Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather

Read November 2019
Recommended for fans of Chambers
★   ★    ★   ★ 

There’s something incredibly campy sounding about nuns in space. But this is less meme and more character study in the most unique space faring vehicle yet (even surpassing Tchaikovsky’s webship). In fact, I can wholeheartedly recommend it, with a caveat. Something like a cross between A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Memory Called Empire, this should appeal to those who can let go some of the demands of physics and biochemistry, and follow Rather’s focus on the personal and ethical choices of various crew members.

First, and most oddly, it’s a living ship–not an AI mind in a shell, mind you, but a type of slug with a hardened exoskeleton. I think. I might have got a bit lost in those details, although it goes into a bit about how the ships grow and develop, and the sisters have an ongoing debate about whether or not their ship has a soul.

The sisters are a varied bunch. I was worried that they wouldn’t stand out, but aren’t inundated with a nunnery, only a handful of people. They do achieve some individuality in their characterization. The Reverend Mother is starting to mentally deteriorate. She’s able to cover her infirmity because she long ago took a vow of silence, only speaking through signing. Sister Lucia often serves as the Mother’s interpreter for finer points of meaning. Sister Gemma joined out of expedience and has a talent for caring for the ship. Sister Mary Catherine is an Earther and everyone knows she won’t be staying long. Sister Faustina is not in the least a gentle soul, but she comes through under pressure. Then there’s their late arrival:

“Many of the adjustments to spaceborn life he found primitive, upsetting, and uncomfortable. They had not shut off the gravity since he arrived, not even on holy days, because it upset his stomach. He was very well-meaning, and like most people who were well-meaning and ignorant, he bulldozed through everything in his way with not even a thought.”

The world-building is intriguing. Being of anti-religious persuasion, I did not find the backdrop of religion overwhelming or boring. If there’s any downside at all to the world-building, it’s that the idea that the Catholic Church manages to remain relatively unchanged so far into the future. But what do I know? It’s tried to remain structurally and theologically similar to a thousand years ago, so it might manage. As the story continues, more details and history get added through the story of the sisters.

If I had any complaint, it is that the pace seems uneven, and the more thoughtful build of the beginning isn’t matched by the ratcheted up activity in the final third. Nonetheless, it remained interesting, with further implications into the world. Hopefully it is enough to get Rather another book deal, as I’d unhesitatingly read more in this world.

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Lizard Music by D. Manus Pinkwater

Read November 2019
Recommended for ten-year-olds and Reynolds
★   ★    ★   ★   

I had lizards when I was young, so it stands to reason that a book titled “Lizard Music” would appeal. With allergies to fur and feather, but a fondness for all things non-Hexopod, lizards were an obvious option (well, to me at least; I can hear you dissenters. Let this be a warning to those with children). I remember Barney, one of my anoles, who looked something like this:

green anole

And Cleo, a brown anole:

brown anole, from my Florida vacation

So if you say to me, “hey, here’s this book about an eleven-year-old kid whose parents leave him alone on vacation and he ends up doing kid things like staying up late and watching tv, where he discovers a late-night local program of lizard musicians. He also rides the bus to a neighboring city, goes to the zoo, meets the Chicken Man and his chicken sidekick, discovers Hidden Things, and travels to Lizard Island,” I’m down with that, especially if the plot doesn’t devolve into the lizards eating the kid or the chicken. 

I rather liked this. I found it through Beth’s suggestion during a discussion on  Interstellar Pig, another 1970s era book where parents are conveniently removed from the picture, allowing for Adventures. Victor is particularly logical in his approach to the world, and instead of feeling left out that he wouldn’t be going with his parents to Colorado, he is thankful they won’t be taking him and making him look at scenery: “I mean, it is very nice if there are some big mountains or something in the background while you are doing something, but just standing around all day and saying, ‘What a lovely view,’ strikes me as sort of dumb.'”

Unfortunately, or fortunately as it turns out, his sister, Leslie, forgot about a camping trip with some hippie friends, so she asks him if he minds if she leaves. He offers his thoughts: “I went outside and told them I’d be surprised if they ever got out of the state in a wreck like that. They all said stuff like “Far out!” and “Heavy!” and all that dumb talk, and drove off in a black cloud of burning oil.” No anxiety. In fact, he strategically types out ten letters to his parents, one for each day they are gone. “They don’t have typing in the sixth grade, so it was hard to get the letters looking right.”

