Sunday, September 10, 2017

Watch Me Disappear (Janelle Brown)

This one surprised me -- I definitely wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did.  But from the very first page of Janelle Brown's Watch Me Disappear, I was sucked in wanting to know what really happened to Billie Flanagan.  And it didn't go in the direction I thought it was heading, which is why I think I enjoyed it so much.

Billie Flanagan has disappeared into thin air.  One day, she tells Jonathan (her husband) and Olive (her daughter) that she's going on a solo hike, and they never hear from her again.  A year passes with them thinking something terrible has happened to her and that she is never coming home.  But then Olive starts having visions of her mother alive, while Jonathan finds out things about Billie's past that are disturbing.  The story races to its conclusion, with an epilogue that answers all the many questions readers are sure to have.

Yes, Billie is a main character, but she's written almost entirely in flashback.  In Brown's capable hands, we get to know her through the eyes of others, and because of that, we're not entirely sure who exactly can be trusted. To me, that's the best kind of book.


Friday, September 8, 2017

Pale Rider (Laura Spinney)

Pale Rider is Laura Spinney's comprehensive and well-written account of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 and 1919. This event killed over 50 million individuals and altered the course of not only one world war but indirectly may have set the initial stages for a second world war two decades after it ravaged the globe in short order.

Spinney attacks the Spanish Flu on multiple fronts; first, engaging us in a brief history of pandemics and epidemics of flu over history, the uncertainty over the origins of the Spanish Flu epidemic and how the misnomer of its name began, followed by the societal impacts of the outbreak on the entirety of global civilization. Instead of hearing solely about Europe or the United States, the author incorporates stories from each of the continents to show the global nature of the outbreak, the differences in response, and how the global community was irrevocably changed by it.

This outbreak is often lost in the shadows of World War I when many historians have attributed the end of the war to it. It's an interesting and, until recently, a relatively unknown event in our history even though in many places it killed more than enlisted casualties from World War I. Spinney does a remarkable job of painting the tragedy on multiple fronts and puts this in the appropriate context of a world that was in a massive state of upheaval due to war, revolution, and disease. It's a quick, intelligent read that will captivate and educate.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Woman in the Window (A.J. Finn)

There's a lot of buzz right now about A.J. Finn's The Woman in the Window, and when it comes out in January 2018, I think it's going to be huge.  Everyone from Tess Gerritsen to Louise Penny has already sung its praises. I'm about to do the same.

The thing about this novel is that it keeps you constantly on your toes, never 100% sure of what is happening or even if what the narrator tells you is actually true.  Our narrator is Anna Fox, a woman with severe agoraphobia, who insists that she saw a murder in a neighboring house.  If this sounds like it's straight out of Hitchcock, that's probably true.  Since Anna doesn't go outside, she is a classic film buff, and old movie themes play prominently in the storyline.  Chapters are short -- very clever since that keeps the pages turning and the reading light on late at night.

Twists abound in The Woman in the Window.  A colleague of mine read this at the same time as I did, and it was interesting that she guessed one twist and I guessed another.  Neither of us suspected the other's correctly guessed twist.  That's what makes this book really original and a supremely fun read.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Retreat of Western Liberalism (Edward Luce)

Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism is a short but very comprehensive take on the current state of affairs in Europe and the United States.  Luce touches on the economic, social, and political causes of the rise of nationalism and its battle with an increasingly interconnected world, staking the argument that classical liberal values such as freedom and liberty are at risk.

This is a book that can be read cover to cover in a few hours -- a dedicated afternoon or at most two should be able to knock it out -- but it is one that is definitely worth reading if you are interested in the root causes of the current world situation and can afford to leave your ideological herd for a spell. Luce casts blame at all sides and at a number of events over the past decades to show the slippery slope and how that descent has steepened.

The author spends ninety percent of the book arguing the causes and ten percent touching on solutions, a bit of a disappointment given how strong the first three parts of the book were. Luce admitted that he was not in the predictions game regarding our future.  However, the book’s closing felt incomplete without some additional red meat content that he felt would address the issues that plague America beyond mere mentioning of a few basic talking points.  Despite this, The Retreat of Western Liberalism is worth reading and will provide moments that make everyone in the room think (and perhaps even get annoyed) as their worldview is challenged. 


Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Lying Game (Ruth Ware)

A few months ago, I sat down to read Ruth Ware's The Woman in Cabin 10 and finished it in a 24-hour time period.  As I said then in my review, that's very rare for me -- I usually prefer to take my time with a book to really savor it.  With that one though, I couldn't put it down.  Ware's The Lying Game didn't quite have that same effect on me, but it was still a good read.

Ware takes her own time to build up the suspense, so this is definitely a slow-burning novel.  After Isa receives a text message from her old friend Kate, she immediately packs up her baby daughter and heads to Salten to see what's wrong.  The other members of their group, Fatima and Thea, also come, and Kate tells them that a long-buried secret of what they had done as schoolgirls has returned.  These girls had once been known for playing "The Lying Game," and it seems now that they will pay the consequences as adults.

The overarching problem of The Lying Game is that none of the characters are particularly likable or even that interesting.  But since this is primarily a plot-driven novel, Ware is able to make up for this deficit with her atmospheric writing and suspenseful story.


Friday, July 28, 2017

The Essex Serpent (Sarah Perry)

With the amount of praise and publicity Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent has been getting, I was fully expecting one of those rare "unputdownable" books.  While much of this Victorian era novel didn't quite work to grab my attention, I certainly admire Perry's gorgeous writing style and thorough effort on researching.  These factors contribute to me having something an unbiased reviewer should never have: guilt in giving a lower rating to a book that obviously was written with the utmost care.  

The cast of characters are a motley crew, led by Cora, a widow who doesn't quite act in the way you would expect, and William, a parson who grows close to her.  I found both of these people almost unbearably dull; the supporting characters are often so much more interesting than the leads.  It is rumored that the Essex Serpent has returned to the local village, and this is the plot point that all the various storylines revolve around.  When the reader finally gets a resolution to whether or not the serpent is real, it feels like a letdown, for that really doesn't seem like what this novel is about after all.

In my opinion, The Essex Serpent is one of those books that you either loved or...didn't.  For me, it definitely didn't live up to the high expectations I had before reading it.


Monday, July 24, 2017

Climate Change and the Health of Nations (Anthony J. McMichael)

Climate Change and the Health of Nations was written by Anthony J. McMichael and published after he passed away in 2014.  McMichael was an epidemiologist at Australian National University and spent a significant amount of his career researching the impact of climate change on human health.  His work is a remarkable historical reflection of that but sadly doesn’t finish up what was started due to his death.

The author spends much of his book noting the historical ebb and flow of Earth’s climate, its significance on life, and the impact that disease and illness have had on populations over the era of human existence.  McMichael ties in natural fluctuations in climate to changes in agricultural productivity during human existence and how they impacted disease spread.  As an example, the spread of Bubonic Plague in the 6th and 14th centuries was tied directly to temperature changes that occurred in various parts of the world, spread by human migration and trade.  The author ties all of these points together with solid impact to deliver a very solid first 200+ pages.

In my opinion, more attention should have been given to potential impacts of future climate change on human health.  Whether the author’s passing lead to an abbreviated closure or whether it was an oversight is not important -- but it does fail to bring proper closure to the book given how much time was spent talking about human health and climate.  While some health impacts are discussed, more attention could have been given to future health and economic impact for Earth’s populations and less to politics to deliver a more powerful concluding impact. Climate change as a subject, whether we like to admit it or not, has become overtly politicized, and it would have been refreshing to see a less political ending