"Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup", by John Carreyrou - Book Review

This book is proof positive that a free press is paramount to our society. Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, John Carreyou, with the help of some very brave mid-level ex-employees, took down a company valued at $10 billion in a multi-article investigative expose.

 And, this company, Theranos, and its leaders, Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani, deserve way worse than what they’ve gotten so far.

 Carreyou reports on Holmes’ career starting off as an inventive kid growing into a nineteen-year-old Stanford dropout with big ideas and then into a multibillion dollar venture capitalist wizard. Holmes’ goal? To revolutionize some aspect of the medical field. Her idea? Blood collection technology that would do hundreds of tests on a mere pinprick of blood. The problem was the technology didn’t (and still doesn’t) exist. And what limited technology she did cobble together didn’t work.

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Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, by Beth Macy - Book Review

If you’re looking for an uplifting read, pass this one up. If you’re interested in serious anecdotal and statistical research into the opioid epidemic in this country, read it.

Macy focuses mainly on the epidemic in and around her home town of Roanoke and in some of the poorer white areas of the Appalachia’s, but the book is global in its application.

 Macy interviewed and garnered the confidence of numerous users, users’ families and even a drug dealer, serving a 23-year prison sentence for heroin distribution. Interestingly, that dealer never did ‘herr-on’ as he refers to heroin. He was wise enough to know that his using would only result in his own addiction which would eat into his profits. While he might be a large fish in the dealing pond, he is hardly responsible for the epidemic. Many of the white addicts he sold to turned into dealers themselves just so they could fund their own habits. And small time players can make addicts just as quickly as big ones.  

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"I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer", by Michelle McNamara - Book Review

McNamara, comedian Patton Oswalt’s late wife, was obsessed with the serial rapist and murderer she dubbed The Golden State Killer. And when I say obsessed, I mean all encompassing, decades long, detective like obsessed. This book is the result of her obsession and to show just how much it affected her personally, at one point, she casually states, “There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.”

Because what she was obsessed with was terrifying.

The book is a murder mystery of epic proportion and frustration. At the time of McNamara’s death, the book had not yet been published nor had the mystery been solved. She died without seeing her monstrous (pun intended) efforts in print and not knowing just how close officials were to getting her man. She died not knowing what we all know now. In April of this year, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., was arrested and is being held without bail as the Golden State Killer.

The acronym McNamara used throughout the book, and one used by official types, was EAR-ONS: East Side Rapist/Original Night Stalker. This guy carried on a reign of terror and destruction from the late 70s through the mid 80s and he simply could not be caught. This, despite the fact that once he escaped a crime scene on a stolen ten-speed with officers in cars hot on his tail. As McNamara’s title indicates, he was a master of the dark.

To say that McNamara’s research is extensive, is to understate it grievously. She even became a contact for detectives along the way who took her theories and suggestions as seriously as they would from other law enforcement. But she writes a methodically researched subject like a novel. Interspersed with the facts, she adds anecdotal stories of her own life that shine a light into her as well as giving some softness to a book that is both brutal and clinical in its facts and details.

After McNamara’s tragic death in April 2016, her lead investigator and a well-schooled investigative journalist put all of her diligent work together into what resulted in this book. Their task must have been overwhelming and, if McNamara hadn’t made such an important impression on them, there is no way they would have undertaken it. Her husband, Patton, lovingly writes the afterword and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame wrote the foreword.

McNamara’s obsession with the Golden State Killer drove her to some dangerously dark places. After her death was ruled an accidental overdose of a lethal combination of prescription drugs, it isn’t hard to imagine that she may have used medicine to dull the edges of her gruesome hobby.

And, who could blame her? As of her death, the killer was still on the loose and constantly on her mind. Oh, how I hope her spirit knows that her real-life demon has been caught and that she’s finally able to lie peacefully at rest.   

Published: 2018
Publisher: Harper

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 stars

Murderous London in "Death in the Air", by Kate Winkler Dawson - Book Review

Death in the Air was an unexpected find at last year’s BookExpo that I finally got around to reading. The subtitle is what got me - “The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City”. I wondered how author Kate Winkler Dawson would weave together these two stories of serial killer, John Reginald Christie and the four day smog that killed thousands. The story comes together in Parliament of all places - competing priorities and differing political agendas. Death in the Air is an interesting history lesson of murder that was never completely resolved.

