New release book review: BEING MORTAL by Atul Gawande

ScienceThrillers.com book review of Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.


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Publication date: October 2014
Category: nonfiction; medicine, end of life, long-term care

Summary (from the publisher):

In Being Mortal, bestselling author Atul Gawande tackles the hardest challenge of his profession: how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending.

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering.

Gawande, a practicing surgeon, addresses his profession’s ultimate limitation, arguing that quality of life is the desired goal for patients and families. Gawande offers examples of freer, more socially fulfilling models for assisting the infirm and dependent elderly, and he explores the varieties of hospice care to demonstrate that a person’s last weeks or months may be rich and dignified.

Full of eye-opening research and riveting storytelling, Being Mortal asserts that medicine can comfort and enhance our experience even to the end, providing not only a good life but also a good end.

ScienceThrillers review:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End is a beautifully written, thoughtful, moving, and important book that will profoundly influence the way that you think about how America (and the rest of the rich world) manage the debility that comes with aging, and the separate (but related) issue of how the health care system fails people who are dying. It’s a must-read for anyone with aging parents, or anyone who hopes to grow old, and also for physicians.

While many books have been written about these issues, Gawande’s book stands out for his brilliant writing and the book’s superior editing. Many different strands of thought and story are woven together into a compelling, coherent whole that I read in a single sitting.

First, Gawande covers the origin of “nursing homes” and the more recent “assisted living” movement. With excellent stories and insight, he explains the fundamental tension between what the system thinks the elderly want–safety, security, food, medicine–and what actually makes people happy–the power to make their own choices and to have a purpose in their lives.

In the second part of the book, he delves into the way modern medicine drives ever-more interventions and treatments and procedures at the end of life, even when this medicalization of dying diminishes the quality of what life remains. He makes a compelling argument for how doctors (and patients) should be talking to each other to help the dying achieve the kind of end they really want.

Along the way, the author’s anecdotes from his own practice as a surgeon are illuminating, but none approach the power of his own story. Gawande walked this path himself, at his parents’ side, when his father was diagnosed with a spinal tumor. His portrayal of this very personal journey has something to teach us all–and will elicit more genuine emotion than any novel.

A page-turning, beautiful, important book that won’t take you long to read but will empower you and give you much to think about. Highly recommended.

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SciThri new releases: March 2015

After a too-long hiatus, here’s the monthly roundup of newly-released, or new to me, indie science & medical thrillers.  These books are among the many I don’t have time to read and review, but genre fans might enjoy.

If you are an author or publicist and would like your book listed, contact me with title, author, release date, weblinks, and summary. Only books with scientific or medical themes or characters will be included. Ask me about hosting a giveaway raffle on your behalf (paper books only).

SciThri New (or new to me) Releases:

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Wormholes by Dennis Meredith. Science thriller / hard SciFi (2013).

Something is devouring Earth. . .

A suburban house in Oklahoma vanishes into a roaring abyss. A supertanker at sea suffers a fiery destruction. A blast in China drills a gigantic cavern into a mountainside. A severed arm plummets from the sky in Missouri.

Could these catastrophes possibly be related? Intrepid geologist Dacey Livingstone is nearly killed by her first attempt to plumb the mystery—a perilous descent into a house-swallowing sinkhole. Still determined, she joins with eccentric physicist Gerald Meier in a quest that takes them from the ocean’s depths to interstellar space.

What are these exotic “wormholes” that threaten Earth? Can their secrets be discovered, their power even harnessed? Or will they spawn a celestial monster that will annihilate the planet?

Brilliantly original, Wormholes reflects Albert Einstein’s famous assertion that “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

Veteran science writer Dennis Meredith has crafted this cosmic adventure drawing on his decades of experience working at leading research universities such as Caltech, MIT, Cornell and Duke.

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Do you enjoy thrillers with real science? Read Petroplague by Dr. Amy Rogers. Oil-eating bacteria contaminate the fuel supply of Los Angeles and paralyze the city. “Compellingly written, technically literate” “top 5 on my best of 2011 list” “the science is utterly believable” “I couldn’t put this one down”

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New release YA book review: CHAOS THEORY by M. Evonne Dobson

ScienceThrillers.com book review of Chaos Theory by M. Evonne Dobson.

GIVEAWAY: Scroll down to enter to win a paper copy!

