Monday, February 28, 2011

STATE OF MIND by Sven Michael Davison


The year may be 2030 in Sven Michael Davison's techno-thriller, State of Mind, but the technology in this novel feels more futuristic than that. Jake Travissi has consented to have a P-Chip implanted in his brain so that he can resurrect his career in Homeland Security. The chip gives Jake some nifty thought-directed capabilities, including the ability to absorb the contents of an entire book in a matter of seconds, although that doesn't sound particularly fun to me. The bad news is that the Homeland Security Director has assembled a group of hackers, calling themselves God Heads, to use the chips to control Jake and others who have been "enhanced." The plot involves Jake's attempt, in the rare moments in which he is actually himself and not under the influence of a hacker, to overthrow the God Heads. I enjoy a sci fi thriller now and then, and there were quite a few concepts here that I found intriguing, such as cars that drive themselves and can lock the occupants inside as an alternative to a high-speed police chase. (My husband says that cars in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land had similar properties, but I read that book about 40 years ago, so that I can't confirm his claim.) Some scenes in the book seemed a little Tron-like, but other ideas for the future sounded pretty good to me, including the fact that police officers are encouraged to use drugged darts instead of bullets. Other ideas were not so optimistic, such as the author's imagining of how the visible face of the moon has changed, due to mining. Davison does inject some realism into his story, when his hackers, exhausted from performing mind control 24/7, demand better hours and pay commensurate with their worth. Still, I would suggest that the appropriate audience for this book is not a baby-boomer like myself but someone younger, who has never known a world without the internet. Also, I found myself rereading some of the author's descriptions of the inner workings of the technology in the book. These passages struck me as unnecessary and confusing hurdles for the reader, since the technology obviously does not exist. My only other complaint is that occasionally the author would abruptly change scenes and switch to the actions of another character. This occasional disconnect did serve to reinforce the disruptive effect that electronic devices have on our lives, whether that was the author's intent or not.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

COSMOPOLIS by Don DeLillo


During the last day of his life, Eric Packer conducts business and submits to medical checkups, among other activities, from the comfort of his white stretch limo. His priority for the day is a haircut, but his progress is hampered by various traffic tie-ups, including a Presidential visit, a musician's funeral, a riot, standing water—you name it. His assassin is a disgruntled former employee who has made phone threats and craves notoriety, but, frankly, everyone in the book is a little unbalanced. Eric himself is the most off-key, stopping frequently for food and sex and losing his and his wife's fortune in currency speculation (intentionally?). Is this business as usual? He seems to vacillate between paranoia about death threats--spurring him to keep moving and obsess about security--and resignation to his fate, which underlies the sudden dissolution of his fortune. The book feels futuristic and robotic, but it is set in the year 2000 (published in 2003). And leave it to DeLillo to pose this quirky question: When you lose money in the stock market, where does it go?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ANGELOLOGY by Danielle Trussoni


While reading this book, I felt that I was reliving Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, but with angels instead of vampires. And these angels are not angelic, by any means. They are ruthless, relentless, and more bloodthirsty than any vampire. Actually, they're Nephilim--hybrids who are the product of angels having mated with humans. Evangeline is a young nun, descended from an aristocratic family of angelologists—those who study angels. Her mother died under mysterious circumstances, and Evangeline reunites with her estranged grandmother, Gabriella, when it becomes apparent that the conflict between the humans and the Nephilim over a hidden lyre is coming to a head. Trussoni quotes several passages of scripture from the Old Testament to help obscure (or emphasize, depending on your perspective) the fact that this is a fantasy novel and even provides an explanation for how the Nephilim survived the flood. One of the Nephilim, Percival Grigorio, has engaged the services of an art historian, Verlaine, to help him discover the whereabouts of the magical lyre whose music may help Grigorio overcome a degenerative disease. (I kept wondering if Verlaine was himself a descendant of the French poet, but this was never mentioned, so I guess not.) Verlaine and Evangeline cross paths when Verlaine digs into a correspondence that took place between Abigail Rockefeller and the Mother Superior of the convent some 50 years before. Thus ensues a scavenger hunt, reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code. (In fact, Dan Brown's title Angels and Demons would certainly have been appropriate for this book.) The abrupt ending brought to mind the emergence of a superhero, akin to Peter Parker when he gets bitten by a spider and becomes Spiderman. In other words, the literary influences here range from Biblical to comic book, with a few popular novels thrown in for good measure. Several reviewers have remarked on how imaginative this novel is, but its originality was marred by how much it seemed to draw from other sources.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A HEARTBEAT AWAY by Michael Palmer


Tickets to the State of the Union Address are as hard to come by as Super Bowl tickets, but in Day 1 of this Michael Palmer thriller, it's not the place to be. A domestic terrorist organization that calls itself Genesis manages to unleash smoke bombs laced with a lethal virus into the House Chambers in the middle of the President's speech. The President, who commissioned the creation of the virus as a bioweapon, is the only person in the room who knows how deadly it is and commences to seal the building, quarantining all of the attendees. In the meantime, Griffin Rhodes, a scientist framed for stealing the virus, is suffering prison-guard abuse while in solitary confinement. The President springs him so that Griff can get back to work on a cure for the virus, but there's still animosity and distrust between the two. Enter Angela Fletcher, Washington Post reporter and Griff's ex-lover, to make sure that Griff doesn't step out of line. Palmer actually subjugates the medical aspect of the story to the political, in which the power-hungry Speaker of the House and foe of the President, Ursula Ellis, colludes with Genesis in exchange for a promised cure and elevation to the Presidency. Palmer is just subtle enough with his tasty red herring, and I don't mean Ursula, that I took the bait. Even if you're savvy enough to see the clue for what it is, there's still plenty of suspense here for the vicarious adrenaline junkie but not so much realism that it's going to keep you awake at night. After all, what terrorists are going to want to wear biocontainment suits, unless, of course, they're suicidal? Even if they are, they might be deterred by the fact that the virus doesn't result in a sudden painless death but rather unimaginable suffering equal to that brought on by Ebola. I found the political infighting and corruption much more frightening, especially given today's polarized electorate.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

THE POSTMISTRESS by Sarah Blake


In the small town of Franklin, Massachusetts, in 1941, the postmaster is actually a postmistress who takes her job very seriously. However, Iris James chooses not to delivery one piece of mail, in the interest of not breaking the heart of young Emma, whose husband is caring for patients injured in the Blitz in London. The third woman in this story is the appropriately name Frankie Bard, a reporter broadcasting from London. When her boss, Edward R. Murrow, puts her on a train to Berlin to record conversations with evacuees, she jumps at the chance, with no inkling of the peril and tragedy that await her. Both Iris and Frankie have the task of disseminating information, and both balk at the obligation to deliver heartbreaking news. I didn't like the fact that the reader was aware from the start that such news would be withheld and that the consequences would be withheld from the reader until the end. Plus, the ending did not justify the buildup and was something of a letdown with very little closure. I was actually concerned that this novel might be too weepy, but I never became sufficiently attached to the main characters to have that kind of response, especially since Emma's grief is dragged out for almost the entire length of the book. Frankie's refugee stories are mostly the barest of snippets, except for the one in which she becomes a major player in the outcome. The most moving was, to me, that of a mother sending her small son out of Germany on his own. When he and Frankie part ways, we know that he is truly alone.