It’s a 1952 London winter. Fog is a common occurrence in London, as we know. Post war England is financially struggling, they are in rebuilding mode, and industry is pumping out toxic fumes along with production. Coal is the primary source of energy, with two kinds in circulation - a “higher quality” and expensive black coal; and nutty slack, a cheaper, more toxic heat source that the working class use to fill their fireplaces. As a fog descends upon the city on December 4th, factories continue to operate and people go to work. During this time, it’s reported that you would hardly be able to see your hand in front of you, driving is impossible, criminals have their way, and the soot is everywhere, clinging to hair and clothing, being ingested into lungs. After five days of the smoke and fog thousands die from the poisonous gases. It’s not until a year later a report is released stating 4,000 people died due to the smog. And it’s some 50 years later, when the true, staggering number is released - over 12,000 people dead due to the smog.  

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Techno Thriller: "The Last Hack", by Christopher Brookmyre - Book Review

A relatively new genre within thrillers is cybercrime. I recently reviewed David Ignatius’ Quantum Spy and have tackled another - Christopher Brookmyre’s The Last Hack.  While Ignatius’ work is decidedly unmemorable, Brookmyre’s novel may tempt me to read more of his Jack Parlabane series.

The Last Hack is a techno whodunit that teams unassuming 19-year Sam, whose mother is in prison and is caring for her special needs younger sister, with an experienced investigative journalist, Jack Parlabane. It’s light on a lot of technical details, which is good since it’s not incredibly realistic. Not a security expert myself, even I realize many of the tactics simply don’t jive, but it’s background noise. What is engaging are the characters, the suspense, and an unknown common enemy - all of which did make for a fun read.

Relayed from two perspectives of Sam and Jack, they first collide, then join to form a protective front. Sam is a “supervillain” in the underground hacking world. However, in the real world Sam is a fearful, easily intimidated teenage girl who has to drop out of university to get a job to support her little sister.  She’s an ace hacker in the dark web, breaking into corporate sites to expose the hypocrites and greedy. No one knows her true identity until one day she is found out and threatened to be exposed unless she fulfills a dangerous request. Because her little sister is all she has, she is forced to play this perilous game, but she enlists some help. 

Jack on the other hand has had a dodgy career. He’s known to successfully get to the bottom of the toughest stories, but gets himself and his publishers in trouble while doing so. After going off the grid for a while, he’s straightened himself out, some of the skepticism about him has died down, and he’s just started working with a hot new online journal. Just when he thought he was on the safe path, a previous underground source surfaces and traps him back into criminal behavior - he’s back to living on the edge.  This is where Jack and Sam intersect.

Sam’s primal need to care for her sister drives some bold moves, and Jack has desperate, conflicting desires to keep his name clean and chase the juicy story. Brookmyre does a great job of creating tension building up to the moment Jack and Sam feel they are ready to act on their plan, only to find it all falls apart. It is nail-biting and fun, and I stayed awake far later than was wise, but it was well worth the lost sleep.

Published:  2017
Publisher:  Atlantic Monthly Press

Vickie’s rating: 3 1/2 stars

Small Town Tumult in "Beartown", by Fredrik Backman - Book Review

If you pick up Beartown with the hopes of getting all the feels and goosebumps you got from A Man Called Ove, let me dispel you of that thought right now. What you will get is a beautifully written book that tackles a spate of complex issues.

While the thrust of the story centers around a sexual assault, author Fredrik Backman also addresses bullying, immigration, sexual orientation, the meaning of true friendship and what being honorable actually means. Seemingly about small-town living, Beartown, at its core, is about people and human survival, regardless of their locale.

Beartown: A Novel
By Fredrik Backman

Since Beartown was published, the Weinstein case and the #MeToo movement exploded into the forefront of the news and, with them, countless accusations of assaults against high powered males all across the country. Suddenly, women have felt safe coming forward and speaking about their stories of abuse. Hopefully, this global exposure will change the face of sexual harassment and abuse as we know it. 

But not in Beartown. A small, dying Swedish town where hockey is the biggest commodity, rapes simply do not occur. Especially by a star hockey player who is the only hope of leading the high school team to victory in its first-time appearance in the national championship game. Once the accusations are made by a teenage girl who was drunk at a party, the lines are drawn and drawn hard. Those who believe him, those who believe her. And those who are inclined to give the accused a pass for the 'better of the whole' because they see the outcome of the hockey game as the town’s only chance of survival.

It is infuriating yet all too similar to what is happening in our daily news. Backman writes with a deft touch about how a sexual assault can rock a community on micro and macro levels. He shows the fierce loyalty of parents who close ranks around their children and support them unwaveringly even though one of them has to be lying. He exposes how the importance of an event – in this case, a hockey championship – can be deemed vastly more important by people who should do better than a criminal investigation.

