Though first released in 2010, David Baldacci’s Deliver Us from Evil is just as relevant today. This is the second (and so far last) in the Shaw series. The story can stand alone and grips the reader from the very first page. Shaw works for a shadowy international organization under Frank Wells and was originally conscripted for his considerable talents in exchange for dismissing some sticky legal issues in which he’d been ensnared. While his every move is tracked, he takes on assignments to apprehend the most dangerous criminals to hand off to the appropriate law enforcement organizations through a cooperative, multinational effort. At the outset, Shaw is still smarting from his previous assignment through which his fiancée lost her life, and with her, he lost his heart. The bulk of his backstory was shared in the first book of the series, The Whole Truth. Continue reading
David Baldacci’s Split Second came out in 2003 and provides the origin story behind the Sean King/Michelle Maxwell partnership. King, a former Secret Service agent, and Maxwell, a current agent, become targets of a long-running conspiracy that bring them together after similar career mishaps. King had ended his career with the service in disgrace after his protectee was executed right in front of him during a split second’s distraction. Maxwell’s charge is abducted eight years later when she leaves him alone very briefly per his request. Both were rising stars in the service. Both had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and fell victim to horrific events that were far more complicated and violent than they realized at the time. Continue reading
David Baldacci is known for gripping adventure novels that can sometimes seem a bit too plausible in today’s world of perception management. In his 2008 book, The Whole Truth, he introduces a new hero, Shaw. The reluctant international intelligence agent with no first name and a mysterious past may be the only person who can unravel a manufactured crisis before it’s too late. Teaming up with Katie James, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has fallen from the top of her field and is looking to redeem herself, they desperately seek the source of the crisis de jour that begins as a humanitarian catastrophe and expands to include a London massacre that blanket the news worldwide. Which events actually happened? Who is behind these events, and why did they set them in motion? Continue reading
In 2006, Richard Dawkins wrote a book that has garnered high praise from some and unabashed fury from others. The book has the provocative title, The God Delusion. Dawkins uses his background as a scientist specializing in evolutionary biology to examine a simple conceit to explain why so many people refuse to even consider leaving religion behind despite compelling evidence to refute its validity: “I didn’t know I could.” In his Preface he explains that his intention in writing this particular book is to raise consciousness to a few ideas such as why atheism has merit and can facilitate a productive and fulfilling life without guilt or apology; how concepts like natural selection, though often misunderstood, provide more probable alternatives to religious dogma; and how religion corrupts childhood and encourages exclusion. He acknowledges the importance of various scriptures such as the Bible, not as divine instruction, but as works of literature or historical fiction. As such, he explains how they provide cautionary tales and cultural references while inspiring countless modern works of literature, and he laments the ever decreasing familiarity with such sources even amongst those who claim to be religious. Mostly he intends his book to inspire people to think and examine the world around them anew, open to the beauty that comes with greater understanding through science. Continue reading
The final book in Bob Woodward’s trilogy chronicling the Trump presidency and its aftermath is aptly named Peril. Woodward co-authored this third book with Robert Costa and released it in September 2021. While the first two books, Fear and Rage, together cover the Trump presidency prior to the historic 2020 election and its aftermath, Peril overlaps a bit with Rage and focuses on the extraordinary actions within the Trump administration, the Pentagon, and Congress in the lead up to the election, the administration’s attempts to thwart the legitimate outcome of losing reelection, and the first several months of the Biden administration. While the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol and the Department of Justice are hard at work investigating what happened from a legal perspective, Peril tells the story drawn from personal interviews of more than 200 people at the center of the events resulting in more than 6,000 pages of transcripts, much of the information never before seen in the news or in publicly released documents. In a historical context, this is an important book. It chronicles what happened from the perspective of those involved rather than strictly what was made public or reported in the news. Continue reading
I recently read and reviewed Kate Quinn’s The Rose Code for an upcoming book club Zoom, and at the same time, I was reading David Baldacci’s Simple Genius. I had started Baldacci’s book first, but as I decided to get a jump on my book club reading, I discovered an unexpected connection. Both books feature the mystique of codebreaking and of Bletchley Park, albeit at different times in history. As mentioned in my previous review, The Rose Code takes place at the time that Bletchley Park was active during WWII and its immediate aftermath and provides the reader with riveting historical fiction. Simple Genius doesn’t qualify as historical fiction and is instead a political thriller/murder mystery, the third in Baldacci’s King and Maxwell series. Continue reading
Kate Quinn’s The Rose Code is a masterwork of historical fiction. It’s a long book at 656 pages that reads quickly as the tension builds. Published by William Morrow in March 2021, this gripping story brings Bletchley Park, the famed hub of the British effort to break the German Enigma code during WWII, and the unique personalities who worked there to life. Quinn’s fascination with history and her deft storytelling add new twists to events past as she mixes historical figures together with her vibrant fictional characters, although her fictional characters are themselves composites of real people. Her history is not names and dates but is instead about how historical events changed and complicated people’s lives.
