as life story. And it works!
Here are some openings from these chapters to give you a flavor:
"No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor–to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was."
"The American South is a plant’s idea of Eden. Summers are hot, but who cares, because the rain is generous and the sunshine predictable…The heavy humidity that chokes us is like nectar to a plant; it allows it to relax and open its pores, and to drink in the atmosphere, confident that evaporation will not interfere."
"The life of a deciduous tree is ruled by its annual budget."
These brief, glittering gems of science writing alternate with the “memoir” part of this book. Here’s the problem with reviewing a memoir: I find it impossible to separate the literary merits of the writing from the personality of the subject. In Lab Girl, the writing is unquestionably of high quality and the stories are interesting. Which is why I read the whole book, cover to cover, even though I felt a dislike for the author herself. Jahren rightfully complains about some aspects of a life in science, specifically, the endless, soul-sucking burden of trying to get funding for your lab. Another of her refrains felt more like a chip on her shoulder: that she was constantly disrespected because she was a woman. How “true” was her perception? I can’t say. But when it was revealed that the author suffers from severe bipolar disorder, I felt justified in taking some of her attitude with a grain of salt.
The memoir sections are obviously about events in Jahren’s life and scientific career. Most of them revolve around an intense relationship she has with an unusual misfit of a man named Bill. The relationship defies categorization; at times it resembles mother-son; at others, brother-sister. Book clubs should have a field day discussing it.
In summary, this critically acclaimed science memoir is beautifully written throughout. I highly recommend it for the essay chapters. If you read the memoir chapters and are turned off by the narrator, feel free to skip those parts....more
Beijing Red is the first book in a new thriller series by Alex Ryan, the pseudonym for the writing team Brian Andrews and JeffScienceThrillers review:
Beijing Red is the first book in a new thriller series by Alex Ryan, the pseudonym for the writing team Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson. Andrews and Wilson, both thriller novelists with books of their own, happen to both be US Navy veterans, Andrews having served as an officer aboard a nuclear submarine, and Wilson as a combat surgeon with the Navy SEALs. International Thriller Writers annual summer conference ThrillerFest brought these two together, and a collaboration was born.
The result is awesome. I love it when smart people who can write, write thrillers, and their intelligence shines through.
Beijing Red delivers everything you'd want from a thriller: an exotic setting (China), an unlikely pairing of hero and heroine (a former Navy SEAL and a Chinese scientist), a ticking clock to mass disaster, and plenty of twists. On top of that, it's got science.
The book opens with a sudden, unexplained, gruesome death. An unknown killer germ is high on the list of suspects. Dash's investigation of the deadly agent proceeds in a largely believable way (with the exception, perhaps, of her inadequate protections against a possible BSL-4 organism) and the laboratory scenes get a thumb's up from me. When the nature of the agent was revealed, I gave a squeal of delight. Any thriller that correctly uses acquired vs innate immunity, and apoptosis, makes my day.
While I was attuned to the science aspects of this novel, its military / special operations angle is perhaps its greatest strength. Nick Foley, the main character, is an ex-Navy SEAL medic, and the expertise of the authors shows in their portrayal of this man. You'll get a sense of how real veterans must think when confronted with a hunt, or a threat. And there's plenty of military lingo and weapons vocabulary, all of which I'm sure is accurate (not that I would know).
In fact, I think the strongest scene in the entire book isn't even part of the central plot. It's a flashback to Foley's time in Afghanistan, and the scene is brilliant.
Twists in Beijing Red don't rise to the level of being total, breathtaking surprises, but they're good enough. Without giving a spoiler, I'll say that I particularly liked the way certain alliances were formed counter to my expectations.
The novel has its imperfections. My main criticism is that logic and motivation are sometimes given a back seat to the page-turning plot. A couple of great scenes unfold that make the reader happy, but they do raise my eyebrows in terms of whether they are believable. Late in the novel, a decision to enter Beijing's Underground City was an example of this.
But this is a thriller novel. In exchange for entertainment, the reader will forgive a little unreality. Beijing Red delivers the goods in terms of fun, thrills, a little horror, science, and heroics. The Nick Foley series is off to a great start.
This book should appeal to: Fans of James Rollins's Sigma Force series...more
ScienceThrillers review: Michael Crichton started it with his novel Jurassic Park. The idea that we could resurrect an extinct species using ancient DScienceThrillers review: Michael Crichton started it with his novel Jurassic Park. The idea that we could resurrect an extinct species using ancient DNA–popularly called “de-extinction”–captured the popular imagination. As techniques for sequencing DNA improved, real-life scientists started to take this idea seriously.
But after reading scientist Beth Shapiro’s excellent book on the topic, I now understand that de-extinction isn’t what most people think.
In How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, Shapiro walks through the steps to de-extinction, in chapters such as “Select a species” and “Reconstruct the genome.” Before reading this book, I thought I basically understood the process: find some ancient DNA; sequence it; put it in some kind of egg; implant in a host mother; birth a baby.
It’s so much more complicated than that.
