Friday, November 30, 2012

Lunch with Buddha

Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo
PFP Publishing, 11/28/2012
Trade Paperback, 392 pages
ISBN-13: 9780984834570

On the surface, Lunch with Buddha is a story about family. Otto Ringling and his sister Cecelia could not be more different. He's just turned 50, an editor of food books at a prestigious New York publishing house, a man with a nice home in the suburbs, children he adores, and a sense of himself as being a mainstream, upper-middle-class American. Cecelia is the last thing from mainstream. For two decades she's made a living reading palms and performing past-life regressions. She believes firmly in our ability to communicate with those who have passed on.
It will turn out, though, that they have more in common than just their North Dakota roots.
In Lunch with Buddha, when Otto faces what might be the greatest of life's difficulties, it is Cecelia who knows how to help him. As she did years earlier in this book's predecessor, Breakfast with Buddha, she arranges for her brother to travel with Volya Rinpoche, a famous spiritual teacher - who now also happens to be her husband.
After early chapters in which the family gathers for an important event, the novel portrays a road trip made by Otto and Rinpoche, in a rattling pickup, from Seattle to the family farm in North Dakota. Along the way the brothers-in-law have a series of experiences - some hilarious, some poignant - all aimed at bringing Otto a deeper peace of mind. They visit American landmarks; they have a variety of meals, both excellent and awful; they meet a cast of minor characters, each of whom enables Rinpoche to impart some new spiritual lesson. Their conversations range from questions about life and death to talk of history, marijuana, child-rearing, sexuality, Native Americans, and outdoor swimming.
In the end, with the help of their miraculous daughter, Shelsa, and the prodding of Otto's own almost-adult children, Rinpoche and Cecelia push this decent, middle-of-the-road American into a more profound understanding of the purpose of his life. His sense of the line between possible and impossible is altered, and the story's ending points him toward a very different way of being in this world.
My Thoughts:

Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo follows the second road trip of Otto Ringling and Volya Rinpoche. Their first road trip is in Merullo's 2007 novel Breakfast With BuddhaIn the first few pages of Lunch with Buddha, Otto informs us that: 
"My children and I were headed to Washington State to distribute my wife's ashes, according to her wishes, near the banks of a certain stream on the eastern slope of the Cascade range. I am not a person who has much affection for ceremonies, and we were still buried to our necks in grief, and so I'd put it off for as long as I could.... Jeannie had died in the first week of January, and here we were at the end of a steaming July, just getting around to it. (pg. 3)"

Otto and his children are searching to find meaning in their new lives. Otto says:
"I would stand. I was determined to stand. I was determined to stay sane, and love them, and help envision a new life after our old one had been ripped to pieces. (pg. 7)"  They are meeting his sister Cecelia and her husband, Volya Rinpoche, and their daughter. Rinpoche is a well known Buddhist who runs a retreat with Cecelia on the old family farm in North Dakota.  

After scattering Jeanne's ashes Otto and Rinpoche are going to be taking a truck that was donated by a follower and drive it back to North Dakota. The truck is an old '83 model named Uma after Uma Thurman. The young man donating her informs them:  "Uma's all set. Tank's full. Fresh oil. Papers in the glove box, all signed. Muffler's got a little pinhole, and you might just keep an eye on the temp gauge from time to time and if you see it moving toward the red just turn the heat on. (pg. 13)"

So Otto's children head to North Dakota with his sister while he has another road trip with Rinpoche. While it might be assumed that Lunch with Buddha would be a dense novel full of spiritual teaching, in reality it is a light read. There are moments of depth and insight juxtaposed with moments of humor and tourism. Along the way they encounter a wide variety of meals in various places, an assortment of characters running the gamut from transvestites to bigots, and interesting places to stay and/or swim.

While there is a religious element to the book, obviously, Merullo has some keen insights and captures some profound common truths for everyone, even for those of us who are not Buddhist.
"The thing about self-pity is that it feeds on itself. It's akin to depression in that way and almost as painful. It hides from the world in a black-walled closet, urging you toward a masturbatory negativity. (pg. 53)."
 "You're intrigued by the way other people eat," I said. "I'm intrigued by the way other people live. By the idea that maybe we shouldn't be making some of the assumptions we make."
"Such as?"
"Such as that the main purpose of our being here is to earn money and collect things and pleasures and insulate ourselves from discomfort to the extent humanly possible before the hour of our death. (pg. 210)"
"According to my wise brother-in-law, doing nothing about your flaws was a kind of spiritual laziness for which one eventually paid a heavy price. (pg. 256)"

Merullo is an excellent writer and some of his descriptions just sing. This is a fun road trip book with a message included if you choose to catch it. It seems that there will be a Dinner with Buddha too. I haven't read Breakfast with Buddha, and that didn't prohibit me from enjoying Lunch with Buddha, although it probably wouldn't hurt to start with it if you are interested in Lunch with Buddha.

Highly Recommended

Roland Merullo is an awarding-winning author of 14 books including 10 works of fiction. Breakfast with Buddha, a nominee for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, is now in its 14th printing. The Talk-Funny Girl was a 2012 ALEX Award Winner and named a “Must Read for 2012” by the Massachusetts Library Association and the Massachusetts Center for the Book; Revere Beach Boulevard was named one of the “Top 100 Essential Books of New England” by The Boston Globe, A Little Love Story was named one of “Ten Wonderful Romance Novels” by Good Housekeeping and Revere Beach Elegy won the Massachusetts Book Award for non fiction.

A former writer in residence at North Shore Community College and Miami Dade Colleges, and professor of Creative Writing at Bennington and Amherst Colleges, Merullo has been a guest speaker at many literary events and venues and a faculty member at MFA programs and several writers’ conferences. His essays have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Outside Magazine, Yankee Magazine, Newsweek, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Magazine, Reader's Digest, Good Housekeeping, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. His books have been translated into German, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean and Croatian.

Roland Merullo lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.

Quotes:   excerpt chapter 6

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the author and TLC for review purposes. 

