Monday, May 30, 2016

Review of "This is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society" by Kathleen McAuliffe


Imagine a disease causing organism - like a parasite - that needs to pass from one host to another to survive and reproduce? How does it make sure it gets where it wants to go? Well one way is to manipulate the behavior of its host. Certain parasitic liver flukes (flatworms) for example - which reproduce in sheep - must pass from sheep, to snails, to ants, and back to sheep to complete their entire complicated life cycle. These clever flukes have found a way to induce infected ants to forego retiring to their comfy nests come evening and instead climb up stalks of grass - where they're easily eaten by grazing sheep. Then snails eat the sheep poop, ants munch on the snail slime, and the cycle goes on.

Or what about the hairworm - which reproduces in fresh water - but has to pass from a mosquito to a cricket and then back to water to make more of its kind. These cunning operators force infested land-dwelling crickets to (uncharacteristically) jump into a lake or pond. The worms then escape, reproduce, latch onto mosquito larvae, and get back to land in airborne mosquito adults - which make a nice meal for hungry crickets...and so forth.

In the early chapters of her book, Kathleen McAuliffe presents many examples of infectious organisms manipulating their hosts in this fashion - from impelling fish to wiggle their bellies to attract peckish birds; to forcing spiders to spin 'nursery webs' for wasp larvae; to making crabs sprout brood pouches for baby barnacles; and so on. The manipulator's methods may involve forming cysts in the brains/nervous systems of their victims, producing chemicals, activating/inactivating hormones, making proteins, altering DNA, etc. Whatever works for them.

You might think....well....those are 'lowly' invertebrates. Advanced animals, like mammals wouldn't succumb to this kind of tampering. But you'd be wrong. For instance, Toxoplasma gondii ('toxo') is a protozoan parasite that lives and reproduces in cats, forming cysts that are shed in cat feces. When a rat consumes the cat turds the parasite induces the rodent to engage in risky behavior - like purposely cavorting in the path of a hungry feline - so the toxo can get into another cat and continue to propagate its kind.

As it happens toxo can also infect humans, who contract them from litter boxes, unwashed produce, or contaminated water. The protozoans then make themselves at home in the victim's brain where (as in rats) they induce 'risky' behavior. In people this might be dangerous driving, antagonizing enemies, reacting slowly to hazardous situations, perhaps even attempting suicide. Moreover, scientists have found that the parasites may hasten the development of schizophrenia in suspceptible persons.

Parasites aren't the only organisms that alter human behavior. Pathogens (disease causing microbes) - which have probably been around since life evolved - also manipulate their hosts. Anecdotal reports, for example, suggest that terminal aids patients develop fierce cravings for sex - presumably to help the HIV virus find new hosts. And people recently infected with a flu virus may get the urge to go out and socialize - inevitably spreading germs - before aching muscles and a runny nose sends them to bed.

Even organisms that are essential parts of the human body, like gut microbes that help us digest food, can adversely influence our behavior. For instance, patients with gastrointestinal disorders - possibly caused by too many 'bad bacteria' - are more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression. Researchers have shown that probiotic remedies (similar to the ingredients in some kinds of yogurt) can boost the gut's 'good bacteria' population and help alleviate these symptoms.

Of course host organisms aren't going to let parasites and pathogens have it all their own way. They're going to fight back! Thus, animals have evolved a variety of self-protective behaviors. For instance, many species - including primates - perform grooming behavior that removes parasites from the skin; herds isolate or shun sick individuals; animals eat or use medicinal plants; organisms avoid vomit and poop (don't shit where they eat); and most creatures strive to find healthy partners for sex. This explains the appeal of attractive partners with an appealing aroma, who are less likely to have health issues that affect their appearance and smell.

With regard to human avoidance of parasites and pathogens, McAuliffe describes our "behavioral immune system." To put it simply, this is a repertoire of behaviors that helps us avoid 'disgusting' things that (we instinctively feel) may make us ill. This growing field of study is called disgustology and its proponents are dubbed disgustologists. (ha ha ha). Scientific studies (and everyday observations) demonstrate that people are often repulsed by: cockroaches; rats; spiders; worms; people with bad hygiene; individuals with skin rashes; things that smell bad; revolting foods (which vary with culture); and - oddly enough - clusters of little holes...which apparently remind us of insect eggs.

In fact people's avoidance of pathogens and parasites may have led to the development of culture, religion, racial prejudice, dislike of foreigners, liberal or conservative leanings, and so on. These latter speculations are interesting and provide a unique perspective on human history.

I enjoyed the book, which I found very enlightening. My major criticism would be that the topics range all over the place, with some explanations being better than others. Still, I'd highly recommend the book. If nothing else, it will give you a little insight into what people feel and do....and provide some excellent conversation starters for social gatherings.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for a copy of this book.

Rating: 4 stars

Review of "Sick Puppy" by Carl Hiaasen


Despoilers of Florida's beauty better beware of Twilly Spree, a (slightly nuts) twenty-something, self-styled environmentalist. Twilly has already blown up his uncle's bank for loaning money to an unethical rock-mining company so he's not beyond a little retribution when he sees someone throwing trash onto a Florida highway. The 'someone' happens to be lobbyist Palmer Stoat, who - in addition to being a litterbug - 'hunts' exotic game in the local Wilderness Veldt Plantation that imports elderly animals for bigwigs to shoot.

