Sunday, January 17, 2021

Four Lost Cities

Four Lost Cities by Annalee Newitz
2/2/21; 320 pages
W.W. Norton & Company 

Four Lost Cities by Annalee Newitz is a highly recommended entertaining and informative look at four cities from history that were abandoned. Everyone loves a good lost city story, but these cities weren't actually lost, people knew they existed, but they were deserted.

Newitz writes: "Modern metropolises are by no means destined to live forever, and historical evidence shows that people have chosen to abandon them repeatedly over the past eight thousand years. It’s terrifying to realize that most of humanity lives in places that are destined to die. The myth of the lost city obscures the reality of how people destroy their civilizations. This book is about that reality, which we’ll explore in four of the most spectacular examples of urban abandonment in human history." The four ancient cities examined are Çatalhöyük, Pompeii, Angkor, and Cahokia.

Çatalhöyük is a Neolithic site buried beneath two low hills in the Anatolian region of Central Turkey that was founded around 9,000 years ago. People here were settling down into agricultural life after living as nomads. The population was probably between 5,000 and 20,000 for about a millennium. Pompeii is the most well known city. It was a Roman tourist town on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean until the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 and buried the city under a deep layer of volcanic ash. The medieval megacity of Angkor in Cambodia experienced a slow-motion abandonment and destruction as the city was hit by climate catastrophes lasting a century. The indigenous metropolis Cahokia was the largest city in North America before the arrival of Europeans. It grew from a small village located on the Mississippi River bottom where East St. Louis is today to a sprawling metropolis of over 30,000 people and covered both sides of the river. The many groups of people who composed this city and shared spiritual practices eventually experienced several droughts which changed their practices, and they divided back into their individual groups and left.   

Four Lost Cities is written in a very accessible manner, so even the layperson who is interested in archaeology but hardly a scholar, can easily understand the information Newitz presents. They traveled to all four sites and talked to many of the researchers and scientists studying the sites and they share the new, cutting edge theories and interpretations of what life was like in the cities, before, during and after their decline. And that is the really interesting fact - these cities experienced a slow decline, with the obvious exception of Pompeii, that occurred over decades or longer. People chose to leave the cities, and for good reasons. Each of the cities encountered lengthy periods of political instability joined with major environmental problems.

Personally I found Newitz's focus on the everyday people that built and populated these cities and their functions in that particular society fascinating. It is also refreshing to see the new archaeological focus on how each society likely function rather than observing it through the lens of Western Civilization. All of the observations shared are well-researched. They talked to the experts currently involved with the sites and information is included in chapter notes if you would like to pursue more information.

My review copy was courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company via Netgalley.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Survivors

The Survivors by Jane Harper
2/2/21; 384 pages
Flatiron Books

The Survivors by Jane Harper is a very highly recommended novel of suspense.

Kieran Elliott, his partner, Mia, and their baby, Audrey, live is Sidney, but have returned to Evelyn Bay, on the Tasmanian coast. He has returned to help his mother pack up the house in preparation for selling it. His father, Brian, has dementia and needs to move into a nursing facility while his mother, Verity, will move somewhere nearby. Kieran and Mia meet that evening with Ash, Olivia, and Sean, at the Surf and Turf, a local eating establishment, where Olivia and her roommate, college student Bronte Laidler, are working. Returning to Evelyn Bay is a rare occurrence for Kieran. Twelve years ago he was involved in a tragedy during a terrible storm that resulted in the death of his brother Finn, and Sean's brother Toby. Olivia's younger sister, Gabby, also died that night. Kieran lives daily with guilt, feeling that Finn and Toby died because of him and there are others that share that sentiment.

The next morning Kieran discovers that Bronte was killed the night before. She was an art student who was exploring the area for inspiration over the summer before returning to school. By all appearances she seemed to be well liked. As her murder is investigated, rumors are swirling around on the community web pages, and secrets are exposed, many locals wonder if her murder has any connection to the deaths during the storm twelve years earlier.