(The giveaway has ended and the winner has been notified.)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Slow Cold Death

A Slow Cold Death by Susy Gage
Bitingduck Press, 11/1/2012
ebook, 293 pages
ISBN-13: 9781938463372

Lori Barrow was a Wunderkind, the youngest student ever to enroll at America's most exclusive science university. Now, twenty years later, she’s a lonely, socially awkward Luddite whose career is all over the map because she refuses to grow up.. Her alma mater has brought her back as a professor not because of any great achievements, but because they hope her wide range of skills will resuscitate the dying physics department.
She learns very quickly that the “dying” is all too literal. Mysterious deaths and accidents have plagued the department for at least two years, linked somehow to experiments at the South Pole and the happenings at the rocket lab. Afraid of making waves too quickly, Lori keeps her suspicions to herself… until the department’s only female graduate student is found frozen to death in the cold room.
An angry technician with a misogynist streak is arrested, and everyone but Lori breathes a sigh of relief. She is convinced that the murder was not personal but political, a warning to her and her colleagues to stay away from the rocket lab. At stake is a six hundred million dollar grant that has the power to return the department to its former glory.

My Thoughts:
A Slow Cold Death by Susy Gage introduces us to intrigue and murder in the Physics Department at a large university, Superior Technological Institute or STI. Lori Burrow leaves Canada and returns to her alma mater as a physics professor on the track to tenure. While the university students have launched many student pranks in the past, they have never included murder or attempted murder. Is this a personal vendetta or is something larger at stake?
Lori Burrow is a fun physics professor who roller blades and bikes with the best of them (Canadian). Sometimes she's clueless and often she is clever. She is always energetic.  Hopefully Gage will continue the series and we'll see Lori back solving a new mystery.
There are a few draw backs to this writer's debut novel. The cast of characters was large and could potentially become unwieldy for some readers. While the action isn't intense in the beginning chapters, in some ways the atypical characters and setting makes up for it. Murder mysteries aren't often found connected with physics professors. 

"Most of my inspiration for writing comes as sort of a 'bolt from the blue'–and the next 5-10 years are spent turning that stroke of inspiration into an actual manuscript. The plot of A Slow Cold Death came, amusingly enough, from a duck. I was hiking in the woods near a rocket lab that shall remain nameless, and saw a poor old mallard dead in the run-off pond next to the lab. After a moment of silence for the poor bird, I immediately thought, 'That could be a person!' and then… 'It would look like an accident, but what if it was murder?' The whole first third or so of the book was born of that single inspiration."
The publisher, Bitingduck Press, is an independent press based in Pasadena and Montreal ( that specializes in science titles, both fiction and nonfiction, digital and print.
Highly Recommended

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Bitingduck Press and Netgalley for review purposes.


Jacob Silverman hated graduations. They made him feel like a piece of infrastructure, paraded around in a silly costume for the benefit of students who had bugged him for four, eight, sometimes as many as thirteen years in the case of his least-favorite PhD student. His gray and red academic regalia was sweltering, and at ten o’clock on this ninth of May in beautiful Pasadena, California, it was already over one hundred degrees. So while the campus of the Superior Technological Institute was being strewn with roses and computer cables for the big day, he strapped a water bottle around his waist, laced up his hiking boots, and headed into the foothills alone. The air grew cooler and cleaner with every mile, and there were no sounds besides the humming of insects and his own footfalls. When he was struck from behind, he thought at first of a landslide, raising his arms to protect his head. Then a second blow fell between his shoulder blades, accompanied by a distinctly human grunt. Location 14-21
Maupertuis will tell you many things, but pay him little heed.” Alexander Kuznetsov’s too-formal English made him seem even creepier somehow. “He was shot in the chest on the freeway last year, and he hasn’t been the same since. He’ll die long before he gets tenure.” Lori recoiled instinctively from the terrible words, forgetting she was still wearing her rollerblades. Location 29-32
After all the grief of last year, Lori had wanted to leave Canada so much that she hadn’t stopped to wonder what STI really wanted from her. She had thought they were being generous when they gave her credit for all five years she’d spent as an assistant professor, offering to give her tenure after only one year if things went well. That was the ultimate sign that she was so out of touch that she no longer understood anything that mattered. It was the first rule of this place—trust no one. Location 64-67

“Is Kuznetsov evil?” she asked.
“He’s more than evil,” retorted Louis, who pushed the way obsessed people walk, flying down the bumpy sidewalk with apparent disregard for fallen grapefruit and ficus pods. “He is the enemy.” Location 105-107

“By the way, how did you recognize me like this? I was hoping to stay incognito.”
He laughed. “Lori, you’re wearing your skinsuit, helmet, and a number in eleven out of the twelve images that appear under your name in a Google search.” Location 118-119
“I may be immature, Louis, but I am not stupid.” With the skates off, she was right at his eye level and gave him a steady glare. “I know perfectly well that string theory is for losers and that we were hired to drive Kuzno and his flunkies out.” Location 138-140
But if the answer was positive, a tenured professor could be as big of a pain in the ass as she wanted. Nothing short of a major felony could get you fired, and sometimes not even that. Most people—especially most young professors—didn’t understand that winning tenure was less about being a great scholar than about convincing your colleagues that they wanted you down the hall for the next sixty years. Location 197-199

Carol nearly choked on her protein shake when she saw Lori Barrow’s name on the weekly Astrophysics mailing list. It took her three days to get up the nerve to send her an e-mail. They’d gone to graduate school together in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Carol felt as though she knew Lori intimately even though she feared that her colleague wouldn’t remember her at all. Location 209-211


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

San Miguel

San Miguel by T. C. Boyle
Penguin Group, 9/18/2012
Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780670026241

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Women, a historical novel about three women’s lives on a California island.