To teach Palmer not to litter Twilly fills one of the Stoat cars with stinking rubbish, fills another with rustling dung beetles, and - when Palmer seems to be missing the message - removes the glass eyes from all the trophy heads in the Stoat mansion and fashions them into a pentagram. When Palmer still doesn't get it Twilly kidnaps the lobbyist's labrador retriever Boodle. As it happens Palmer's beautiful wife Desie - who's getting tired of her slobby, cigar-smoking husband - adds herself to the dog snatching.

At this point Twilly learns that slovenly Palmer Stoat is happily facilitating a plan to turn Florida's offshore 'Toad Island' into an upscale golf resort called 'Shearwater Island.' The resort's developer is former drug dealer Robert Clapley who's greased politicians' palms to ease the way AND taken measures to wipe out the toads for which the island is named. In an attempt to stop the project Twilly threatens to harm lovable Boodle.....but can a dog's welfare stand up against fortunes to be made?

One funny (and ridiculous) predicament follows another as the story unfolds. A hitman who collects CD's of 911 calls is hired to dispatch opponents of the resort; developer Clapley indulges his Barbie-doll fetish with live hookers and rhino horn 'aphrodisiac'; Boodle gets to wear a blindfold; and (of course) Florida's former governor Clinton Tyree (Skink) - who lives rough, eats roadkill, decorates his beard with buzzard beaks, and dresses in a shower cap and kilt - gets in on the action.

The book rolls along to a memorable climax and appropriate finale. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to readers who like offbeat humorous stories...especially people who'd like to see some of our natural environment preserved.  

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, May 23, 2016

Review of "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" by Elizabeth Kolbert


In this well-researched book, science writer Elizabeth Kolbert casts a strong light on the damage humans are doing to planet Earth. In one example Kolbert describes declining populations of the golden frog, which is rapidly disappearing from all its native habitats. Turns out humans have inadvertently spread a type of fungus that infects the skin of amphibians and kills them. In another example, almost six million North American bats have (so far) died from a skin infection caused by a different fungus, also accidently spread by people.

Perhaps less ecologically-minded people might think "who cares about frogs and bats?" But all species on Earth are part of an interactive ecosystem, and the disappearance of any one organism might set off a domino effect that has unseen consequences down the line. Moreover, these sad occurrences are just the teeny tip of a humongous iceberg when it comes to changes wrought by human activity.

Species extinction is not a recent phenomenon on Earth. In fact there have been five documented instances of mass extinctions (the disappearance of a large number of species in a short time) in the course of the planet's history. These are:

• The Ordovician-Silurian extinction, about 440 million years ago, thought to be caused by cycles of glaciation and melting.

• The Late Devonian extinction, about 360-375 million years ago. The cause is unknown but some experts suggest periods of global cooling and glaciation.

• The Permian-Triassic extinction, about 250 million years ago, which may have resulted from an asteroid impact or massive volcanic eruptions (or both). This was the largest extinction event in Earth's history, wiping out 95 percent of species living at the time.

• The Triassic-Jurassic extinction, about 200-215 million years ago, apparently caused by colossal lava floods - and perhaps global warming - related to the breakup of Pangaea (a supercontinent made of all Earth's landmasses).

• The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, about 66 million years ago, thought to be due to an asteroid impact. Evidence for this is the Chicxulub crater in the Yucutan Peninsula of Mexico. This extinction is well known in popular culture because it wiped out the dinosaurs.

Each extinction event left vacant ecological niches
and - over time - these were filled by the expansion of remaining species and the evolution of new organisms. Taking into account all the cycles of extinction and speciation in the planet's history, scientists speculate that 99.9 percent of species that lived on Earth are gone. Unfortunately, humans - by causing profound changes in Earth's ecosystems - may now be causing the sixth mass extinction. Examples of what humans are doing to Earth include:

• Burning fossil fuels, which adds CO2 to the atmosphere. This has a dual effect. It causes global warming, which affects the distribution (and survival) of plants and animals; and it acidifies the oceans, causing calcite to dissolve. Thus, coral reefs are being destroyed and molluscs are getting holes in their shells.

• Destroying habitats to accomodate expanding human populations. This includes cutting down forests, constructing roads and buildings, and cultivating monoculture farms - all of which demolishes the homes of native organisms.

• Transferring organisms to new habitats. When people started moving from place to place they - purposely or not - took other organisms with them. For instance, brown rats - which seem to be indestructible - rode ships to almost every corner of the world, ravaging native species; rabbits brought to Australia as food animals became one of the biggest pests on the continent; brown snakes, introduced to Guam, wiped out nearly all the native birds; and kudzu vines - introduced to the U.S. from Asia - cover and smother all vegetation in their path. It's estimated that people are moving 10,000 species around the world every day, mostly in supertanker ship ballast. The consequences of this are potentially disastrous for indigenous plants and animals everywhere.

