Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fall of Giants

Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy)
by Ken Follett
Dutton Adult
Sept 2010

Fall of Giants is an epic work of historical fiction by Ken Follett. It is the first installment of a planned three part trilogy. This book is set in Europe from 1911-1925. Follett follows the lives of five families in England, Germany, Russia, and the US. The story primarily focuses on three topics – the rise of socialism/bolshevism, the First World War, and women’s suffrage – that are chronicled through the actions of these families. I am not even going to attempt to summarize the plot (see publishers weekly summary here) but suffice to say that the major historical events in this time period are included.

Historical figures (George V, Wilson, WWI generals, Wilhelm II) interact with the fictional characters in realistic ways. This is a time period with which I have some familiarity and I was impressed with the depth and accuracy of the historical research included in this story. Follett provides a full review of the Russian Revolution providing detail that I think many readers will find new. His depiction of the Russian nobility particularly as it contrasts with the English nobility points out why the revolution in Russia was more extreme that the rise of socialism in Britain. The story resonated with me when Follett spent some time in developing the background. I thought the section on the Welsh coal miners was excellent, giving the reader a realistic view of the terror that was coal mining in the early 1900s. Also the parts on trench warfare in France told through several of the characters experience were very well done and will remain with the reader.

It really is a great retelling of early 20th century events, very readable and epic in scale. So why did I not love it. This is usually just my kind of book. I think my problem was in the character development or lack thereof. With few exceptions - Billy Williams, the Welsh coal miner, his sister Ethel and Lady Maud Fitzherbert - I just didn’t really care about what happened to them. Most of the characters were flat and clich├ęd. All of the characters acted in predictable ways and even though they experienced tumultuous events no character growth is seen. Compared to Follett’s work on medieval England (Pillars of the Earth and World Without End) this first book of the trilogy  left me a little disappointed. So in summary I’d rate this 3.5 , great story not so great characters.

Side note I read an advance reader copy that was huge – 4.5 inches thick, I am rethinking a kindle purchase!

Thursday, September 23, 2010


by Jonathan Kellerman
March, 2010
Ballantine Books

Deception is the 25th Alex Delaware novel.  It involves a suspicious death of a teacher, an exclusive prep school, a multitude of suspects and the requisite interfering political establishment.  Front and center in this book  (and the last several) is Milo Sturgis, the LAPD homicide investigator and friend of Alex Delaware, the child psychologist.  As a mystery this is an entertaining enough story if a bit formulaic.  The potential subjects are introduced slowly and the case is developed at a good pace.  Kellerman continues to provide a sense of place in his descriptive writing about southern California - people are always jumping into the car to drive somewhere.  The writing is a bit choppy with short chapters.  The characterizations seem to have become a little flat.  Milo's love of food has crossed over into a glutinous approach to the refrigerator every time he enters Delaware's house.  I also was disappointed in the ending for me it had an out of nowhere feel to it.

I think Kellerman has lost his touch with this series.  What used to distinguish his Alex Delaware novels was the psychological component.  Plots were complex and dark (When The Bough Breaks) and some times down right scary (Blood Test).  Villains came out of the work that Delaware did in his private practice treating damaged children.  Delaware would have the lead in crime solving and only occasionally bring in Milo Sturgis when police participation was needed.  All that has changed now and the series has turned into a pretty standard police procedural with Sturgis in the lead and Delaware along for the ride as a quasi police partner.  I am giving this a 3 out 5 rating because it is an acceptable but unexciting police procedural. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Think of a Numb3r

Think of a Number: A Novel
by John Verdon
Crown Books
July 2010

Think of a Numb3r is a debut novel for John Verdon and it is a first-rate effort. The protagonist is a decorated, retired NYPD detective Dave Guerney. He and his wife have retired to upstate New York and are trying to bring life back to a long term marriage that holds unspoken sorrow. Guerney is drawn reluctantly and then actively into an investigation of the death of a former college classmate. The serial killer who has killed the classmate and several others leaves number driven clues, baffling puzzles and other spooky evidence that taunts the police and specifically Guerney. Again I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to figuring out some mysteries but I thought the plot here was great; it kept me interested until the last pages. The cleverness of the clues reminded me of an Agatha Christie mystery – interesting, suspenseful and intelligent.