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Publication date: February 3, 2015
Category: young adult mystery
Tech rating (out of 5; what does this mean?):

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Summary (from the publisher):

Seventeen-year-old Kami is into science, way smarter than she should be, a little obtuse, and born to investigate. The kind of girl who excels in Martial Arts and runs a chaos theory experiment in her locker. Kami finds a way to focus her talents when she meets Daniel, whose younger sister Julia died from an overdose of prescription drugs—drugs that the cops think came from Daniel’s stash. First Daniel turns up at Kami’s MA class, and later she saves him from a couple of drug dealers at the local skate park. Neither episode endears him to her, but Kami views life as a series of data points, and in Daniel’s case, the data do not add up. Her theory turns out to be correct: Daniel is taking he fall to protect his sister’s reputation—and to work with the cops to find out who really supplied his sister with drugs. Kami assembles a team of sleuths to help Daniel meet those goals. Top of the list is her best friend Sandy, who can con anybody out of anything, every time. Sandy’s boyfriend Sam, editor of the school newspaper, is researcher in chief. Then there is gorgeous Gavin, a computer genius whose abilities to help are hindered by the fact that he’s already in trouble with the cops for hacking. Daniel’s novice police handler provides a link to law enforcement. The trail leads to the local stables, where Julia kept a stash of drugs. The team next uncovers a link to the manufacturer of the drugs. Working with the police, Kami goes undercover as an intern at the pharmaceutical company that makes the drugs that killed Julia. But she’s not the only undercover agent on the trail.

In Chaos Theory, first time author M Evonne Dobson not only tells a fast-paced mystery, but also explores her protagonist’s deep need to understand the chaotic lives of those around her, lives that refuse to be neat, clean, and simple. Especially when death happens to those you love.

ScienceThrillers review:

Chaos Theory (Kami Files) is a young adult mystery featuring an engaging female teen protagonist named Kami who has a decidedly scientific bent of mind. She’s won science fair awards and has dedicated her school locker to an experiment on chaos theory that she hopes will help her get accepted to MIT.

From my point of view as a reviewer of science-themed fiction, I was disappointed that these science-y themes faded as the story progressed, but I got hooked on Kami and her friends. Toward the end of book when Kami goes “undercover” at a pharmaceutical company, I expected a bit of science to creep back in but that wasn’t the case. Chaos Theory has more horse culture than science fair culture in it (I’m surprised the horses aren’t mentioned more in the back cover blurb; are today’s girls not as totally into horses as I was?).

Nevertheless, Kami’s approach to life and to investigation is every bit the scientist’s approach. She’s a sensible, smart, ambitious, and generous girl who’s willing to take risks. Her romantic entanglements are deftly handled in the story without excessive angst and conflict; this girl isn’t flighty or foolish. Best of all, while tragedy lurks in the background, Chaos Theory has no dystopian elements. I’ve had enough of that literary trend.

Chaos Theory is a thoroughly enjoyable YA mystery with a well-written cast of characters, believable action, and a respectful attitude toward science and young people who are interested in science. Kami is a bit of a 21st century Nancy Drew and I hope she has many more adventures.

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FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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Autoimmune flu: EE Giorgi on science of new SciThri IMMUNITY, part of APOCALYPSE WEIRD

E.E. Giorgi is one smart cookie, a scientist and a writer (after my own heart). At her blog she explores fascinating science + fiction topics, and she writes speculative science fiction thrillers with real science in the concept. She has a new book out, Immunity, part of an intriguing multi-author project in post-apocalyptic fiction called Apocalypse Weird. Here, E.E. Giorgi details the thinking that went into the concept for this book–and it’s hecka fun.
–Amy



ScienceThrillers.com welcomes:

E.E. Giorgi, author of Chimeras and Immunity

Last fall, I was approached by Michael Bunker, one of the founders of Wonderment Media, and asked to produce a book for Apocalypse Weird, a brand-world created by Wonderment Media that each author uses like a sandbox for their own stories. Michael told me I could pick one region of the world and create my own apocalypse within that region. He gave me some examples of how other authors were devising their own end of the world and listed things like zombies, tornadoes, nuclear explosions, and stuff like said. Until he said two words that got me thinking for a long time: autoimmune flu.

My first reaction was: “There cannot be such a thing as an autoimmune virus.”

Or can there?