• Overharvesting and hunting animals to extinction. In the North Sea, Grand Banks of Newfoundland, and East China Sea, overfishing has severely depleted fish stocks. In addition, many animals have been completely wiped out by humans, including the dodo, Tasmanian tiger, passenger pigeon, Steller's sea cow, and great auk (a flightless bird). In a sad anecdote Kolbert describes how - on July 3, 1844 - a hunter named Sigurður Ísleifsson strangled the world's last two great auks on Eldey Island, near Iceland.

In "The Sixth Extinction" Kolbert sounds the alarm about humans wreaking changes on Earth in the current era - dubbed the "Anthropocene." With luck, Kolbert's book might help persuade concerned people to stop damaging the environment, curtail global warming, and save threatened species. Some measures are already in place: the U.S. has an "Endangered Species Act" designed to protect imperiled organisms; international agreements have been made to alleviate global warming; and "frozen zoos" store DNA from thousands of plants and animals, in hopes of resurrecting them if they disappear. Still, it may be too little too late.

As far as the Earth is concerned, a "sixth extinction" could be just another cataclysmic event from which the planet will gradually recover. For humans though...well...we might just wipe ourselves out in such a catastrophe. If so, something will inevitably take our place. Elizabeth Kolbert (half jokingly) suggests it might be giant intelligent rats (ha ha ha).

Some people think humans can counteract the harm we've done to the Earth. One "solution" for global warming, for example, involves spraying salt water into low-lying clouds, to enhance their ability to reflect sunlight. Even if this worked, though, it would solve only one problem of many. In the extreme case of irreparable harm to Earth, some optimists(?) believe the human race will survive by colonizing other planets. Only time will tell.

Kolbert's book is well-written, engaging, and personal - with anecdotes based on her own observations as well as interviews with scientists she accompanied on their research trips. I'd recommend this enlightening and interesting book to everyone interested in the Earth's future.

FYI: If you like the 'move to other planets' scenario you might enjoy the novel Seveneves by Neal Stephenson...which has a related theme.

Rating; 4 stars

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review of "Headhunters: A Novel" by Jo Nesbø

FYI: This book is a standalone, with no connection to Jo Nesbo's "Harry Hole" series.

Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter in Oslo, Norway who prides himself on being the best in his profession. He wears expensive designer clothes, drives a classy car, and lives in an elegant home. To top it off, Roger - who's self-conscious about being short - is thrilled to be married to tall, beautiful, blonde Diana. To keep Diana happy (and to make up for the abortion he convinced her to have) Roger recently purchased his wife a posh art gallery.

Roger has a secret though. He's living way above his means and can't afford his high-flying lifestyle. Thus Roger has taken to stealing valuable paintings to supplement his salary. Moreover, the headhunter cleverly uses his job to locate expensive artrworks to take. When interviewing potential clients Roger casually directs the conversation to art, and asks what valuable paintings they own.....and the naive dunces blab away.

Soon after Roger's latest heist Diana has a private viewing at her gallery. There Diana introduces Roger to art-loving Dutchman Clas Greve who, in her opinion, would be a perfect client for Roger's business. So Roger interviews Greve and discovers that the Dutchman owns a lost masterpiece - "The Calydonian Boar Hunt" - by Peter Paul Rubens. Roger immediately hatches a plan to steal the painting but, unfortunately for him, Greve has an agenda of his own. Additionally, wily Greve is a hardened veteran soldier and the former CEO of a company that makes cutting edge surveillance/bugging equipment.

After the "The Calydonian Boar Hunt" is stolen, Roger makes a momentous discovery and the book becomes a fast-moving adventure story with some REALLY cringeworthy scenes. For example, Roger immerses himself in the poop and pee-filled collection tank of an outhouse; is almost suffocated between dead and dismembered bodies; impales a vicious dog on steel tines; and more.

The book has a dark comedy vibe throughout, along with some clever twists. I enjoyed "Headhunters" but it's not one of my favorite Nesbo books. The plot is too complex and unbelievable and I disliked most of the characters. Roger especially is arrogant, manipulative, and a self-centered/selfish husband. I did have some sympathy for Roger when things got really rough but never totally wished him well.

The book's okay for a quick read, and I'd mildly recommend it to mystery fans.

Rating: 3 stars

Review of "Wolves Eat Dogs: An Arkady Renko Novel" by Martin Cruz Smith


In this fifth book in the 'Arkady Renko' series, the Moscow police detective is sent to the devastated area near Chernobyl to investigate a death. The book can be read as a standalone.


As the story opens it's 2004 and the Soviet Union has dissolved into separate states. Some savvy former physicists have taken advantage of the chaos to become multi-millionaires and Arkady Renko - determined as always - is still a police investigator in Moscow.

One of the nouveau millionaires, Pasha Ivanov - head of NoviRus Security - has (apparently) jumped to his death from his 10-story Moscow apartment after exhibiting increasingly peculiar behavior. Renko insists on looking into Ivanov's demise despite the objections of his boss, Prosecutor Zurin, who wants the whole business wrapped up pronto. Renko finds some odd things in Ivanov's apartment, like a closet floor covered with salt, but eventually concedes that the former physicist's death looks like suicide.

