October 2008


It’s All Hallow’s Eve tonight___a perfect time to tuck yourself between the covers of a good, scary read. Oooooooo……now to shiver and shake with the ghoulish and the macabre.

But, what can be more chilling than a story with the probability that it could be terrifyingly real?  A story that could happen today, tomorrow, next month or ten years hence but may be percolating secretly under our very noses?

So, chuck the vampires, ghosts, and goblins this year and settle in with The Cobra Event.  It terrified a President*; it will scare the bejesus out of you.

Author : Richard Preston

Release Date : 1997
ISBN : 0-245-40997-3
Pages : 422

A teen-age schoolgirl dies suddenly in bloody, gruesome spasms.  Soon after, previously healthy people succumb violently and inexplicably to the same terrifying end.  Dr. Alice Austen, CDC pathologist, races to identify the killer pathogen…  Thus starts a harrowing investigation  into bio-terrorism.

“Ho-hum”, you’re probably thinking, “…another biotech thriller…not very halloweenish, is it?”  But you want to be scared; and, Richard Preston is no ordinary techno-thriller author.  He writes with the intense objective of rendering us, acutely aware of the genuine, immediate threats facing humanity today.  I feel Preston must have had the urgent need to share his private alarm and agitation; and what more clever way than to couch his facts in a racy, heart-pounding fictional story that’s guaranteed to have mass appeal and thereby higher public awareness and attention to bio warfare.

If you believe in devils, believe in microscopic demons that can transform the world into a living Hell.  Imagine a pandemic of global proportions, the like that can eclipse the horrors of the black plague in the 14th century.  Grave possibilities are magnified to terrifying levels when the threat can be carried out anywhere, by anyone, psychologically imbalanced enough and with the know-how to concoct and release fast-acting lethal viruses, genetically modified to survive modern medicines.

Preston’s incredibly detailed narratives reveal his intimate knowledge and meticulous research in everything he touches on in this book.  One could actually surmise that he has probably dabbled in real autopsies and spied rogue labs.  My edition even has a photo of the baculovirus, the real germs on which this fictional Cobra virus is based on.  In his afterword, “The Reality Behind the Cobra Event”, Preston writes :

“I pursued the subject of biological weapons with the same reporting methods I’ve used for my previous books, which were nonfiction.  The nonfiction roots of this book run deep.”

“The transparent substance I call ‘viral glass’ in this book is an actual material. I have chosen not to give its technical name or describe it too precisely.  I have deliberately distorted and blurred certain key aspects of the bioweapons-making process so as not to publish a deployable recipe.”

“The natural strain of the virus in this book is real, and engineered strains of it have been developed with a broadened host range.  The virus has great peaceful potential because it is so versatile.  Its versatility also makes it a potential weapon.  I have imagined the engineered form of the virus that appears here as Cobra, but it should be taken as one example of a wide range of possibilities that actually exist for the construction of advanced bio-weapons.  The knowledge is public, the techniques are commonplace.  The dark apple hangs on the tree.”

“What is dangerous is human intent…To think that the power of the genetic code is not being bent toward weapons is to ignore the growing body of evidence, the lessons of history, and the reality of human nature.  As Thucydides pointed out, hope is an expensive commodity.  It makes better sense to be prepared.”

So what’s not to be afraid of, if our demons can simply be tank-brewed in an obscure lab in any location___in a top secret military facility, your neighbour’s basement, or even at the back of a delivery van?  The scare is here and it is REAL!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

*“THE BOOK THAT PETRIFIED THE PRESIDENT :  “Mr. Clinton was so alarmed by…THE COBRA EVENT, which portrays a lone terrorist’s attack on New York City with a genetically engineered virus—that he instructed intelligence experts to evaluate its credibility.” — The New York Times

My Mark : Excellent

Author: Alicia Fields
Release Date: July 5, 2005
Publisher: Signet
ISBN-10: 0451215826
Pages: 282

The prettiest girl in the village is young and naïve Persephone, who lives a very sheltered life in Hellas, a small Greek isle, too small to matter to the rest of the world. Most of the boys in her village are in love with her but are too scared of her mother, Demeter, a man-hater who rejects all suitors for her daughter’s hand. But as fate would have it, lonely Hades spies Persephone and instantly sees her as the sunlight to his underground existence. Knowing no other way to win her, he abducts Persephone and as any love-struck swain does, tries to win her heart…

Love Underground is the myth of Persephone and Hades retold with a more realistic flavor, but with a tidy bit of it still sprinkled with magic.  The myth is a great story and Fields’ idea of humanizing it could have made it better.  But, she just doesn’t succeed.