Despite the enthusiasm that some people have for bringing back charismatic megafauna like the wooly mammoth (a Russian entrepreneur is already preparing Pleistocene Park, a Siberian habitat where the modern world’s first mammoths can live), this book explains that in one sense, it cannot be done. DNA doesn’t last very long. Even with mammoth specimens well-preserved in ice, and only thousands of years old, the DNA that remains is fragmentary at best. And this is just the first of multiple technical obstacles that seem insurmountable.
So why is this brilliant young UC professor dedicated to the science of ancient DNA and de-extinction? Because while we cannot bring back the mammoth (or any other long-lost species), we can bring back, or rather, create, a mammoth-like creature using pieces of the original mammoth’s genome added to an existing relative–the elephant.
Why bother, then? Shapiro argues that de-extinction efforts should focus on restoring ecosystems, not individual species. The wooly mammoth, for example, played a crucial role in helping the tundra flourish. Research suggests that the trampling and grazing activity of large herbivores (like mammoths) can convert barren tundra into arctic grassland. Even if we can’t bring back the mammoth, we perhaps can create a cold-tolerant Asian elephant that lives in the tundra and replaces the role in the ecosystem lost when the last mammoth died.
This was one of several important messages in this book that kept me thinking for some time after reading. Another takeaway that changed my way of seeing things was Shapiro’s discussion of how very hard it is to take a species from captivity and return it to a wild habitat. The idea that as long as we keep a few animals alive in zoos we will always have the option in the future to restore them to nature is false in most cases.
How to Clone a Mammoth is thorough, thought-provoking, interesting, and written for lay people (though a keen interest in biology helps). It explores the science and the ethics of de-extinction, discusses the media’s role in this topic, and describes the author’s adventures in wild places hunting for frozen mammoth bones. Should we invest in de-extinction and try to “bring back” lost species? After reading this book, you’ll be equipped to argue one way or the other.
If you’re interested in resurrecting extinct species, you might enjoy the novel The Neanderthal’s Aunt by Gina DeMarco, a funny, touching satire about a young woman scientist whose sister plans to adopt the modern world’s first Neanderthal baby....more
ScienceThrillers.com review: Ah, New York. All the crazy stuff happens there. Author Mark Alpert should know–he’s a Manhattan native, and his intimateScienceThrillers.com review: Ah, New York. All the crazy stuff happens there. Author Mark Alpert should know–he’s a Manhattan native, and his intimate knowledge of the territory shows in this science fiction ensemble thriller The Orion Plan, which is set in the state of New York, mostly in New York City.
In the arresting opening scene, astronomer Sarah Pooley spots a planet-bashing meteor about to strike Earth. Inexplicably the object nearly vanishes while on a path to hit Manhattan. A clock is ticking but for what, Sarah–and the reader–don’t know yet.
What follows is a delightful page-turner that shows Alpert’s enthusiasm for geeky speculation about space travel and intelligent life in the universe. This author has a degree in physics and a career as a science journalist, so the many bits of science and technology tossed in the plot are accurate (except for the alien parts, of course). Readers who like real science in their fiction will find plenty of tasty morsels here, from Martian microfossils to stray voltage detection to interstellar travel.
The Orion Plan unfolds from multiple points of view as a host of interesting characters encounter the alien object now lying in the forested, relative wilds of Inwood Hill Park. It’s a minor spoiler to say that some of these encounters between humans and the alien probe have a powerful effect on the humans and influence the characters’ subsequent actions. Much of the book follows the individual story lines of these various characters: a former physician laid low by alcoholism; an African-American woman pastor dying of cancer; a young Dominican gangster. In the meantime, our heroine-scientist Sarah doggedly pursues answers. With a personal history of belief in alien life, Sarah is primed to leap to certain conclusions that government and military people are not.
What drives this story is the question of what the probe is trying to do. For most of the book, the outcome is uncertain. There’s definitely a sinister flair to what’s going on, yet Alpert gives us reasons to suspect the humans’ reaction to this “invasion” may be worse than the problem. Should we root for the alien, or hope that it is destroyed? Does it want to save us, or destroy us? The ambiguity will keep you guessing.
The twists and wrap-up at the end come a little too suddenly, but they do fit the story. Other quibbles I had include the lengthy backstories about the characters, which at times interrupt the momentum and make large sections of the book not directly related to the alien plot line. Also, Sarah’s negative feelings about the military’s involvement, and her decisions to go it alone when possible, seemed unjustified.
Visiting unfamiliar places through books is a good reason to read thrillers, and The Orion Plan obliges with great scenes at the American Museum of Natural History, Rikers Island prison, below a Con Edison manhole cover (you’re curious, right?), Yankee Stadium, Cornell University, on a train, and of course at Inwood Hill Park.
Thriller fans will find easy, satisfying entertainment in this fresh take on a classic sci-fi premise. Peppered with real science details, The Orion Plan combines a looming disaster in Manhattan with the individual struggles of people trying to do the right thing after an encounter with a force far beyond their understanding. You won’t stop reading until the last page is turned.