The word ‘autoimmune’ is used to describe the body attacking its own self. Autoimmune disorders arise when the immune system reacts against cells and tissues in the body and tries to destroy them as if they were pathogens. But the influenza virus is something we acquire from the environment, not part of our own body.

However, we do have viruses deep inside our body, viruses that have been there back when we were monkeys and even before that; viruses that became part of our genome tens of thousands of years ago. How did that happen?

In order to replicate, this class of viruses—called retroviruses—inject their genetic material inside the cell’s own DNA. When the cell replicates, the virus replicates its own genes too, making thousands of copies of its genome. Retroviruses have been around much longer than us. For millions of years they’ve infected cells from all species. And every now and then, just by chance, a retrovirus infected a spermatozoa or an oocyte and inserted its genome inside the cell’s genome.

Now imagine that infected spermatozoa or oocyte, with the extra bit of viral DNA, becoming a fertilized egg. The egg now carries the viral genome and, as it develops into a fetus, and the fetus grows into a new individual, the new individual will have the bit of viral DNA inserted in his/her own DNA (for a more detailed discussion, see my post).

About 10% of our genome is made of viral genes that we acquired through an infected spermatozoa or oocyte. These genes became a part of our own DNA. They are called endogeneous retroviruses, where endogenous means that instead of being a virus we “catch” like we catch the cold or the flu, these “viruses” are inside our cells from conception. The question is: what do they do? Do they behave like all other genes or do they behave like viruses?

They do both. Some of these viral genes, for example, are expressed in the mammalian uterus and they encode proteins that are useful in making the placenta. It makes sense if you think that viruses are good at hiding from our immune system, and a fetus, as it grows, needs to be ‘hidden’ from the mother’s immune system or else it could be attacked by her antibodies.

The bit that got me thinking more and more about Michael’s autoimmune flu, though, is this: many of these viral genes embedded in our DNA are found to be abnormally expressed in mental disorders. I looked up one disease in particular, schizophrenia, and found that not only are some viral genes activated in people who had been recently diagnosed with the disease, but a study also found significantly high levels of antibody directed at these retroviral elements.

Basically, the immune system is attacking the viral genes in the brain as though they were real viruses.

A light bulb went off in my head. You know, that nagging ‘What if?’ question that tugs at the back of your mind and doesn’t let go until you sit down and start writing. And write I did. I invented a flu virus—well, not totally invented, as H7N7 does exist and is indeed one of the most zoonotic of the flu viruses, which means it has a high potential to jump from one species to another.

But what I did make up is that a mutated version of H7N7 could have enough similarities to the viral genes embedded in our genome to elicit antibodies that would then attack the brain. There are viruses that are actually very similar to some of our endogenous retroviruses, but thank goodness they are rare and it’s uncommon to become infected with them. But for my plot I needed a common virus, one that’s easily spreadable with a sneeze, and of course influenza fit the bill.

The rest became the plot of my new thriller, Immunity, released on February 23rd together with four other books set in the Apocalypse Weird world: Texocalypse Now by Michael Bunker and Nick ColeThe Dark Knight by Nick ColeReversal by Jennifer Ellis, The Serenity Strain by Chris Pourteau, and Immunity by E.E. Giorgi.

IMMUNITY BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Greed, mayhem, and a deadly virus meet on the high deserts of New Mexico.

Scorched by fire and the longest drought in recorded history, survivors flee the Land of Enchantment in order to escape a mutated flu virus that turns ordinary people into mass-murderers. Only a few resilient scientists have remained, gathered in one of the last national laboratories still working on a vaccine against the deadly virus.

When the disease starts spreading among the military corps guarding the premises, the laboratory turns into bloody carnage at the hands of the infected soldiers. Determined to succeed where her mother has failed, immunologist Anu Sharma pairs up with computer geek David Ashberg to find a cure and escape the massacre. Outbreak meets World War Z in the deserts of the Apocalypse Weird.


AUTHOR BIO: E.E. Giorgi grew up in Tuscany, in a house on a hill that she shared with two dogs, two cats, 5 chickens, and the occasional batches of stick insects, newts and toads her dad would bring home from the lab. Today, E.E. Giorgi is a scientist and an award winning author and photographer. She spends her days analyzing genetic data, her evenings chasing sunsets, and her nights pretending she’s somebody else. On her blog, E.E. discusses science for the inquiring mind, especially the kind that sparks fantastic premises and engaging stories. Her debut novel CHIMERAS, a medical mystery, is a 2014 Readers’ Favorite International Book Award winner.

