Monthly Archives: March 2015

Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainEvery weekday Rachel takes the train into London, gazing at the row of houses next to a regular stop on the train’s route, watching in particular for one young couple whose happy married life she likes to imagine. She’s even named them: Jess and Jason. So far, so mildly creepy. When “Jess” goes missing and Rachel realizes she may have information that could help solve the mystery, we know we’re firmly in Hitchcock territory.

The missing woman’s real name is Megan, and she walked away from her home one Saturday night and never returned. The perspective alternates between Rachel, narrating her take on the investigation, and Megan, telling her story from a year before the disappearance.

It’s difficult to say much about The Girl on the Train without ruining the slow reveal as author Paula Hawkins subverts the reader’s expectations. Whatever you think you know as the story begins, prepare to be surprised. Even at the very end, when it becomes clear what really happened, the tension only builds. The fast pacing and alternating viewpoints make for a quick, intense read.

Genre: Irresistibly twisty thriller.

Read it if: You’re a fan of Gone Girl, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, Hitchcock movies, unreliable narrators, or trains.

Skip it if: You don’t like surprises; you are hungover; you are too busy to read a whole novel in one sitting.

Movie-worthy: Definitely.

Review: What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If?When was the last time you laughed out loud while reading a nonfiction book about science? I laughed repeatedly while reading What If?, Randall Munroe’s delightful question and answer book. I also learned the answers to many completely unnecessary questions, like “what would happen if lightning struck a bullet in midair?” and “how high can a human throw something?”

You might be asking yourself: why read a book full of questions no one could possibly need the answer to? Answer: because it’s funny! And full of science. Even if I will never be a scientist, and even if I don’t need to know how long a nuclear submarine could last in orbit, the experience of reading this book feels like a superfun brain workout. I’m planning to coerce my 13-year-old into taking a look, because once you start reading it’s irresistible.

A major part of the appeal: cartoons! The author, a former NASA roboticist (according to the back flap of the book), is the creator of the website xkcd, which I had only vaguely heard of before but now plan to follow religiously. To give you an idea of what it’s like, here’s a cautionary excerpt from the site: Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors). Munroe includes enough hilarious footnotes, sarcastic asides and random Firefly references to make what could have been a very dry subject into a highly entertaining reading experience, even for this STEM-deficient humanities major.

Genre: Irreverent scientific reference book with cartoons

Read it if: You know who River Tam is; you have always wondered how fast you can hit a speedbump while driving and live; or you want to laugh while simultaneously getting smarter.

Skip it if: You abhor stick figures; you don’t appreciate somewhat morbid humor; you are looking for a book that can stop most bullets.

Movie-worthy: Not really relevant, although if you animated it properly, maybe, who knows? It would make a great short to air before screenings of The Martian.

Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeDespite the fact that All the Light We Cannot See was nominated for a National Book Award and made many if not most best of lists for 2014, I hesitated to read it. A historical novel set during World War II, featuring a blind French girl and a German soldier? That sounded like an overly sentimental, emotionally manipulative tear-jerker.

But I’ll read anything for book club, and in this case I’m glad I did. While Doerr writes beautifully, his story is hardly sentimental. A fascination with science and technology threads through this tale of human potential warped and lost by hateful ideology and brutal war.

Marie-Laure is the young daughter of the chief locksmith at the National Museum in Paris.  She has spent her childhood reading Jules Verne in Braille, roaming the museum, and learning from the curators and scientists who work there. When the city is threatened with invasion, her father is entrusted with a special mission–to carry one of the museum’s most priceless treasures to safety. He is one of three men selected for the same task, and none of them know who carries the real treasure and who holds a replica. Marie-Laure accompanies her father to the home of his shell-shocked, housebound uncle in St. Malo, where her love of the ocean and its creatures only grows.

Werner is an orphan living in a children’s home with his younger sister Jutta.  He has an insatiable curiosity and a natural gift for science, but all boys from the orphanage are meant to work at the mines once they turn fifteen. Fate takes Werner in a different direction, and he ultimately applies his skills to aid the Nazis as they hunt down radio broadcasts by the resistance.

Although legendary curses and fateful coincidence play a role in the plot of this novel, nothing ever felt contrived or false to me as a reader. Instead, the elements of the story fit together as seamlessly as one of M. LeBlanc’s intricate puzzle boxes.Thank you, book club, for once again compelling me to read something I might otherwise have missed!

Genre: Intricately crafted historical fiction.

Read it if: You like to read books that are really, really good; you think more authors should incorporate shell taxonomy and principles of radio waves into their plots; you love beautifully written historical novels.

Skip it if: You are holding out for that World War II novel where everyone gets a happy ending.

Movie-worthy: Absolutely.

Review: The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam

What comes to mind when you think of obsessive-compulsive disorder? In the popular imagination, people with OCD are often depicted as germophobes washing their hands with comic frequency or uptight neat freaks arranging pens in perfectly symmetrical rows. As David Adam notes in his fascinating book, The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought, the reality for those with OCD is very different.

