Monday, July 7, 2014

Another Winner from Megan Abbott

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

On the heels of her excellent last novel, Dare Me, Megan Abbott again plunges into the mysterious and often troubled world of teenage girls, where even the smallest of incidents can assume a monumental importance.

At the heart of the novel are three high school girls and best friends, Deenie, Lise and Gabby. As the novel opens, Deenie watches in horror as Lise suffers a mysterious seizure while in class one morning. Lise is immediately hospitalized and falls into a coma, but no one, including the medical professionals, can figure out what's happened to her.

In fairly short order, other girls at the school begin to exhibit bizarre symptoms that also go unexplained, and what follows is a panic that spreads from Lise's friends through their school and ultimately through their entire community. In the age of the Internet, YouTube, and the 24/7 cable "news" cycle, all sorts of theories inevitably abound and none of them seems too looney to receive consideration.

Have the girls been affected by some toxic poison that's lurking in their school? Was their illness caused by the foul but beautiful lake nearby? Perhaps it resulted from the HPV vaccination that the school required the girls to receive.

The story unfolds principally through the eyes of Deenie, her hunky hockey-playing brother, Eli, and their divorced father, Tom, who is a teacher at Deenie and Eli's high school. All of the characters in the book, but especially these three, are finely drawn. In the hands of many another author, the father, Tom, would be totally clueless, but Abbott portrays him as an intelligent, complex man who cares deeply about the children he is raising alone. He worries about his skills at a parent and he's terrified at the thought that soon he will have to send his daughter out into a larger and sometimes dangerous world.

The brother, Eli, is also very well done--not at all the stereotypical high school jock that one might expect. He's a three-dimensional character who's very interesting and sympathetic in his own right.

This book is very loosely based on the Salem, Massachusetts witch scare that began in 1692, and Abbott creates a vivid, scary and ultimately very believable story of a community in panic. It's a great read and upon finishing it, one is struck by the thought that, as a society, maybe we're not as far removed from the Seventeenth Century as we'd like to think.

Welcome To The Jungle...You're Gonna Die!

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the AmazonThe Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This will make you feel like a kid again! It will ignite a Jonny Quest kind of desire for adventure, to dive into the jungle in search of lost worlds.

This will also quench most desires to ever take one step closer to a jungle.

"Z" is supposedly a long lost South American city of a once powerful people. Think El Dorado. Did it ever really exist? Finding out was the self-imposed task of an almost legend of a man who lives up to the myth:

Famous British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett...


A military man with an athlete's physique and a cast iron constitution, Fawcett made the perfect explorer. As fortune would have it, he lived in a time and place where conquering the last of our Earth's unknowns was in high fashion: Victorian England.

I've read a few of these sorts of books and I've come to expect the unavoidable asides. After all, to take this book as an example, there is always going to be more to the story than just one man trying to find one lost city. The Lost City of Z is fattened by many an aside discussing the myriad of Victorian era explorers who threw themselves into harm's way for glory and adventure. It was almost like a game to them, a great race to see who could get there first, be it the depths of the jungle or the arctic pole.

Author David Grann juggles these stories well, never dropping the main story, at least no more than necessary to incorporate the interesting details from these off-shoot tales that help the reader to better understand the mindset of the times or to underscore the perils of such treks into the unknown.

In the process of putting this book together, tracking Fawcett became Grann's adventure. However, it turned out to be one shared by many.

Fawcett went on numerous South American explorations with varying degrees of success and always emerging - though slightly worse for wear - in relatively good health compared to the many who perished along the way. However, after disappearing into the jungle one last time, with his son and a friend in-tow on this occasion, Fawcett disappeared forever. In the years that followed, finding Fawcett became a new kind of sport that swept the world. Many expeditions set out to find and bring the man back, dead or alive.

As you read The Lost City of Z you begin to form the opinion that "dead" is the only possible outcome for anyone foolish enough to set foot in the jungle. Grann's descriptions of the jungle's deprivations felt to me like watching a David Attenborough nature program in Feel-o-vision...every sting, bite and virulent disease feels like its invading your body. I itched unconsciously at every mention of the ubiquitous insects. I swore my skin creeped and I could feel a fever coming on. So, if you've got Indiana Jones aspirations, this is the cure!

Exposing The FBI...Sort Of

The Secrets of the FBIThe Secrets of the FBI by Ronald Kessler
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, they ain't secrets no more!

And were they secrets in the first place? I guess "technically," but if we're being honest, come on, some of this stuff is just silly. Kessler tosses the FBI some grapefruits right up front in this one, giving the reader little vignettes of instances where the Bureau came away with mud on their face. It's like viewing their blooper reel: Agents foiled by cats and in-and-out jobs gone haywire by zany hijinks. *cue the laugh track!* I didn't have much hope for this one right off the bat.

But eventually it comes around. Kessler hits his stride when he starts in on the pros and cons of each of the Bureau's Directors: Hoover's suspicious denial of the mafia's existence; Freeh's technophobia; Sessions allowing his wife and her friends complete security clearance and access within FBI Headquarters. Many interesting how-to tidbits regarding their techniques are told via entertaining anecdotes. Kessler gives a rundown of how the FBI responded to major national events (Waco, 9/11, etc), not allows showing them in a positive light.

Overall though, The Secrets of the FBI maintains a balance, reporting equally on the good and bad of the FBI's checkered past, and it does so in an engaging manner that may not be as exciting or biting as some wish it to be. However, for those of us with a passing interest, it's a good read for sure!

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