Book review: CHEMISTRY a novel by Weike Wang

ScienceThrillers.com book review of Chemistry, a novel by Weike Wang

BlueStar4

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Tech rating (out of 5):

Publication date: May 2017
Category: LabLit; women’s fiction

Summary (from the publisher):

Three years into her graduate studies at a demanding Boston university, the unnamed narrator of this nimbly wry, concise debut finds her one-time love for chemistry is more hypothesis than reality. She’s tormented by her failed research–and reminded of her delays by her peers, her advisor, and most of all by her Chinese parents, who have always expected nothing short of excellence from her throughout her life. But there’s another, nonscientific question looming: the marriage proposal from her devoted boyfriend, a fellow scientist, whose path through academia has been relatively free of obstacles, and with whom she can’t make a life before finding success on her own. Eventually, the pressure mounts so high that she must leave everything she thought she knew about her future, and herself, behind. And for the first time, she’s confronted with a question she won’t find the answer to in a textbook: What do I really want? Over the next two years, this winningly flawed, disarmingly insightful heroine learns the formulas and equations for a different kind of chemistry–one in which the reactions can’t be quantified, measured, and analyzed; one that can be studied only in the mysterious language of the heart. Taking us deep inside her scattered, searching mind, here is a brilliant new literary voice that astutely juxtaposes the elegance of science, the anxieties of finding a place in the world, and the sacrifices made for love and family.

ScienceThrillers review:

I was halfway through Chemistry, a novel by Weike Wang when it hit me: this is NOT a memoir.

The voice in Chemistry is so compelling that I thought I was inside a real person’s story. I was relieved to remember this is fiction, partly because I pitied the parents reading about themselves in this light, and partly because I recently read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and I was starting to wonder if all women in science are mentally ill.

No, they definitely are not, but maybe all writers are.

Anyway, Chemistry is a work of literary fiction, not genre or thriller, and is driven by character instead of plot. Thriller fans at this blog might not care for it. But I found this slender book hypnotic and read it in two sittings. Is it because like the nameless main character, I have been a graduate student in a high-powered university science lab? Is it because I married into Chinese culture and have a fascination with the tiger mom stereotype? These elements helped, but I think Chemistry has an appeal that goes far beyond that.

This is a deeply introspective novel. The narrator is emotionally flawed and aware of her flaws. She’s brilliant yet foolish, an achiever who sees failure in her life. She is coming of age but afraid of true adulthood. She wants to be happy but doesn’t know what happiness looks like. To quote from blurbs on the back cover, “How do we learn to love if we haven’t been taught?” About the voice: “by turns deadpan and despairing, wry and wrenching” “unflinching and painfully self-aware” “insight and charm.”

I approached this book with trepidation, worried that it would be another whiney millennial voice. That a sense of entitlement and precociousness would sour the whole thing. Not the case. The narrator is clearly messed up (hence the psychiatry visits), but she is the opposite of a whiner. Her pain doesn’t make her lash out at the world. She beats herself up instead. (Her lovingly portrayed dog helps!)

Science–trivia, history, culture–permeates the book. Science-y interjections pop up on almost every page. Some readers may find them too abstruse, unrelated to the surrounding text. I did occasionally, but I never felt the author crossed the line into pretension.

Chemistry definitely has a lot in common with Lab Girl. Fiction vs memoir. Chemistry vs botany. While the botany essays in Lab Girl can’t be topped, overall I enjoyed this book much more. The brief length, which perfectly suits the subject matter, helped.

Chemistry, a novel by Weike Wang is an elegantly written, sensitive work of literary fiction in the LabLit genre. If you read a lot of science thrillers and are willing to try something different, I recommend this book.


Support ScienceThrillers.com and the book’s author: Click to buy Chemistry from amazon.com

If you like Chemistry, you might enjoy: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

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Book review: SEVENTH SUN by Kent Lester

ScienceThrillers.com book review of The Seventh Sun by Kent Lester

BlueStar4

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Tech rating (out of 5):

Publication date: April 2017
Category: Science thriller

Summary (from the publisher):

A seemingly random murder alerts scientist Dan Clifford to a global conspiracy that stretches from the halls of Washington to the Honduran coast. Illegal, undersea activities have unwittingly uncovered a primordial secret that is wreaking havoc on aquatic life and the local human population.

