Saturday, February 25, 2012

Death Benefit by Robin Cook ****

After spending over ten years in NYC foster care, moving from one abusive home to another, Pia Gradzani is a tough and isolated, and fortunately smart, very smart. As our story opens, she is a fourth-med med student, and has been selected by Dr Tobias Rothman, Nobel prize winner, fellow foster system graduate, to do her PhD research in his lab. Thanks to Asperger's and foster care, they are two of a kind: hyper-rational, focused, and socially isolated. In a the brutal, no eye contact, unemotional style of hyper geeks, these two are perfect for each other. A love story between two people have no concept of love.

As might be expected, when Dr Rothman dies under questionable circumstances, nothing, not the Columbia Medical School, not threats of being throw out of school just months from graduation, not being beaten up and drugged, not the Albanian mafia, ... nothing stops Pia from searching for the truth. After several plot twists, Pia emerges victorious, though still isolated.

If you're looking for a tough, smart heroine, Pia Gradzani is your women. For Robin Cook fans, Death Benefit is a nice break from his seeming endless novels of Medical Examiners Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton, though they make cameo performances in this novel anyway.

The plot premise is ludicrous and the opening is slow, but once it gets going, Pia is fantastic and the suspension of disbelief pays off. An excellent addition to the Robin Cook oeuvre, several of which have appeared here to mixed reviews: Contagion, Vector, Invasion, and Blindsight.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Aleph by Paulo Coelho ***

NYT best seller list for almost 4 year, almost 2.5 million twitter followers, 130 million books in 160 countries and 72 languages. What can I say?

Aleph (fiction) was written in 3 weeks and chronicles the author's travels from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Siberian Railroad. Much more of a spiritual journey than a travelogue, the book is packed with pithy advice (in italics) such as,
"Don't think about what you'll tell people afterwards. The time is here and now. Make the most of it."
Certainly 'do what I say, not what I do' advice coming from an autobiographical writer.

The Aleph is a mystical/spiritual, but also physical, location where are time and space exist simultaneously. Where the lucky person can experience their past lives and achieve forgiveness and ultimately peace.
"The best way to prepare for a challenge is to cultivate the ability to call on an infinite variety of responses."
Thus, accompanied by a girl who was tortured and killed during the Spanish Inquisition when the author was a Dominican who might have spoken up for her but did not, the protagonist and his Aikido practicing companion, Yao, conduct many metaphysical discussion while visiting spiritual locations in Siberia, highlighted with the visit to a shaman in Lake Baikal.
"The moments that precede sleep are very similar to death."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Micro by Michael Crichton ****

Over the years, I've always felt the Michael Crichton was and wanted to be a science fiction author. In his final novel, finished posthumously by Richard Preston, the question is put to bed with a resounding, "Yes, hell yes." Micro is the adventure of seven Harvard graduate student getting down and dirty with the teeming life of the rain forest. Plants and animals armed and dangerous with myriad weapons. The best of evolution battles it out on the forest floor, some with mandibles and pincers, but most with chemical weapons used to entrap, to kill, and to digest. Of course, the most dangerous threat to our students is a full-size homo sapiens sapiens - sub species: mad scientist.

WARNING: To enjoy this book, you have to accept a "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" shrinking ray that reduces the graduate students and anything else (e.g. shelters, food, weapons, vehicles, etc.) by a couple of orders of magnitude leaving them completely functional.

The science of life on the floor of a rain forest is fascinating and the story of millimeter-sized graduate students versus the evil mad scientist is pretty good, but Michael Crichton's thriller magic is missing. Even though the body count is high, characters drop like fly (my apologies for that one), and the majority of all characters die by the end, the suspense is low. Why? First the characters are not very interesting, and second they die suddenly and predictably with the emphasis postmortem gore.

As a science fiction story, the narrative falls into the #1 SF trap, almost inevitable with seven competitive graduate student suddenly shrunk and dropped in the rain forest. The dialogue is seemingly a endless stream of these graduate students showing off to each other how smart they are, how much they know about rain forest ecology, evolution, and biochemistry, occasionally augmented with their favorite theories and personal scientific musings. Realistic? Yes. Boring? Like a textbook.

This book is more likely to end up on a science reading list, that anyone's best books list. But it is the great master's last effort, and all his fans should certainly read it.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Foreigners by Maxine Swann ***

In The Foreigners, set in contemporary Buenos Aires, author Maxine Swann's main character, Daisy, often returns the various methods used to control alien species that invade an ecosystem, especially adding other alien species to control the undesirable foreigners. This theme is reflected in the ambiguous feeling the foreigners have about the native Argentinians, such as a support group for wives who married Argentinians, and each other.

This novel centers around three women, Daisy, an American running away from a traumatic divorce, Isolde, an Austrian looking for a much better life, and Leonarda, an Argentinian free spirit. These three women struggle to find a personal niche in Buenos Aires.

All three scattered their seeds/spores far and wide. Daisy befriending a gay prostitute, Isolde frequenting cultural events and high-society parties, and Leonarda taking up with a famous author. While single women making their way in the world, and the full range of sexual and personal relationship explored might speak for independence and freedom for women in the
21st century ... that is not the case for this book.

The only character to reach a satisfactory conclusion for her quest, and maybe the only one to achieve victory over the ecological battle, settles into an classical marriage where she retires from the world in exchange of a home and hearth and little else.

Anyone looking for an early retirement from life might find this to be a cautionary tale and encouragement for a stable, though uneventful, marriage.