On a tiny, desolate, windswept island off the coast of Southern California, two families, one in the 1880s and one in the 1930s, come to start new lives and pursue dreams of self-reliance and freedom. Their extraordinary stories, full of struggle and hope, are the subject of T. C. Boyle’s haunting new novel.
Thirty-eight-year-old Marantha Waters arrives on San Miguel on New Year’s Day 1888 to restore her failing health.  Joined by her husband, a stubborn, driven Civil War veteran who will take over the operation of the sheep ranch on the island, Marantha strives  to persevere in the face of the hardships, some anticipated and some not, of living in such brutal isolation. Two years later their adopted teenage daughter, Edith, an aspiring actress, will exploit every opportunity to escape the captivity her father has imposed on her.  Time closes in on them all and as the new century approaches, the ranch stands untenanted. And then in March 1930, Elise Lester, a librarian from New York City, settles on San Miguel with her husband, Herbie, a World War I veteran full of manic energy.  As the years go on they find a measure of fulfillment and serenity; Elise gives birth to two daughters, and the family even achieves a celebrity of sorts. But will the peace and beauty of the island see them through the impending war as it had seen them through the Depression?
Rendered in Boyle’s accomplished, assured voice, with great period detail and utterly memorable characters, this is a moving and dramatic work from one of America’s most talented and inventive storytellers.

My Thoughts:
Author T. C. Boyle said of San Miguel in the Wall Street Journal, “It’s something I’ve never done before. A straight historical narrative . . . without irony, without comedy. . . . Just to see if I can do it.” Personally, I don't think it was ever in doubt that he could do it. San Miguel  is a historical novel that takes place on San Miguel, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. This is historical fiction based on the lives of two real families who resided on San Miguel. As noted "In retelling the story of the Waters and Lester families during their time on San Miguel Island, I have tried to represent the historical record as accurately as possible, and yet this is a work of fiction, not history, and dialogue, characters and incidents have necessarily been invented." It is divided into three sections and follows three different women who live there.
In the 1880's, Marantha Waters, who suffers from tuberculosis, arrives at San Miguel for the cleansing air that will make her well. Her new husband, Will has spent the last of her money buying the sheep operation on the island - which will ostensibly benefit her health. Boyle's descriptions of Marantha's coughing, gasping for air, and suffering are very detailed as she fights for her every breath on the desolate wind and sand blasted island.  After she dies her daughter, Edith, is essentially turned into a servant by her stepfather and held captive on the island. She dreams of escape. Finally, Boyle introduces us to newlyweds Elise and Herbie Lester, who arrive on the island In 1930. They are decidedly in love and raise two daughters on San Miguel. Elise and Herbie establish a way of life, making peace with the island, although their story is bittersweet in the end.
My first thought after finishing San Miguel is that T. C. Boyle wrote these women characters very realistically. He has a natural insight into their thoughts and feelings. This is especially true with Marantha and Edith, less so with Elsie. I did want to learn more of what became of Edith, as her story on the island was truncated by her escape, although I understand that once she left the island,she was no longer part of this story. 
My second thought is that this is an atmospheric novel; there is not wildly active plot. Boyle relies on the mundane activities of everyday life as shaped by the island's isolation and location for the drama.  But, the limitations and challenges the island and weather impose on the characters makes the island a character in its own right. The characters have to react to the island. 
I thought this was a highly successful venture into historical fiction for a writer who is not known for this genre. Certainly the quality of the writing itself is exemplary.
Very Highly Recommended
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of the Penguin Group and Netgalley for review purposes.
She was coughing, always coughing, and sometimes she coughed up blood. The blood came in a fine spray, plucked from the fibers of her lungs and pumped full of air as if it were perfume in an atomizer. Or it rose in her mouth like a hot metallic syrup, burning with the heat inside her till she spat it into the porcelain pot and saw the bright red clot of it there like something she'd given birth to, like afterbirth, but then what would she know about it since she'd never conceived, not with James, her first husband, and not with Will either. She was thirty-eight years old and she'd resigned herself to the fact that she would never bear a child, not in this lifetime. When she felt weak, when she hemorrhaged and the pain in her chest was like a medieval torture, like the peine forte et dure in which the torturer laid one stone atop the other till your ribs cracked and your heart stalled, she sometimes felt she wouldn't even live to see the year out.

But that was gloomy thinking and she wasn't going to have it, not today. Today she was hopeful. Today was New Year's Day, the first day of her new life, and she was on an adventure, sailing in a schooner out of Santa Barbara with her second husband and her adopted daughter Edith and half the things she owned in this world, bound for San Miguel Island and the virginal air Will insisted would make her well again. And she believed him. She did. Believed everything he said, no matter the look on Carrie Abbott's face when she first gave her the news. Marantha, no — you're going where? Carrie had blurted before she could think, setting down her teacup on the low mahogany table in her parlor overlooking San Francisco Bay and the white-capped waves that jumped and ran in parallel streaks across the entire breadth of the window. To an island? And where is it again? And then she'd paused, her eyes retreating. I hear the air is very good down there, she said, very salubrious, and the little coal fire she had going in the grate flared up again. And it'll be warmer, certainly. Warmer than here, anyhow. opening 

