Monday, April 16, 2018

Thunderstruck

by Erik Larson
463 pgs

I read very little non-fiction. Maybe two or three books out of every one hundred I read is non-fiction. I think the reason I favor fiction so much more is that I read primarily to be entertained, not to learn. It’s a little sad, now that I think about it, but I don’t anticipate changing anytime soon. So, the non-fiction I do read also tends to be entertaining. Erik Larson’s books are perfect examples.

Larson has a great talent for taking an event or a time in history and dissecting it into fascinating bits of information, and then reassembling them into a narrative that is both compelling and informative. A great example is The Devil in the White City in which he details the series of grisly murders which took place in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition. He does a very similar thing with Thunderstruck, in which he recounts two events from history: the scientific discovery and utilization of wireless telegraphy (radio waves), which took place at the turn of the 20th century and the infamous murder known as the “Crippen case,” and shows how inseparably connected those two events were to each other.

In the late 1890s Guglielmo Marconi developed the world’s first device that could transmit signals wirelessly. At first his device was only able to transmit communications from one side of a room to the other, but eventually he was able to develop the technology enough to transmit messages across the Atlantic Ocean, and ultimately around the world. It was a technology that revolutionized the world.

At the same time Marconi was developing radio technology, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a quiet unassuming man who was married to a loud, overbearing, socialite of a wife, was systematically plotting her death. It was a murder which years later would be the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” and one that Crippen undoubtedly would have gotten away with, if it hadn’t been for Marconi.

I have yet to read a book by Larson that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone without reservation. In a time when we take for granted the ability to communicate with anyone and obtain information from anywhere in the world without effort, it was fascinating to learn the origins of the technology. The fact that its history was tied to one of the most notorious cases of mariticide in British history was an added bonus.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Escape Artist

by Brad Meltzer
434 pgs

It’d been several years since I read a book by Brad Meltzer. I’m not 100% positive why I stopped reading them, but if my memory serves me, I had had enough of his eye-roll-inducing dialogue and decided to give up on him. So, I’m not sure what possessed me to picked up The Escape Artist to see what it was about. When I read the summary, and learned that Meltzer focused his “decoded” lens on Harry Houdini, I thought I’d give him another try.

The action begins right out of the gate, with a small plane going down somewhere over the Alaskan wilderness. One of its passengers, a young woman, has just enough time to write a small note and swallow it before dying in the crash.

The story then moves to Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, where Army mortician Jim Zigarowski (Zig) prepares the bodies of U.S. military personnel for burial. He’s the best there is, the one called on for the most difficult jobs of reconstructing facial features and giving the family the opportunity to see their loved ones one last time. When he sees the names of the bodies that just arrived from Alaska, one of them hits too close to home: Nola Brown. Nola was a friend of his own daughter, who died tragically years ago. Zig has never gotten over her death and feels that by doing what he can to repair Nola’s body he will be honoring the memory of his daughter.

When Zig finds the brief note in the woman’s stomach, he discovers that the woman isn’t Nola Brown. He also realizes that the real Nola is still alive, and in terrible danger. It’s up to Zig to discover who wanted Nola dead, and why. Along the way he uncovers a top-secret organization, one whose origins tie back to Harry Houdini, and the suspected role he played as a spy for the U.S. and British governments before World War I.

Overall, I enjoyed The Escape Artist. The characters are solid and the story is entertaining. I even thought the dialogue was a marked improvement from the last of Meltzer’s books I read. Maybe I’ll have to put Meltzer back on my radar.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Friday, April 6, 2018

Britt-Marie Was Here

by Fredrik Backman
324 pgs


Britt-Marie, who was introduced as a side character in Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, is a 63-year-old woman who arrives in the small town of Borg, having recently left her husband after discovering his infidelity. She’s socially awkward, an obsessive tidier and cleaner, and the type of person who believes people should behave a certain way, and doesn’t have much patience for them when they don’t. During her 40-year marriage, Britt-Marie rarely left her flat, and as a result, is, as her husband describes her “socially incompetent.”

Upon arriving in Borg, Britt-Marie gets a job as the caretaker for the rundown Recreational Center, where she meets a group of youth who love to play football (soccer), but who lack both skill and talent for the game. They also lack a coach for their ragtag team and somehow manage to convince Britt-Marie to fill the vacancy.

As the story progresses it’s hard to tell whose life is affected more by the relationships that form between Britt-Marie and the kids. Britt-Marie applies her fastidious nature to caring for the kids, and the kids, in turn, broaden Britt-Marie’s understanding and love for the world she’s been sheltered from for so long. They both grow thanks to the other, and by the end, it’s clear why Backman gave the book the title he did.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Colorado Kid

by Stephen King
124 pgs

With The Colorado Kid, Stephen King tips his hat to the style and genre of storytelling that he grew up enjoying so much. It’s a short mystery that begins with the body of an unidentified man discovered on a small island off the coast of Maine in 1980. The story is being told years later by two reporters from The Weekly Islander, the small local newspaper that covers the news on the island, to Stephanie McCann, a young intern working for the paper.