I loved the tone of the narration, and the subtle humor, particularly in a recurrent call-back to Walter Cronkite (!). Victor’s isn’t mean about what he notices, but he is starting to get curious about how the ‘real world’ works. He displays some interesting problem-solving, although I have to say that I wouldn’t have arrived at quite the same conclusions (“I learned something–you can eat egg shells”). I also applaud his adventuresome spirit and self-reliance, such as when he decides to make scrambled eggs and take the bus to the zoo.

The lizards themselves are interesting. The grown-up me wishes they were a bit more lizardly. The young me would have enjoyed them. Both mes would have found the lizards’ tendency to name themselves ‘Reynold’ hilarious. But, in retrospect, it’s probably a solid way to introduce the idea of an alien-looking culture while still generating empathy.The ending comes quickly, and perhaps feels a little bit too quick of a wrap-up given everything Victor has learned about the lizards, and about being adventuresome. 

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Curly-tail lizard, George

Had I been reading this when I was ten, I would have quite enjoyed it. Now, however, I have a reservation, and that is the Chicken Man, who is almost literally the Magical Negro for this story. The interesting thing, however, is that Victor acknowledges this in the text in a brief discussion on his personal history of race relations. I also appreciated that Pinkwater does tricky and clever things with Chicken Man’s character, so that he portrays a variety of personalities (perhaps like an inconsistent Coyote spirit). I particularly loved when he was interviewed on the news as part of a ‘man-on-the-street’ opinion on whether or not public employees should have the right to strike, and he gave an extremely literate and concise nutshell of the challenge between public safety and the rights of collective bargaining. So I think I’m inclined to forgive it, as his role as ‘guide’ (as the business card said) was honestly well done, and the relationship between the two characters hit both compassionate and respectful notes.

Overall, a fun read. Shout-out of thanks to Beth N and Sarah B!

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Herman the Asian house gecko

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Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

Read November 2019
For fans of NYC and addiction lit-fic
★    ★    

Hey, a new category of fiction for me: the NFM. Not quite a DNF, it’s a Not For Me, a quit before I waste any more time. I just can’t like it. About a third into it I realized that it is essentially a character study of an addict, Maggie, and at page 50, I’m not even sure how complex she is. It could be that being an addict eventually eats up a lot of what personality a person has. It could also be that Schulman is first a non-fiction writer, and may have been using this book as her own personal Message Board, and as such has points to make beyond the average mystery novel.

I’m not the only one to note this. I’d have to agree with the reviewer who says, “Her Maggie Terry is 50% Maggie’s journey, 25% political commentary about the US and the present state of New York in particular and 25% crime resolution.” I’m at least 25% in, and quite possibly 30%, and only now has Maggie–and the reader–been introduced to the idea that there’s a case. As this point there’s been a lot of discussion about Maggie’s addicted life; the lost of her non-biological daughter to her wife, the biological mother; and days on the NYPD.

I was tempted into this by a friend’s review, the backstory that Maggie is a lesbian–not your average mystery hero, by any means–and by a blurb from Sara Gran, writer of one of my favorite books, as well as further comparisons to Gran. But no, not so much. It lacks the humor, pacing, and subtlety of Clare DeWitt. I’d highly suggest you try out Gran’s books over this one.

Writing sample:

“By midmorning she was already itchy. By quarter to twelve, concentration had become impossible. Two hours of staring at the Fitzgerald & Robbins employee handbook’s list of procedures, interspersed with Mike’s witty catchphrases, produced no new understanding of her fate. Revelation was all she was looking for, apparently, and the other daily requirements of being normal and functional sat in the way of her transformation into a person happy enough not to be a burden to others. But rules were rules, so Maggie hoped she could pic up what she needed to know on the job. Winging it was both her secret strength and fatal flaw.