She was coughing, always coughing, and sometimes she coughed up blood. The blood came in a fine spray, plucked from the fibers of her lungs and pumped full of air as if it were perfume in an atomizer. Or it rose in her mouth like a hot metallic syrup, burning with the heat inside her till she spat it into the porcelain pot and saw the bright red clot of it there like something she’d given birth to, like afterbirth, but then what would she know about it since she’d never conceived, not with James, her first husband, and not with Will either. She was thirty-eight years old and she’d resigned herself to the fact that she would never bear a child, not in this lifetime. Location 14-19
This couldn’t be it, could it? She looked to the boy, expecting that he’d let her in on the joke any second now—this was the barn or the servants’ quarters or bunkhouse or whatever they called it and in the next moment he’d be chucking the mule and leading her on to the house itself, of course he would . . . but then it occurred to her that there were no other structures in sight, no other structures possible even in all that empty expanse. Jimmie was watching her. A gust caught her like a slap in the face. The mule shuddered, lifted its tail and deposited its droppings on the barren ground. She pushed herself up from the chair, stepped down from the sled and strode across the yard. Her first impression was of nakedness, naked walls struck with penurious little windows, a yard of windblown sand giving onto an infinite vista of sheep-ravaged scrub that radiated out from it in every direction and not a tree or shrub or scrap of ivy in sight. There was nothing even remotely quaint or cozy about it. It might as well have been lifted up in a tornado and set down in the middle of the Arabian Desert. Location 175-182
It was anger—and despair, that too—that gave her the strength to strip the bedding and tear the bed curtains from their hooks, to ball them up and fling them on the floor for Ida, because what was he thinking, how could he ever imagine she’d regain her strength in a freezing hovel like this as if she were some sort of milkmaid in a bucolic romance? They could have gone to Italy and baked in the sun till her chest was clear, the lesions dried like figs on a tin sheet and the flesh come back to her limbs, her breasts, her hips and abdomen—or even Mexico. A tropical place. A desert. Anyplace but this. His own selfishness was at work here, she knew that in her heart. Even as she sat there on the stained mattress trying to fight down her feelings, coughing and coughing again till her throat was raw, she couldn’t help accusing him. But then she’d been guilty too. She was the one who’d given him the last of her savings, the last of the money left from James’ estate, to buy in here as equal partner with Mills because she knew if she didn’t she would lose him. He was an enthusiast, he wanted to better himself, saw his chance and took it, but he was her husband too and he’d loved her once, loved her still, though she knew she wasn’t much use to him anymore—not beyond what her money could bring, anyway. The thought—and it wasn’t the first time it had come to her—shrank her down till she was nothing, a husk like one of those papery things you saw clinging to the bark after the imago unfurls its wings to beat away on the air. Location 213-223

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lasso the Stars

Lasso the Stars by L.L. Nielsen
Tate Publishing, 2/7/2012
Trade Paperback, 260 pages
ISBN-13: 9781613468548

Dina's life is nearing its end. But for Dina, the end is really just the beginning. For months, she's been fighting terminal cancer. She's finally resigned herself to preparing for the end. Her last few weeks are going to be with her sisters, sharing the happy memories of a life well spent.
Men are the last thing on her mind. That is, until an afternoon walk along a dusty, country road brings her face to face with an angel. Only this angel is nothing like Dina ever pictured angels would be. 'The man had an easy-going smile. A pair of aviator sunglasses rested on his nose. His dusty Levi's covered long legs that ended in well-worn cowboy boots...He stepped down off the gate and held his hand out. ''Gil.''
Preferring boots and spurs to harps and wings, Gil takes Dina horseback riding. She begins to feel new energy surge through her. And before she realizes it, Dina falls head over heels for Gil. Gil is falling for her too, but his secret identity may get in the way of his feelings.
Gil knows he can't hide who he is for much longer. But how can he tell her? Are angels even allowed to fall in love with humans? When Gil leaves to find answers, Dina is devastated. She confides in her sisters, but they think her cancer meds made her dream up the whole relationship. Even though Dina knows the truth, she's growing weaker every day, and the only one who can help her has disappeared.
Will tonight's sky be the last one she looks upon? Or will Gil Lasso the Stars for Dina?

My Thoughts:
In Lasso the Stars by L.L. Nielsen, Dina is dying. She has terminal cancer and is living out the end of her life at her family's old farmhouse in the country, cared for by her sister Rachel, and collecting good memories from her life. Dina knows all to well that "Dying wasn't easy, and cancer was a mean disease. (pg. 19)" While taking a walk one day, Dina meets a handsome stranger, who is apparently a cowboy, a hand at some nearby ranch. Soon, Dina learns that Gil is really her angel, sent there to help her reach a peaceful end, even while they are falling in love.
There are some very good, touching parts of Lasso the Stars by L.L. Nielsen. Her descriptions of Dina recalling her memories or describing the countryside soar with poetic ardor. And the fact that Dina has terminal cancer is handled with great compassion and empathy. Both of these facts make the book highly recommended... The dialog doesn't always come across as completely natural, however, it's certainly acceptable. But, sigh, then we come to Gil, the cowboy angel.
First, I want to make it clear that I believe in angels. I believe they are messengers from God sent to help us here on earth. I could fully believe an angel could be sent to help guide someone to reach the end of their life with dignity and grace.
There are two things about Gil the angel in Lasso the Stars that I had a hard time accepting.
First, his cowboy southern drawl was distracting. I have always imagined angels would have a good grasp of the spoken language of the person they were sent to assist - and Dina had no drawl.
But the second and biggest problem I have with Gil is the romance with Dina...
Spoiler, so don't read this next paragraph if you are planning to read the book:
Gil saying "...angels are love; they come from it, they live with it, and they offer it. I think I'll add in various forms (pg. 255)."  Okay, then... hmmmm. I could totally go with the Cowboy angel sent to help and assist Dina and love her with a brotherly love, full of compassion and tenderness, but once it became physical and Gil gave that little speech at the end explaining how it was all okay, it totally diminished all the positive parts of the story for me. If the angel's motives had been kept pure, sexless, compassionate, and uplifting, I'd like Lasso the Stars much, much more.
So, in the end if you think you would enjoy a book with a romance that includes an angel, go for it - you'll probably like it very much. But I can only go as far as So-So for this one, which I regret because the good parts were very good.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from TLC for review purposes. 