I think Verdun has a promising series with this detective. The character is philosophical, cerebral and has a multi dimensional personal life that includes an estranged son, unresolved issues with his now dead father and a marriage that you hope he can revive. The plotting could have been tighter; there is quite a lot of description of snow in upstate New York that really doesn’t add to the story (we get it Guerney is isolated and alone). The dialogue also seems stilted in places and could have been improved. Despite these relatively minor criticisms I liked this book, in a genre that I read a lot of it seemed fresh and new, Verdon is a gifted story teller!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot
Read by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin
Random House Audio
February 2010

This was an audio book that I listened to over a 2 week period. I usually have an audio book from the library in my car as I spend a significant amount of time driving alone especially in the summer. Most of the audio books I listen to are eminently forgettable but not this one! It was recommended by Jen at Devorer of Books (a great blog) as part of the Audio Book Week in June.

This book melds the two very different stories of the family of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman, who died tragically at Johns Hopkins Hospital of an aggressive cervical cancer in 1951 and the story of her cancer cells (called HeLa cells) that were harvested from her tumor and used by medical researchers throughout the world for the next 50 years without the knowledge or permission of her family.

The author has done an extensive research job in putting together this book. The afterword notes that it took 10 years to complete the book. She did a great job. The science is easily understood by the average reader, the family story is enhanced by the author’s patient relationship with the family of Henrietta. The science side of the story is a history of medical/laboratory research in the 20th century told with the HeLa cells as the central player. The life of Henrietta and her family is a history of rural African Americans who migrate to the big city – Baltimore and all the problems that were part of that story. The author intertwines these stories in a masterful way.

Let me start with the science and medicine. I loved this part of the story. As a med tech that started working in the 1960s my career began at the end of this era. In the 1960s, the MDs were still gods almost never questioned by anyone, patient informed consent was totally unknown, reagent companies were in their infancy, lab techniques were far from standardized, medical conferences were often peppered with public fights between different research camps, mailing blood samples around the world in card board boxes was standard practice and there were remnants of racism in medical care. The reader is treated to detailed reviews of these topics and lots of others always tying the topic back to the HeLa cell cultures. I was further entertained in the story when it turned out I actually knew some of the medical folks from Fox Chase Cancer Institute and Johns Hopkins who played a part in this story (I actually almost drive off the road as I listened to the Hopkins section!). Learning of some of the dubious ethical studies that occurred in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s gave me knew respect for the development of informed consent policies and the role of Institutional Review Boards in protecting patient rights.

The story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is gripping. While the HeLa cells were in wide use in laboratories throughout the world her family had no idea until 1975 that their mother’s cells had been harvested and continued to exist. Following their identification as the family of the HeLa cell donor they are harassed and besieged by reporters and other charlatans. The author in a skilled way shows the two very different versions of the same events told by the mostly white medical establishment and the poor black Lacks family. Henrietta had five children, only one of whom was old enough to have memories of her. The children were each haunted by the existence of these cells and the effects on them were different. Her daughter, Deborah is a central character in the story. Never really knowing her mother she searches for some aspect of her mother’s life in the cell culture story. Hampered by the lack of an education she slowly, with the author’s help, comes to know the impact that her mother’s cells have had in medicine. I was really moved by the growth that Deborah shows over the course of investigating these events. I was also moved by her lack of anger against the medical field and institutions that had treated her family with such wanton disregard. In the end for me, she was the most memorable character assuming a kind of goodness and dignity denied to her mother.

Lastly what I liked about this book is the way the author presented the story in a non judgmental way. Both the family and especially the medical establishment committed acts that did no one proud. She is not condescending nor patronizing to the Lacks family; she does not condemn the medical establishment. It would have been easy to sensationalize this story but she didn’t, she just calmly and in a very fair and straightforward way reported it.