Adam describes the intrusive thoughts that began in 1994 and came to dominate his mental life: a repetitive, life-warping fear of contamination with the HIV virus. Even though Adam knew, and has always known, that this fear is irrational, the only way to alleviate the barrage of obsessive thoughts was to compulsively check doorknobs for blood, to repeatedly call AIDS hotlines for reassurance, to go through wastebaskets for evidence of potential contamination.

Adam brings his skills as a journalist to bear in writing clearly and movingly about the history of OCD, the science pointing to its roots in the basal ganglia of the brain, and the treatments that have helped sufferers to manage the thoughts that plague them.

Most fascinating is the revelation that many people experience intrusive thoughts–disturbing, unwelcome ideas that pop up unbidden from some deep recess within the brain. It is how the mind responds that makes all the difference. Those who brush off the thought unfazed go on with their lives. Those who try to suppress the thought, who push it away time and time again until they can think of nothing else, can come to be caught in a terrifying feedback loop that only compulsions can assuage. And each time the sufferer gives in to that compulsion–checking to make sure the stove is really off for the fifth or tenth or fifteenth time–the feedback loop is reinforced.

I came away from this book with a greater understanding of what people with OCD go through, and a profound respect for David Adam for speaking publicly about a condition that has taken an incalculable toll on his life. Hopefully his book will raise greater awareness and compassion for everyone who struggles with obsessive thoughts beyond their control.

Genre: Part memoir, part pyschological non-fiction.

Read it if: You want to see beyond the stereotypes of OCD; you are fascinated by the bewildering power of the human mind; you suffer from intrusive thoughts or know someone who does.

Skip it if: You are looking for a humorous account of someone with quirky tics.

Movie-worthy: It would make for an interesting documentary.

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Review: Red Rising / Golden Sun by Pierce Brown

Red RisingImmediately after finishing Red Rising by Pierce Brown, I downloaded and read the sequel, Golden Son. What higher praise can there be, really? If the third book was already out, I’d be reading it right now instead of writing this review.

In Red Rising, Darrow is a teenage miner living in the subterranean colonies of Mars. He is a Red, the lowest caste in a hierarchical society. His people mine the helium-3 essential to the creation of a habitable atmosphere on Mars, which they have been told will enable the inhabitants of a dying Earth to settle and survive. The mining operation takes a terrible toll on the Reds; at 16, Darrow is middle-aged, a Helldiver expertly riding a massive drill into the terrifying depths of the planet.

He is also married. His young wife, Eo, believes the Reds should not be treated as they are by the higher Colors, the Grays and the Golds. Her public protest leads to her death, ordered by the ArchGovernor of Mars without the slightest hesitation.

Darrow, crushed by the loss of his wife, soon follows her to the gallows–but his death is not final. He has been recruited by the Sons of Ares, a revolutionary group intent on liberating the Reds from their subjugation. Their plan is bold to the point of madness, and many have previously failed to survive it: they want to make him Gold.

The Golds base their culture on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, especially that of the Spartans, who believed the weak should not survive if society is to be strong. To that end, the brightest Gold children participate in a brutal competition to demonstrate their superiority and earn their place among the Gold elite, the Peerless Scarred.

While Red Rising may bear some thematic resemblance to The Hunger Games, it differs in one very significant respect: Darrow learns to understand the Golds from the inside out, experiencing firsthand the extraordinary challenges and risks of leadership and power. He fails as often as he succeeds, and leaves the Institute scarred in more ways than one.

If Red Rising resembles The Hunger Games, Golden Son is a solar-system wide Game of Thrones. Darrow made loyal friends and allies during his time at the Institute, but his secret makes it impossible for him to truly trust anyone. And the Golds are not big on trust anyway–feuding families hold Golden Songrudges for generations, loyalty can be purchased, power slips away in a single moment of defeat.

Some of the best moments of the book show Darrow struggling to understand how to stay true to his mission and himself, how to trust and how to win the trust of others. Honesty makes him vulnerable, and in the world of the Golds, vulnerability can be fatal.

So many times while I was reading Golden Son, one of my kids would ask me if I was okay. Apparently the successive looks of shock, horror, stunned disbelief, thrilled amazement, etc. on my face led them to believe something was wrong. Absolutely nothing was wrong, until the very end, when I was tempted to throw the book across the room (except it was on my kindle, so that would have been a particularly bad idea.) Not since reading the last page of A Dance with Dragons (Book 5 of the Game of Thrones series A Song of Ice and Fire) have I been so furious that one book was over and the next not yet released. I want to know what happens and I want to know it NOW!

Sigh. Does anyone know when Morning Star is coming out?

Genre: Fast and furious science fiction with a Spartan sensibility and a revolutionary approach to social justice.

Read it if: You love The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, Civilization V, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Rome, or just fast-paced action-packed yet remarkably philosophical novels.

Skip it if: You are squeamish about violence (including off-screen rape); you simply cannot believe far future colonists would still be naming their kids Pliny and Pax; or you are annoyed by quotes in Latin. Per aspera ad astra!

Movie-worthy: Yes! Bring it! I want to see this movie!