It was a delicate spring day just before the white blossoms would burst from the trees. Five-year-old Dina was sitting in the old apple grove with her friend.... Her friend had never had a name, yet they'd known each other forever. opening
I shook my head. Well, the man and horse didn't just vaporize out of moist air, and neither did the cat. I must have overdosed on pain meds that morning, so I was still foggy. Yet I felt fine; a bit tired from my walk and certainly dusty from the dirt road, but overall I was okay. As long as the man and his companions were there, I'd better say hello. pg. 11
I smiled happily. This memory made me laugh. I would fold it up and pack it away.
My thanks for this idea went to the young woman who had headed the therapy group for cancer patients. We were all encouraged to participate at the meeting, and then we divided into groups. After one session on "Preparing to Leave," I did just that. It seemed that we terminal patients had developed a strange sense of humor and referred to the sessions as "Exit Strategy," much to the chagrin of friends and family. Still, I didn't fault the woman in charge.... Her one good idea was the memory suitcase, which I carried with me when I left her group. pg. 16-17
"Life moves in a funny way, Dina." His look was confident. "So if y'all want to ride Mary here, she's ready."
"Look, Gil, I should tell you right up front I'm not exactly what you would call..." I paused....
"Well..." I hesitated as thoughts dashed around my head. "truth is, I have..." But the words didn't come out as I had planned. pg. 24
Gil shifted in the saddle. "As a child, I wanted to lasso the stars and pull 'em down from the heavens. Keep 'em in a box under my bed so that I could look at 'em, maybe give one or two away to my best buddies." pg. 35
He reached across his horse and gently touched my hand. "The journey is filled with joy, Dina." pg. 40

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Hollow Man

The Hollow Man by Oliver Harris
HarperCollins, 10/23/2012
Trade Paperback, 470 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062136718

Waking up on Hampstead Heath not far from a crashed squad car, Detective Nick Belsey wants out—out of London and out of the endless complications of his life. When Alexei Devereux, a wealthy hermit, vanishes, leaving behind a suicide note and his Porsche, Belsey discovers an opportunity—a new identity and a fortune—waiting for the taking.
Unfortunately, there are others who share the detective's interest in Devereux, including Scotland Yard. A dead rich man with suspicious financial holdings is bound to have some dangerous ties and a few ruthless enemies. Now, Belsey and his clever plan are about to be overshadowed by far more ambitious players with their own brilliant—and deadly—scheme.
Combining dark humor, dazzling twists, and a sharp narrative style, The Hollow Man is a tour de force of suspense—and the debut of an extraordinary new writer.

My Thoughts:
The Hollow Man by Oliver Harris is a noir police procedural featuring Detective Constable Nick Belsey. This is a procedural novel with a twist: Belsey is an antihero. He's broke, homeless, corrupt, and on the verge of unemployment. He just wants to find a way out of London and his life. When he is sent to investigate a missing person case and discovers the apparent suicide of enigmatic Russian millionaire Alexei Devereux he sees a way out. No one really seems to know the elusive Devereux. Belsey could create a new identity for himself and a new life, all financed by the dead man's assets. 
As Belsey investigates Devereux, however, things are not quite as simple as he first thought and Devereux's life is much more complex than it seemed at first glance. Even as Belsey sleeps at the dead man's luxurious home and schemes to take over his money, he continues to investigate the tangled web surrounding the Russian and his personal and business dealings. And then people that may have been involved in Devereux's life are starting to be murdered, making Belsey's plans more complicated.  Belsey is determined to uncover exactly what was going on, even while he lies and schemes to everyone. 
This is Harris's first novel and hopefully not his last featuring D.C. Nick Belsey. While the beginning moved much slower than the end, once Belsey's plans began to firm up even as he continued his investigation, the tension began to mount. Toward the end of the novel I was reading with a frantic intensity as pieces of the complicated puzzle were falling into place. Harris had a strong supporting cast of characters that could be further developed along with Belsey in another novel.  
The Hollow Man by Oliver Harris is certainly worth reading, especially if you enjoy police procedurals. It sort of reminded me of an old film noir movie (like The Maltese Falcon or Key Largo, with a skilled but world-weary investigator). In other words, I could really see The Hollow Man being made into a movie.
The Hollow Man is another novel being released by HarperCollins US, in their new Bourbon Street Books imprint. 

Highly Recommended - as a noir police procedural with a twist.
(I don't think there is connection to the sci-fi novel The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons, or at least I didn't see one. )
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC for review purposes. 

Oliver Harris holds an MA in Shakespeare studies from University College London and an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. He has worked in clothing warehouses, at PR companies, and as a TV and film extra, and more recently assisted with research in the Imperial War Museum archives. He writes reviews for the Times Literary Supplement.


Hampstead’s wealth lay unconscious along the edge of the Heath, Mercedes and SUVs frosted beneath plane trees, Victorian terraces unlit. A Starbucks glowed, but otherwise the streets were dark. The first solitary commuter cars whispered down East Heath Road to South End Green. Detective Constable Nick Belsey listened to them, faint in the distance. He could still hear individual cars, which meant it was before seven am. The earth was cold beneath his body. His mouth had soil in it and there was a smell of blood and rotten bark.

Belsey lay on a small mound within Hampstead Heath. The mound was crowded with pine trees, surrounded by gorse and partitioned from the rest of the world by a low, iron fence. So it wasn’t such an absurd place to seek shelter, Belsey thought, if that had been his intention. His coat covered the ground where he had slept. A throbbing pain travelled his upper torso, too general to locate one source. His neck was involved; his right shoulder. The detective stood up slowly. His breath steamed. He shook his coat, put it on and climbed over the fence into wet grass.
From the hilltop he could see London, stretched towards the hills of Kent and Surrey. The sky was beginning to pale at the edges. The city itself looked numb as a rough sleeper; Camden and then the West End, the Square Mile. His watch was missing. He searched his pockets, found a blood-stained serviette and a promotional leaflet for a spiritual retreat, but no keys or phone or police badge.

Belsey stumbled down a wooded slope to the sports ground, crossed the playing field and continued along the path to the ponds. His shoes were flooded, water seeping between his toes. On the bridge beside the mixed-bathing pond he stopped and looked for early swimmers. None yet. He knelt on the concrete of the bridge, bent to the water and splashed his face. Blood dripped from his shaking hands. He leaned over to see his reflection but could make out only an oily confusion of light and darkness. Two swans watched him. ‘Good morning,’ Belsey said. He waited for them to turn and glide a distance away then plunged his head beneath the surface.

