LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren giveaway

I just bought my copy of the memoir Lab Girl by Minnesota girl-turned-scientist Hope Jahren. I haven’t read it yet but once I do, I’ll review it here at

In the meantime, GoodReads is hosting a giveaway for 10 copies.

Here’s the rather breathless description from the publisher:

National Best Seller

An illuminating debut memoir of a woman in science; a moving portrait of a longtime friendship; and a stunningly fresh look at plants that will forever change how you see the natural world

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

Jahren’s probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be.

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Book review: LIGHTS OUT by Ted Koppel book review of Lights Out by television journalist Ted Koppel.



Publication date: 2015
Category: Nonfiction

Summary (from the publisher):

In this investigation, Ted Koppel reveals that a major cyberattack on America’s power grid is not only possible but likely, that it would be devastating, and that the United States is shockingly unprepared.

Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people over several states are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Devices we rely on have gone dark. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before.

It isn’t just a scenario. A well-designed attack on just one of the nation’s three electric power grids could cripple much of our infrastructure—and in the age of cyberwarfare, a laptop has become the only necessary weapon. Several nations hostile to the United States could launch such an assault at any time. In fact, as a former chief scientist of the NSA reveals, China and Russia have already penetrated the grid. And a cybersecurity advisor to President Obama believes that independent actors—from “hacktivists” to terrorists—have the capability as well. “It’s not a question of if,” says Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin, “it’s a question of when.”

And yet, as Koppel makes clear, the federal government, while well prepared for natural disasters, has no plan for the aftermath of an attack on the power grid. The current Secretary of Homeland Security suggests keeping a battery-powered radio.

In the absence of a government plan, some individuals and communities have taken matters into their own hands. Among the nation’s estimated three million “preppers,” we meet one whose doomsday retreat includes a newly excavated three-acre lake, stocked with fish, and a Wyoming homesteader so self-sufficient that he crafted the thousands of adobe bricks in his house by hand. We also see the unrivaled disaster preparedness of the Mormon church, with its enormous storehouses, high-tech dairies, orchards, and proprietary trucking company – the fruits of a long tradition of anticipating the worst. But how, Koppel asks, will ordinary civilians survive?

With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

ScienceThrillers review:

Ted Koppel is a television journalist known to millions for his 25-year role hosting Nightline. His new, chilling, book-length work of investigation Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, reflects his TV news sensibilities, and not in a good way.

In many places, Lights Out reads like a transcript of a Nightline episode, with the needling questions and a response from a squirming official. Some useful insight emerges from this approach, but it remains superficial. Personally I prefer books written by thinkers with more of an academic bent.

Koppel achieves his main purpose, which is to frighten the reader into awareness of a terrorism threat that could make 9/11 look like a picnic. A cyberattack on the nation’s electrical grid could suddenly send huge swaths of the country back to the 1800s. A terrorist-caused blackout could far exceed any natural disaster in scope and duration. We might face months or years of power loss over many states. How could urban areas possibly survive?

This question drives Koppel’s investigation as he reveals that no one has an answer, or even a plan.

For raising awareness of this issue, Koppel gets my praise. However, chapter 1 of the book pretty much does the job. The rest of the pages are either repetitive, or they wander off topic. Koppel delves into the general issue of cybersecurity, and also devotes quite a few chapters to preppers, people and organizations who used to be called “survivalists.” I personally enjoyed these chapters most of all, as the TV journalism style is well-suited to telling the stories of some folks in Wyoming, and the Mormon church, which takes preparedness as a point of doctrine.

Koppel’s insistence that we need to do a better job with disaster preparation in general (for any kind of attack or natural disaster), is well taken. I agree with him that citizens no longer take enough personal responsibility for civil defense or preparedness, instead delegating to the state, which even in a perfect world cannot manage the task alone. His arguments for the government, military, and civil society to do more to beef up cybersecurity or specifically protect the grid fail to take into consideration the multitude of competing concerns, such as terror attacks on water supplies, or biological warfare, or a radioactive dirty bomb. We can only do so much to “keep ourselves safe,” the vague standard by which many Americans now judge their leaders.