By the time church bells announced noon’s arrival, she strategically waited two full minutes and then rand down the stairs and hurried the three blocks to the local YMCA. Rachel had made a map of all the 12 Step meetings in a ten-block radius, which was probably a violation of Rachel’s Al-Anon requirement: Don’t Be a Doormat; Don’t Be a Nag. But Maggie was grateful. She never would have made it through the day without support, and she never would have been able to think clearly enough to have figured out a list in advance of the moment of truth. Need was always a crisis and crisis always a surprise. There were a lot of meetings in Chelsea, the West village, and Midtown; debtors, meth heads, gamblers, purgers, people who were not loved and therefore loved others to a degree that someone deemed “too much.” Maggie’s lunch break was spent eating her nails at an NA meeting in the Y’s gray-carpeted rear room. Despite qualifying for many branches of Program, she new what itchy meant. It meant she was an addict and had to get her sorry ass to NA.

It didn’t take long, feeling ill as ease in her normally familiar folding chair, to realize that this meeting was the first time she’d entered the Rooms as an employed person. The difference was immediately obvious. her uncomfortable work clothes made her standard fallback, slouching, impossible. No longer able to huddle against the force of her own self-created misfortune, she had to sit upright, legs crossed at the ankles. fear of wrinkles, and even more stains, dictated her posture. the made it harder for Maggie to feel. Fear usually did that job. Refusing to collapse took a resolve that interfered with pain, making it secondary to the effort of sitting up. Was there still only room for one thing at a time in her broken-down machine of a body? either pain or maintenance? Pain or posture? This was not the goal. The goal was integration, to have it all–pain, posture, clean shirts, nuanced thoughts, clarity. Alina within arm’s reach. A self, a self. She had none of that, but today, for the first time since she had been stripped of her badge in disgrace, she had a job. Gratitude!” (p. 28).


That’s what a great deal of the book is like, a strange mix of the narrative voice with Maggie’s, and a very exhausting one at that. I wavered on rating, and whether or not to do so. As I shared the quote, I realized my disinterest is also about subject and narrative choice. The writing itself is occasionally excellent, and the characters were all-too-human. Unfortunately, much of it is very rooted in a particular time period, particularly Trump’s presidency, and a NYC that is experiencing the same cultural shifting as the rest of the country.

Had it been differently written, I might have stayed with it long enough to finish. After all, Matt Scudder spent time in “the Program” in his mysteries, but I read the entire series, so it isn’t just the addiction angle. I think, for me, this was really more literary fiction about one woman’s search for personal growth with a tiny bit of a mystery, rooted at a particular place in time. It’s well done, but not for me.

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Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

Read September 2019
No recommendations come to mind
★    ★    

I don’t know what Marshall Smith was thinking, I truly don’t. Too casually dark for your average young adult and with themes of estrangement that will barely be relateable to younger readers, you would think this would be aimed towards adults. Yet with one of the narratives from a rather young eleven year-old, and a plot about getting the Devil his mojo back by getting Grandpa’s magic machine working again, it certainly skews young adult. Except the Devil is, you know, the Devil. Remember that review where I criticized the UF author for having Disney-fied demons and basically making the creatures from Hell cute? Marshall Smith’s Devil is definitely Not From The Same Place. Example:

“The Devil inclined his head, as if conceding the point. He bought a large vodka and left the counter, trailing his finger along the man’s shoulder as he walked off. The man was too drunk to notice. Later that afternoon, however, he finally realized how much his room-mate’s aged cat was getting on his nerves, and killed it, losing consciousness on the sofa with the animal’s neck still gripped in his hands. Around midnight the room-mate returned, worked out what had happened (not a tough piece of deduction, profoundly stoned though the room-mate was), and stabbed him in the heart with a dirty ten-inch chef’s knife. He died quickly, a faster resolution to his pain than the Devil would have preferred but it was not an exact science. You put stuff out there, and you got what you got. It’s a journey.”

This is an aside, mind you. It’s not germane to the story. There’s no value, except to show that the Devil really is casually Evil. But you see what I mean? Marshall Smith tries to through a little humor in their about a dumb stoner (ha, ha), why, exactly? And then applying a New Age mantra to creating Evil? Super-funny, ha-ha, because we just witnessed an animal killing and a homicide. Hee-hee.

In the spirit of Anti-Hero, Marshall Smith then tries to introduce a Worse Thing that may mean the Devil is preferable.  What can be worse than this level of casual evil? Well, it took a bit to be introduced to them (as in, halfway through the book), but they seemed the typical Ultimate Evil sort.