Click here for Giorgi’s NEWSLETTER.

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New release book review: THE DOOMSDAY EQUATION by Matt Richtel

ScienceThrillers.com book review of The Doomsday Equation by Matt Richtel.

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Publication date: February 24, 2015
Category: thriller; technothriller

Summary (from the publisher):

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author of A Deadly Wandering comes a pulse-pounding technological thriller—as ingenious as the works of Michael Crichton and as urgent and irresistible as an episode of 24—in which one man has three days to prevent annihilation: the outbreak of World War III.

Computer genius Jeremy Stillwater has designed a machine that can predict global conflicts and ultimately head them off. But he’s a stubborn guy, very sure of his own genius, and has wound up making enemies, and even seen his brilliant invention discredited.

There’s nowhere for him to turn when the most remarkable thing happens: his computer beeps with warning that the outbreak of World War III is imminent, three days and counting.

Alone, armed with nothing but his own ingenuity, he embarks on a quest to find the mysterious and powerful nemesis determined to destroy mankind. But enemies lurk in the shadows waiting to strike. Could they have figured out how to use Jeremy, and his invention, for their own evil ends?

Before he can save billions of lives, Jeremy has to figure out how to save his own. . . .

ScienceThrillers review:

“Big data” is making it possible to make all kinds of predictions based on correlations with variables that might not seem obviously connected. For example, data on Google searches can be used to predict outbreaks of seasonal flu; predictive policing uses computer models to anticipate crime.

In The Doomsday Equation: A Novel, technology & culture journalist Matt Richtel takes real-world computing capabilities one small step forward and posits a program that can predict global conflict, creating a brilliant premise: what if that program predicted the outbreak of WWIII in three days’ time? And what if the program’s creator was both discredited and uncertain whether the prediction is correct?

Combine this original and gripping hook with a psychologically intense point of view character, and you’ve got a five-star page turner.

Like Richtel’s previous smart thrillers (The Cloud, Devil’s Plaything), The Doomsday Equation is set in San Francisco, with Silicon Valley culture as a backdrop. Doomsday is tighter, leaner, more intense than the previous novels, and likely to appeal to a wider audience. The book’s distinguishing feature is the voice. We are locked in the point of view of protagonist Jeremy Stillwater, told in the third person but with a forcefully first person perspective. Jeremy is alternately infuriating and sympathetic, blatantly self-destructive and yet vulnerable. The reader may want to slap him at times (I did), but never abandon him, which is basically the the same effect Jeremy has on his girlfriend in the story. In The Cloud, author Richtel played with the notion of an unreliable narrator who suffers a head injury in the opening pages, making all his interpretations of events suspect. In this book, unreliability appears again. This time, the protagonist isn’t crazy, but he may be being manipulated. Or is he just paranoid?

One of Richtel’s strengths, then, is using ambiguity to create tension. It works well in Doomsday Equation. Conversations between characters are often both oblique and opaque, as they might be in real life. It’s left to the intelligence of the reader to interpret the subtext. Facts aren’t revealed, they’re implied. Readers accustomed to being spoon-fed a plot may be frustrated by this. As a consequence of this systematic ambiguity, the plots of Richtel’s novels don’t wrap up in tidy packages. As with his previous books, the ending of Doomsday is very satisfying but don’t ask me to explain exactly who did what to whom, and why. But the overall collection of antagonists and motives made sense.

I must mention one other distinctive feature of Richtel’s novels. He writes in the present tense. I think this is an important part of the book’s intensity, but it takes a little getting used to.

I find Richtel to be one of the most quotable science thriller writers and I always like to include some book excerpts in my reviews:

“Like so many in the valley, he’s just shy of fully slick, geeky enough to come across as authentic. This type of businessperson in Silicon Valley is like the do-gooder from college who goes to Washington, DC, and it becomes impossible to tell the difference between their ambitions for the world and for themselves.”

“A man in a fashionable red rain jacket chomps half a donut in a single bite, then looks around furtively,…guiltily wondering if someone might catch him eating too many carbs of the inorganic variety.”