Set on a coastal town where you have to respect the tides, with sunken ships off the coast, a statue dedicated to ship wreck survivors in the water, and dangerous sea caves off the shore, the atmospheric setting feels ominous. Adding to the turmoil is the current investigation and the various people who may be people of interest in Bronte's murder. Harper introduces several suspects and raises doubts on others as the plot unfolds. The writing is wonderful in this carefully plotted and paced narrative. It does start out slow, after the discovery of Bronte's body, but the pace allows you to catch clues and gossip, from now and from the past. The ending moves quickly, intently, and was unexpected until it happened.

Kieran is the narrator of the story and it starts out slow, almost as if it is Kieran who needs to practice calming techniques before continuing to observe the investigation and share details. He does have several times where something is bothering him and we have to patiently wait for what it is he observed and noted subconsciously. Almost all of the characters have this careful, measured attitude where various regrets from the past are cohabitating with grief in the present. Harper excels at creating very well-developed, complex, nuanced, and contemplative characters. Even the minor characters feel real, like real people you'd find in a small town. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, but their virtues as well as their flaws are simply there, as is found in anyone, anywhere. There are several scenes where the emotions are so real and so raw it almost takes your breath away. 4.5 stars

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Flatiron Books

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Made in China

Made in China by Amelia Pang
2/2/21; 288 pages
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America's Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang is very highly recommended exposition on China's labor/reeducation camps, human rights violations, and how our consumerism is a tacit approval of the system.

Everyone should read this book. Everyone. And then reexamine their own involvement with cheap Chinese merchandise. Take note that if you buy something made in China it was likely made with slave labor. That should cause you to take pause in and of itself, but it becomes even more crucial to take action if you combine it with the fact that China is the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, and their rates are vastly under reported.

When Julie Keith opened up a package of cheap decorations in 2012, she discovered a plea for help written by the prisoner who made the items. The note was written by Sun Yi who was taken prisoner and put in a reeducation camp/ forced labor camp by the Chinese Communist Party. His crime was practicing Falun Gong with a religious meditation group.

Pang shares the life of Sun Yi, including the horrendous torture he and others endure in the "laogai system" which is the world’s largest forced-labor system. The system is rarely labeled as prisons, rather they call the camps reeducation centers or detoxification centers. No matter the name, they are still forced labor centers where people are sent at the whim of the CCP. The people in forced labor include the Falun Gong practitioners, as well as Christians, Turks, Muslim Uighurs, and Tibetans. Companies who get their products that are made with the forced slave labor from China never receive them directly from the prisons, instead they are exported and purchased through an import-export company system. It also appears that China is now in the business of organ selling. They get the medical information from the prisoners and will harvest their organs. The transplant industry in China is a billion dollar industry.

With modern AI surveillance technologies, the CCP is targeting even more people as they can identify them. Think about this information as you blindly follow any social media platform: "As early on as 2004, China has built the most extensive surveillance and internet censorship system in the world, with currently an estimated one hundred thousand human censors inspecting the web for politically sensitive content and manually deleting posts on various Chinese social media platforms. They are employed not only by state propaganda departments, but also by Chinese companies that have privatized censorship. And then there are the commenters, who are paid to guide online discussions in a pro-government direction. A 2017 Harvard study estimated that 448 million paid comments appear on Chinese social media every year." China is said to be one big modern, technologically savvy labor camp.

This is not an easy book to read but it is vital that people know what is going on in China. If people show any dissent in China, this is how they handle it - imprison them into forced labor. Pang immersed herself into Sun's story and that of other labor camp survivors over three years. Note that according to a 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute, "China’s accession to the WTO caused the United States to lose 3.4 million jobs. And as manufacturing migrated to China, it created more opportunities for Chinese factories to outsource work to labor camps." What we can do is limit how we spend our money and investigate the companies we buy from because China does respond to financial push back.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Forgive Me

Forgive Me by Susan Lewis
1/26/21; 416 pages

Forgive Me by Susan Lewis is a highly recommended domestic drama that ultimately examines the power of forgiveness.