Even though the book is a couple of years old now, it is hard to imagine one more relevant in our current turbulent times. Not necessarily a feel-good read, but perhaps one that should be required.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

 

War, Crime, New York, and Great Writing in "Manhattan Beach", by Jennifer Egan - Book Review

I stayed awake nights to read this.  I couldn’t wait to reach the end, then hated when it was over. It’s that good.  I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad several years ago and liked it well enough.  Egan’s latest, Manhattan Beach, far exceeds its predecessor. 

Egan's first work of historical fiction was diligently researched over several years, and takes place in New York as World War II breaks out. It crosses time and oceans chronicling a famous gangster longing to do good; a father entwined in a gangster’s life he cannot sustain; and our imperfect heroine, whose strengths and smarts lead her from childhood to adulthood. The war itself is a character as well, propelling the lives of those left at home to support the “innocents” sent to fight, manifesting patriotism in even the most cynical, and fastening together the diversity of New York that would otherwise remain apart.

Manhattan Beach: A Novel
By Jennifer Egan

Anna is a child when the story begins, her father, Eddie, making ends meet as a bagman for a small time gangster. A loving relationship, Eddie takes Anna along for many of his drops. This ends suddenly however, when Anna turns 14, and Eddie begins employment for one of the most prominent gangsters in New York, Dexter Styles.  A dangerous path, clearly, but it allows Eddie to financially provide for his family, including Anna’s younger, disabled sister Lydia.

One day, Eddie doesn’t return home. Years pass, and after Pearl Harbor, the war effort is in full swing. Anna fills a role in the Brooklyn Naval Yard measuring ship parts; a job much too mundane, but she enjoys being part of the war effort.  Through mighty will and perseverance, she becomes the first female naval diver, making ship repairs underneath the water’s surface.  As Anna is discovering herself as a strong woman in very much a man’s world, she navigates the extreme chauvinism of the 1940’s, acceptance of her father’s disappearance, and meeting the gangster with whom her father was involved. Along with a supporting cast gleaned from interviews of people who lived and worked in Brooklyn supporting the Naval Yard, Egan weaves their real stories into a captivating plot.

Egan’s characters are beset with intersecting conflict and humanity; her writing and pace excels. She has uncanny ability to surface and convey emotions in the subtlest of ways; possibly the best feature of her writing.  Manhattan Beach is without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

Yet Another Sequel Falling Flat in "The Deep Dark Descending", by Allen Eskens - Book Review

Author, Allen Eskers grabbed me in my first experience with him in The Guise of Another published in 2015. I loved the main character, and I praised Esken’s writing talent. It was fun, quick paced, and intriguing. Unfortunately, since then, I’ve been let down.  The followup to Guise was The Heavens May Fall, whose protagonist is Detective Max Rupert. Though a decent plot line, the writing was dull, and Rupert was a depressing character to whom I could never grow attached.

The Deep Dark Descending
By Allen Eskens

In The Deep Dark Descending, we once again are presented with Rupert as he continues to be emotionally paralyzed by his wife’s death four years prior. In a span of only a few days, a secret file falls into his possession, and the hunt is on for his wife’s killer, with revenge as his goal. He must do so in secret, of course to preserve his job and maintain cover while solving another case - a case that doesn’t bring anything interesting to the overall story.

Rupert is nothing to get excited about, and again, not a character for whom I could muster up any the kind of empathy.  Frankly, he was a bit annoying.  The supporting characters were not much better, and the plot comes together a bit too neatly. The good guys and gals were few, but predictable; the bad guys are bumbling. 

Perhaps this was Eskens’ first attempt at a novel, and only published now?  I just didn’t work for me. 

Published: 2017
Publisher: Seventh Street Books

Vickie’s Rating: 2 Stars

Mini Book Reviews: Thriller Edition

The Walls
By Hollie Overton

The Walls, by Hollie Overton - Kristy Tucker works as a public information officer at a death row prison facility in Texas navigating between inmates, the press, and prison officials. Despite her longing desire to quit and do something less soul draining, as a single mom to a teenage boy and a dad with declining health, she needs the paycheck and security of the job. When Lance Dobson walks into her life, she finally feels like she has a partner with whom to share responsibilities and burdens. But there’s more to Lance than meets the eye, and none of it is good. Unfortunately, Kristy is the only one who he shows his sinister side to and it paralyzes her. Until, one day, her animal need for survival kicks in. Despite some holes in the storyline, like a death row inmate racing against the clock to file his final appeal, The Walls will have you racing to the last page. It’ll also have you wondering if there really is such a thing as a ‘criminal’ mind or does that pathos exist in all of us, lurking in our subconscious only to surface in those situations where we see no other way?