When the CDC and the full resources of a U.S. “threat interdiction” team fails to uncover the source of the devastation, Dan and a brilliant marine biologist, Rachel Sullivan, must race to unravel an unimaginable, ancient mystery in the murky depths. It’s up to them to stop this terror before a determined multi-national corporation triggers a worldwide extinction event, the Seventh Sun of ancient myth.

ScienceThrillers review:

Kent Lester, debut author of The Seventh Sun, and New York Times #1 bestselling author James Rollins currently have the same literary agent representing their work. Sharing an agent isn’t the only thing Lester and Rollins have in common. Fans of Sigma Force will find a lot to like about The Seventh Sun.

The protagonist Dan Clifford is a level-headed scientist with a strong sense of ethics and a claustrophobic streak. Completely dedicated to his work (which has something to do with a massive detection and computer processing system that might predict earthquakes, among other things), Clifford doesn’t really want to stick his nose into the shady financial and political dealings of his corporate boss. But he does, scheduling a scuba diving trip to Honduras in order to visit the company’s manufacturing facility there. While diving, he finds a dead body. (In a book where the idea of “black swans” comes up repeatedly, this belief-shattering coincidence is perhaps a good example of such an unlikely event, but this reader was happy to forgive the coincidence as just one of those things you sometimes have to accept to make a good story unfold.)

Lester writes plenty of action and intrigue in a variety of arresting scenes that tickle the imagination. His settings include laboratories, rock climbing cliffs, scuba diving, boats of all kinds, deep-sea submersibles, medical facilities, a computer chip factory, a Congressional committee chamber, and more. (I don’t know if MOBIDIC, the Mobile Infectious Disease Interdiction Center is a real thing or not, but it totally should be!)

Of course I’m attracted to the science elements of the story. I’m pleased to say such elements are abundant, accessible, and accurate. How can I not love a novel in which the origin of eukaryotic life is a major plot point? Most impressive of all, in this book Lester successfully navigates what I call the “killer virus ending” problem. Plenty of plague thrillers release a deadly infection on the world, but few of them plausibly put the cat back into the bag. Lester manages this with technical sophistication and flair.

The Seventh Sun stumbles a little with actions that can’t quite be justified but are required by the plot, and an odd story structure which makes the book feel like two novels in one with a preliminary climax halfway through.

But these flaws are far from fatal. The Seventh Sun by Kent Lester successfully joins real science with action, exotic settings, and the threat of a global catastrophe. I enjoyed every page of this smart, fun thriller novel.


An advance reader copy of this book was given to me by the publisher.

Support ScienceThrillers.com and the book’s author: Click to buy Seventh Sun from amazon.com

Author’s website: http://kentlester.com/

If you like The Seventh Sun, you might enjoy: Petroplague by Amy Rogers

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The Earth is pregnant: thriller novel EVEREST RISING by MD Kambic

When I first saw a draft of Matt Kambic’s thriller EVEREST RISING, the novelty of his premise–the Earth is pregnant–had me hooked. I guided Matt through a couple of rewrites, and then published his novel through ScienceThrillers Media. Kambic’s splendid story of science, speculative fiction, and mystical visionary themes has now won the Mountain and Adventure Fiction category of the New Zealand Mountain Film and Book Festival, as well as a Northern California Publishers and Authors book award.

Here, Kambic shares thoughts on the visionary elements of his science-tinged adventure novel.


Pregnant Thoughts on a Visionary Storyline
by M.D. Kambic, author of EVEREST RISING

It’s a long way from Pennsylvania to Mount Everest. I’m still on the road (a bit closer – now living in New Zealand) but don’t know if I’ll ever get there. It’s not unlike the journey from being born to understanding, or at least making peace with, the meaning of life.

I’m an American man married to a Kiwi woman, retired from Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) in 2013. My first novel was published a few months ago. It’s called Everest Rising, and the plot is relatively straightforward – the Earth is pregnant.

The idea came from a few different places. I am always searching for the new storyline– a tale that hasn’t been told and an engaging core around which to build a compelling narrative. I want my characters to grapple with both the commonness of existence and the wonder sneaking in around the edges. This wonder serves as a catalyst for transforming the human experience; a transformation revealed through the senses, understood by the mind, and confirmed by the heart.