Three women meet through Bletchley Park where they each play a part in the monumental task at hand. They come from very different backgrounds from one another and from their fellow codebreakers. Osla Kendall is a debutant originally from Canada who had been helping the war effort bending metal building Hurricanes while dating a dashing prince. Mab Churt is a self-made London shop girl with a long held secret. Beth Finch is a shy young woman in her mid-20s with no confidence in her own abilities having been beaten down by her overbearing mother.
Osla and Mab are summoned to Bletchley Park. They meet on the train on their way to report and encounter one of the more interesting characters upon their arrival. He introduces them to the colloquial name for the place – GC & CS – which he explains stands for “Golf, Cheese, and Chess Society.” They later find out that GC & CS actually stands for “Government Code & Cypher School” which makes them wonder if they are being trained to be spies.
After reporting in and being assigned to different sections of the codebreaking effort, the two women are billeted close by at the Finch house which is a short walk from Bletchley Park. While there, they start to forge a friendship with Beth and take note of her wicked-sharp crossword puzzle skills. Much to Mrs. Finch’s chagrin, Osla manages to get Beth into Bletchley Park, and unbeknownst to either Osla or Mab at the time, Beth, assigned to “Dilly’s Fillies,” becomes one of Bletchley’s top cryptanalysts. Dilly Knox, it’s later revealed, prefers to hire brainy women because they take the job more seriously without their egos getting in the way. None of them can tell the others what their specific roles are at Bletchley which infuriates Mrs. Finch.
As the story develops, the three become quite close sharing the details of their private lives and loves as well as stories of some of the mishaps and odd personalities at work while always being careful to steer clear of divulging any work secrets. When each started at Bletchley Park, they signed a draconian oath that laid out severe or even life threatening penalties for breaking secrecy. Along the way, they start a Bletchley book club, affectionately known as the Mad Hatters after reading Louis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Their meetings bring together disparate personalities from their different sections of Bletchley Park for some much needed recreation. Eventually the secrecy sparks a traumatic incident that ends in a massive falling out before the war ends, but the story doesn’t end there.
The novel flips between two timelines, one through the course of WWII, and the other a few years after the war ends surrounding a royal wedding. Quinn’s attention to detail brings forward fascinating aspects of the different sections at Bletchley Park showing how the various groups’ work fits together even though none of the workers knows the full story by design. Quinn reveals the machinery used and critical skills required of the elite workforce at Bletchley. They all know they are involved in work that not everyone is capable of doing, and in their own ways take pride in their contributions to the war effort. Some of the habits they pick up through their efforts stay with them long after the war ends which comes in handy when a new puzzle presents itself and threatens one of their own.
Quinn is careful to maintain accuracy surrounding historical locations as well as the tone and urgency of the events shaping the war torn world of the early 1940s. She shows how the war wears everyone down. Despite being relatively safe in the confines of their secluded little hamlet, those at Bletchley Park fear for their friends and families who are not so fortunately located. They also suffer a bit of survivor’s guilt at times from the knowledge that although their efforts are what give the fighting forces the information they need, the warfighters are putting their lives on the line daily to carry out their missions while the codebreakers sit in their safe hamlet away from the physical dangers of the war.
What is later discovered is that spies are everywhere, and the secrecy oaths while well-intentioned are not full proof in combating all disclosure. The heart-pounding adventure continues long after the Armistice, and their codebreaking skills come in handy well after they leave Bletchley Park. Along the way, despite their wartime grudges, Osla, Mab, and Beth discover that some bonds turn out to be thicker than blood and stronger than even the worst falling out, and families can be found in many unexpected forms.
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Naturalist, Sy Montgomery, opens up a fascinating world that is foreign to most of us in her 2015, best-selling memoir, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. She tells her story of how she was introduced to her first octopus at the New England Aquarium in Boston, MA and was hooked. She was taken with their curious nature, their intelligence, their cunning, and their charisma. The book is her personal tribute to all that is the octopus as she educates her readers by dispelling many misconceptions and fears and bringing these extraordinary creatures to life on the page. The first thing she teaches readers is that the scientifically correct plural for octopus, contrary to common belief, is not the Latin “octopi.” The word octopus is derived from the Greek, oktṓpous, so the plural is instead “octopuses” despite what Dictionary.com may imply. She also gives an initial description of the animal thusly:
“Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin.”
Through her years working with the folks at the New England Aquarium, she joined an inner circle of staff and volunteers in getting to know a succession of octopuses. Behind the scenes, she was able to interact directly with these magnificent animals, letting them get to know her as she did them, and when she was with them, she felt time stand still. Each had its own unique personality. Some were game players. Others were downright cuddly in a slimy, octopus kind of way. And all of the octopuses she met there over time become dear friends as she, along with the octopus experts in the inner circle, plunged their arms into freezing water to let each octopus taste them with their suckers and get to know them.