Fast forward a few weeks and Renko is stationed more than 400 miles from Moscow in "The Zone". This is the area surrounding Chernobyl (in the Ukraine) - where a catastrophic nuclear accident occurred in 1986. It seems that Ivanov's successor at NoviRus, Lev Timofeyev, was found murdered near a Chernobyl cemetery and Prosecutor Zurin - seeing this as a good opportunity to get Renko out of his hair - sends him to "investigate".

People in The Zone were evacuated after the accident and the current sparse population around Chernobyl includes scientists studying the aftermath of the disaster; elderly people who've snuck back to their old homes; some squatters, thieves, scavengers, and poachers; and a small contingent of military/police personnel. Law enforcement in the area is sketchy at best and the head cop, Commander Marchenko, doesn't want his record marred by a homicide. Still, he's not happy about Renko sticking his nose into local affairs.

As it turns out Renko is unable to make much headway with the investigation since the crime scene was seriously mishandled and contaminated, the squatters who found the body can't be found, and no one will tell him anything. Still, Renko continues his inquiries, becoming acquainted with some of the local scientists and residents - and possibly being exposed to radiation and radioactive food. Pretty soon someone in The Zone is shot dead and a former cohort of Ivanov's shows up in Chernobyl to 'help' Renko.

Meanwhile Renko has become a sort of 'big brother' to Zhenya, a troubled 11-year-old boy living in a Moscow orphanage. On Sundays Renko would take Zhenya to an amusement park, though the boy never spoke to him or even acknowledged his presence. Still, Zhenya began acting out when Renko left for Chernobyl, and Renko's one-sided phone conversations with the boy demonstrate a bit of his softer (and more imaginative) side.

The strength of the story lies mostly in the descriptions of The Zone - the creepy bleak atmosphere, destruction, desolation, cancers, deaths, plants, animals, people, etc. Renko even meets a former military man who's in denial about the disaster, claiming it isn't radiation that destroyed The Zone but rather 'radiophobia' (fear of radiation).

As Renko investigates various crimes he gets threatened and beat up; chases a thief on a motorcycle; takes a trip to Kiev; drinks too much; becomes involved with a woman; visits a Jewish tomb; and more. In time Renko solves the murders but the motive for the crime spree seems overly convoluted and unconvincing (to me). Still, the Russian and Ukranian settings are interesting and I enjoyed catching up with Renko, who always manages to stay alive and keep (or regain) his job against all odds.

I'd recommend the book to mystery readers, especially fans of Martin Cruz Smith.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Review of "The Book of Joe: About a Dog and His Man" by Vincent Price

Vincent Price is probably best known for his roles in campy horror movies like House of Wax, The Fly, The Tingler, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and many more. Price was also a well known London stage actor, Broadway thespian, and star of a wide variety of mainstream films.

In his private life Price was a great animal lover, and this book is about his dog Joe, perhaps the favorite of his many pets. In 1948 Price bought Joe - a short-legged, multi-colored, sweet-faced mutt - from a pet store for the bargain price of $3.50. 🙀

Those were different times, and Joe was allowed to roam freely through his California neighborhood, sometimes staying away for days at a time. At one point Joe fathered a litter of pups at the home of actor Barry Sullivan and started spending most of his daylight hours there. Sullivan and his wife, thinking Joe was homeless, "adopted" him and named him Brownie. This led to an awkward incident when the Sullivans went to the Price home for dinner and saw their dog Brownie there! Everyone had a laugh and things turned out fine.

When Price injured his eye Joe demonstrated the instincts of a therapy dog. He lay on Price's bed or hovered at his feet day and night. Though Price inadvertently (and repeatedly) kicked Joe, stepped on his tail, trod on his paws, tripped over him, bumped into him, etc., nothing would deter the loyal pet's vigil. Joe demonstrated similar concern when Cousin Georgia, a cancer-stricken family friend, stayed with the Prices during her last months. Except for eating and walkies, Joe stayed right by her side until the end.

Price's wife Mary preferred pedigreed dogs to mutts and hoped to get a white puppy from a breeding pair of standard poodles. Instead Mary got a gray pup she named Prudence. Prudence was a lovable gal who - disdaining the cold stone floors of the Price home - would settle her fanny firmly on Joe's prostrate body. After Prudence was bred, nine additional canines entered the Price household (though no white ones).

Mary was fond of alliteration and "Prudence Price's" babies were dubbed Paderewski, Pinto, Pansy, Patience, Penelope, Picayune, Percival, Pablo, and Pasquale - and to keep with the theme Joe was nicknamed PJoe. Following their mommy's example, the "P" youngsters took to sitting on Joe (ha ha ha). In time, seven of the pups were adopted out and the Prices became a three-dog-family, along with six birds and seven goldfish. 🐠

Price also tells stories about other animals he owned, met, or worked with. As a child, for example, Vincent inherited his sister's Boston bull terrier, Happy, when she got married. Having a flair for drama, young Vincent staged theatrical productions and - using household items like fur ear muffs, a lampshade, and cheap earrings - dressed Harry up as historical characters, including Cleopatra and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Later, while working in London, Price adopted a Siamese cat mix he named Albert the Good (for Price's role as Prince Albert in "Victoria Regina"). Later, back in the U.S., Albert roamed the roofs of New York, making friends far and wide. When Price adopted a bulldog named Johnny, Albert (seemingly) decided the apartment wasn't big enough for both of them and disappeared. Price eventually got an anonymous note affirming that Albert now had a good home...but would be returned if Johnny got the boot. Price decided to keep the dog.

