Friday, November 15, 2019

Vessel by Lisa Nichols

Reviewed by Laura

            This book is described as a tense psychological thriller perfect for fans of The Martian. It isn’t. I’m a sucker for space novels. Not the technical jargon of a NASA manual, but the nitty gritty of life in space. Vessel disappointed in this crucial area. It is the story of Catherine Wells, an astronaut who mysteriously returns to earth six years after a catastrophic event decimates the crew of her ship and all are believed dead. Joy ensues, someone has returned from the outer reaches of the cosmos to tell their story! Except she can’t, or won’t—she remembers nothing and what she does remember, she isn’t prepared to share.

            The majority of the story focuses on the aftermath of returning to a job and family where everyone has already accepted your death and moved on. Catherine’s husband is about to become engaged to one of her best friends and her daughter is ready to graduate from high school. Her time in space is told periodically through flashbacks interspersed throughout the drama of her return to earth. In my humble opinion, this book would have been much improved had the majority of the story been set in space where the main drama unfolds. Perhaps a prologue of her return to earth followed by her time on the ship as the bulk of the story. If I’m reading about space exploration, I want space exploration!

            Sadly, this book focused more on the drama of the unexpected family reunion than on the suspenseful happenings in outer space. I stayed with it and finished the book, though the last third became extremely unbelievable (I know, we’re talking about space travel, but still…). The ending was, for me, unsatisfying and something of a let down. If you want a true space thriller, I suggest leaving this book on the shelf and reaching for The Wanderers by Meg Howrey instead. On the other hand, if you would enjoy a family drama with a little bit of space thrown in, this is definitely the book for you!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Nevermore: Keller, Blaedel, Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, Matthews, Quinn, Heinlein, Her Mother's Laugh

Reported by Kristin

Nevermore began with laughter, as one reader exclaimed that she really did not enjoy A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller. This series debut is based in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia as three old men are shot at a local diner. Bell Elkins is an attorney and her teenage daughter Carla was an unfortunate witness to the violence. Our reader claimed that she found the plot very predictable, and that the author wasted much paper on the young girl’s angst. Alas, our reader suffered through to the end.

Despite the title, the same book club member found The Undertaker’s Daughter by Sara Blaedel to be a much lighter read, and a very fun book. Photographer Ilka Nichols Jenson is living in Copenhagen and hasn’t heard from her father for decades when she learns of his death, and her inheritance: a funeral home in Wisconsin. Ilka’s father had issues with gambling debts, as she finds when she returns to the states. Murder and intrigue follow, which kept our reader happily reading to the end of this one.

Dog On It by Spencer Quinn proved to be another light read as canine Chet narrates the story of his human Bernie, a private investigator looking into the case of a missing teenager. Chet sniffs out the clues alongside Bernie, guiding him in ways that the human might be too oblivious to notice. Our reader said that it was so enjoyable that she felt as if she were ten-years-old again reading a Nancy Drew mystery.

From fictional mysteries to a real-life female sleuth, our next reader picked up Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation by Brad Ricca. Grace Humiston was the first female United States District Attorney, and acted as a private detective in addition to her law career. She solved the mystery of missing Ruth Cruger when the New York Police Department could not. The press soon began calling her “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” as she had her day in the limelight. Despite her accomplishments, Humiston was quickly forgotten until Ricca brought her story back to modern readers a century later.

The Kremlin’s Candidate by Jason Matthews is the final installment in the Red Sparrow Trilogy. Our reader said that he was really enjoying it, and found parallels in today’s real life politics to the international espionage in the thriller. In fact, he called it “a little spicy” with a ballerina being caught up in the dark Russian world of seduction of spycraft.

Another book club member went back to the classics with the 1956 science fiction novel Time for the Stars by Robert Heinlein. While one telepathic young boy explores space, he is able to maintain communication with his twin back on Earth. When the spaceship returns after only a few years traversing the stars, the traveler finds his brother celebrating his ninetieth birthday.

Finally, Nevermore discussed She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: the Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer. Every gene and experience we have shapes our future and our children’s futures. Our reader has a medical background and was fascinated by the way that Zimmer writes about medical subjects. She was particularly intrigued by the up and coming genetic procedures which may be able to cure so many ills, but commented that the economics of medicine will likely keep those cures for the 1% of society with the most wealth.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Reviewed by Jeanne

Modern medicine has had an enormous impact on society, and not just in the form of longer lifespans.  There seems to be a general feeling that medicine can fix any problem with a pill or an operation or a procedure. Dr. Gawande is concerned about the unrealistic expectations people have when faced with illness or with aging, and it’s not just the patients:  doctors have fallen into the habit of being “Dr. Informative,” which means just supplying facts and information without going into the ramifications of some decisions, failing to explain choices and consequences adequately. There’s also the idea that each specialist is focused on one aspect of a patient’s condition and doesn’t consider the effects on other problems.

Using real life cases, Gawande describes several different decisions and outcomes. He emphasizes that there is no one right answer that fits every case.  Instead, he thinks every patient needs to answer three questions:  What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make and what would you not? The answers can be a guide to how to proceed.

He also discusses aging and the possible solutions: staying with family, independent living, assisted living, and nursing homes, including how the philosophy behind eldercare has changed.  He also asks the reader to think about what he or she considers essential to a good quality of life, noting that our priorities change in response to circumstances.  He also wonders if opting for safety over independence in old age is detrimental in some cases, lowering the quality of life.

In a nutshell, the book comes down to goals, no matter one’s age.  It’s not necessarily large goals, like climbing Mt. Everest or becoming a millionaire; it can be something like taking an art class or visiting a museum you always meant to go see to but never have. 

Book Bingo inspired me to finally read this book which had been in my To Be Read pile for quite some time.  So many reviewers had called this a “must read” that I was a bit intimidated, and frankly, it’s not an easy topic. However, the reviewers were right: it is a “must read” and not just for those of a certain age.  I liked the way that the author handled the subject, illustrating various points by letting us learn about (and become fond of) real people faced with such choices.  He is a sympathetic ear, and he doesn’t pretend he has all the answers—this is especially apparent in the cases that touch on his own relatives—but he displays compassion and concern.

Some years back, I had read a book with a similar theme, Making Rounds With Oscar by David Dosa.  Using the viral story of a nursing home cat who is purported to know when someone is about to die, Dosa asks readers to consider what they want for their loved ones or for themselves when age and infirmity lead to serious decisions.  Oh, yes, and he mentions the cat at times—always a plus for me.

Both authors emphasize the need for families to sit down and talk some of these issues out before an emergency arises.  Under the stress of a diagnosis or accident, people tend to immediately default to “do everything possible!” instead of “do what it takes to let me live the best way I can.”

For me, Being Mortal was not just about end of life issues, but about making use of the time we have.  I’ve had a list of local places I mean to visit someday, but there never seemed to be a good time.  This book has me thinking that perhaps I should go ahead and make time now, because we never know what is waiting around the corner.