In Goorha’s witty debut novel, the world adjusts to a company’s revolutionary computerization of businesses, an efficient method that leaves some people shortchanged.
Henry Pash laments his failure to patent his idea (not immediately revealed to readers). According to the Chief Patent Officer, his idea isn’t ideal since it’s not likely to result in something tangible. Henry later encounters the more successful George Wells, CEO of Wellspring, the company behind Botzec technology. A Botzec is a computer designed to take over the role of business executives, often replacing multiple execs and reducing costs so substantially that employment actually increases. Not surprisingly, the chiefs rebel and respond by launching the Save the Executives Movement. But Henry also witnesses the unexpected fallout of Wellspring, which moves into the education sector and leads to teachers losing their jobs. The company continues to grow into what’s practically a global takeover: purchasing banks, automating traffic, and creating a new legal tender of Well-credits, or W-creds. Moreover, aiding governments in establishing a new regulatory system prevents individuals or groups from identifying Wellspring as a monopoly. Henry fortunately has a bit of good news. His pal Kevin inadvertently discovers that Henry’s algorithm (his idea that the patent office dismissed) generates quality music, including rather poignant lyrics. Though its original purpose was entirely different, it turns out the algorithm might be better at maximizing business productivity than Wellspring. This could precipitate serious competition for Wells’ company, regardless of Henry’s reluctance to monetize his algorithm.
Despite much of it resembling a cautionary tale of a technology takeover, Goorha’s story is persistently amusing. This, in large part, is courtesy of Henry’s first-person account. He has a tendency to interrupt people, sometimes with a mere thought or, as in one scene, by munching loudly on a piece of toast. But while he may be an annoyance to other characters, he’s a veritable comic gem as a narrator. In one scene, Henry finds friend Stephanie’s presentation on Botzecs so tedious he counts the bricks in a wall and ducks out for a coffee. He still manages to drop snippets of insight, even when he’s verbose: “You cannot look kindly on a friend who asks you about the make and design of the dagger stuck in your back, when you are telling him how profusely it makes you bleed.” The story, meanwhile, steadily progresses, complemented by a refusal to either laud or rebuke technological advancement. Wellspring, for example, does occasionally provide humans with paid positions, while a few sympathetic characters may be more avaricious than they initially appear. Lighter narrative touches are further improvements: Henry’s older brother, Guy, makes not a single appearance but displays a bold personality via reports of his insults (simply seeing Henry evidently turns his stomach). The ending befits the story’s overall subdued tone; it’s quiet but indelible, a denouement steeped in irony and a weighty notion or two for readers to ponder.
A prospective technology-driven future enriched by an endlessly funny protagonist.
An alien transmission grants a maverick tycoon the knowledge to create wormhole technology that could revitalize a dysfunctional Earth.
After a disastrous global financial collapse, visionary entrepreneur August Bridges (of a company called Mirtopik) partially revived the world economy with a cryptocurrency called the “eco,” based on offsetting greenhouse gases and global warming. But his other pet project—which isn’t embraced by his treacherous Russian partners—is to elevate mankind by establishing radiotelescope contact with advanced aliens and asking for the secret to faster-than-light travel. His dream seemingly comes true when a faraway aquatic civilization transmits blueprints of instantaneous travel via space-time wormholes. But soon afterward, those same aliens are engulfed by a black hole when their method fails. They manage to transmit a final, dire warning to Earth, but that message is suppressed by shadowy forces on Earth. Winburn’s plot follows the vainglorious Bridges and several other key players—a Tibetan monk orbiting Neptune, a driven exobiologist on Mars trying to save the only native ecosystem, a young womanrising in the ranks in Mirtopik security—who are all conflicted about or acting as pawns in the deployment of Bridges’ hazardous scheme. Another key player is a jazz-loving clone whose barely legal status as a human entity seems to drive him to play an extreme game of manipulation and deceit. Debut author Winburn consistently impresses with a thoughtful 22nd-century saga that draws on such common sci-fi tropes as interplanetary corporate skulduggery, first contact with aliens, and the unintended effects of groundbreaking tech—all done before by others but here quilted together into a transfixing narrative. Some may find the sequel-hook open ending to be a letdown after such an inspired launch; others may wonder if it fulfills the occasional Buddhist precepts in the story’s multicultural mosaic, which deny neat, simple wrap-ups. In an introduction, the author explains how his own Buddhism flavored the novel; the resulting book isn’t a heavy religious tract, but the density of its ideas and themes could fill many a meditation.
