Thursday, August 26, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: After The Fire (Maeve Kerrigan, #6) by Jane Casey

After The Fire by Jane Casey is the sixth book in the British police procedural series featuring Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan. Kerrigan and her immediate supervisor Detective Inspector Josh Derwent are part of the Major Crimes Squad of the London Metropolitan Police. In After The Fire the major crime is a suspicious fire on the top two floors of a public housing, high-rise apartment complex (called an “estate”) which leads to the discovery of three corpses, two charred to a crisp and one battered from a fall from a great height.

As with most good mysteries, the question of whodunnit is just one of many questions posed to the reader. Some of the more compelling aspects of the story being told in After The Fire come from the continuation of the ongoing developments in Maeve Kerrigan’s life, whose significance is heightened by the fact this is the sixth book in the series. Due to events in the previous book (The Kill), Maeve’s love life is a bit rocky and she’s dealing with ongoing potential threats to her personal safety. Her relationship with DI Josh Derwent, her immediate superior officer and unorthodox investigation partner undergoes some surprising (but welcome) maturation in this edition of the series. Her boss is still problematic, and the tensions of being an attractive woman in a predominantly male profession is still an important part of the day-to-day activity of this police procedural series.

The structure of After The Fire is different from previous entries in the series, since it involves a deadly arson where there are numerous victims (in addition to the dead ones several other residents had their homes destroyed) some of whom become suspects as we learn more about the unsavory nature of their sources of income and why they were living in a run-down housing estate even though it’s clear they had other financial options. In most police procedurals the limited number of suspects is key and here the problem is the converse.

Overall, After The Fire is a satisfying genre book; I believe all of the central mysteries in the plot are resolved. One does find out who caused the fire and why, as well as what and whom were responsible for all the dead bodies discovered at the scene. We even get a surprising resolution of Maeve’s ongoing personal safety concern. The primary unsolved story thread involve her personal and professional lives, but by their very nature that’s not something that one would expect to remain static in a long-running series anyway. I look forward to reading more about Maeve and her attempt to obtain satisfaction in one or more of these areas in future books.

Title: After The Fire (Maeve Kerrigan, #6).
Author: Jane Casey.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 317 pages.
Publisher: Minotaur Books.
Date Published: May 3, 2016.
Date Read: August 14, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, August 19, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller

Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller is an unusual book for me to read and review. It is one of the few nonfiction books I have read this year and it is one of the very rare books I have ever read as an audiobook. Typically, I only access audiobooks when on vacation with my husband (since he has the Audible subscription) and this is how I read Why Fish Don't Exist. We had both heard the author discussing her book on multiple NPR shows (e.g., Radiolab, This American Life) and so when we embarked on a road trip to visit three national parks this summer (Bryce, Zion and Death Valley) Why Fish Don't Exist was on top of the list to be downloaded for the drive. It turns out to be a delightful way to experience the book; it’s read by the author herself, and being a radio person her delivery is engaging and the prose is memorable. Plus, in audio format the book only takes less than 6 hours to complete (shorter than it takes to drive from Los Angeles to Utah).

Why Fish Don't Exist is a fascinating and compelling story about the first president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, who was also one of the most prominent and prolific icthyologists (fish scientists) of his day, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was also an unrepentant and fervent eugenicist and used his fame and status to promote this vile and dehumanizing ideology in the United States and around the world. Miller includes information in the book that intimates that Jordan may have been responsible for the still-unsolved mysterious death of Mrs. Leland Stanford. One of the clear beneficiaries of the untimeliness of her suspicious demise (by poison, while on vacation on Hawaii) was Jordan himself.

Why Fish Don't Exist is an exemplar of the maxim “truth is stranger than fiction.” Miller’s book is part biography of a great man of science, part autobiographical personal memoir and part philosophical musing on the nature of science. Miller injects pathos into the book by recounting how her scientist-father’s atheistic views, that human (and all other) life is ultimately immaterial to the fate of the Universe, that God doesn’t exist and that nothing happens after people die, had a measurably deleterious impact on a young Lulu Miller’s mental health. The search for a way to understand or refute her father’s nihilist view of life fuels her book’s examination of Jordan’s life and its focus on his obsessive project to identify and classify as many new varieties of fish as he could. Both Jordan and Miller are trying to produce order out of the chaos of the natural world.