Most unsatisfying for me, Koppel left some big questions unanswered. I’m mystified as to the technical reasons why attacking the grid would affect such a large area. His use of analogies explained nothing. Also, he argues that the power companies’ desire to protect privacy is hampering the effort. I ask, why is privacy such a big issue for them? What information do they have that is so valuable? Finally, the book is totally lacking in information that “you can use.” Having convinced the reader that each of us needs to do something, he fails to direct that motivation into action.

But perhaps that’s his point. We need a plan developed on high, so to speak, that will be communicated to all of us–before the power goes out.

I recommend this one as a library check-out, not a purchase. Read chapter 1 and the first couple of chapters of part 3, on Wyoming and the Mormons. Skim the rest if you find it interesting enough.

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Internet of Things: Guest post by Denison Hatch

ScienceThrillers welcomes Denison Hatch, author of Flash Crash, a financial technothriller released this week.

Summary: David Belov, a quant programmer working for an investment bank in New York, is blackmailed into writing an algorithm that will intentionally crash the gold market. David discovers that his virtual “Flash Crash” was simply a required stepping stone towards the largest physical gold robbery in history, and that’s he’s been framed for the resulting chaos, the lives of his beloved wife and son on the balance.

With Detective Jake Rivett and the NYPD’s finest operators from the Major Crimes Division actively seeking to locate and arrest David, and other, darker elements nipping at his heels, David is forced to confront his own past in order to have a future…

Hacking the Real World: Thrills abound in the “Internet of Things” era (from Flash Crashes to Pacemaker Assassinations).

Guest post by Denison Hatch

One cannot escape discussion of the “Internet of Things” in the current day, with Nest devices advertised at every Home Depot, refrigerators that tell you when you’re out of milk, and entire municipal systems controlled by computers from both central and cloud-based locations. And this is just the beginning. In ten to fifteen years, cars will also have joined the massive, interconnected world and the quaint “real world” that our parent’s generation grew up in will eventually be one that looks quite foreign to the socio-physical environment of the future. A recent study by Business Insider indicates that IoT-connected devices will continue to double every eighteen months for the foreseeable future. And as they do, they will permeate throughout every instance of our life—from the food we eat, to the way we travel and communicate, and all the way to commerce and the money we use on a daily basis.

I spent quite a bit of time researching the Internet of Things while doing research for my thriller novel, Flash Crash. Of particular interest to me was the way that financial markets have become increasingly controlled by technology. The old image—of a Wall Street trader who wears striped Brooks Brothers and operates, as my book describes it, on “luck, spit and a handshake”—is quickly fading from the modern zeitgeist. That person has slowly become replaced by the “quant.” The quantitative analyst or programmer, culled from a growing pool of ambitious PhD, mathematics, and computer science majors, creates computer systems that trade thousands of commodities and equities around the world. What’s more, modern investment banks and secretive-but-powerful hedge funds alike no longer trust the speed of the human brain when it comes to trading. Trading is conducted by super computers, located within inches from the exchanges that they are participating in, and conducting a modern version of electronic combat against one another. Counter-strategies are designed to root out other parties’ strategies. There is, indeed, an arms race occurring within the black boxes that control the modern financial world and it shows no signs of stopping.

This idea enthralled me, and brought about a parallel thought. What if someone could indeed engineer a program that would intentionally crash a particular stock or market?

While this idea would later become the basis from which I designed my thriller novel, I had to do my research. First of all, had something like this ever happened before? It turns out that both mini and major “Flash Crashes” have occurred throughout the market’s history. And they are increasing. A firm called NANEX keeps track of suspicious order flow and volume and subsequent correlation with Flash Crash incidences. It has been proven that there are numerous examples of unexplained crashes in financial markets—and major winners and losers on either side of these events.