Read more of the opening of The Hollow Man at Oliver Harris' website

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic
by David Quammen
W. W. Norton & Company, 10/1/2012
Hardcover, 592 pages
ISBN-13: 9780393066807

The emergence of strange new diseases is a frightening problem that seems to be getting worse. In this age of speedy travel, it threatens a worldwide pandemic. We hear news reports of Ebola, SARS, AIDS, and something called Hendra killing horses and people in Australia—but those reports miss the big truth that such phenomena are part of a single pattern. The bugs that transmit these diseases share one thing: they originate in wild animals and pass to humans by a process called spillover. David Quammen tracks this subject around the world. He recounts adventures in the field—netting bats in China, trapping monkeys in Bangladesh, stalking gorillas in the Congo—with the world’s leading disease scientists. In Spillover Quammen takes the reader along on this astonishing quest to learn how, where from, and why these diseases emerge, and he asks the terrifying question: What might the next big one be?

My Thoughts:

Once I saw the subject of David Quammen's latest book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, I was determined to get my hands on and read it as soon as possible. True - and it is worth every dollar I spent.
Likely the next big pandemic will be the result of a spillover virus of some kind. A spillover describes a zoonosis, infectious diseases that originate in animals and spread to humans.
Quammen explains:
"When a pathogen leaps from some nonhuman animal into a person, and succeeds there in establishing itself as an infectious presence, sometimes causing illness or death, the result is a zoonosis. (pg.20)" "Ebola is a zoonosis. So is bubonic plague. So was the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-19 [which killed] as many as 50 million people...(pg. 21)"
"Emergence and spillover are distinct concepts but interconnected. 'Spillover' is the term used by disease ecologists... to denote the moment when a pathogen passes from members of one species, as host, into members of another. It's a focused event. (pg. 43)"
Viruses/diseases discussed include: Ebola, Hendra, hantaviruses, influenza (H5N1, H1N1), Lyme disease, herpes B, the Black Death (perhaps), hepatitis C, AIDS, SARS, dengue, rabies, Marburg, Nipah, Marchupo, yellow fever, Lassa, HIV, and more. It's very likely that most of the virulent viruses we fear begin as a spillover zoonosis. Certainly every time we hear of a new flu virus, we will also hear where it is suspected that it originated from, be it swine or bird.
What is truly frightening is that, while the big outbreaks of these viruses seem to be limited, in reality the viruses, like Ebola, are present all the time. Predicting or anticipating when an outbreak will occur is impossible. It is helpful to know what animals carry the viruses. Add to that knowledge the reality that today an infected person or potential carrier of a deadly virus can fly across the world in a short amount of time.
It is quite interesting to read Quammen account revealing that "AIDS  began with a spillover from one chimp to one human, in southeastern Cameroon, no later than 1908 (give or take a margin of error) and grew slowly but inexorably from there. (pg. 427)"
One of the many great qualities of Spillover is the accessibility of Quammen's writing. He creates a palatable sense of drama and anticipation in this very informative nonfiction account. He informs and entertains; even while imparting serious information, he includes witty, humorous comments. I enjoyed this book very much.
Get your flu shot and read Spillover. Today. (Start with the short quoted chapter below.)
Very Highly Recommended - one of the best

Chapter 3 in "Pale Horse"
"Infectious disease is all around us. Infectious disease is a kind of natural mortar binding one creature to another, one species to another, within the elaborate biophysical edifices we call ecosystems. It’s one of the basic processes that ecologists study, including also predation, competition, decomposition, and photosynthesis. Predators are relatively big beasts that eat their prey from outside. Pathogens (disease-causing agents, such as viruses) are relatively small beasts that eat their prey from within. Although infectious disease can seem grisly and dreadful, under ordinary conditions it’s every bit as natural as what lions do to wildebeests and zebras, or what owls do to mice.

But conditions aren’t always ordinary.

Just as predators have their accustomed prey, their favored targets, so do pathogens. And just as a lion might occasionally depart from its normal behavior—to kill a cow instead of a wildebeest, a human instead of a zebra—so can a pathogen shift to a new target. Accidents happen. Aberrations occur. Circumstances change and, with them, exigencies and opportunities change too. When a pathogen leaps from some nonhuman animal into a person, and succeeds there in establishing itself as an infectious presence, sometimes causing illness or death, the result is a zoonosis.

It’s a mildly technical term, zoonosis, unfamiliar to most people, but it helps clarify the biological complexities behind the ominous headlines about swine flu, bird flu, SARS, emerging diseases in general, and the threat of a global pandemic. It helps us comprehend why medical science and public health campaigns have been able to conquer some horrific diseases, such as smallpox and polio, but unable to conquer other horrific diseases, such as dengue and yellow fever. It says something essential about the origins of AIDS. It’s a word of the future, destined for heavy use in the twenty-first century.

Ebola is a zoonosis. So is bubonic plague. So was the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918–1919, which had its ultimate source in a wild aquatic bird and, after passing through some combination of domesticated animals (a duck in southern China, a sow in Iowa?) emerged to kill as many as 50 million people before receding into obscurity. All of the human influenzas are zoonoses. So are monkeypox, bovine tuberculosis, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, Marburg virus disease, rabies, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, anthrax, Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, ocular larva migrans, scrub typhus, Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, Kyasanur forest disease, and a strange new affliction called Nipah encephalitis, which has killed pigs and pig farmers in Malaysia. Each of them reflects the action of a pathogen that can cross into people from other animals. AIDS is a disease of zoonotic origin caused by a virus that, having reached humans through just a few accidental events in western and central Africa, now passes human-to-human by the millions. This form of interspecies leap is common, not rare; about 60 percent of all human infectious diseases currently known either cross routinely or have recently crossed between other animals and us. Some of those—notably rabies—are familiar, widespread, and still horrendously lethal, killing humans by the thousands despite centuries of efforts at coping with their effects, concerted international attempts to eradicate or control them, and a pretty clear scientific understanding of how they work. Others are new and inexplicably sporadic, claiming a few victims (as Hendra does) or a few hundred (Ebola) in this place or that, and then disappearing for years.