Miller is incredibly lucky in her choice of subject. Jordan’s life contains an astonishing number of extraordinary events, often catastrophic, which he suffers but shrugs off. This includes deaths of multiple family members at tender ages (two of his children, his older brother and his first wife), the complete destruction of his collection of rare and unique fish specimens obtained through painstaking worldwide travel by train and ship by natural disasters (twice!) and living through the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1905. The highs and lows of Jordan’s life are cinematic in scope and scale.

Miller is also incredibly effective at using intimate details of her own life to increase the emotional connection between her book and the reader. She describes her own suicide attempt as a teenager to emphasize the importance of her teleological search for life’s meaning. Later in the book she provides details of how her admission of a casual same-sex indiscretion led to the collapse of her first significant romantic (heterosexual) relationship and a subsequent professional downward spiral that delayed the completion of the book. It was during this period that she discovered the dark facets of Jordan’s supposedly shiny jewel of a life: the full-throated support for involuntary sterilization fueled by his eugenicist and supremacist instincts, the suspicious behavior to interfere with the official investigation into Mrs. Stanford’s death and the unseemly romantic entanglement with an Indiana University student when he was the youngest University President in America.

Overall, Why Fish Don't Exist is an informative and engaging book about the complications and contradictions of life itself. Like all good art, it allows the reader to interact with it in different ways, and different readers will be drawn to different aspects, with most people being affected in long-lasting ways. Highly recommended!

Title: Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life.
Author: Lulu Miller.
Format: Audiobook.
Length: 4 hours 55 minutes or 225 pages.
Publisher: Simon and Schuster.
Date Published: April 14, 2020.
Date Read: July 29, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.00/4.0).


Thursday, August 12, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir has quite a lot going for it. The book jacket has blurbs from giants in science fiction and fantasy like Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin and Blake Crouch. Barack Obama included the book in his list of summer 2021 reads. Weir is most well-known for his blockbuster debut novel The Martian which became a blockbuster film directed by Oscar-winner Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. His “thing” is realistically depicting hands-on science and engineering ingenuity to survive realistic, life-threatening situations. The premise behind Project Hail Mary is eye-catching (if surprisingly far-fetched for an author whose previous work has leaned so heavily on verisimilitude as a selling point). A newly discovered bacteria called astrophage somehow is causing the luminosity of the Sun to diminish at a slow but exponentially increasing rate which will lead to the extinction of all life on Earth within a few decades. Project Hail Mary is humanity’s attempt to investigate and fix the problem, but when the book begins all the reader knows is that something has gone horribly wrong and the main character has woken up alone in a spaceship (named Hail Mary) after spending years of interstellar travel at relativistic speeds in an induced coma leaving him with no memory of where he is or why. Unsurprisingly, Ryan Gosling is attached to a possible film adapation of Project Hail Mary by the producers and screenwriter of The Martian. (No word yet whether director Ridley Scott is interested in helming his second Weir adaptation.)

The structure of the story in Project Hail Mary is brilliant; it is told in two linear time-frames near simultaneously. The reader slowly learns that the main character’s name is Ryland Grace and that he was a junior high school science teacher. Because of Grace’s amnesia, the reader gets little drips of Grace’s life prior to the Hail Mary while he’s adjusting to the situation he wakes up to. Slowly he remembers that he’s there to try to save the world by discovering why Tau Ceti is the only local star near ours which has not experienced a reduction in luminosity in recent decades. Project Hail Mary was intended to be a one-way scientific mission with three scientific experts to investigate the phenomenon and discover a solution for the astrophage infestation harming the Sun and send it in four quadruple redundant “information life boats” back to Earth. So the two timelines of the story follow Grace trying to complete his mission in the future and remembering the past when he was involved in the preparation and design of the Hail Mary, along with the amazingly dictatorial leader of Project Hail Mary Eva Stratt (who would be perfectly cast by Emily Blunt or Tilda Swinton in the inevitable film adaptation). Ryland Grace is supposed to be white, American, under 40 and average looking. I had someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tobey Maguire or Topher Grace is who came to mind as I was reading. Ryan Gosling would probably be great.