The ‘pregnant Earth’ construct allowed space for various themes to intermingle and for passionate conflicts to play out. There’s conflict concerning the Earth: a living, possibly sentient entity about to safeguard its existence against humankind’s wayward stewardship. There’s conflict among the characters, many of them scientists who must decide how to deal with an unprecedented, physics-defying chain of events. At its center, the story is about acceptance. Accepting how little we know, and in that unknowing choosing how to use our energies and where to direct our focus. Where can one find answers – or some version of a contented frame of mind that reconciles what we guess is true with what we realize will always be mystery.

My aims in writing Everest Rising were simple. To entertain, to nourish hope, and to encourage the acceptance of the unknowable. I would also add I believe this ‘unknowable’ is a positive, never a threat. It speaks to and requires a great reaching, that pulls and propels our mind and spirit up and out, higher and wider, away from the self and the ego.

It was wonderful to explore the musings of so many characters, trying to depict a cross-section of world views and personal ‘what is the meaning of life’ explorations, along with attempting to describe the prescient transformation made possible when individuals are graced with profound realizations.

In doing so, I could explore my own experiences, consider others I’ve been privileged to hear or read about, and maybe lament the dead ends I have stumbled into.

The following is a short overview of the significant characters in my story and a look at the arcs they travel.

James Von Kamburg

A scientist who understands the world is being undone by humankind’s indifference, James is also a man confused by his own heart. He is adrift in his marriage because he doesn’t want to bring children into the painful future on the horizon, allowing the tenets of commitment to his wife to be blurred by the attentions of another woman. Yet, he has a core of integrity as a backstop, and an important opening in the lockbox of his memory that speaks to something beyond what science, and his own senses, know as physical law.

(In the story, James relates a memory from his young adulthood about a celestial event witnessed that itself defied physics. This memory is from my own life, and reminds me that wherever I manage to get to in my ‘knowing’, some things will remain unexplainable.)

Maggie Von Kamburg

James’ spouse is an artist, who entered the profession after an initial foray into science during her university years. She desires a family, environmental Armageddon notwithstanding. More than anyone else in the story, Maggie has known frightening and exhilarating exhortations urging her to embrace a different level of consciousness, and in the end, she succumbs to the risk. On the other side are things both wonderful and terrifying.

Jared Griffon

Griffon is the antagonist, a man of money and power, and spiritual unconsciousness. He would see the world bend under the rule of science, and yet there are hints he might stumble into a more compassionate space.

Leslie Finch

Finch, Griffon’s paramour, is a woman driven to find professional success. Yet, her emotions lead her into dangerous terroritories. She has flashes of insight revealing that much of what she does and thinks is not in her best interests, but cannot find a path that will save her.

Maya Danheela

A Sherpani physician, Maya embodies hope and tenacity. She is a forthright, steadfast helpmate to her community and her friends. At odds with the western-intoxicated influences of an Everest located luxury lodge and its owners, she is drawn into the escalating crisis, and called upon to navigate with both her sharp psychological instincts and formidable physical prowess the astounding events at hand.

Abbot Gaia

A long-serving man of the Buddhist cloth, the Abbot finds the very basis of his spiritual and earthly existence under attack. His contract with a western firm means money for members of his order who live under oppressive rule, but the firm’s emerging defilement of the land faces him with a collision of doubt and faith. His world– the Earth, in upheaval– he must counsel from a place of great apprehension to help bring about a morally irreproachable, if uncertain, outcome.

These players are cast beside and against each other. The slow transforming of minds and mindsets bends the plot and drives the denouement. Mother Earth herself does not go without a voice.

To summarize, my novel is a stage where individuals must reconsider their hard-earned absolutes in the face of contradictory evidence. The unfolding events bring each character to a critical juncture that requires a new manner of thinking and, indeed, being.

Though the physical realm may bruise and bite, bringing even death, the greatest battles are fought in the mind and spirit, where compassion and grace and wonder stand their ground against selfishness and ego and absolutes. Everest Rising stages an animated tableau where this engagement is laid bare.

My life has known the strange trajectory that delivers one from existential conviction (via science and religion) to the place of uncertain yet greatly comforting hope and acceptance. I won’t ever know what I once thought I did, as far as where I arrived from and where I may end up. But I can accept and revel in the miracle of being at all, and warm to the nudges that our existence is blessed and ever-evolving.