It quickly became clear to me that individuals are using machines to enact very real—monetary—gain from the world. And this got me thinking: What else were people using machines to do in order to effect real-world events? Turns out, the possibilities for the “Internet of Things” world are endless. It gets both much darker, and much crazier. All of the following really happened:

  • Dam Hacking: Iranian hackers infiltrated the industrial control systems of a dam twenty miles outside of New York City in Rye, NY. This event indicated to security officials in the United States that the water and electric supply in our country is now a valid target for both criminals and hostile nations.
  • Car Hacking: Hackers remotely kill a Jeep on a highway and filmed it happening. Two researchers created a device that could and did hack into a retail-purchased Jeep Cherokee. They performed this hack with a reporter from Wired magazine sitting the in car.
  • Nuclear Centrifuge Hacking: The Stuxnet virus is a mysterious and hostile computer virus created specifically to hack into the industrial control systems of the particular model and brand of centrifuge that Iran was using to develop radioactive material. Numerous articles have been written about the creator of the virus, thought perhaps to be a joint intelligence operation between Israel and the United States. But no matter who created it, the effect was real: Massive failures and attrition suffered by the targeted centrifuge devices.
  • Pacemaker Hacking: Multiple researchers have presented hacked pacemakers and other medical devices (such as insulin pumps) in real-world settings. The real question is not if but when are we going to see our first pacemaker assassination?

As many know, the future doesn’t arrive neatly. As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg famously said, his company’s motto is “Move fast and break things.” The creators of connected systems and devices around the world are certainly moving fast. But are they moving so fast that serious security problems will develop? This is the question that society must as ask we move forward together.

However, thriller writers and readers, especially those oriented towards the slightly more technical, will no doubt delight in many of the “quandaries” of the future presenting themselves within the plots and set pieces of the books they love to read.

With Flash Crash, we attempted to attack the reality of this new twist in the modern zeitgeist head-on. The book is all about controlling the real world through technology. One of our leads is David Belov, a quant who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps at every stage in life. After David is coerced into causing a crash in the gold market and framed for the resulting chaos, he must clear his name. This eventually leads David to literally hack a soda machine in order to create a Trojan horse which will lead him—and his compatriots—into an inaccessible vault buried under four stories of impenetrable granite and completely controlled by computers.

You can check out Flash Crash, now available on paperback and Kindle, here.

Denison Hatch
About the author:
Denison Hatch is a screenwriter and novelist based in Los Angeles. Although he lives in the proverbial desert now, he is originally from Delaware–land of rolling hills, forested valleys, and DuPont gunpowder.

Denison has a number of feature and television projects in development, including his original screenplay, Vanish Man, which is set up at Lionsgate. A graduate of Cornell University, Denison lives with his fiancé in a little house in Hollywood.

FLASH CRASH is Denison’s debut novel, and the first in the Jake Rivett series.

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Book review: HOW TO CLONE A MAMMOTH by Beth Shapiro book review of How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro.



Publication date: April 6, 2015
Category: Nonfiction / popular science

Summary (from the publisher):

Could extinct species, like mammoths and passenger pigeons, be brought back to life? The science says yes. In How to Clone a Mammoth, Beth Shapiro, evolutionary biologist and pioneer in “ancient DNA” research, walks readers through the astonishing and controversial process of de-extinction. From deciding which species should be restored, to sequencing their genomes, to anticipating how revived populations might be overseen in the wild, Shapiro vividly explores the extraordinary cutting-edge science that is being used–today–to resurrect the past. Journeying to far-flung Siberian locales in search of ice age bones and delving into her own research–as well as those of fellow experts such as Svante Pääbo, George Church, and Craig Venter–Shapiro considers de-extinction’s practical benefits and ethical challenges. Would de-extinction change the way we live? Is this really cloning? What are the costs and risks? And what is the ultimate goal?

Using DNA collected from remains as a genetic blueprint, scientists aim to engineer extinct traits–traits that evolved by natural selection over thousands of years–into living organisms. But rather than viewing de-extinction as a way to restore one particular species, Shapiro argues that the overarching goal should be the revitalization and stabilization of contemporary ecosystems. For example, elephants with genes modified to express mammoth traits could expand into the Arctic, re-establishing lost productivity to the tundra ecosystem.

Looking at the very real and compelling science behind an idea once seen as science fiction, How to Clone a Mammoth demonstrates how de-extinction will redefine conservation’s future.