Published: 2017
Publisher: Redhook
Elizabeth's Rating: 3½ stars

Good Me Bad Me, by Ali Land - Annie, now known as Milly to hide her identity, is finally freed from the grasps of her murderous mother and is placed with a foster family awaiting one of England’s most publicized trials. A female serial killer of children in her own home, Milly’s mom forced her daughter to witness her crimes and keep her deadly secrets. Milly’s new home life is far from perfect. With a drugged out foster mom and a vicious foster sister, Mike, her foster dad is the only one who is really looking out for her. But are his motives solely altruistic? And is Milly the innocent she appears to be? This book ponders the genetics vs. environment argument behind criminal activity and keeps you guessing until the end who are victims and who are perpetrators. Struggling to find a hero in this story, it is still hard to put down.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Flatiron Books
                                            Elizabeth's Rating: 3 stars

I Found You: A Novel
By Lisa Jewell

I Found You, by Lisa Jewell - Alice Lake, eccentric map making artist and single mother of three all from different dads, finds a man stoically sitting on the beach in front of her house in the rain. Frank, as she dubs him because he has lost all memory of himself, stays in her guesthouse and inches into her heart as they try to uncover his past. As the story unravels and the connections between Frank, Alice’s house, and her town deepen, we are faced with the dilemma that Frank is either a murderer or in grave danger because he was witness to one. Which will it be? Jewell’s character development and scenery description elevate this mystery into more than just a riveting story.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Atria Books
                                             Elizabeth's Rating: 4 stars

The Last Mrs. Parrish, by Liv Constantine - Amber has one goal in life, to become the wife of a New England social and financial elite. And she has her sights set on one mister in particular: Jackson Parrish. Unfortunately for her, he’s currently married to his soul mate, Daphne. But Amber will not be sidelined by something silly like true love. Her calculated moves allow her to worm herself deeper and deeper into the Parrishes’ lives until she’s exactly where she wants to be. Or is she? Despite seemingly playing Daphne like the stupid, spoiled rich girl that she is, perhaps Amber has misjudged Daphne’s perceptiveness. Also, has she overestimated Jackson’s suitability as the perfect mate? ‘Be careful what you wish for’ and ‘all appearances are not what they seem’ are clichés that will run through your mind as you churn to the finish of this book.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Harper
                                            Elizabeth's Rating: 4 stars

Search for the Truth and Grit Take Down a President in "All the President's Men", by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This was my first time reading All the President’s Men. For those of you who read it twenty-five years or more ago, it warrants a second read. For those who have never read it, pick it up.

Written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, journalists for the Washington Post, it chronicles their development of the Watergate story from hotel break-in to the exposure of systemic fraud, deception, and illegal recording carried on by the Nixon administration. What started off as a story about a low-level burglary resulted in the resignation of the President of the United States.

All the President's Men
By Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein

Long before email and the internet, Woodward and Bernstein were knocking on doors and making phones calls. Though initially rivals at the Post, they eventually realized that they were stronger together. Bernstein was the better writer, Woodward had grit. Woodward’s clandestine relationship with his White House informant, Deep Throat, was spy novel worthy and proved to be paramount in the unraveling of the full story.

As the story was being developed, the White House issued repeated statements accusing the writers and the Post of false, biased reporting. They remained undeterred, though, and continued investigating and reporting. Through their relentless search for the truth, in the end, they got their men.

At the time of the book’s publication, some of the President’s men had pled guilty to crimes, many had resigned, and others were singing like birds. Less than two months after its publication, President Nixon resigned.

This book is full of facts, dates, and names so extensive that you cannot possibly keep it all straight. It reads like one long newspaper article and while sometimes tedious, it is fascinating. It is also at times barely believable, both in the lengths the reporters were willing to go to uncover the truth and the level of corruption that they exposed teeming through the Nixon administration.

Whatever side of the political aisle you’re on, this book supports the notion that this country has survived, and will continue to survive, times of severe political unrest which, while in the midst of it, might seem insurmountable. It also acts as a litmus test for how important our ‘free press’ was and is.

Published: 1975
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth's rating: 5  stars