The body, which was found by two teenagers before school, is that of a man unknown to anyone on the island. There was no wallet or identification found on him and he apparently died from choking on a piece of meat, which was found half eaten and stuck down his throat. The only clue the police have is a pack of cigarettes, which bears a stamp from the state of Colorado on the bottom, found in his pocket. The investigation that takes place reveals more questions than answers. Questions such as why the man, whom doctors a sure was not a smoker himself, was carrying the pack of cigarettes.

If you’re the type who gets frustrated if every question doesn’t get answered by the end of the book, this book may not be for you. The story is more about the mystery surrounding The Colorado Kid, and the retelling of the case by two old mentors to their young intern.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Sandman

by Lars Kepler
449 pgs  (Joona Linna series #4)

As The Sandman begins, a young man named Mikael Kohler-Frost is found wandering along a snowy railroad bridge near Stockholm, nearly dead from both sickness and malnourishment. It’s the first time he’s been seen since he and his younger sister Felicia went missing from their home 13 years ago.

Thirteen years ago, when the two disappeared, Detective Inspector Joona Linna with Sweden’s National Crime Force investigated the disappearance, but was never able to determine what happened. The official police verdict was that the children drowned in the river by their home, but Linna always suspected they had been victims of Jurek Walter, one of Sweden’s most notorious serial killer, who is currently serving a life sentence in a maximum-security psychiatric institution.

Detective Linna always suspected Jurek had an accomplice working with him, but was never able to prove it. Now that Mikael has escaped, he’s sure there was one, and that he’s out there and still has Felicia. He has to somehow get Jurek to talk and reveal where Felicia is being kept. His only chance is Saga Bauer, a beautiful female agent willing to go deep undercover as a patient in the institution to get to Jurek.

The Sandman is the fourth book Lars Kepler’s (pseudonym for husband-and-wife team Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril) series featuring Inspector Joona Linna, and I’m disappointed in myself for not knowing about the series until now. The book has some definite flaws, but I found myself not really caring about those, because I was enjoying the story so much. There are elements of the story that reminded me of Silence of the Lambs, and the chapters are so brief, it’s hard not to justify reading “just one more” before putting the book down.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles
462 pgs

Occasionally, a book comes out that I wouldn’t normally consider reading, but that for some reason or other, I seem fated to read. I’ll pick it up and read the summary on the flap, and think it looks interesting, but there are so many other books I want to read, I’ll never get around to it. So, I put it back down. But then the universe seems to start working on getting me to read it. I see it displayed prominently in the “Staff Picks” section in all the bookstores I enter, it’s recommended to me by multiple people, and I keep picking it back up when I see it in bookstores and rereading the description. When that happens, I eventually give in and buy it. A Gentleman in Moscow is one of those books.

Count Alexander Rostov has been sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s esteemed Metropol hotel by the country’s new Soviet regime. His crime was writing a counter-revolutionary poem, and for his punishment, he’s branded a “Former Person” and sentenced to live out his days residing on the top floor of the hotel, in a room barely 100 feet square.

The book spans decades, and while one would think that telling a story that covers that much time, all within the walls of a single building would limit the story in some way, Towles manages to tell a story that is both grand and intimate at the same time.

Count Rostov is a fantastic character. He’s refined, intelligent, witty, and sensitive. He’s easy to like and I found myself quickly becoming fascinated by his life in the hotel, and the stories of his life prior to the Metropol. He creates a family within the hotel for himself, with members of the staff and those who come to stay at the hotel included. He experiences the love a father has for a child with a young girl who becomes his ward, all while living in a cramped room barely big enough for a bed and a desk.

I’ve learned to trust the universe’s advice when it wants me to read a book, and A Gentleman in Moscow is a perfect example of why.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Borne

by Jeff Vandermeer
323 pgs

Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne is one of the stranger books among those in the dystopian fiction genre. It’s narrated by Rachel, a 28-year-old who lives with Wick in an old apartment building, filled with booby traps and disguised as a refuse heap. Rachel spends her days scavenging for scraps of food and supplies throughout the destroyed city they live in. She and Wick also live their lives hiding from Mord, a bear the size of a department store…who can fly.

One day, while scavenging, Rachel comes across a dark purple object about the size of her fist, and takes it back to her and Wick’s apartment. The object resembles a cross between a squid and a sea anemone. It can change color, starts to grow, begins to move, and one day…begins to speak. Rachel names it Borne and begins treating it like a pet. But Wick is suspicious of Borne. Small objects and even animals begin to disappear and Wick believes Borne is responsible.

He suspects Borne comes from the same place as Mord did, “the Company,” an enigmatic biotech company that filled the world with strange and bizarre products before going silent. But Borne is different than any other biotechnology they’ve come across before. It has the ability to learn and to transform itself into any object, living or non-living at will.

Vandermeer never explains how the world got to the state it’s in when his story starts. Readers should be prepared to have a lot of questions they’ll have go unanswered throughout the story. But if they can avoid getting hung up on those questions, they should enjoy the story for what it is, a bizarre and unsettling story about human and non-human intelligence and how far it could go.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