ScienceThrillers review:

Michael Crichton started it with his novel Jurassic Park. The idea that we could resurrect an extinct species using ancient DNA–popularly called “de-extinction”–captured the popular imagination. As techniques for sequencing DNA improved, real-life scientists started to take this idea seriously.

But after reading scientist Beth Shapiro’s excellent book on the topic, I now understand that de-extinction isn’t what most people think.

In How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, Shapiro walks through the steps to de-extinction, in chapters such as “Select a species” and “Reconstruct the genome.” Before reading this book, I thought I basically understood the process: find some ancient DNA; sequence it; put it in some kind of egg; implant in a host mother; birth a baby.

It’s so much more complicated than that.

Despite the enthusiasm that some people have for bringing back charismatic megafauna like the wooly mammoth (a Russian entrepreneur is already preparing Pleistocene Park, a Siberian habitat where the modern world’s first mammoths can live), this book explains that in one sense, it cannot be done. DNA doesn’t last very long. Even with mammoth specimens well-preserved in ice, and only thousands of years old, the DNA that remains is fragmentary at best. And this is just the first of multiple technical obstacles that seem insurmountable.

So why is this brilliant young UC professor dedicated to the science of ancient DNA and de-extinction? Because while we cannot bring back the mammoth (or any other long-lost species), we can bring back, or rather, create, a mammoth-like creature using pieces of the original mammoth’s genome added to an existing relative–the elephant.

Why bother, then? Shapiro argues that de-extinction efforts should focus on restoring ecosystems, not individual species. The wooly mammoth, for example, played a crucial role in helping the tundra flourish. Research suggests that the trampling and grazing activity of large herbivores (like mammoths) can convert barren tundra into arctic grassland. Even if we can’t bring back the mammoth, we perhaps can create a cold-tolerant Asian elephant that lives in the tundra and replaces the role in the ecosystem lost when the last mammoth died.

This was one of several important messages in this book that kept me thinking for some time after reading. Another takeaway that changed my way of seeing things was Shapiro’s discussion of how very hard it is to take a species from captivity and return it to a wild habitat. The idea that as long as we keep a few animals alive in zoos we will always have the option in the future to restore them to nature is false in most cases.

How to Clone a Mammoth is thorough, thought-provoking, interesting, and written for lay people (though a keen interest in biology helps). It explores the science and the ethics of de-extinction, discusses the media’s role in this topic, and describes the author’s adventures in wild places hunting for frozen mammoth bones. Should we invest in de-extinction and try to “bring back” lost species? After reading this book, you’ll be equipped to argue one way or the other.

Neanderthal_FrontCover_smallIf you’re interested in resurrecting extinct species, you might enjoy the novel The Neanderthal’s Aunt by Gina DeMarco, a funny, touching satire about a young woman scientist whose sister plans to adopt the modern world’s first Neanderthal baby.

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Book Buzz book review: PACIFIC BURN by Barry Lancet book review of Pacific Burn by Barry Lancet.


Tech rating (out of 5):  N/A

Publication date: February 9, 2016
Category: international action thriller/mystery

Summary (from the publisher):

Japanese antiques dealer and PI Jim Brodie goes up against the CIA, FBI, Department of Homeland Security—and a killer operating on both sides of the Pacific.

In recognition for his role in solving the Japantown murders in San Francisco, antiques dealer and sometime-PI Jim Brodie has just been brought on as the liaison for the mayor’s new Pacific Rim Friendship Program. Brodie in turn recruits his friend, the renowned Japanese artist Ken Nobuki, and after a promising meeting with city officials and a picture-perfect photo op, Brodie and Nobuki leave City Hall for a waiting limo.

But as soon as they exit the building, a sniper attacks them from the roof of the Asian Art Museum. Quick thinking allows Brodie to escape, but Nobuki ends up hospitalized and in a coma. Brodie soon realizes that, with the suspicious and untimely death of Nobuki’s oldest son a week earlier in Napa Valley, someone may be targeting his friend’s family—and killing them off one by one.