Claudia Winters along with her daughter Jasmine are escaping her abusive husband Marcus after he is on trial and begins serving a prison sentence. Her mother Marcy joins the two as all three move to a small coastal town in Northern England and live under their new names. Claudia lives under a constant fear that her husband will send someone to find her and harm her and her family. As the three begin to settle into their new town and make a good group of friends, Claudia still feels apprehensive that she is being watched. And then someone horrible does happen...

Archie Colbrook is in prison awaiting trial and spends his time writing letters to the victim of his crime for his Restorative Justice Counselor. He knows he is guilty and doesn't deserve forgiveness, but he also knows he didn't intentionally set out to cause a person harm. Even when the victim chooses to read his letters, he doesn't expect any forgiveness or a meeting.

These two different story lines unfold in alternate chapters and ultimately the two plots come together and showcase the power of forgiveness, even when it doesn't seem possible. The message is a good one, but the plot is a little less than believable. Setting that aside, it is an enjoyable novel and does provide insight into the Restorative Justice program. It also has an undercurrent of the support and love that can be found within a family and among a close group of friends. It starts out feeling like a thriller, but that is deceptive as it is decidedly a family/domestic drama, however a novel with a theme of forgiveness is always a positive thing.

Some characters are more realistic, believable, and likeable than others. That will quickly be determined and sorted out by the reader. The recovery of one of the characters is definitely heart-wrenching and you will pursue this plot thread closely and wish for a good outcome. The ending is predictable, but ultimately this is a feel-good novel with drama thrown in to keep you engrossed in the story and the outcome.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Before She Disappeared

Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardner
1/19/21; 400 pages
Penguin Publishing Group

Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardner is a very highly recommended crime thriller. Don't miss this incredible heart-stopping stand-alone novel!

"My name is Frankie Elkin and finding missing people - particularly minorities - is what I do. When the police have given up, with the public no longer remembers, when the media has never bothered to care, I start looking. For no money, no recognition, and most of the time, no help."

Frankie, a middle-aged woman and recovering alcoholic, spends her life searching for missing people long after the case has gone cold. Her new search is for Angelique Badeau, a Haitian teenager who vanished eleven months earlier at the age of fifteen. She moves to Boston and finds a job at a bar with an apartment available above it in the rough Mattapan neighborhood where Angelique lived. Frankie wastes no time introducing herself to the family, Angelique's Aunt Guerline and her younger brother, Emmanuel, and letting the Boston PD know she is looking into the case. Frankie is used to having to dig out information and investigate on her own, so the initial resistance from Detective Lotham is expected but doesn't hold her back.

Frankie is unquestionably an extraordinary fully developed new character full of depth, intelligence, and complexity. She has a dark past and is running from her own demons but she faces it all with honesty and tenacity. Everyday is a struggle to not drink while seeking information to bring her case to completion. She sets her personal safety aside as she asks questions and searches for the truth hidden by layers of subterfuge and obfuscation. At the same time Frankie is an unconventional woman. She has a quirky personality and a mouth on her as she says what's on her mind and holds nothing back. The wonderful fact is that all the characters are well-developed and presented as unique individuals.

Adding to the excellent character development is the absolutely perfect and, quite frankly, masterful writing in this un-put-downable thriller. Gardner grabs your attention - by the throat - right at the start and from then on the plot is riveting and spellbinding while the intense pace increases incrementally. The sense of danger is palpable as Frankie looks for the truth.  I simply could not put this novel down once I started it. It can't be denied that Gardner has a gift for writing.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing Group

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Plague Cycle

The Plague Cycle by Charles Kenny
1/19/21; 320 pages

The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease by Charles Kenny is a highly recommended overview of the history of infectious diseases with some discussion of them in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The good news is that recent history suggests "humanity’s response to the new threat can be rapid and effective if we so choose. And that reassures us that humanity in the twenty-first century is in a considerably better position in the fight against infection than earlier generations. Because for most of humanity’s time on the planet, effective responses never came." For most of history plagues and diseases were the leading cause of death. Today it is heart attacks and strokes.