I couldn’t help thinking of John Connolly as I read, he of the Samuel Johnson trilogy (published 2010), of an eleven year-old boy who ends up trying to shut the gates of Hell, and in book two, takes an inadvertent trip through it. Interestingly, his parents are also separated. Both books contain narratives from their eleven-year-old protagonists, but while Samuel Johnson seems perceptive and somewhat precocious, Hannah seems mostly lost and focused on trying to recover her previous reality.

Connolly manages the right balance of funny-with-scary, combined with a swift plot, that makes it a joy to read in comparison to this somber and grey-scale version. Actually, I’ve made up my mind; Connolly has the YA version that will appeal to all ages, and Marshall Smith has the version that will resonate with the fifty-year old that can only remember fun through the distance of decades. 

Marshall Smith is a gorgeous writer, no doubts there, and any lesser writer probably would have resulted in a DNF. This is nicely crafted, but hampered by a slow-moving plot and fragmented perspectives.

    “And so you bravely pick up the existential pencil and sketch a few opening sentences, the speculative first paragraph. You encourage the woman or man you love to write alongside you, relishing the co-authoring of this huge improvisational adventure, this big and beautiful game. You write and write and write and it all seems so very easy, and before you know it you’re already on Chapter Sixteen and that’s great because just look how much you’ve done, and how very good it is… or will be, definitely, when you’ve had a chance to give it an edit.     

Until the lunch in Lost Gatos when you realize there will be no second draft, that your wife doesn’t love you any more, and you’ve been writing with indelible ink all along.”

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A Dangerous Man by Robert Crais

Read September 2019
Recommended for fans of Crais
★    ★    ★   

Here’s the scoop:

A Dangerous Man is distressingly like Taken (Cole/Pike book #15), except that we skip the twist. It also reads more coherently; though Crais can’t resist cutting other viewpoints, including that of the kidnapper, the action is more streamlined on kidnapping and recovery.

On a related note, it seems that Crais might be succumbing to what I consider the Parker Phenomenon; ie., the gradual simplification of the book as a work of creation through the course of a long career (So named because the difference between the beginning Spencer books and the end Spencer books is so stark that they might have been written by different people).  Along with scene and word simplification comes greater white space. What do I mean? This one is broken into sections, with a faceplace to each section, and each section broken into short chapters. At almost halfway through the book, I was on ‘Chapter 25.’ Loads of white space in the margin. I remember that trick from college, the one where you stretch out the margins to 1.25″? Overall, just not the same caliber as L.A. Requiem or even Chasing Darkness. I mean, I wouldn’t begrudge either of them quitting; honest. After 25 years doing the same thing, I’d be bored too. Can’t they just re-brand or something, like yogurt or Subway and call it the Lite version? ‘Joe Pike: Improved! Faster than Ever! Finish Your Book in Record Time!’

Speaking of, it does move fast, once the pieces fall into place. Crais thankfully avoided a couple of the tropes he pulled on in prior books, so that adds an feeling of difference. Besides, it is always nice to witness Joe be an agent of retribution, or vengeance, or something like that. It’s like John Connolly, only happy. Action-movie version.

I noted some vaguely uncomfortable bits in dialogue and texting between two twenty-something single women, that felt vaguely … weird. Did Crais sub this out to his niece? It feels incongruent. Again, just not up to earlier caliber. I can’t tell if I was supposed to laugh, or feel like the women were ‘real-life’ or what, but their sexuality and obliviousness just didn’t sit well with me. Add it to the lack of atmosphere, character depth or subtly, and I’m starting to file Crais into my mental ‘airport-level-thriller’ category of read and forget (I mean quickly, as opposed to my normal level of forgetting).

The mom’s getting this one in large-print, so we’ll see what she thinks.

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The Wrong Case by James Crumley

Read August to September 2019
Recommended for fans of boozers
★   ★    

Was this a mystery? Nominally. Was this an extended bender through the days of Milo’s feeble attempts to distract himself from the drunken ennui of his life? Most definitely.

“Age and sorrow, those were my only assets, my largest liabilities.
But like most men who drink too much, I had spent most of my life considering my dismal future, and it had stopped amusing me. So I had another drink and walked over to the north window to look down on the happy, employed folk of Meriwether.”