This book tells a poignant human story surrounded by compelling medical science. Folks with no science background could and should read this book but it should be required reading for medical professionals. It is hard to believe that this was a debut book for Rebecca Skloot, here’s hoping for many more!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The First Rule

The First Rule (Joe Pike Novels)
by Robert Crais
January, 2010
Putnam Adult

This is a tightly plotted story that moves quickly. The action starts with a home invasion where a man and his entire family including the babysitter are murdered. Joe Pike, the protagonist, is a former military colleague of this man. Pike focuses on solving this murder and extracting revenge for his friend. Along the way we encounter the Serbian mob, Crips gang members and the smuggling of Chinese weapons. As in most of Crais’s books, law enforcement (here the LAPD and the AFT) is characterized as incompetent and standing in the way of justice. Several characters from earlier books support Pike, but no real character development occurs. There are no surprises as the mystery is solved.

In this book Crais has turned away from his primary protagonist, Elvis Cole and focused on Joe Pike, Cole’s muscled sidekick. All of the attributes that make Cole such a likable character – a sense of humor, a full range of emotions, reasonable social interactions – are absent in Pike. As a central character he leaves a lot to be desired. His primary trait if you don’t count his vegetarianism is a penchant for violence. His lack of emotion, solitary existence and clinical approach to violence leave me cold, although I suppose his some folks will like his inscrutability and manliness. For me bring back Elvis Cole, “the world’s greatest detective”

In summary, good read for an airplane or when you need to escape for a couple of hours.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Little Bee

Little Bee: A Novel

by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster
February, 2009

- a few spoilers here

I wanted to like Little Bee. It has generally very good reviews in both the MSM and among bloggers. I did love it for the first 100 pages or so! It is the story of a 16 year old Nigerian refugee wise beyond her years and her interactions with a suburban middle class British couple. They meet first on a beach in Nigeria where a horrific event takes place and then again when Little Bee is released from a refugee detention center outside of London.

The story is told in the alternating narrative voices of Little Bee and Sarah. Little Bee’s voice is very good – entertaining, often funny, strong with an amazing will to live in spite of appalling circumstances.  It is amazing to me that a white Anglo Saxon male could have written this character so well.  Sarah I liked a lot less. I found her to be annoying, self centered and beset with Yuppie problems but I was intrigued with her one act of courage in the story.  I did have some trouble aligning this act with the rest of her character.

The descriptions of the beach scene in Nigeria are excellent and I think plausible. The choices made by Sarah and her husband are thought provoking and haunting – does a momentary failure of courage doom someone? How would you react if you had an extremely short period of time to make a life changing, life saving decision?  Is it courageous to do what Sarah did; is it cowardice to do what Andrew did?

The parts of the story that involve Sarah's son are quite well done and again often funny; he seems a very true to life character.  Once events leave the retrospective telling of the events I think the plot twists are not realistic. The chapter where Sarah reunites with Little Bee on the airplane going to Nigeria is ridiculous. The ending is very problematic for me; no mother who had had the experiences Sarah had would willingly take her child into a dangerous place like Nigeria.

The back drop for this novel is how the Western countries treat immigrants, especially those needing political asylum. Additionally the dark politics of oil exploration in developing countries and globalization are also mixed in. I liked the way the author subtly integrated these issues into the story and I learned something in reading this book.

The US marketing for this book is fairly controversial. First off, the publishers changed the title. It had been published in the UK as On The Other Hand. Second, they made a decision to withhold any real information about the plot, and what information they gave was wildly misleading – “cute, hilarious, and magical” are not the three adjectives I’d use to describe this story. I can imagine many readers would be put off with the absolute brutality present in the story and the unhappy ending. I can’t think the author is pleased with either of these decisions.

So in summary, while I did like and would recommend this book - there were some very compelling moments - I will remember the main character Little Bee and her story long after I’ve forgotten most of the rest of this novel.