The author tries to “de-myth” the characters by drawing them on a more humanistic plane, while still keeping a glimmer of mystique about them. Perhaps this attempt isn’t so easy for Fields as Persephone, Hades, Demeter, et al., end up flat, like comic book characters — well illustrated but without dimensions that stir empathy from those who are trying to get to know them.

That being so, there is a failure to inspire the romance it is supposed to have. It is that essential ingredient which could have transformed the work to a delightfully sweet story.

One thing Fields has done well, though, was keep one foot in the legend by being ambiguous about the characters’ deities. This was a nice touch, but sadly lost in a book floundering on ineffectual writing.

Regrettably, Love Underground is a literary disappointment.  I guess the book grew out of a good idea; but it withered on execution somewhere along the way. If you must read it, borrow or get a used copy on sale. Just don’t waste good money on a dime novel.

My Mark : In between UGH! and Mediocre — Poor

Author : Allan Folsom

Release Date : December 26, 2006

Former police detective Nicholas Marten gets an anguished call from an old flame who is wife to a recently dead U.S. Congressman.  She tells him she is dying of an infection, which she believes was purposely injected.  Her death immediately sends Marten off to an investigative hunt that brings him and U.S. President John Henry Harris together on a harrowing trail toward an old, secret Machiavellian brotherhood with a five-century lust for world power.

This, is a novel on adrenaline.  It’s a fast ride…so pumped up that you actually won’t mind the lack of character development.  No time for that, anyway.  With the number of plot surprises, you’ll just want to know: “What next?”.

From the first page to the last, I felt I was running on a literary treadmill, racing through pages as though I were powered on an energy drink. The action was relentless; and I came out breathless in the end.  I need to get my second wind, though, as the story will run on and on…the book is set up for a sequel.

A lot of reviews have commented that Allan Folsom could have done better and that this effort isn’t up to par with his other books.  Perhaps, true, as the only special thing about it is its whirlwind pace.  A pretty routine thriller, as Publishers Weekly would put it, and for others, a really tall tale.  But what it lacks in plausibility, it makes up for in entertainment.  Well, what’s a thriller for, anyway? Ha, ha!  Oh, and I think it’ll be great on the big screen, too.

One teensy note : There  was the “sniper element” that I felt was just extraneous to the plot. No matter, it does make a good thread for a follow-up.

I enjoyed my run with this zippy novel.  If indeed this book is sub-par, then the author must be a very good one.  This is my first Folsom book, and as it is, this novel is quite a thriller—great for those long waits at the airport.

My Mark : In between Good and Outstanding — Great!

Author : Philippa Gregory

Release date : 2001

A great review for this novel could be found in Fyrefly’s Book Blog.  I felt that their review expressed exactly what I thought about this book.

My Mark : Outstanding

Author :  John Connolly

Release Date : April 25, 2005

“In the crowded killing fields of crime fiction, John Connolly is a unique voice.” — Michael Connelly

Indeed he is.  As my first foray into John Connolly’s work, I am amazed by his ability to elevate crime fiction writing with beautifully crafted prose.  He has a rare knack of weaving elegant, loftily worded paragraphs with contemporary, casually-toned ones.  The result is a smooth read with seamless alterations in moods, without jarring stops and starts, mid-stride.

Black Angel is the fifth novel in a crime series.  The central hero, Charlie Parker,  embroils himself in an investigation over the disappearance of a close friend’s cousin, Alice.  His search leads him to face a horrible truth—the existence of a demonic being known as the Dark Angel, whose lost whereabouts over the centuries have led The Believers, an army of evil men and fallen demons in human guise, to carve a bloody, gruesome trail of death in their search for him.  The Believers is championed by the Dark Angel’s twin, accompanied by a  malevolent soul-eater.

The novel is heavy on the paranormal and the gothic, its inspiration drawn largely from at least three major sources:

a) an Old Testament apocryphal book, The Book of Enoch;

b) the Sedlec ossuary in Czechoslovakia, which as a major setting, appropriately lends the macabre flavor to the story;

(If you’ve never heard of this place, take a peek : )

Official Website

Sterf

Panoramic views of the Bone Church

The Ossuary in Sedlec

c) a controversial Mexican religion venerating the Santa Muerte.

John Connolly’s delightfully detailed historical accounts in this book have probably fired up some readers to learn more about them.  I know they have compelled me to scurry through the internet for my own research.  So midway through the book, I’ve been entertained with a mound of fascinating albeit morbid material on this novel’s inspirations.