Suspects are nearly too numerous to name—and could be in the United States or anywhere along the Pacific Rim. The quest for answers takes Brodie from his beloved San Francisco to Washington, DC, in a confrontation with the DHS, the CIA, and the FBI; then on to Tokyo, Kyoto, and beyond, in search of what his Japanese sources tell him is a legendary killer in both senses of the word—said to be more rumor than real, but deadlier than anything else they’ve ever encountered if the whispers are true.

ScienceThrillers review:

Barry Lancet delivers again in Pacific Burn, book #3 of the Jim Brodie series that began with his award-winning debut Japantown. This time, Brodie’s connections in the art world entangle him in a web of violence on both sides of the Pacific when members of a famed ceramicist’s family are being murdered one by one. The killer is Japan’s most secretive, legendary assassin: The Shadow Walker, a legend born amid the hot, fuming vents of a volcano near Japan’s Pompeii.

What sets Pacific Burn and the other Brodie thrillers apart from other well-written suspense/action novels on the market is the Japanese flavor. Author Barry Lancet is an American who has lived in Japan for decades. His intimate personal knowledge of the history, language, culture, geography, and especially the art of Japan suffuses the book. As usual, Lancet includes several scenes that Japanophiles will salivate over. In this installment, readers visit a cosplay convention and manga museum, a temple, a bamboo forest, an active volcano, and of course several different types of Japanese restaurants, including a terrific scene involving fugu, the poisonous pufferfish. In Tokyo Kill, I learned about the history of samurai swords. In this volume, there’s an introduction to the art of Japanese tea bowls. Brodie’s life, and the murders in this story, are also anchored in the San Francisco area, and we’re treated to a couple of scenes in Napa.

The Jim Brodie character remains a reluctant hero, trying to hold together a dual life as a dealer in rarified Japanese art and head of a Tokyo-based security agency while raising a young daughter alone. (Brodie is a widower, a plot line you can follow in Japantown.) His extraordinary prowess with martial arts combined with street fighting techniques is brilliantly described by Lancet in his fight scenes, which walk the line between superheroism and human frailty.

If you enjoyed Japantown or Tokyo Kill, you’ll be pleased to see that the quality continues with Pacific Burn. If you’re a thriller fan who hasn’t read Lancet’s series, get on board. You can read the books in any order because they are stand-alones, though you might want to start with #1 (Japantown). Heck, get all three books because binge-reading is likely!

Read the ScienceThrillers reviews of Japantown and Tokyo Kill

An advance reader copy of this book was given to me with no promise of a review, good or bad.

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New release book review: THE ORION PLAN by Mark Alpert book review of The Orion Plan by Mark Alpert.


(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Tech rating (out of 5):


Publication date: February 16, 2016
Category: Hard science fiction thriller

Summary (from the publisher):

Scientists thought that Earth was safe from invasion. The distance between stars is so great that it seemed impossible for even the most advanced civilizations to send a large spaceship from one star system to another.

But now an alien species—from a planet hundreds of light-years from Earth—has found a way.

A small spherical probe lands in an empty corner of New York City. It soon drills into the ground underneath, drawing electricity from the power lines to jump-start its automated expansion and prepare for alien colonization.

When the government proves slow to react, NASA scientist Dr. Sarah Pooley realizes she must lead the effort to stop the probe before it becomes too powerful. Meanwhile, the first people who encounter the alien device are discovering just how insidious this interstellar intruder can be.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

ScienceThrillers review:

Ah, New York. All the crazy stuff happens there. Author Mark Alpert should know–he’s a Manhattan native, and his intimate knowledge of the territory shows in this science fiction ensemble thriller The Orion Planwhich is set in the state of New York, mostly in New York City.

In the arresting opening scene, astronomer Sarah Pooley spots a planet-bashing meteor about to strike Earth. Inexplicably the object nearly vanishes while on a path to hit Manhattan. A clock is ticking but for what, Sarah–and the reader–don’t know yet.

What follows is a delightful page-turner that shows Alpert’s enthusiasm for geeky speculation about space travel and intelligent life in the universe. This author has a degree in physics and a career as a science journalist, so the many bits of science and technology tossed in the plot are accurate (except for the alien parts, of course). Readers who like real science in their fiction will find plenty of tasty morsels here, from Martian microfossils to stray voltage detection to interstellar travel.

