Monday, September 1, 2014

The Birth Of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched A Revolution by Jonathan Eig

What combination of factors lead to the most popular form of birth control, so popular it came to be called, simply, The Pill? This brilliantly narrated and exhaustively researched nonfiction account lays bare the willpower, drive, brainpower and sheer persuasion that went into the tool that would change women’s lives forever. The reader is presented a heady mix of players each of whom brought something special whether it be research abilities, money, or marketing power to the table. In doing so, they changed the course of history. The key word in “birth control,” Eig reminds us, is “control.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation At the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

It was no fun being a surgical patient in the 1800s. For that matter, being a surgeon was no picnic either. Anesthesia came on the scene only later in the century, worse, there was hardly any light by which to operate. Yet one surgeon, Thomas Dent Mutter, changed the field of surgery in remarkable ways. Best known for his contributions to the field of plastic surgery, Mutter would treat people whom everyone else considered as mere “monsters.” Aptowicz’s impressive, well-researched biography reveals that what a surgeon needs most in his toolkit is one that Mutter had in ample doses: empathy.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

De Potter's Grand Tour by Joanna Scott

The world of steamships and travel comes alive in Joanna Scott’s evocative new novel. Pierre Louis Armand de Potter d’Elseghem may or may not be descended from royalty, but that’s beside the point. The bottom line is that many believed his life story to the point where he could establish a successful business guiding clients on De Potter’s World Tours. But Armand’s deceptions catch up with him and when he disappears, it’s up to his wife, Aimee, to piece the puzzle together. A superb tale not just of one charlatan’s exploits but of a collective gullibility that made them bankable.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg

The horizon is hazy, the future uncertain, for the characters in this stunning debut short story collection. Monsters both literal (one story features a search for the Loch Ness creature) and metaphorical (self-doubt, disillusionment) stalk these pages. van den Berg has a remarkable ear for empathy for people at the very fringes of society who are desperately trying to find some ballast in their lives, a way out of the mist. Life’s purpose, van den Berg reminds us, can be elusive and hard to tease out. Find Me, her debut novel will be releasing in February 2015. I can’t wait. 

Read my review of Isle of Youth, van den Berg's follow-up to Water Leaves Us.

Thank you to Dzanc Books for a copy of the book.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Imagine a spiral wishing well. Drop a coin and watch it get sucked in. This is exactly what reading TBC feels like. You get drawn in, tossed about and emerge breathless. Spanning centuries, mixing genres, revisiting familiar characters (including the inimitable Hugo Lamb), Mitchell is in full form here. Even if the novel includes an epic battle scene that feels like a drawn out Bollywood movie at times, you can’t help but be wowed by the absolute brilliance of the writing. Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. Some books, like TBC, just swallow you up, heart and soul.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Seventeenth-century Amsterdam springs to life in brilliant detail as viewed through eighteen year-old Nella Oortman wife of Johannes Brandt, a prosperous trader. The Brandts harbor secrets but things get really mysterious when a “miniaturist” sends Nella small packages in the mail for her miniature cabinet house. As the Brandts get mired into circumstances beyond their control, the packages get increasingly prophetic. Unfortunately, the plot turns out to be predictable and the mystery loses steam. Every stripe of minority is prone to suspicion and worse, which is ironic given that Amsterdam is today considered the most liberal city in the world.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne

When viewed through a gambler’s lens, Macau can be just a blur — the nights all melting into one another, awash in one big win or loss. “Lord” Doyle is well familiar with this picture. An embezzler to the core, he is hiding in the Chinese territory gambling away the vast sum of money he swindled from a retiree back in England. Doyle might be an unlikeable protagonist but Ballad manages to score big. This is a beautiful and haunting novel exploring the devastation of gambling addiction and life’s complex moralities, all while set in gorgeous Macau. A sure bet. 

Longer Review

When viewed through a gambler’s lens, Macau can be just a blur the nights all melting into one another, awash in one big win or loss. “Lord” Doyle is well familiar with this picture. An embezzler to the core, he is hiding in the Chinese territory gambling away the vast sum of money he swindled from a retiree back in England.

While it is usually difficult to fall in love with a novel with an unlikeable protagonist, The Ballad of a Small Player scores big by casting Doyle not just as scum but as someone often misguided, a victim of the devastating addiction he is so deeply mired in. One can’t help but gasp at the size of his bets and wild spending sprees. It’s a picture of self-destruction that is mesmerizing to watch unfold.

The rain-soaked, lush, green countryside of Macau stands in gorgeous contrast to the sterile yet appealing casinos inside, replicating Egyptian, Roman or English decor at will. The book is worth the read just for this travelogue alone.

In the end, Small Player rises to be about much more it’s a pithy exploration of the gambling circuit, the lowlies who get by on borrowed money and time; the prostitutes who work these casinos, feeding on scum; and the tragic outcome for many who are mired in the morass. While Osborne wore his morals heavily on his sleeve in The Forgiven, Ballad is a much more subtle analysis of virtue and vice, of sinking so low you can’t even recognize a lifeline when you’re dealt one. A+

Thank you to Blogging for Books for a copy of the book.