Helen Duffy is the classic beautiful dame walking into the solitary PI’s office, looking for help finding her missing brother. It takes us through a tour of Milo’s seedy life, his estranged co-worker, Jamison; his sort-of-fence and sort-of-son, Muffin; his best bar-friend, Simon, and then through choices places of the town.

“Most of Meriwether’s freaks, dopers, hippies and assorted young folk lived on the north side of town in an old blue-collar neighborhood, which the earlier residents had deserted in favor of take developments on the south side of town, but the neighborhood was still pleasant in a small-town way–inexpensive but fairly well-built houses that aged nicely, like a handsome woman, the yards shaded by old trees and overgrown with evergreen shrubbery and flowering bushes.”

Milo is an alcoholic first, and a half-hearted investigator second, and the story feels like its more about his alcoholic aspirations towards a decent woman (who would be wife #3) than a gumshoe mystery.

Crumley can write, there’s no doubt. But this is 1975, in a slummy northwest town with growing pains: tourists versus locals, hippies and freaks versus the old guard, heroin and coke versus alcohol and pot. There’s a commune, more or less; the tiniest awareness of gay issues; free love; but mostly lots of alcohol and passed out drunks. This is very time period, very barfly and very non-sensitive. Even more disheartening, though Milo is aware of his shortcomings, he’ll continue to choose the booze every time. It is a time and character portrait, but is as depressing as only a dead-end bar can be.

Given a choice between watching an dysfunctional alcoholic careen through bars and slums in a feeble effort to find a missing brother, all in the hopes of getting laid by a beautiful woman, or following a functional alcoholic as he attempts to help a beautiful hooker leave her john (Scudder, Eight Million Ways to Die), I know which one I’d choose. 

 

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When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen

Read August to September 2019
Recommended for fans of poetry
★   ★    ★   

#3 on the recent attempt at TBR books that Turned Out to be Okay But Not Amazing

Asthetics were totally pleasing and tempting. Love the cover, love the formatting of the poetry, love the repetition of the name. And that title! How could I not give it a try?

Along with a ‘Foreword,’ it contains an introduction, three sections and an afterword. In the foreword, Jericho Brown writes, “a speaker whose obsessive and curious nature is that of an adult who refuses to give up seeing through the eyes of an adolescent, one who believes that the world is a malleable place and that asking the right questions changes its form.”

I don’t know about the later bit, but I would agree that the feel of these poems is that of an young person, though through collegiate age more than ‘adolescent.’ In fact, I was highly reminded of my own college years and discussions with non-American born friends. This, I suppose, a testament to a strength and weakness of the collection. Most of it was about identity (gay, Chinese, immigrant, young), and the not unexpected issues that come with that time period. Relationships are particularly important, particularly with parents and God (or lack thereof), along with themes of sexuality, race, parental illness and love.

‘In the Hospital’

My mother was in the hospital & everyone wanted to be my friend.
but I was busy making a list: good dog, bad citizen, short
skeleton, tall mocha. Typical Tuesday.
My mother was in the hospital & no one wanted to be her friend.
Everyone wanted to be soft cooing sympathies. Very reasonable
pigeons. No one had the time & our solution to it
was to buy shiner watches. We were enamored with
what our wrists could declare. My mother was in the hospital
& I didn’t want to be her friend. Typical son. Tall latte, short tale
bad plot, great wifi in the atypical cafe. My mother was in the hospital
& she didn’t want to be her friend. she wanted to be the family
grocery list. Low-fat yogurt, firm tofu. She didn’t trust my father
to be it. You always forget something, she said, even when
I do the list for you. Even then.’

Warning: he tends to talk a lot about his mother.

Style is usually free-form, with a lyricism that reminds me of Adrienne Rich and usually works for me. Occasionally he is capable of sublime description:

‘The reader’s face is a child’s rapt face. The book is her latest
soul, disguised as a more or less acceptable concrete object.
The child is happy. The afternoon a novel.’