High-quality, multifaceted sci-fi blending ecological and religious themes in an engaging manner.
These short stories and a novella explore, with Appel’s (Millard Salter’s Last Day, 2017, etc.) trademark dark humor, contemporary life and its ethical dilemmas.
As in his previous, fine collections, the author draws on his experiences as a physician, attorney, and bioethicist to inform these tales. Questions of right and wrong play out in familiar settings, usually suburban, and they seldom offer easy answers. The first story, “The Children’s Lottery,” crosses Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal” with Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” A third-grade teacher, Oriana Hapley, receives notice that in three days, a registered pedophile will visit her classroom and choose one child. Oriana is upset, hoping very much that her favorite student won’t be chosen—but she feels that allowing pedophiles “a few children for their collective use” is safer and fairer for everyone: pedophiles no longer need to kidnap and murder, she thinks, and the lottery children are said to be resilient. Appel presents this horrific scenario with a straight face, making it all the more stinging as a satire of seemingly rational solutions for complex social problems. All the stories here are well-observed, combining poignancy with often darkly shaded humor, but the title piece is particularly fine in exploring Appel’s concerns. In it, Ted Grossbard, a psychiatrist, returns to his childhood home to clean it out after his hoarder mother’s death. He agrees to write an ethical advice column for a local newspaper owned by his longtime (and married) crush, Erica Sucram. A rival columnist, Lester Findlay, who’s also a con man who cheated Grossbard’s mother, steals his ideas; unfortunately, “run-of-the-mill ethical dilemmas” can’t be copyrighted. In disgust, Grossbard advises letter writers to do exactly as they please, making his column extremely popular—as well as easier to write. Later, he decides to burn down the man’s ratty office and frame Erica’s husband. The illicit plan’s careful, if not entirely successful, execution is entertaining, putting readers in an engagingly complicit position: just like the town, they get to enjoy Grossbard’s ethical dereliction. After all, Grossbard concludes, “being right wasn’t everything.”
Another excellent Appel collection of intelligent, humanistic, and witty stories that bite.
The art of forensic medicine from a veteran medical examiner.
In her riveting and frank chronicle, forensic pathologist Huser dispels many common misperceptions portrayed in contemporary entertainment media about the field of death investigation. With descriptive grace, the author affably escorts readers along through her formative years as a pathology resident at the Methodist Medical Center of Illinois in Peoria performing autopsies and determining the manners of death in a mélange of cases. Huser introduces a brilliant array of medical authorities and others whose stories energize the narrative and offer personal anecdotes of occurrences in the field that became learning experiences for the author as she advanced through her years as a pathologist. She also reviews cases that proved discouraging, suspicious, and perplexing and explores the frustrating “feeling of helplessness and failure and the sting of the surgeon’s scorn.” Descriptions of corpses in various states of disease and decay are graphic but accurate representatives of a coroner’s work. Some details will surprise readers: a majority of pathologists don’t like to do autopsies, and some even believe them to be “largely a waste of time.” Other chapters address the heartbreak of sudden infant death syndrome and child abuse, drug dependency, probing for bullets in body cavities, as well as the author’s relationship with her heart-disease–addled father and her fascination with forensic toxicology. Because Huser never skimps on the grisly details of subjects like suicides or a particularly horrifying, meticulously portrayed rape case, her medical memoir is not for the squeamish. For those with stronger constitutions, the collective educational benefits of the book are immense, and Huser’s in-depth, personal guide through forensic medicine will surely engross eager clinical students as well as death-investigation fans.