The Orion Plan unfolds from multiple points of view as a host of interesting characters encounter the alien object now lying in the forested, relative wilds of Inwood Hill Park. It’s a minor spoiler to say that some of these encounters between humans and the alien probe have a powerful effect on the humans and influence the characters’ subsequent actions. Much of the book follows the individual story lines of these various characters: a former physician laid low by alcoholism; an African-American woman pastor dying of cancer; a young Dominican gangster. In the meantime, our heroine-scientist Sarah doggedly pursues answers. With a personal history of belief in alien life, Sarah is primed to leap to certain conclusions that government and military people are not.

What drives this story is the question of what the probe is trying to do. For most of the book, the outcome is uncertain. There’s definitely a sinister flair to what’s going on, yet Alpert gives us reasons to suspect the humans’ reaction to this “invasion” may be worse than the problem. Should we root for the alien, or hope that it is destroyed? Does it want to save us, or destroy us? The ambiguity will keep you guessing.

The twists and wrap-up at the end come a little too suddenly, but they do fit the story. Other quibbles I had include the lengthy backstories about the characters, which at times interrupt the momentum and make large sections of the book not directly related to the alien plot line. Also, Sarah’s negative feelings about the military’s involvement, and her decisions to go it alone when possible, seemed unjustified.

Visiting unfamiliar places through books is a good reason to read thrillers, and The Orion Plan obliges with great scenes at the American Museum of Natural History, Rikers Island prison, below a Con Edison manhole cover (you’re curious, right?), Yankee Stadium, Cornell University, on a train, and of course at Inwood Hill Park.

Thriller fans will find easy, satisfying entertainment in this fresh take on a classic sci-fi premise. Peppered with real science details, The Orion Plan combines a looming disaster in Manhattan with the individual struggles of people trying to do the right thing after an encounter with a force far beyond their understanding. You won’t stop reading until the last page is turned.

Alert: Occasional adult language.


Other books by Mark Alpert:
The Six (2015; young adult); Extinction (2013)

If you like The Orion Plan, you might like:
The Colony (2012) or Seeders (2014) by AJ Colucci; Mind’s Eye by Douglas Richards

FCC notice: A free copy of this book was given to me for review. I made no promise that I would write a review, good or bad.

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Book review: SKELETON SEA by Toni Dwiggins book review of Skeleton Sea by Toni Dwiggins.


(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Tech rating (out of 5):


Publication date: August 26, 2015
Category: science-themed mystery/science thriller

Summary (from the book):

A mystery at sea plunges forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws into deadly waters.

When a boat is found deserted off the California coast, it looks to be a simple fishing accident. But there is nothing ordinary going on here. The geologists track the strange incident to an even stranger project. Someone with toxic skills is at work in this sea.

If the lethal project is completed, the outcome will be unstoppable.

ScienceThrillers review:

Skeleton Sea (The Forensic Geology Series) (Volume 4) by Toni Dwiggins is the best book yet in her series of mystery/thrillers featuring a pair of California forensic geologists. For someone like me who loves books in which real science drives the plot, this series is gold. As icing on the cake, Dwiggins’ stories are set in some of my favorite places in California, including (to date) Death Valley National Park, Mammoth Lakes, and now Morro Bay, a beautiful tourist and fishing town on the central coast between Big Sur and Santa Barbara.

Our heroes, Cassie and Walter, are summoned to the coast when a boat is found adrift at sea minus its pilot, and a key piece of evidence is a mineral residue on the boat’s side. They work closely with the local police and an assortment fascinating locals, most of whom could be suspects in the missing man’s death. The tone of the book is a mystery, with some momentum toward a thriller-type climax.

I find the specific plots of Dwiggins’ books to be somewhat confusing in the details, but the characters and scenes and science are so good that I’m willing to ignore the hazy parts. In Skeleton Sea, Dwiggins shows many examples of elegant writing (with science themes, no less!):

I looked out toward the horizon where the wave train started, far out to sea with winds upon the water. It was so primal I sank into some kind of sea memory of that dark water we all came from, which left its gill-slit mark on us for a time in the womb.