–from ‘In Search of the Least Abandoned Constellation

There’s also some playful, lyrical bits:

‘i pledge allegiance to the already fallen snow
& to the snow now falling. to the old snow & the new.
to foot & paw & tire prints in the snow both young & aging,
the deep & shallow marks left on cold streets, our long

misbegotten manuscripts. i pledge allegiance to the weather
report that promises more snow, plus freezing rain.
though i would minus the pluvial & plus the multitude

of messages pressed muddy into the perfectly
mutable snow, i have faith in the report that goes on to read:
by the end of the week, there will be an increased storm-related
illegibility of the asphalt & concrete & brick. for i pledge’

–from ‘For I Will Do/Undo What Was Done/Undone To Me

Interestingly, though it reminded me in many ways, both stylistically and thematically of The Dream of a Common Language,** the poetry was more temporal and culturally defined, and thus didn’t transcend as well. Here, in 2019, I can read Dream and empathize. Chen mentions Starbucks, reality tv, Journey to the West, Monkey King’s quest, Power Rangers, Cheney (as in Dick), and Harry Potter (at least twice). Which is fine–don’t get me wrong–but I think that is part of what feels both adolescent and specific about this collection.

It also feels like Chen occasionally works too hard to mash some of his images together (see above list). Along those lines, the poems seem to occasionally lack a consistent finish, despite many of them seeming to tell a story. The above poem that ostensibly talks about snow, streets and writing concludes with a stanza about the listener forgetting a suitcase as they fly to another country “& the weather where your true love is/ governed by principles or persons you can’t name” which just seems abrupt from everything that went before.

Still, there’s a lot to like here. I think it will resonate more fully if one is finding themselves struggling with similar issues or in a similar age period.

‘Self Portrait As So Much Potential

Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango.

As friendly as a tomato. Merciless to chin & shirtfront.
Realizing I hate the word “sip.”
But that’s all I do.
I drink. So slowly.
& say I’m tasting it. When I’m just bad at taking in liquid.’

I agree; lots of potential.

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Bad Blood by John Carryou

Read July 2019
Recommended for fans of exposés
★   ★    ★   

Lessons learned:

  1. Elizabeth Holmes speaks in an unusually deep voice.
  2. What matters is who you know. If you look good and have the right connections, you can get millions of dollars for your imaginary device, particularly if you model it on the iPhone and dress like Steve Jobs.
  3. Even very rich people can be stupid with money.
  4. Sometimes the people that aren’t stupid are only supporting you for the money.

Rather outside my normal genres of mystery, sci-fi and fantasy, Bad Blood intrigued me both because of its medical focus and because I heard it was a particularly well-done story. Although I will once again offer up a more appropriate title: Bad Blood Tech, because the blood itself here is perfectly fine. Absolutely normal, in fact. Perfectly healthy blood that’s put into a nefarious machine, sold by a flim-flam operator of the highest level.

The storytelling is very straight-forward, generally devoid of literary flourishes and with only minor asides. In fact, at times the writing seems simplistic. On reflection, I think Carreyrou had to keep his sentences as factual as possible, knowing that Holmes’ lawyers would go over every word looking to dispute it. As such, it reads quickly. Until, that is, you you develop Toxic Exposure Syndrome, the experience of immersing yourself in the world of unrepentant and awful people. I found I had to take a break, and once stopped, was reluctant to pick it up. I solved my little dilemma by reading backwards, and was relieved to discover that the narrative eventually switches from the meteoric ‘rise’ of Thantos to the development of the Wall Street Journal‘s expose. That’s when the crazy took an actively evil direction with Thantos harassing former employees, potential sources and anyone who might speak to Carreyrou about Thantos.

What surprised me the most about this story is how many people Elizabeth Holmes was able to convince to part with their money. Sure, it seems she genuinely believed in her product and its potential. But the goal was a product used to test blood for diagnostic purposes. Even the most simple nurse (cough-cough) could tell you that there’s certification involved. This isn’t a Kickstarter for your new book, or a new design for luggage, or even an up-and-coming app that will tell you if the concert you are at will burst your eardrums (this is a thing). Tests almost always have to be run past the FDA. But basically, thanks to an impressive amount of seed money through family connections, she was able to keep her pyramid scam going by finding new people and just enough opportunities to parlay small successes into looking like big ones. Until they turned to outright lies.

I do have to thank Carreyrou, though. We were sitting around work in the break room the other day, in our fifteen by fifteen space shared by roughly twenty people a shift, and someone was commiserating on how awful our jobs were right now. “Well,” I said, “at least we have our souls.”