Price has additional humorous stories about befriending a goat (who got an Eskimo Pie out of the deal), and working with a horse, a cigarette-smoking chimp (he preferred menthols), a camel (who had a crush on the movie star), and bad oysters :) One story, about Price buying his son two Easter chicks that grew up to be shoulder-riding Bantam roosters, is hilarious. I especially relate to this story because - after my grade-school son brought home two Easter chicks from school - our family had a (reluctant) years long relationship with pet chickens and roosters.🐔

Price has more stories about Joe, whom he dearly loved...and who loved him in return. Joe's finest moment may well have occurred after an indigent alcoholic odd-job man, recklessly riding a bike, collided with the dog. Knowing Price was a famous actor the old fellow sued for $13,000 - claiming Joe attacked him. Poor Joe endured the following trial with great dignity, even providing a few laughs for the judge and jury. And he won!

Price intersperses his many entertaining animal stories with tidbits about his personal life, professional roles, and interest in collecting art. Price is an excellent writer with a wonderful command of the language and a consistently droll delivery. To add to the fun, the prose is interspersed with humorous cartoon drawings of scenes from the stories.

I enjoyed the book from the first page to the last - including the preface by Price's daughter Victoria and the introduction by actor Bill Hader. I'd highly recommend "The Book of Joe" to dog lovers and anyone else who likes a good story.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author's estate, and the publisher for a copy of this book.

Rating: 4 stars

Review of "The Theory of Death: A Decker and Lazarus Novel" by Faye Kellerman

Former LAPD detective Peter Decker and his wife Rina have moved to upstate New York where Decker now works for the small Greensbury Police Department. As the book opens, Tyler McAdams - who briefly partnered with Decker at the Greensbury PD before starting Harvard Law School - asks to stay with the Deckers to study for finals. Before McAdams can crack a book the body of Eli Wolf, a student from local Kneed Loft College, is found in the woods - and the Decker/McAdams partnership is (temporarily) back on.

While investigating Eli's death, which appears to be a suicide, the detectives learn that Eli is a math genius who comes from a Mennonite family. Faculty and fellow students at Kneed Loft explain that Eli was studying an esoteric field of mathematics involving Fourrier Analyis, Fourrier Transforms, Eigenvalues, and Eigenvectors which - in short - can be used to make money in the real world. One application, for instance, is used to predict changes in the stock market. So it's no surprise that - when some of Eli's research papers turn up - lots of people are anxious to get their hands on them.

As the story unfolds the detectives talk to a number of people in Eli's orbit including his mother and father; his thesis advisor; professors on his thesis committee; other faculty members; the dean of student life; the RA in his dorm; fellow math majors; and so on. One attractive math student, Mallon Euler, seems especially interested in Eli's papers and takes to stalking/flirting with Detective McAdams in an obvious attempt to get a look at them.

Before long the body of another victim, a math professor, is found in the woods - and this time it looks like murder! Who knew advanced math could be so dangerous?

The investigation proceeds rather languidly as one or both detectives (and sometimes Rina) drive here and there to visit Eli's family, get help from a Harvard math professor, speak to the brother of a victim in New York City, and interview local persons of interest. The detectives also get relevant phone records, examine victims' computers, collect text messages, etc. A sketchy monetary scheme is uncovered, as well as an illicit affair, faculty rivalries, professional jealousy, misogyny, and other shady behavior.

Step by step Decker puts together all the clues and learns the identity of the murderer.

For me this is just an okay addition to the series. The mystery is mildly engaging and the (brief) explanation of the fancy math is interesting, but the story meanders along with minimal excitement. Also, it disturbed me that Rina tags along on police interviews. What cop would take his civilian wife along during an investigation? This has to be against the rules... besides being potentially dangerous (McAdams was already shot in a previous book). It feels like this plot device was used just to give Rina a role in the story - which seems to be to provide tasty kosher snacks, schmooze with the Mennonite mom, and throw out a suggestion every now and then.

Fans of the series might enjoy the book just to see what some favorite characters are up to - but very few ancillary characters from previous books make an appearance. To me it feels like the Decker series needs a jolt of electricity.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Review of "The Cat Who Dropped a Bombshell" by Lilian Jackson Braun


In this 28th addition to the series, billionaire newspaper columnist (and sometime amateur detective) Jim Qwilleran trots around town talking to people and engaging in miscellaneous activities while his 'psychic' cat Koko is signaling criminal activity. The book can be read as a standalone.