“This development of mining and sifting the world’s conflict rhetoric could help answer an age-old philosophical question about the relationship between language, thought, and action…To what extent are the words we choose insights into what we think–not what we want to communicate, but what we really think?…All the linguistic data, unprecedented insights into the human psyche, a global ink blot test…”

For an intelligent thriller that borders on literary, you can’t do better. The Doomsday Equation creates a thoroughly contemporary flawed genius hero who is ill-suited to the high-stakes task before him: to save the world. As the doomsday clock ticks down, you won’t want to skip a single page.

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader e-copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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Progeria as murder? THE RUNAWAY CLOCK by Bill Carrigan

ScienceThrillers welcomes author Bill Carrigan to discuss his science-themed future thriller The Runaway Clock. I’m intrigued by the science of aging and the dark love affairs of scientists in this story.

The year is 2033. Scientists are studying the aging process at a research laboratory in Baltimore. Dr. George Buell, department head, has met a violent death. He and his much younger wife, Jill, collected children with progeria (premature old age) to study and treat. Jill and Ray Lindsay, a young scientist (who tells the story), are in love.

Flash back a year. Ray and Buell agree to join forces, and Ray brings his research team to Buell’s lab. He and Jill meet. He isolates Senexin, a substance that seems to cause the children’s affliction. Buell discovers, but doesn’t disclose, the budding love affair.

Shift to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where a retired colleague has donated his estate for studies on oldsters. Of special interest here is spring water that protects small animals from x-ray. Buell theorizes that the water might also retard aging and wants to test it on the children. He and Ray drink it to check for toxicity.

Ray is deeply troubled about his love affair and Buell’s erratic behavior. He finds himself aging rapidly. As the year passes, horror and suspense mount through amazing discoveries, a vicious crime, and Buell’s shocking, tragic decline . . .

My novel The Runaway Clock is a sci-fi tale of dark revenge. It begins in 2034 at a research clinic in Baltimore. Dr. George Buell, department head, has met a violent death. He and his much younger wife, Jill, collected children with progeria (premature aging) to study and treat. Jill, their teacher, and biologist Ray Lindsay are secretly in love.

A year earlier, Ray and Buell agreed to join forces. Ray isolated senexin, a mutant protein that seems to cause the children’s condition (overriding others’ unconvincing claims for an agent called progerin). Buell discovers, but doesn’t disclose, the love affair. He covertly feeds senexin to Ray, who ages rapidly.

The story plays out in Florida, where Buell has taken Jill and the children. Ray is deeply troubled about the love affair, which he blames for his own progeria. As the year unfolds, horror and suspense mount through amazing discoveries, Buell’s further crimes, and his decline and death.

I conceived of the plot as the National Institute on Aging was created at the National Institutes of Health, where I wrote interpretively for forty years. In my spare time, while there and later at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, I wrote and published fiction in various genres. Now retired, I’ve brought out new versions of seven novels and a collection of short stories. Search for “Books by Bill Carrigan” at Amazon.com.

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Guest post: THE CERULEAN’S SECRET by Dennis Meredith

As a cat lover and fan of real science in fiction, this new title sounds like good fun to me. So I’m sharing the press release I received from the publisher. –Amy R, ScienceThrillers.com


New Sci-Fi Novel Asks “WHAT IF THERE WAS A BLUE CAT?”

What if there was a blue cat? That oddball question first popped into
author Dennis Meredith’s head some thirty years ago, while he was the
news office director at Caltech. The result, decades later, is his newly
published science fiction novel, The Cerulean’s Secret.

The eccentric notion continued to nag at him, as he witnessed first-hand
the advance of the genetic engineering revolution through the decades
that followed—from its beginning at Caltech, with the invention of the
first DNA sequencing machine.

As the technology evolved, so did the story of his imaginary blue cat;
and he began crafting the novel some two decades ago, as genomic science
fiction became science fact.

Set in 2050, The Cerulean’s Secret envisions the rise of a lucrative
industry of genomically engineered pets. In particular, the high-flying
company Animata reaps massive profits creating and selling a marvelous
menagerie of animals—including exotic crosses like cogs, dats, snurtles,
alliphants, hamakeets, and feather boas. Its ultra-rich clients,
however, clamor for the really spectacular specimens—dragons, unicorns.
. . and the newest, the Cerulean cat with its mesmerizing iridescent
blue fur. The stunning cat had promised to bring billions of dollars
from a private collector, corporation, or exhibitor.

But the cat, dubbed the most beautiful in history, is stolen!