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A Time of Torment by John Connolly

Read July 2019
Recommended for series fans
★   ★    ★  

Here’s the thing: I’ve been reading Bad Blood and I was in the mood for some retribution, so I switched to Connolly’s Charlie Parker series. Being more than a bit skittish with torture-porn, the title stirred some misgivings, but I can’t skip a book this late in the game. To absolutely no one’s surprise, much of the book seems to center on torture. While that’s not unusual for Connolly, what is unusual is the extent of it as a leitmotif in many variations. This, apparently, allows Parker to become a hunter of evil.

I mean, I get it. You aren’t going to use a vengeful fallen angel on just any old embezzler or murderer, right? But the book opens with a peek into the head of the current home of an evil spirit who resides in a man who really gets his groove on by torturing the survivors of missing persons. Parker & Co. pay a visit, seeking some information. We then move on to a bar, where a woman is picking up a man, the mark for her three-person team, but little does she know that the tables will be turned. Parker is then visited by a heroic ex-con who wants justice against those who set him up, and who have likely ‘disappeared’ two of the people he saved. Is he a genuine hero or a pedophile or both?

Meanwhile, we are checking in with a small town and a small boy who lives with his mother and grandmother and who has a talent for seeing things he shouldn’t. There’s a very tightly knit family at the center of a large piece of property and they have no tolerance for trespassers–or anything that might draw legal attention their way. Yes, yes; Parker runs into yet another cult.

The beginning is rather distressing for those with low torture tolerance (me) and may require some skimming. But it’s still written well, and if it isn’t fun, at least the reader knows there will be punishment. But the Evil does seem to get out of control in this book, mostly because the sheer preponderance of the ways people can inflict torture on each other (really; if I can’t think of one that wasn’t used, it’s because I don’t want to brainstorm), but also because doesn’t come close to being balanced with Parker, Lewis or Angel, all of whom carry their own kinds of darkness. 

The narrative and plot unify in the last half of the book; in the Acknowledgements, Connolly calls it an ‘odd book,’ and I’m inclined to agree, because it feels more patchwork than it ought for the first third (quiet about my math). A slight bit touching on the supernatural as always. Does it progress our knowledge? Only slightly, to note Parker’s role is no longer tortured, but purposeful.

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Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry by Christie Wilcox

Read July 2019
Recommended for people who really like venoms
★   ★   1/2

First of all, let’s just knock it off with those subtitles, shall we? Because I am so tired of having to rewrite them in my head. If you took all the biochemistry in this book and distilled it, I think you’d have fifteen pages, plus a couple of diagrams. So, no. How about, ‘Exploring Venoms and Their Various Effects’? Not sexy, I know. But frankly, is biochemistry? No, it’s not. In fact, they were the geeks at my school. The only ones higher on the nerd-brain scale were the neuro-psych majors. (You could argue geo-physics was pretty nerdy too, but I didn’t know anyone who actually did such things). What, you say? I digress? Well, yes, I do. Just like Wilcox does.

You want a very good review, please check out Jennifer’s thoughts here . I read it anyway, because Jennifer is a biologist, and I was kind of hoping there was a fair amount of information in here that she was taking for granted. Not really. Listen to Jennifer, people!

And I’ll tell you quite frankly, she was absolutely correct: Wilcox is not a very good writer. I hope she is better at research in the lab, because frankly, her anecdotes show she is also kind of terrible at decision-making in the field (approaching a Komodo dragon? Touching a rock without looking while diving? Sending kids to find sea urchins where they can find dangerous ones?) Furthermore, the pictures in the book are of rather poor quality. That is to say, were they blown up and poster-size, they’d be awesome resources. Shrunk to 5×4 inches, not so much. I can’t even read what’s going on. The one with the different animals acting on different parts of the clotting cascade is ridiculous, and not in a ha-ha kind of way.