When "The Cat Who" series began Jim Qwilleran was a Chicago crime reporter who owned two Siamese cats, Koko and YumYum, and solved mysteries. In time Qwill inherited billions, moved '400 miles north of everywhere' to Pickax, became a newspaper columnist, met a lot of interesting locals, and continued to solve crimes. I've enjoyed many books in this quirky series, where Koko uses his 'kitty intuition' to help Qwill investigate. Eventually, though, the series ran out of steam and this book is a disappointment.

As the story opens Pickax is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary and the town planners organize a series of events - including parades, family reunions, an heirloom auction, and a kitten auction - to celebrate the occasion. Qwill is the 'go to' guy in Pickax and becomes involved, to some extent, in most of these activities.

In the midst of all this a rich local couple, Doris and Nathan Ledfield, ask Qwill to let their California-based nephew Harvey - a budding architect - sketch the barn Quill's converted into a home. Koko seems to dislike Harvey but all goes well until Harvey returns to California, after which Doris and Nathan develop severe allergies and disappear from public view. In another occurrence Koko yowls onimously...perhaps at the very moment a man is killed in a hunting accident. These seem to be the 'mysteries' in the story, but Qwill takes minimal interest in either one.

Instead, Qwill spends most of his time moving back and forth between his condo and his barn (weather problems); writing limericks and scrawling in his journal; chatting/having dinner with his lady friend Polly; enjoying beverages, snacks, and meals with various friends and acquaintances; emceeing the kitty auction; feeding and brushing Koko and YumYum; eavesdropping, listening to gossip, and otherwise collecting ideas for his newspaper column; etc.

I'll admit it was a small pleasure to meander around town with Qwill and see what Pickax residents are up to - though some of my favorite characters got short shrift. Still, "The Cat Who" books are supposed to be mysteries, and this just isn't one. If you're up for a quiet human interest story you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, skip it.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Review of "The Guest Room" by Chris Bohjalian

Richard and Kristin Chapman - fortyish, happily married, and living in upscale Bronxville, New York - are the ideal couple. Richard is an investment banker; Kristin is a high school history teacher; and they get along great with their 9-year-old daughter Melissa - who loves movies, fancy tights, and dance classes.

Richard's brother Philip, a hotel manager who's the 'gray sheep' of the family, is about to get married and Richard decides to host a bachelor party in his home. Kristin accomodatingly takes Melissa to Grandma's house for the night, letting the boys get on with the fun. Turns out all this is a bad idea.

The groom's friend Spencer - who organizes the party - hires a couple of strippers named Sonja and Alexandra to entertain the guests. It turns out the 'strippers' (translation...prostitutes) are exotically beautiful Eastern European waifs who've been forced into the sex trade by Russian mobsters. Thus, the gals are accompanied by two strapping bald bodyguards armed with guns.

To cut to the chase: the party guests get VERY drunk and the entertainment progresses from stripping, to lap-dancing, to touching....and then to full on to sex for some of the men. And straight-laced Richard gets carried away and takes Alexandra up to the guest room - where he does some things he's ashamed of.

After Richard and Alexandra return downstairs, things REALLY get out of control. Sonja grabs a knife from the kitchen and viciously attacks one of the bodyguards, the girls get hold of a gun, the other bodyguard gets shot, and the girls take off in the car that brought them - leaving two dead Russians behind.

The cops descend on the house, the party guests are questioned at the police station, and - in the following days - Richard has to face Kristin, his daughter, his bosses, and so on.

The story is told in the rotating voices of Alexandra, Richard, Kristin, and Melissa. Thus, we learn something about the history of the characters as well as what's going on with them after the party.

Alexandra grew up in Armenia, studied ballet, and - at the age of fifteen - was tricked into going to Russia to 'become a ballerina'. Instead Alexandra was brutally raped and forced to become a prostitute ('sex slave'), along with other coerced young girls. Eventually, some of the girls were taken to New York to work. Trouble ensued, the Russian criminals feared exposure, and Sonja thought the bodyguards planned to kill her after the bachelor party. So she took the bull by the horns...... And now Alexandra and Sonja are on the run, being sought by the Russian mobsters and the cops.

Richard is embarassed and humiliated after news of the 'sex party' and murders goes public. Having previously been a faithful spouse, good father, and reliable employee he now has to deal with a furious/hurt wife, a bewildered daughter, and censorious bosses. To add to Richard's troubles, someone with illicit photos tries a spot of blackmail.

Kristin has to face her advance placement history students, who - along with their parents - worry that all this will somehow affect their AP scores and college prospects (this reaction is so made me smile). Kristin also obsesses about Richard doing something (she's not sure what) with a prostitute, her daughter's worry and distress, and her tainted, bloody house.

Melissa doesn't quite understand what happened, is concerned about her father, and fears her parents might get a divorce.

Some of the most engaging scenes in the book are narrated by Alexandra, in good but quirky English. I was drawn in by Alexandra's descriptions of growing up in Armenia with her mother and grandmother, the food they ate, the many Barbie dolls she owned, and her love of ballet.

On the down side, the depictions of sex trafficking, and what Alexandra was forced to do (not too graphic) were disturbing. The idea that women are used like that - and develop a sort of Stockholm Syndrome and go along with it all - is terrible to think about.