Smallpox, to take one counterexample, is not a zoonosis. It’s caused by variola virus, which under natural conditions infects only humans. (Laboratory conditions are another matter; the virus has sometimes been inflicted experimentally on nonhuman primates or other animals, usually for vaccine research.) That helps explain why a global campaign mounted by the World Health Organization (WHO) to eradicate smallpox was, as of 1980, successful. Smallpox could be eradicated because that virus, lacking ability to reside and reproduce anywhere but in a human body (or a carefully watched lab animal), couldn’t hide. Likewise poliomyelitis, a viral disease that has afflicted humans for millennia but that (for counterintuitive reasons involving improved hygiene and delayed exposure of children to the virus) became a fearsome epidemic threat during the first half of the twentieth century, especially in Europe and North America. In the United States, the polio problem peaked in 1952 with an outbreak that killed more than three thousand victims, many of them children, and left twenty-one thousand at least partially paralyzed. Soon afterward, vaccines developed by Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin, and a virologist named Hilary Koprowski (about whose controversial career, more later) came into wide use, eventually eliminating poliomyelitis throughout most of the world. In 1988, WHO and several partner institutions launched an international effort toward eradication, which has succeeded so far in reducing polio case numbers by 99 percent. The Americas have been declared polio-free, as have Europe and Australia. Only five countries, as of latest reports in 2011, still seemed to have a minor, sputtering presence of polio: Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China. The eradication campaign for poliomyelitis, unlike other well-meant and expensive global health initiatives, may succeed. Why? Because vaccinating humans by the millions is inexpensive, easy, and permanently effective, and because apart from infecting humans, the poliovirus has nowhere to hide. It’s not zoonotic.

Zoonotic pathogens can hide. That’s what makes them so interesting, so complicated, and so problematic.

Monkeypox is a disease similar to smallpox, caused by a virus closely related to variola. It’s a continuing threat to people in central and western Africa. Monkeypox differs from smallpox in one crucial way: the ability of its virus to infect nonhuman primates (hence the name) and some mammals of other sorts, including rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, and American prairie dogs. Yellow fever, also infectious to both monkeys and humans, results from a virus that passes from victim to victim, and sometimes from monkey to human, in the bite of certain mosquitoes. This is a more complex situation. One result of the complexity is that yellow fever will probably continue to occur in humans—unless WHO kills every mosquito vector or every susceptible monkey in tropical Africa and South America. The Lyme disease agent, a type of bacterium, hides effectively in white-footed mice and other small mammals. These pathogens aren’t consciously hiding, of course. They reside where they do and transmit as they do because those happenstance options have worked for them in the past, yielding opportunities for survival and reproduction. By the cold Darwinian logic of natural selection, evolution codifies happenstance into strategy.

The least conspicuous strategy of all is to lurk within what’s called a reservoir host. A reservoir host (some scientists prefer “natural host”) is a living organism that carries the pathogen, harbors it chronically, while suffering little or no illness. When a disease seems to disappear between outbreaks (again, as Hendra did after 1994), its causative agent has got to be somewhere, yes? Well, maybe it vanished entirely from planet Earth—but probably not. Maybe it died off throughout the region and will only reappear when the winds and the fates bring it back from elsewhere. Or maybe it’s still lingering nearby, all around, within some reservoir host. A rodent? A bird? A butterfly? A bat? To reside undetected within a reservoir host is probably easiest wherever biological diversity is high and the ecosystem is relatively undisturbed. The converse is also true: Ecological disturbance causes diseases to emerge. Shake a tree, and things fall out.

Nearly all zoonotic diseases result from infection by one of six kinds of pathogen: viruses, bacteria, fungi, protists (a group of small, complex creatures such as amoebae, formerly but misleadingly known as protozoans), prions, and worms. Mad cow disease is caused by a prion, a weirdly folded protein molecule that triggers weird folding in other molecules, like Kurt Vonnegut’s infectious form of water, ice-nine, in his great early novel Cat’s Cradle. Sleeping sickness results from infection by a protist called Trypanosoma brucei, carried by tsetse flies among wild mammals, livestock, and people in sub-Saharan Africa. Anthrax is caused by a bacterium that can live dormant in soil for years and then, when scuffed out, infect humans by way of their grazing animals. Toxocariasis is a mild zoonosis caused by roundworms; you can get it from your dog. But fortunately, like your dog, you can be wormed.

Viruses are the most problematic. They evolve quickly, they are unaffected by antibiotics, they can be elusive, they can be versatile, they can inflict extremely high rates of fatality, and they are fiendishly simple, at least relative to other living or quasi-living creatures. Ebola, West Nile, Marburg, the SARS bug, monkeypox, rabies, Machupo, dengue, the yellow fever agent, Nipah, Hendra, Hantaan (the namesake of the hantaviruses, first identified in Korea), chikungunya, Junin, Borna, the influenzas, and the HIVs (HIV-1, which mainly accounts for the AIDS pandemic, and HIV-2, which is less widespread) are all viruses. The full list is much longer. There is a thing known by the vivid name “simian foamy virus” (SFV) that infects monkeys and humans in Asia, crossing between them by way of the venues (such as Buddhist and Hindu temples) where people and half-tame macaques come into close contact. Among the people visiting those temples, feeding handouts to those macaques, exposing themselves to SFV, are international tourists. Some carry away more than photos and memories. “Viruses have no locomotion,” according to the eminent virologist Stephen S. Morse, “yet many of them have traveled around the world.” They can’t run, they can’t walk, they can’t swim, they can’t crawl. They ride." page 20-24

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

One Moment In Time

One Moment In Time by Glenn Snyder
Bear Moose Press, 2/23/2012
Paperback, 270 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0615546605

On a stormy November evening, Jack Barrett had plans to treat his best friend Travis to a night of fine dining and jazz. As they neared their destination, a truck ran a red light, plowing through Jack's car, and changing his life forever. Jack found a new outlook on life, and took on adventures that made him one of the world's most admired people. With each step, Jack grew as a person and a leader; piecing together a family from different corners of the world, while risking himself and his family to save others. Jack's impact on the world was like no other, but in the end, when the lights and the cameras were gone, Jack was about to die, or was he? Prepare yourself for a surprising ending that questions the very nature between life and death, reality and dream.