My hope as the author is that readers will be philosophically moved by the revelations inside the hearts of the story’s players. And, maybe, recognize in their own lives the profound opportunities glimpsed when the soul, with its wider, searching consciousness, is given purchase on the multi-textured, wondrous pathway from Birth to the Beyond.


Photo credit: Jason Haselden

About the author

Matt Kambic is a writer and artist who hails originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He currently resides in Hamilton, New Zealand.

Visit Matt’s website at  mdkambic.com

To purchase a copy of Everest Rising, click here

This article first appeared on VisionaryFictionAlliance.com

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HONG KONG BLACK: new bioterror novel set in China

Last year, ScienceThrillers was pleased to introduce you to a new action-packed science and military thriller series written by the author team Alex Ryan (in real life, US Navy veterans Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson ). I loved Beijing Red (read my review) and I’m sure I will love Hong Kong Black, book 2 in the Nick Foley series, when it’s released tomorrow!


Former Navy SEAL Nick Foley reluctantly agrees to help investigate when American CIA operative Peter Yu goes missing in China. But when Yu’s mutilated body washes up on a beach near Hong Kong, along with dozens of other victims, the case takes a macabre turn. Suddenly, Nick finds himself embroiled in another bio-terrorism investigation being conducted by China’s elite Snow Leopard counter-terrorism unit and the Chinese CDC, this time involving illegally harvested organs for an unknown and nefarious end.

But Nick’s investigation does not go unnoticed, and soon he finds a target on his back. After thwarting an attempt on his life, he is forced to go off the grid and enlist the help of beautiful CDC microbiologist Dr. Dazhong “Dash” Chen to help unmask his would be killer. On the run and looking for answers, their budding romance is tested at every turn.

With each step closer they take to unmasking the truth, Nick and Dash find themselves drawn deeper into a global conspiracy that began over two thousand years ago with the First Emperor of China and now threatens to upset the world order as they know it.

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Book review: SPECIMEN stories by Irina Kovalyova

ScienceThrillers.com book review of Specimen stories by Irina Kovalyova.

 

Publication date: March 2016
Category: Science-themed literary fiction / short stories

Summary (from the publisher):

Inspired by a wide range influences — including early-twentieth century Russian avant-gardists, British science fiction and dystopian novels, as well as contemporary American novelists — Specimen is a highly original collection of stories that explore the place where physical reality collides with our spiritual and emotional lives.

In “Mamochka,” nominated for the 2012 Journey Prize, an archivist at the Institute for Physics in Minsk, must come to terms with her daughter’s marriage to a Chinese man in Vancouver. In “Peptide P,” scientists study a disease of the heart that seems to affect children after they eat hotdogs. In “Side Effects,” a woman’s personality is altered by botox injections. In “Specimen” a teenage girl discovers that she was conceived using a sperm donor. In “The Big One,” a woman and her daughter find themselves trapped in the rubble of an underground parking garage after an earthquake. In “The Blood Keeper,” a novella, a young academic travels to North Korea to work on her dissertation and embarks on a dangerous affair.

ScienceThrillers review:

I write, publish, and review science-y thriller and suspense fiction. But I’m interested in any literature that has a science worldview or themes. Specimen is a wonderful example of this kind of book, sometimes called LabLit. Written by a working scientist who also holds an MFA degree, it’s a collection of short stories plus one novella all written by Dr. Kovalyova. The stories are literary, artsy, sometimes beautiful, sometimes weird, and always intriguing. While not all of the stories are heavily or obviously science-themed, they all have science aspects and certainly a scientist’s way of seeing things embedded in the text.

The collection has lots of variety, too. Kovalyova experiments with different story structures. In particular, science-y folks will love “Peptide P,” a work of short fiction told entirely in the format of a scientific journal article. It’s brilliant, original, and effective, and like all great short stories, throws a twist at the end. My second favorite story was “The Side Effects,” a love story and psychological/medical suspense tale told from the point of view of a psych patient.

The final thing I’ll mention is the stories also have a Russian/Eastern European influence. I’m not a literary scholar so I can’t give you much more detail, but it’s there in settings and tone.