But, if you are tempted, this is what you will find in Nine Chapters:

  1. Masters of Physiology: platypus. So cute! Except their venom-secreting spurs. Venoms and how chromotography advanced their study. Genomics now advancing it.
  2. Death Becomes Them: median lethal dosage to determine potency (with a Phylum chart, fun! Stay away from box jellies and taipans (snake) where it takes 0.01 IV. She then discusses some ins and outs of how humans perceived venoms through history, then segues into evolution. There’s a theory, the ‘Snake Detection Theory,’ that predation pressure pushed primates into needing more acute vision. This is tied to the fact that primates seem instinctively afraid of and visually sensitive to snakes, as well as the more ‘lethal’ snakes being the Old World vipers. She then points out mosquitos actual have the most ‘lethal’ venom in the sense that they kill millions through being a vector for bacteria. (There’s also an aside on what it might mean to kill all the mosquitos. Answer: no one is sure, but it’s a large biomass to remove).
  3. Of Mongeese and Men: co-evolution, mostly between snakes and victims. Goes into innate and adaptive immune systems, and a short bit on how some anti-venom is made by injecting a horse with venom and then harvesting blood a few weeks later. Back to co-evolution; the reason mongooses can shrug off venom is because it has evolved changes in the cells that most snake neurotoxins target. Pigs, honey badgers, and hedgehogs all have evolved versions of this as well. There’s some speculation that snakes may have developed more lethal venom because of pressure from predation. It concludes with a segment about “self-immunizers” who actually have an acronym, ‘SI,’ and are clearly a little nutty.
  4. To the Pain: bullet ants (with picture), scorpion fish, Odysseus. The ‘cost’ of making venom and the evolution pressure. Sea urchin spines (with picture). This feels like the least sciency- chapter and is about Wilcox being daring.
  5. Bleed it Out: a nice explanation of blood, platelets, hemoglobin and hemotoxic venoms. Searching for the Lonomia moth caterpillar in Peru, whose spines cause a hemorrhagic syndrome by first setting off a clotting cascade and causing DIC. Interestingly, she wears skinny jeans on the airplane, her luggage gets lost and so she has to wear them in the jungle, because she’s never learned anything about the carry-on spare outfit. Then there’s leeches. She tells a story of a college instructor’s story (!) and has this for a paragraph, “Some venom molecules start at the beginning of the clotting cascade, binding to the platelet receptors or exposed ECM components such as collagen. Others break down or tie up ADP, XA2, epinephrine, and serotonin to keep them from acting. Then there are the ones that act further down the line, blocking thrombin and its key role in coagulation. There are enzymes: phopholipases, metalloproteases, hyaluronidases, and apyrases….” The list continues, then a new paragraph goes on to all the ways leeches have been used and how three anticoagulants in use now are venom-derived. Last little bit is a journey to meet a Komodo dragon (and having to be told not to get too close!) and learning it’s bite isn’t toxic so much as an anti-coagulant.
  6. All the Better to Eat You With: venoms can cause necrosis. She spends two pages imagining this in general. There’s a little bit of biochem here, where the phosopholipases break down muscle cell membranes, but then gets vague, as in, “additional venom enzymes, including hyaluronidases and serine proteases, add to the carnage.” The cell death activates the immune response, so inflammatory pathways also cause some of the damage. The ‘spider bite’ people have that sends them to the MD are probably MRSA in many cases. Brown recluse bites are nasty as a result of sphingomyelinase D which is also found in bacteria toxin. Snake imagery was very popular on flags during 1778. Then there’s two pages on what makes a good venom protein: secreted, do fundamental biochemical actions, are fast-acting, are stable, and come in bunches.
  7. Don’t Move: the blue-ringed octopus illustrates the sodium ion channel, which Wilcox tries very hard to explain. There’s even one of those small diagrams. This leads into cone snails,  which, once they injected into the brain, discovered different effects, including a pain-killer for people but a paralytic for fish. She then discusses the evolution rate of the cone snail gene and how it came to evolve so many different toxins.
  8. Mind Games: snake venoms and the weirdos who use them to get high, the jewel wasp and it’s zombie-making-neurotoxic venom.
  9. Lethal Lifesavers: famous drugs from venoms, including the newest diabetes drugs (Trulicity) from the Gila monster and Captopril (pit viper vasodilator) as well as potentially harvesting immune response to use in cancer or immune disorders

 

tl;dr: I think if you lower your expectations, you might glean some factoids, depending on your biological or animal or evolutionary knowledge.
You are welcome. You all owe me a thorough book review.

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