As Kenny points out, humanity is very resilient even in the face of even the most incredible stress created by large scale epidemics, pandemics and plague outbreaks. People lived through numerous epidemics over the years- the Black Death, typhus, measles, small pox,  without resorting to social chaos and throwing morality aside. Agriculture and civilization set off a global firestorm of disease, especially once urbanization started. Before we started taking sanitary practices seriously, the only effective way to exposure to diseases was to quarantine the sick or refuse their entry to your area. Then, once we understood hygiene, it became possible to have more urbanization, which was further helped by medical advancements (sterilized medical treatment, antibiotics, vaccinations, etc.) and the understanding of how to combat infectious diseases.

As our world is becoming more globally connected, it is now more important to address our vulnerabilities to new emerging infectious diseases and potential plagues. For example, we need to address the overuse of antibiotics which has led to a strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The global reaction to Covid-19 showcases the need for international cooperation on several different areas.

As someone who has read many books of various infectious diseases, plagues, and epidemics it should be noted that this is not meant to be a complex or complete history of infectious diseases. It is a nice overview for the general reader who wants more information on the subject and the text flows smoothly from one chapter to the next. It is a well-rounded overview written for the lay person. For more information, Kenny has a bibliography of his sources or look at the notes included in the text for subjects you might want to pursue further. Kenny is the director of technology and development at the Center for Global Development.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Better Luck Next Time

Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson
1/5/21; 288 pages
Custom House/HarperCollins

Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson is a highly recommended appealing, comedic novel set in Reno, Nevada in 1938.

If wealthy women wanted a quick divorce, Reno, NV, was the answer. As the self proclaimed “divorce capital of the world" women were required to live in the state for six weeks to establish residency and then they could be granted a divorce. The Flying Leap dude Ranch catered to women who needed a place to stay while waiting those six weeks. Ward Bennett, 24 (almost 25), has been working as a cowboy on the ranch where he chauffeurs the women into town or to and from the airport, takes them on trail rides, and helps serve them meals. A good looking young man, he is there as eye candy and to offer the women a listening ear and supportive attitude. His employers and the clients have no idea he actually came from a privileged background in Tennessee and attended Yale for a year, but his family fell on hard times and lost everything in the Great Depression. When Emily, who drove herself to the ranch from San Francisco, and Nina, who is there for her third divorce arrive and become roommates, the two become inseparable friends and rope Ward into acting as their personal assistant, driver, and participating in some of their antics.

The story is told by Ward in 1988.  Dr. Howard Stovall Bennett III (Ward) is now retired and living in a retirement home. When he is asked to identify himself and others from a picture at the Flying Leap, he consents to having the anonymous interviewer record the conversation and thus the story begins of that six weeks in 1938 when Emily and Nina were at the ranch. Of course, life is complicated and a stay at the Flying Leap was an emotional time for the guests but Emily and Nina were memorable. I utterly enjoyed the story presentation as a first person recorded narrative by Ward looking back over time. It allows us to see the events that happened fifty years ago through his perspective and experiences. Ward is a keen observer and honest storyteller as he relates the events in 1938 but also tells stories of this life in the fifty years after that. He is an extremely likeable, charming character. The women were less genial characters as they all tended to be self-centered and self-absorbed, but they are at the center of the impulsive adventures instigated by Nina.

I enjoyed the writing immensely and flew through the pages of Better Luck Next Time. The novel is well-paced and the plot is well-executed. After living in Reno for years, I completely understood the setting and the descriptions so the novel took on a life for me quickly. The story takes a more poignant turn as it progresses and Portia, Emily's daughter shows up. Ward is a well-developed character and we know some of what makes Emily and Nina tick, but since this is through Ward's eyes, they are enigmas at times. The ending was absolutely poignant, touching, and heartbreaking while still providing a measure of hopefulness.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Custom House/HarperCollins via Library Thing