There’s an incredible and incredibly surprising development about one-third of the way into Project Hail Mary that I don’t want to spoil in this review. Suffice it to say that it moves the plot in a whole different direction and switches the book from scientific thriller to something else in addition. Without revealing anything more I can say that this development is an amazingly positive aspect of the story. It provides another example for Weir to show he is able to deploy his scientific chops to describe a scientifically complicated scenario and raises the emotional stakes of the story.

The reader learns some shocking things about Ryland as the earlier time frame unspools in his memory that causes us to question our identification with him as the main character. However, another plot twist very near the end of the book provides Grace with a dilemma that allows him to redeem himself to the reader and results in a very surprising ending (which I suspect will not survive the Hollywood film adaptation). Overall, I think that Project Hail Mary is at least as enjoyable and exciting as The Martian, and is almost certainly a better (written)  book. I look forward to reading more from Weir, and I strongly agree with President Obama’s recommendation to include Project Hail Mary on your summer reading list.

Title: Project Hail Mary.
Author: Andy Weir.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 476 pages.
Publisher: Ballantine Books.
Date Published: May 4, 2021.
Date Read: July 21, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).


Thursday, August 05, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Blind to the Bones (Cooper & Fry, #4) by Stephen Booth

Blind to the Bones is the fourth book in the police-procedural, murder-mystery series featuring Detective Sergeant Deborah Fry and Detective Constable Ben Cooper written by Stephen Booth set in the Peak District in the north of England. In the first three books, there have been three very different but compelling mysteries in that Cooper and Fry are the main protagonists and the plot revolves around each of them solving crimes.  Blind to the Bones is somewhat similar to the other books in the series but this time instead of solving crimes together, each one of them has their own assignment, which eventually they both reluctantly recognize are linked. One of the curious and compelling features at the heart of the series is the fractious relationship between these two very different police officers. They are colleagues but they are certainly not friends; they are very different people with different personalities, life experiences and views on life. But they are both members of a small police force so they often need to work together to successfully do their jobs “to serve and protect“ the public.

There are three main mysteries in Blind to the Bones: 1) Who killed the local man whose body was found in an abandoned train tunnel (at the beginning of the book)? 2) What happened to the woman who has been missing for just over two years and whose cellphone has just shown up? 3) What crimes is that family with multiple delinquent children hiding? Of course, with all good mysteries there are several other smaller questions/puzzles to be answered as well.

Blind to the Bones is an unusual entry in the series because much of it takes place in the small town of Withens, not the typical setting of Edendale, which is where Cooper is from and where most of the action in the first three books (Black Dog, Dancing with the Virgins, Blood on the Tongue ) took place. Cooper ends up being seconded to the Rural Crime Task Force to work on the dead body in the train tunnel while Fry gets assigned to deal with the delusional parents of the missing college student (who even after two years of not seeing their daughter refer to her in the present tense and have kept her things all over the house intact). Fry gets stuck working with the corpulent and indolent Detective Constable Gavin Murfin while Cooper has his own adventures in Withens and beyond.

Overall, Blind to the Bones was not as compelling a read to me as the first three books in the Cooper and Fry series. I’m not exactly sure why. I think it might have been because by having each of the protagonists work separately on their own mystery it reduced the amount of interaction they had with each other, and one of the key features of the series has been the emotional frisson between Cooper and Fry. It's also significantly longer than the median mystery novel, well over 600 pages. Another quibble that I had with this entry was that it was resolved just a little too neatly for my taste, in such a way that it seemed unlikely the reader could have found the answers on their own, which seems a bit unfair. Regardless, I do think I will continue reading the series because I am curious to see how things develop between Cooper and Fry in future books, especially now that progress has been made an important project that Fry was working on in multiple books (thanks to the actions of Cooper).

Title: Blind to the Bones (Ben Cooper & Deborah Fry series, #4)
Stephen Booth.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 643 pages.
Publisher: Witness Impulse.
Date Published: January 7, 2014 (first published January 1 2003).
Date Read: July 8, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B/B+ (3.25/4.0).



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