An octopus is effectively a very dexterous snail without a shell, although it is far more capable and wily than a snail. Through many examples, Montgomery shows just how smart these creatures so alien to land dwellers actually are. She notes that as she watches them, they watch her with just as much fascination. Unlike mammals, octopuses have decentralized nervous systems that allow their arms to act independently without direct commands from their brain, a point that Montgomery drives home describing how one particular octopus stole a bucket of fish unnoticed while actively interacting with three people simultaneously. An octopus can also regenerate their arms if they get bitten off by a predator.
The key to determining the sex of a given octopus is to examine the tip of their third right arm. In females, their suckers extend to the tip of all of their arms. In males, the suckers do not extend all the way to the tip of their third right arm, known as the hectocotylized arm. While it would seem an easy task to identify the sex of an octopus, the animals often keep the tips of their arms curled, so it can take some time before the crucial arm tip is visible, even for those handling the octopuses directly. Montgomery provides a detailed look at how octopuses reproduce through her description of the Seattle Aquarium’s Annual Blind Date.
On Valentine’s Day each year, the Seattle Aquarium brings a pair of Giant Pacific Octopuses together to give them an opportunity to mate. The pair doesn’t always get along, but often they do, and the day brings a very large audience to observe. Montgomery documents one such event when she got the opportunity to fly across the country to attend the blind date several years into her study of octopuses.
Most octopus species are loners, only coming together at the end of their lives to mate. A female can lay up to 100,000 eggs, each the size and appearance of a grain of rice. The last undertaking of a female octopus is often laying and meticulously caring for those eggs until just before they hatch. Very few newly hatched octopuses survive to adulthood as the young are left to fend for themselves, their mother dying just before they emerge, and their father nowhere to be found. When they first hatch, they float amidst the plankton until they grow big enough to swim to the bottom of the sea to find a den, evade predators, and to hunt for their own food. If they do survive, octopuses are very short-lived; the Giant Pacific Octopus being the longest lived species lasts only 3-5 years.
Montgomery tells her story of her introduction to, and certification in, scuba diving. She describes her difficult start to her dive lessons and provides a detailed look into the dangers of the sport recounting not only her own experience, but also that of one of the close friends she made in Boston who was injured so badly he could no longer dive at all. She was determined to dive and after being certified, was invited to accompany some research teams on a couple of very eye opening expeditions around the world. Although focused on octopus behavior, she was also exposed to a whole new world in the wilds of the oceans off Mexico and French Polynesia. Oceans cover more than 70% of the planet, and there are far more animal species in the oceans than on land. Many aquatic animals can only be observed through dives, and others live so deep in the ocean that they have never been observed by humans.
It took Montgomery several years to complete her research for this book, and over that time, she came to know a few individual octopuses at the New England Aquarium. Because octopuses will often eat one another, the aquarium can only have one in their main public display tank, and as that octopus ages, they’ll acquire another younger octopus that they keep behind the scenes in a barrel type arrangement until the old octopus dies. Montgomery describes a few of the mishaps they had over the years with their octopuses. Unlike most of the aquatic animals cared for at the aquarium, octopuses are serious escape artists. Between their curiosity, intelligence, and dexterity, it’s a real challenge to create a truly escape-proof tank. They can hide in very small spaces, and if they do get out, they can actually run across the floor for a brief period. They can live outside of water for just under 30 minutes before they suffocate.
The book is a loving adventure story providing an inside look at these incredible creatures and is well worth a read. The writing is a little colloquial at times, and there are a few editorial errors, but the story is compelling and hard to put down.
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
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Matthew Walker, PhD is a world renowned sleep researcher who shares some astonishing, well-kept secrets in his 2017 New York Times Bestseller, Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power Of Sleep And Dreams. In this fascinating book, Walker starts with the basics such as what sleep actually is, how widespread sleep is in the animal kingdom, and why it is needed. He goes on to explain what the various stages of sleep do for us and what happens when they are missed. He closes with an enlightening discussion of how our societal norms help and harm us with respect to sleep. To accomplish this, he breaks the book into four main parts including:
- This Thing Called Sleep
- Why Should You Sleep?
- How and Why We Dream
- From Sleeping Pills to Society Transformed
He draws a startling and compelling conclusion at the end. He also provides a helpful appendix drawn from the NIH Guide to Healthy Sleep with 12 common sense tips.
Walker’s book packs insights from decades of research and over three million years of evolution into under 350 pages, and it’s worth reading every word. He is a masterful storyteller citing numerous studies and expanded material via footnotes throughout the book to support his assertions. In format, while the index is extensive, the one thing missing is a consolidated bibliography that would help readers refer back to those informative studies. Continue reading
Dan Brown is known for writing entertaining adventure stories centered on his fictional character, Harvard professor of symbology, Robert Langdon. Langdon is drawn as a kind of super-sleuth who uses his knowledge of symbols, particularly religious symbols, to solve earthshaking crimes. Brown’s 2013 book, Inferno, is the fourth in the Langdon series and takes a rather Malthusian look at the world as it intertwines imagery and symbols from Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno in a plot threatening human existence. Although written in 2013, the story has unexpected relevance now as the world takes steps to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Continue reading