An addictively written, thorough coroner’s chronicle.
When an American aid worker disappears in South Sudan, an unlikely ally comes to her rescue in this sequel.
Gabriella Stewart Prime is the last woman Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Ford ever expected to see at Camp Citron in Djibouti in Africa. Ten years ago, while working for her family’s company, Prime Energy, she defended an oil pipeline project that threatened to undermine Native American treaty rights. While his tribe’s land, the Kalahwamish Reservation in Washington state, was not jeopardized, Ford still opposed the project. Despite his anger over the pipeline, he finds her irresistibly attractive (“She had a maturity about her that had been missing before”). In the years since the project, Gabriella cut ties with her family, received a master’s degree in cultural anthropology, and changed her name to Brie Stewart. She is now a dedicated aid worker who plans to help villagers in South Sudan displaced by civil war. Later, when she disappears in the aftermath of the burning of a food storage depot, Ford’s team is assigned to find her. He discovers she has been abducted and taken to a market where she will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. After a dramatic rescue, Ford and Stewart find themselves falling in love and facing danger when an investigation is launched into the incident. The attack on the depot was not random and Stewart may be a pawn in an international conspiracy. The second novel in Grant’s (Tinderbox, 2017, etc.) Flashpoint series offers intelligent romantic suspense that moves with the urgency of a thriller. The well-researched and timely plot finds the heroes confronting the realities of famine in South Sudan while unraveling a complex scheme to secure oil rights in the region. Although the conspiracy at the heart of the story is complex, Grant successfully unites the various plot threads, and the action is gripping without being gratuitously violent. As with Tinderbox, the heroes are nuanced and their scenes sizzle with erotic tension. Stewart and Ford’s romance develops slowly as both struggle with their pasts and concerns that their relationship may not be accepted by others. Although newcomers to the series do not need to read Tinderbox to enjoy this novel, familiarity with the story might enrich the references to supporting characters Morgan Adler and Pax Blanchard.
In Rainer’s (A Winter of Wolves, 2016, etc.) fifth thriller featuring federal prosecutor Jeff Trask, a U.S. senator’s suspicious death may very well be a political assassination.
Trask knows the man on the medical examiner’s table in Washington, D.C. He’s an old friend, Sherwin Graves, now a Republican U.S. senator for Georgia, who died when his car ran off the road. There was a bottle of Rohypnol pills in his pocket, which could indicate that he’d been suicidal. His prints are on the bottle, too—but the fact that someone had recently wiped it with a solvent is enough for Trask to suspect murder. A political motive is a possibility: with the U.S. Senate currently split down the middle, one fewer Republican would give the Democrats an edge. Trask, working with Detective Dixon Carter and others, ties two more deaths to the senator before bringing charges against those that he believes to be responsible. At trial, though, Trask faces his share of snags, such as having his boss, Bradley Mantee, who has no courtroom experience, as his second chair. Also, someone’s trying to ensure that a key witness doesn’t make it to the stand, which puts Trask, as a potential obstacle, in peril. Although the protagonist, a “former military guy,” has spent preceding books largely engaged in action scenes, this story places him firmly back in the courtroom. It’s a welcome return, as he shines during jury selection (what he calls “juror elimination”) or while dealing with a judge tossing pertinent evidence. The bad guys are corrupt but still human; the senator’s death, for example, stems from a plan that’s rife with blunders. There are a few other notable supporting characters, including Trask’s FBI analyst wife, Lynn, but the mystery plot remains the true focus. Along the way, Rainer adds charming touches, such as plot-relevant tunes: the Rolling Stones’ 1966 song “Paint it Black” is on the radio at the morgue, and a cynical Trask gets Aerosmith’s 2000 song “Jaded” in his head.