Swept up in the catnapping is naïve young Timothy Boatright, a wanna-be
writer who’s driving a cab in New York. He inadvertently picks up the
thief and the nabbed Cerulean. The cops suspect him of complicity in the
crime, and to prove his innocence and save the cat, he tracks it down
and steals it back. He ends up accused not only of catnapping but
murder—fleeing the police, Animata thugs, a greedy drug lord. . . and
Big Nasties! Somebody has programmed these 300-pound genetically
engineered assassin-animals—with their three-inch fangs, razor claws,
night vision, and sonar—not only to kill Tim, but shred him.

Amidst this mayhem, Tim realizes that the Cerulean was stolen and marked
for death because its genes hold some explosive mystery he must solve to
survive. He must also save his friends held for ransom—the middle-aged,
cat-loving former spy Callie Lawrence and her headstrong daughter Lulu,
with whom Tim has fallen madly in love.

The Cerulean’s Secret is a fast-paced thriller that projects today’s
amazing genomic technology into a future of incredible biological
manipulation. Its witty neo noir style and vivid prose lure the reader
into an adventure that extends the traditional science fiction genre
into new literary territory.

“Being a science writer, I aim in my novels to extrapolate my stories
from real science, which is sometimes even wilder than any science
fiction,” he says. “The Cerulean’s Secret was just such a novel, because
as I wrote it over many years, many of the devices I envisioned for
2050—from robot snakes, to virtual-reality glasses, to quantum
computers—kept showing up as real-life technology.” In fact,
resources Meredith used for The Cerulean’s
Secret can be found at his website.

“And, although I wanted to tell an exciting story, I also wanted to
explore the critical moral and ethical issues raised by our growing
ability to genetically engineer life.”

A Kindle young adult edition of The Cerulean’s Secret is also available with editing to eliminate adult language and situations.

Meredith is a veteran science writer who has worked at some of the
country’s leading research institutions—besides Caltech including MIT,
Cornell, Duke, and the University of Wisconsin. He is author of science
fiction novels The Rainbow Virus, Wormholes, and Solomon’s Freedom. He
is also author of the nonfiction Explaining Research (Oxford 2010).

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New release book review: THE AFFLICTIONS by Vikram Paralkar

ScienceThrillers.com book review of The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar.


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Publication date: October 31, 2014
Category: fiction essay; medical fiction; literary fiction

Summary (from the publisher):

Shadowing an elderly librarian on his first day at the great Central Library, Máximo is thrilled to get a peek at the exclusive Encyclopedia of Medicine. It’s a dizzying collection of maladies: an amnesia that causes everyone you’ve ever met to forget you exist, while you remain perfectly, painfully aware of your history. A wound that grows with each dark thought or evil deed you commit but shrinks with every act of kindness. A disease that causes your body to imitate death, stopping your heart, cooling your blood. Will the fit pass before they bury you-or after?

The Afflictions is a magical compendium of pseudo-diseases, an encyclopedia of archaic medicine written by a contemporary physician and scientist. Little by little, these bizarre and mystical afflictions frame an eternal struggle: between human desire and the limits of bodily existence.

ScienceThrillers review:

The publisher’s summary misses the mark in conveying the spirit of this fascinating little volume. In The Afflictions, Vikram Paralkar, a physician (hematologist) at the University of Pennsylvania, blends the style and form of old-time medical writing with magical realism. The result is a series of very short, psychologically dense entries, each describing a fantastical “disease”. The publisher’s summary emphasizes the macabre aspect–and make no mistake, some of Paralkar’s imaginings are extremely grotesque–but the spirit is reflective. Each disease explores some aspect of the human condition or the soul. Each is like a flavorful stock that’s been reduced and concentrated. This short book (174 pages with plenty of white space) begs to be read in small bites, with the reader savoring and reflecting on each idea.

I found The Afflictions to be an engaging work of literary medical fiction, and my family ended up discussing some of the bizarre syndromes over dinner. Really imaginative stuff, though I’d say the strongest ones are in the first half to two-thirds of the book. The construct of an elderly librarian (who is the sole voice in the book) and a Central Library creates a mood and a structure to the book but is merely a scaffolding upon which the author can hang his entries. There is no “plot” or climax.

An excellent book for a book group, or for a classroom to discuss one piece at a time. For the solitary reader, The Afflictions will provide plenty of food for thought, even meditation.

Recommended for fans of Jorge Luis Borges.

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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