The characters are also what make the book interesting.  This particular novel, being the sequel to four others, does not elaborate on the backgrounds of its protagonists; but, you may glean some bits and pieces about them as the story progresses.  Not knowing much about them, though, will not impede anyone’s enjoyment of this book.  However, to know the characters intimately, a new reader to John Connolly would be better served if he were to start from the first in the series, Every Dead Thing.

A lot of credit should also go to the author’s ability to present violence so artistically.   He has an intensely meticulous graphical style that makes his descriptions so vividly crystalline.  Unfortunately, it is precisely this quality that may render the novel too verbose for some readers.   People who prefer a straight-to-the-point manner may be annoyed at being drenched with all that verbiage.

True, the novel could have been a shorter read.   But for readers like me who revel in Connolly’s beautiful phraseologies, there is no such wordiness.  It is a rare treat to find a crime-thriller written with such eloquent and oftentimes almost poetic language; and, an even rarer pleasure to discover one that dared to successfully defy the accustomed patterns of its genre.

My Mark : Excellent

Author: Katie McAlister
Release Date : Oct. 7, 2003

If you like bubbly humor, light plots, hunks, and vacuous, lovable heroines, you’ll like Men In Kilts.

Reading this book is like having that refreshing simple sorbet after a slew of gourmet courses. If you’re a chick, dig in and enjoy. Give your mind a rest and percolate in delightful shallowness for a change. Drool over hunky Scots with their sexy brogues and wonder , “Just what do they wear under those kilts?”

Oprah’s Book Club would never be caught dead with this; but, it’s the perfect garnish to that heavenly cocktail at the beach.   Ahhh….to sun, sand, and chick-lit. We do need you (secretly).

Author : Mark J. Penn with E. Kinney Zalesne

Release date : Sept., 2007

You pick up a book with a title like this and a back cover listing:

*”People are retiring but continuing to work.”

*”Teens are turning to knitting.”

*“Geeks are becoming the most sociable people around.” ….  You think: “Hey, this sounds just like my friend, Charlie…”

*”Women are driving technology.” …. and wonder, “I am…?”

*Dads are older than ever and spending more time with their kids than in the past.”

You flip to a page and soon become so engrossed in it that you don’t know you’re beginning to smile. Then you start to chuckle. Wait, you do know someone just like that—yourself! Before you know it,  you’ve chortled your way through a humorous chapter.   A lot of the details are plain hilarious!

Mark Penn just has a way with words. His wit lends a lot of levity to what easily could have been one of those tedious analytical tomes for intellectual heavyweights (just a nice euphemism for pedantic bores). He could write fiction and be a hit! He is just that funny.

But don’t let this lead you to thinking that this book is too breezy to be serious reading. Microtrends is a serious analysis. It’s a fascinating account of emerging social behaviors that are or will be powerful enough to influence how society will think, act, and be in the next several years. Penn writes:

“In fact, the whole idea that there are a few huge trends that determine how America and the world work is breaking down. There are no longer a couple of megaforces sweeping us all along. Instead, America and the world are being pulled apart by an intricate maze of choices, accumulating in “microtrends”—small, under-the-radar forces that can involve as little as 1 percent of the population, but which are powerfully shaping our society. It’s just not that small is the new big. It’s that in order to truly know what’s going on,…we need the equivalent of magnifying glasses and microscopes…polls, surveys, and statistics. They take a slice of the matter being studied and lay it open…and inside, you will find yourself, your friends, your clients, your customers, and your competition, clearer than you ever thought you might.”

Microtrends is really about “small ideas that can lead to large changes”. “A microtrend is an intense identity group, that is growing, which has needs and wants unmet by the current crop of companies, marketers, policymakers, and others who would influence society’s behavior.”

Although Penn’s focus is trending American society, he does go further to include similar global behavior. In a global economy, trends spread fast and could become international driving forces that may, in the future, upset or enhance established social norms around the world.

Who should read this book? Those who need to be one step ahead of competition have to watch and be aware of these growing groups whose unique requirements are changing the way things are.  But it would do most of us, “go with the flow” people, a lot of good to be enlightened. Let us not wake up one day and say, “What’s the world gotten into?” ; but say, “ “We’ve  known , we’ve read, and we’ve been watching.”

So, grab a copy. I guarantee an easy, fast read—a page-turner! For a non-fiction novel on sociology, that’s saying a lot! If only more analytical books were written like this, we would all be more “in the know”. Well, hey, maybe Penn just started a trend!

My Mark : Excellent

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