Alexandra talks a lot about her country, and in one scene she describes a horrific earthquake that devastated an Armenian town before she was born. This was enlightening but had almost nothing to do with the plot and pulled me out of the story. It just didn't seem to belong.

Overall, I liked the book very much. It's well-written and tells a compelling and suspenseful story. It also has a broad range of engaging characters that act like real people. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review of "Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H.M." by Suzanne Corkin

Henry Molaison, born in Connecticut in 1926, had loving parents and a happy childhood. The highlight of his young days was a junior high school graduation gift from his parents - a short plane ride (costing $2.50) where he actually got to handle the controls. By then, however, Henry had already begun to suffer 'fading out' episodes which eventually became frequent and severe epileptic fits.

A common treatment for epilepsy at the time involved destroying the parts of the brain thought to trigger seizures. So in 1953, when Henry was 27 years old, Dr. William Scoville performed a bilateral lobectomy, removing a considerable amount of tissue from both sides of Henry's brain. Unfortunately, this resulted in severe anterograde amnesia - Henry was unable to form any new memories; and some retrograde amnesia - Henry could not recall some things from before the operation.

Henry's condition came to the attention of doctors interested in brain/memory research and he eventually became the long-term research subject of Dr. Suzanne Corkin and her team at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT - who tested Henry periodically for 46 years. Henry was always friendly and cooperative at MIT, even though he didn't remember the researchers from one visit to the next - or even one minute to the next if they left the room and returned. However, Henry came to believe he knew Dr. Corkin 'from high school' and playfully called her 'Doctress' - and the entire MIT team became very fond of the cordial man.

Several times each year Henry was picked up from his home in Connecticut and driven to MIT, where he remained for days to weeks at a time for testing. The book describes the numerous brain scans performed on Henry as well as the many tests devised to elucidate aspects of his memory including:
working memory (short term briefly remembering a phone number);
procedural memory (performing a learned hitting a baseball);
episodic memory (recalling a personal going to prom);
semantic memory (knowing Columbus discovered America);
spatial memory (familiarity with knowing the layout of a house)

Henry's abilities (or lack thereof) helped scientists learn more about the various parts of the brain and how they interact.

Corkin also talks about Henry's personal life, which was challenging. Henry couldn't go out alone or take care of himself and - over the course of his life - lived with his parents (his mom after his dad died); in the home of caring relatives; and finally in a nursing home. Henry had to be constantly reminded about personal hygiene (shower, deodorant, teeth brushing); reminded it was time to go to bed; time to eat; etc. In one experiment at MIT Henry was served dinner, after which another plate of food was presented to him. Henry didn't remember having eaten and readily consumed the additional meal. Henry DID recall some things: he didn't like liver and he preferred cake to salad. Henry also enjoyed watching television, reading magazines, and doing crossword puzzles.

Some of Henry's difficulties were familiar to me because my mother has serious memory problems due to age-related dementia. Thus, she repeats things over and over; asks the same questions again and again; can't remember having eaten; doesn't recall that her husband died; gets confused about who's on the phone; and so on.

Dr. Corkin made careful and detailed advance plans - involving many scientists and researchers - for what to do with Henry's brain after his death. Thus when Henry died - in 2008 at the age of 82 - his head was quickly embedded in ice and his body was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital for an extended brain scan. Then, following an autopsy, Henry's brain was flown to the University of California at San Diego. There, the organ was preserved and cut into thousands of thin slices for later study by qualified scientists. The plan is to (eventually) make all research results available on the internet.

As I read the book I felt very sad about Henry's circumscribed life, probably worse than Henry himself, who couldn't remember how bad off he was. I also felt angry at Dr. Scoville, who apparently gouged out too much of Henry's brain. (Note: cutting out pieces of people's brains 'for medical reasons' strikes me as a terrible idea in any circumstances.)

On the other hand, I'm glad that Henry's misfortune had a positive side, in the form of his vast - and continuing - contribution to science.

Most of the book is quite technical, with a lot of jargon about brain anatomy, kinds of memory, how memories form, medical tests, and so on. Thus, it might not appeal to the general public. However, for people interested in the brain and memory the book is well worth reading.

Rating: 4 stars

Review of "Orphan X: A Novel" by Gregg Hurwitz

Evan Smoak was part of the government's black ops 'Orphan Program', which recruited children and trained them to be world class assassins. The Orphans learned how to use weapons of all kinds, became skilled in a variety of martial arts, were taught to blot out pain, became experts in surveillance and bugging, and so on. Dubbed 'Orphan X' Evan eventually carried out many killings assigned by his handler/father figure Jack Johns - who raised and trained Evan from a young age.

After Jack is killed in dodgy circumstances, Evan - who has plenty of money stashed in offshore banks - quits the Orphan Program and begins using his skills to help people. Calling himself 'The Nowhere Man' and working out of Los Angeles, Evan sets himself up in a reinforced, fortress-like, penthouse condominium apartment with all kinds of defensive doodads...just in case. This includes: a parachute to jump off the apartment's terrace; rappelling equipment to climb down the building's wall; bullet proof windows; a door that can withstand explosives; a hidden back room with surveillance equipment; etc. Evan also configures a completely untraceable cell phone so desperate people can call him for assistance.