My Thoughts:
One Moment In Time by Glenn Snyder focuses on the life of Jack Barrett, a man who was destined to impact the world. It opens with twenty-three year old Jack and his friend Travis being involved in a horrible car accident. Then it jumps ahead in time to Jack at age seventy-five. He was elected World Chancellor in 2040 and is being interviewed by a reporter for a retrospective piece on his life. As the reporter asks questions about his life, Jack recalls several of the pivotal events in detail.
One Moment In Time is basically about the impact that one truly good person can have in the world and in the lives of all of the people they encounter. The novel swings from the reporter's questions about an event in Jack's life at the beginning of a section and then his detailed answer follows in subsequent chapters. It's sort of a This is your Life show. 
Glenn Snyder said on Amazon: "Although it sounds cliché, the inspiration for One Moment in Time came from a dream.  It was one of those rare dreams that you remember well after you wake up.  As I began to write, the story came together very easily.  I wanted to write a story about the power of the individual, how one person can truly change the world, and the dream gave me the twist I was looking for.  I hope you enjoy reading about Jack Barrett as much as I enjoyed writing about him."

To be honest, I think One Moment in Time might have been more successful for me as a short story or a novella. It's not long at 270 pages (for the paperback) but the whole message might be more successful and the impact greater with a tighter narrative that moves along quickly.  Some of the details watered down the impact of the twist at the end because, well, as the saying goes "the devil is in the details" - and some of the details were presented in an overly simplified manner.
And that's the problem. The details in several events were not necessary to propel the message of the story forward but since they were presented they most certainly detracted from the flow of the narrative for me.
But... the ending did make up for this deficit. Even though the description really gives away too much, I'm not going to say much more beyond the fact that the ending made me feel much more forgiving toward the flaws that were so glaring as I was reading. It isn't a complicated story and it's an easy read so you can get to that ending quickly.

Glenn Snyder grew up in Marin County, a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. After graduating from UCLA, Glenn worked as a finance professional. In 2001, Glenn earned his MBA from the University of San Francisco.  Shortly after his MBA, Glenn pursued two of his dreams, teaching and writing, while still working full time. For five years, Glenn taught Finance at San Francisco State University, while he also wrote the first draft of One Moment in Time. In May of 2011, Glenn published his first novel, One Moment in Time. Glenn is currently a Finance Director and is working on his second novel.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the author and Premier Virtual Author Book Tours for review purposes.  
The thunder boomed from the heavens, rain slapping against the side of the office building, and Jack was oblivious to it all. It was nearing five o’clock in the afternoon, and for Jack, the evening wasn’t coming soon enough. A few more data items to input and he could get that invoice out to Dentaltech, like he promised the boss. “Jack, don’t rush through that invoice,” a voice directed from the office next door.
“Almost done, Dad.” Working for his father had its ups and downs. Location 28-32; opening

A few seconds later, after entering the intersection, Travis screamed, “SH*T! Jack!” The world suddenly moved in slow motion and all sounds were gone; there was a feeling of both peace and anticipation. Jack turned his head and saw the dark colored pick-up truck coming straight for them. Just before the collision, Jack caught a glimpse of the driver’s face, a face that would haunt him for the rest of his life. The world started up again with the screeching sound of metal on metal. Travis’ side of the car was broadsided. The point of impact was the rear tire on the passenger side, which caused the Mustang to go spiraling out of control. Jack’s mind was alert and attempting to process what was going on, if for no other reason, than to survive. The car was spinning like a bad amusement park ride. The world seemed to be moving at different speeds. The car was moving so fast Jack couldn’t count how many full circles. And yet what felt like a minute, in actuality, lasted two or three seconds. A moment in time. Location 73-81

“Good evening and welcome to United World News. I’m your host, Kate Sommers.” Kate paused for a brief moment. “Tonight is a very special night for one of the world’s greatest citizens, Mr. Jack Barrett. Jack Barrett, the primary driving force in world unification and the first person elected World Chancellor in 2040, is celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday today. Jack, let me start by saying happy birthday and what an honor it is having you on our program.”
The camera panned to Jack who sat up straight in his chair, right leg crossed over his left, and his hands resting comfortably in his lap. With a natural smile, Jack said, “Thank you for the invitation, Kate.” Location 108-114

“So Jack, you worked for your father from June of two thousand seven through two thousand nine up until the accident on Friday, November sixth. However, it was that accident that changed your life. Please tell us about it.”
Jack began to think back to that rainy, windy night in November. That night had not only haunted him every day since November thirteenth, two-thousand nine, but had made him who he was today. That night forever changed his life. Location 186-191  

“Before the accident, that moment, I was content with working for my dad, hanging out with my friends, and just going through life as it was handed to me. But afterwards, my whole perspective changed. Outside of some physical therapy exercises, I was confined to bed rest for six months, not having the opportunity to go outside and feel the sun on my skin. Once I was able to move comfortably, I wanted to learn and experience the world and all of its complexities and nuances. I no longer wanted to have life handed to me, I wanted to live life in the most wondrous, exciting way I could.”
“That’s quite a challenge. What was your first step?”
“It took me about six months to recover to a point where I felt comfortable moving on my own. My doctors were surprised at my quick recovery, and I was anxious for some new scenery. I was able to move fairly well, and was getting better each day. So, I did something I had wanted to do since high school — go to Italy.” Location 271-279 

He had come to Italy to experience the world, and in his first moments, he rescued a woman’s purse and was asked on a date by the most amazing woman he’d ever laid eyes on. On top of which, she lived in Berkeley. If this was any indication, Jack was going to be in for one incredible trip. Location 337-339