If you like Specimen, you might enjoy: The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar

Support ScienceThrillers.com and the book’s author: Click to buy Specimen from amazon.com

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Inventor contest for grades 1-6. Easy to enter by May 12

I just heard about a loosely STEM-themed contest for grades 1-6. Scholastic & USA Gold Pencils are encouraging innovation with an inventor contest. Kids submit a sketch or description of their invention by May 12.

“Six grand prizes of $500 each will be awarded to students with the best inventions in the following categories: Grades 1–2, grades 3–4 and grades 5–6. The teacher of each Grand Prize Student Winner will also receive a $100 gift card, plus a year’s supply of U.S.A. Gold® pencils and other school supplies valued at $400.

Teachers must submit entries on behalf of their students using the entry form and invention worksheet, which can be found at http://www.scholastic.com/usagold. The contest site also offers teachers grade-appropriate activities incorporating fun, topics and classroom exercises. Though the contest encourages student creativity, they will not be judged on artistic ability.

Contest is open to students in grades 1–6 who are enrolled in public schools, accredited private schools, or home schools.”

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Book review: SCRATCH on writing and making money

As many followers of ScienceThrillers.com know, I run a very small, boutique independent publishing company that specializes in stories with science (ScienceThrillers Media). I’m also very involved in my local Sacramento writers’ community. Therefore when I heard about Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living edited by Manjula Martin, I immediately went to my library’s website to request a copy. In the publishing business, money is like an STD: some people definitely have it, but no one wants to talk about it. Writers have little or no idea how much income other writers actually earn from selling books. In this vacuum of ignorance, expectations inflate. No, you won’t earn much money even if you get a “big” advance (typically spread out over several years, and diminished by taxes and agent fees), nor even if your book makes a best seller list.

According to the cover, Scratch aspires “to confront the age-old question: How do creative people make money?” A highlighted quote claims, “Manjula Martin…has done more than perhaps anyone else to shed light on the financial nitty-gritty of the writing profession.”

Well, I don’t know what Manjula Martin has done in general, but I can tell you that in this particular book, the only light that was shed came from a flashlight in your dad’s glove compartment powered by a couple of five-year-old C cells.

In other words, the cover copy lied. In this collection of essays, there’s no financial nitty-gritty. Actual numbers are as rare as snow in July. Instead, the essayists tiptoe around pragmatic questions of money to instead navel-gaze about issues of privilege and class. Several of them explicitly repeat the problem this book was supposed to solve: they flatly refuse to discuss specific financial details.

Now, I understand why a person wants to keep her income information private. But then don’t write an essay for a book that purports to reveal data about income or advance money.

Part of the problem is the working writers chosen to contribute to this collection are pretty much all traditionally published writers of literary fiction. The Iowa-NYC-MFA crowd. None are scrappy indies of the kind who are sweeping the amazon Kindle bestseller lists. And almost none of them write genre fiction, which is where the money, such as it is in the novel-writing business, can be found. They share a proud disdain for money, acknowledging it as a necessary evil but definitely unclean. As you might expect, this makes it rather difficult to have an honest, open conversation about “the financial nitty-gritty of the writing profession.” These people write beautiful essays, I’ll give them that. But they’re not essays that are of any use–and that (I thought) was the point of this book.

Compounding my dissatisfaction, the essayists in general make some of the most titanically bad financial decisions that parts of the book could be re-issued as a cautionary tale in poor personal financial planning. I’d rather take medical advice from Huck Finn with his dead-cat-in-a-graveyard therapy than take financial advice from these folks. Is it because these people are creatives? Is it because they’re living in an MFA bubble? I don’t know. Plenty of indie writers have embraced the practical side of the writing business. The fact that many of the essayists are also Park Slope-dwelling millennials, a group not known for its get-up-and-go tenacity, does not help.

So unfortunately I will not be recommending Scratch to my fellow authors in Sacramento, nor will I give it to the authors I sign at ScienceThrillers Media. I’ll give them straight talk about the likelihood of very small royalty payments, and a copy of a book that they can actually use (Online Marketing for Busy Authors by Fauzia Burke for business, and Troubleshooting Your Novel by Steven James for craft).

 

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Bill Nye the Science Guy co-author new middle grade thriller series

This came to my inbox and I thought I would share…Bill Nye the Science Guy and author Gregory Mone are launching a new science-themed series for middle grade students, called “Jack and the Geniuses”. Click image to link to amazon.

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