Dwiggins did her homework about scuba diving. In two separate underwater scenes, the experience is vivid and suffocating. Here, Cassie gets entangled in Central California kelp:

Blades and supple stalks seemed to caress me. The caresses tightened. Wrapped me. I was no longer moving forward. I kicked furiously. Not a fish. Don’t belong. Breathing hard, bubbles volcanic. If I had become entangled in brush on a hiking trail on a mountain path the way an air-breather should be hiking I could have yelled to my companions up ahead to wait. I couldn’t yell down here or I would drown. All I could do was hum. Theme from Jaws.

Main character Cassie takes on the role of amateur PI on top of her technical work as a geologist and has close encounters with a reclusive rich man who keeps a scanning electron microscope in his cliffside home; a mentally challenged young man who dreams of piloting his own ship; a green-haired slacker with secrets to hide; and a lot of very deadly jellyfish. With superb local color and science throughout, I recommend this book to anyone who has loved a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Other books in the Forensic Geology series by Toni Dwiggins:

Badwater; Volcano Watch; Quicksilver

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Book review: OPEN SOURCE by Anna Davis book review of Open Source by Anna Davis.


(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Tech rating (out of 5):


Publication date: January 12, 2016
Category: speculative fiction (SF) thriller

Summary (from the book):

A source found dead—his skull sawed open by NeuroChip vandals in a Dallas back alley. The sole witness? Reporter Ryker Morris, whose stubborn resistance to a different kind of chip—the globally mandated IDChip—cost him his job, apartment, and credibility. Ryker flees the gruesome scene, a young, homeless technophobe disappearing into a fast-paced city of augmented working stiffs and sexy chipped socialites.

But Ryker’s reprieve doesn’t last long. Under orders from a local hacker and tipped off by an invisible tracking device, the vandals kidnap Ryker’s best friend, leaving only a blood-soaked wallet behind. Even worse, they inject Ryker’s brain with a refurbished NeuroChip. Without money or resources, he must find his friend and deactivate the corrupt NeuroChip, before the twisted hacker who programmed it gains full control over Ryker’s own thoughts.

ScienceThrillers review:

Open Source by Anna L. Davis is set in a near-future Dallas where a tinfoil hat won’t be enough. This speculative fiction (SciFi) thriller opens with our protagonist, Ryker Morris, witnessing the surreptitious harvesting of a NeuroChip from inside the skull of a recently deceased man lying dead in an alley.

The questions, paranoia, and fear only grow from there.

In this dystopia, Morris, who was once an investigative journalist, has lost his job, his home, and his status in the world because he refuses to accept either of two techno implants that define modern life: an IDChip, which acts as a Social Security card, medical record folder, and drivers license all in one; and the NeuroChip, an optional brain implant that is linked to a data network and enhances virtually every aspect of mental functioning.

Unsurprisingly, that direct network linkage into people’s brains provides the opportunity for mischief.

Then one night, someone hits Morris’s homeless encampment, kidnapping his friend and implanting a NeuroChip inside Morris. This launches him on a quest to save his friend, to find out who is prowling the streets and stealing NeuroChips from the dead, and to stop his own NeuroChip from “flashing” with the network.

That’s just the beginning. The novel has several distinct sections as Morris’s problems and goals change. Delightfully, at some point he becomes an unreliable narrator. A lot of different plot elements are woven through the story: cyborgs, artificial intelligence, immortality, vampirism, addiction, mind control, telepathy, and of course social issues about privacy and what it means to be human.

While Open Source isn’t as tightly written as I would like, and the main character isn’t fleshed out in depth, the desire to understand what is really going on keeps the reader going. We live in a society on the brink of the kinds of technologies in this book, and as much as we all sense the dangers of something like NeuroChip, I can easily imagine individuals choosing to adopt such a thing in order to gain an advantage in life. And once the door is open, it could quickly go from optional to necessary, much as a college degree has become now.

This is a paranoid, mind-bending thriller for our time.

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