Early in the story Evan is contacted by a 17-year-old sex slave - Morena Aguilar - who's trying to prevent her little sister from being forced into the trade. To assist the girls Evan has to kill a dirty cop. He then asks Morena to pass his phone number on to ONE person who needs help - Evan's usual method of finding 'clients'.

Evan is then contacted by Katrin White, whose father is being held hostage until she pays off a huge gambling debt. While Evan is trying to help Katrin, he realizes his own life is in danger. It seems another defector from the Orphan Program - 'Orphan O' (working with a team of killers) - is out to get him, apparently having been hired by one of Evan's many enemies.

Since it's a case of 'kill or be killed' Evan and Orphan O use all of their considerable skills to try to outmaneuver each other. Thus the reader is treated to scene after scene of reconnaissance, infiltration, safe houses, safe vehicles, explosions, snipers, stabbings, shootings, hand-to-hand combat, balcony hopping, double dealing and more....carried out with all manner of ingenious high tech toys. I was especially intrigued with the 'contact lens and paste on nails ensemble' used for texting in mid-air.

While all this is going on Evan keeps up a facade for his condominium neighbors, claiming to be an importer of industrial cleaning supplies. This sets the stage for some lighter moments in the story as Evan interacts with his condominium cohorts, including the condo board president (who calls lots of meetings); a nice Jewish lady (who complains a lot about her damaged door); and Assistant District Attorney Mia Hall and her little boy Peter (who takes to sending messages up to Evan's window via balloon).

The book is well-written, suspenseful, and exciting - highly recommended to fans of thrillers. I look forward to reading more of Evan Smoak's adventures.

Note: I like to think Evan Smoak has a connection with Felicity Smoak - the brilliant computer whiz who works with Green Arrow. But - since it's not his real name - probably not. LOL

Rating: 4 stars

Review of "Play Dead: D.I. Kim Stone Book Four" by Angela Marsons

Having wrapped up their last case Detective Inspector Kim Stone and her team, from the West Midlands region of England, are sent to look at Westerley Research Facility. This 'body farm' has corpses strewn around to study decomposition in different conditions (wet, dry, buried, unburied, etc.); insect and animal activity on the bodies; rotting of burned bodies; and so on.

While being shown around the facility, Stone discovers a body that's not supposed to be there - a recently murdered woman with a mouth full of dirt and a smashed face. An autopsy reveals that the woman was held captive before her death - one wrist has handcuff marks and her body has stripy red bruises on the stomach and legs. The woman is identified as Jemima Lowe, a seemingly nice, thirtyish woman from a good family.

Before long another body shows up at Westerley, but this one isn't quite dead. The victim has dirt in her mouth, a bashed skull, and the same marks as Jemima. It seems a serial killer is at work here, who was interrupted during this latter attempted murder. The unidentified victim is in a coma, but her boyfriend shows up and says she's Isobel Jones who's estranged from her husband and dating him. The woman eventually wakes up - but she has amnesia, doesn't even know her name, and can't assist the detectives.

Becoming suspicious about Westerley being used as a body dump, Stone sends in radar experts and anthropologists to search for buried bodies. The anthropologists - mouthy 'Dr. A' and attractive Dr. Daniel Bate (with whom Stone has unwanted sparks) - add a little fun to the book. It's also a treat to watch feisty Stone and her colleagues, DS Bryant, DS Dawson, and data-mining expert DC Stacey Wood exchange friendly quips and digs.

While all this is going on a local reporter, Tracy Frost - who's generally a thorn in Stone's side - persuades the detective to look into an unsolved case: the death of an unidentified man several years ago. Later on, Stone makes a deal with Frost, who agrees to keep mum about an aspect of the Westerley case. And then Tracy Frost disappears! What's going on? Can Tracy be in the murderer's clutches?

The story alternates between the detectives' investigation and the POV of the murderer, who sometimes recalls scenes from childhood and sometimes creepily interacts with abducted victims. The police query moves along at a steady clip and leads to a surprising and satisfying solution during which Stone must fight for her life.

I enjoyed the book, which is a suspenseful page turner with interesting characters, though some are more fleshed out than others. I especially liked DI Stone, a woman with a troubled past who knows her mind and doesn't take guff from anyone. I always like cute pet characters and got a kick out of Stone's dog Barney, who's adept at 'herding' her to the kitchen to fill his food bowl.

I do have a problem with the book, which (in my opinion) has a major flaw in the plot. Rigorous police work and thorough computer searches (I'm looking at you Stacey Wood) would have IMMEDIATELY exposed someone's big lies and a significant connection between two characters. This would have revealed the culprit much sooner. It may be necessary to fudge things a bit for plot purposes, but in real life this would seem like bungling - and it bothered me.

Nevertheless, this is an engaging mystery, recommended to fans of the genre.

Thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the author for a copy of this book.  

Rating: 3.5 stars