Book Review: How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of MathematicsEugenia Cheng

How To Bake a Pi cover

Nonfiction: How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of MathematicsEugenia Cheng

I like to challenge myself in my reading. How to Bake Pi definitely challenges me. Eugenia Cheng is a woman of extraordinary talents. Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, honorary fellow of pure mathematics at the University of Sheffield in England, pianist, and according to this book, baker.


Each chapter begins with a recipe, which Cheng uses to illustrate some principle of math (or “maths,” since she is English). Some of the recipes are shockingly easy–dump ingredients into a rice cooker and let it sit on “warm” for several hours. Others are quite involved. The recipes, though, are not the main part of the book. They are introductions to demonstrate the lessons Cheng wishes to teach about the math principles.


Cheng’s writing is funny, approachable, and accessible. She is wholly committed to her theme: Math is easy. Or, more accurately, math is a way to make complex things easier. It uses logic and proofs to demonstrate how and why things work the way they do. Kitchen recipes follow patterns. Some of them are step by step. Take 2 ingredients, mix them, add additional ingredients, mix them in with the first two, apply heat, eat yummy result. Others are more abstract. Some require specialized knowledge or unusual ingredients or specific tools. Cheng uses these qualities of recipes to show similar qualities in math.


I will confess, I am no mathematician. Nor am I a good cook. (Our recipe and review pages are done by my wife, who is an outstanding cook. I do help her test the recipes, though!) A lot of the book went past me. But it did so while leaving some strong impressions. First, I really wish my math teachers had used food as a teaching tool! Second, I really wish I had never “learned” that math was hard. I can’t say that Cheng has persuaded me that math is easy, but she has persuaded me that my painful memories of early morning trigonometry failures are not the whole story of math. All in all, How to Bake Pi is a fun and enlightening book that is able to reframe math for the numerically challenged. And give you some new ideas on preparing food as well.

How To Bake a Pi cover

Book Review: How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of MathematicsEugenia Cheng

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and Disturbances, Neil Gaiman

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Fiction: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has won many literary awards, including the Newberry, Carnegie, Hugo, and Nebula. He is known for his comics, his novels, his screenplays, and his short fiction. When it comes to putting pen to paper (or more likely fingers to keyboard), he does it all well. Trigger Warning is a collection of short stories, with a few poems thrown in as well, that demonstrates the breadth and power of a master at work.


Gaiman warns in the introduction that “There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you.” His work is often strange and disturbing, and these short stories contain several that are both. Like the author himself says, “I wondered…whether, one day, people would put a trigger warning on my fiction. I wondered whether or not they would be justified in doing it. And then I decided to do it first.”


Fans of other works by Gaiman will find familiar characters and settings in some of the stories. Black Dog features Baldur “Shadow” Moon, a character from his novel American Gods. Gaiman won a Hugo for his Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife;” in Nothing O’Clock, Gaiman returns to the Doctor, the TARDIS, and Amy Pond. Although not traditionally associated with Gaiman, The Case of Death and Honey tells of an elderly Sherlock Holmes nearing the end of his life…or is he?


Gaiman’s stories travel the lines between fantasy and horror, science fiction and possibly some other genre uniquely his own. They are dark and sometimes macabre, not in an overtly bloody or gruesome way but in the psychological way where the road to your own fears is marked and your imagination takes you down the paths that make you shudder. Gaiman warns us in the title that he is going for triggers. Believe him.


An example. Click-Clack the Rattlebag starts so gently. A man visiting his girlfriend meets her younger brother. The younger brother wants him to tuck him in and tell him a story. I read this over Thanksgiving, spending time with my wonderful granddaughters. They like grandpa to read them stories. I like to read them stories. I did not read this one to them–I know that Neil Gaiman is not the go-to source for bedtime stories for toddlers. This story started so gently, so sweetly. A young man, bonding with his girlfriend’s family. Except, that is not what the story is about. The hints are there, near the beginning. Even if I did not know about Neil Gaiman’s work, even if it were not in the middle of a collection called Trigger Warning, the indicators could almost have been in all-caps: THIS STORY IS GOING TO GO SIDEWAYS AND CREEP YOU OUT! I don’t want to give too much away, but let me say that later in the evening when my older granddaughter wanted me to read a story to her, I thought twice about it!


(Of course, then I went ahead and read the story–Gaiman will not stand between me and my granddaughters!)


This may not be the right book for every reader. For those who love fantasy, horror, and great writing, it is an excellent choice. One thing I love about short story collections is they can be read in small pieces. One story now, another tonight, pick it up later in the week. Skip around, come back to it later. It’s worth the time, and the goosebumps.

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Book Review: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Book Review: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Fiction: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award in 2011. It is a powerful story of a poor family near the Mississippi coast. Esch is fifteen, living with her father and three brothers. She has just learned she is pregnant. Her father drinks heavily, but even in his condition he knows that a hurricane is coming. What he does not know is that preparing for that hurricane will become the least of his family’s concerns.

Ward writes vivid descriptions of people, events, and scenery. You can almost feel the humidity in the Mississippi forests where her characters live. Her words bring the scenes to life: teenagers gathered to fight their dogs, the lust and hunger of a young girl giving herself to the boy she adores, the fear and exhilaration of kids breaking into a neighbor’s barn, the terror of cowering in a house that is losing its battle with a category 5 hurricane. You can smell the iron in the blood from fighting dogs and fleeing children, you can smell the rot of the wood, you can hear the roar of the wind and the metronome of a bouncing ball, you can see the debris left by wind and water.

Ward’s prose is song and story. Poetry and primal scream. She writes about forgotten people: poor, African American, rural, southern. She writes with ferocity and tenderness. Poverty and racism have taken their swings at these folks. Childbirth killed their mother, alcohol has ensnared their father, the hurricane is poised to cleanse the land as though they had never lived there, but this family will endure. They may be knocked down, but they will not give up.

Esch is the protagonist, and she is as complex a character as I have seen. Fifteen, she loves sex and she loves Manny. The descriptions of her feelings for him are powerful, vivid, shameless and blunt. The descriptions of their intercourse are hard to read. Manny is selfish and does not love Esch. He is, in fact, living with another woman. But he is happy to take advantage of Esch’s feelings, and the result is basic biology. Esch becomes pregnant. How she deals with this impending hurricane within her own body at the same time as her family deals with the pending arrival of Katrina gives the book an extraordinary power. The tension rises as the storm draws nearer–and as the baby grows within her body.

The descriptions of poor, rural, African American life in southern Mississippi are jarring and difficult. For me, that is a reason to be glad I read them. It is easy to take my middle-class privilege for granted. I have known nothing else. I have never lived in a house that needed to be boarded up for a hurricane. I have never lived in a situation where we had to steal food to survive–or steal a pregnancy test to confirm what my body was saying. I have never watched my father drink himself to forgetfulness. I have never had my hopes set on performing well in a basketball tournament–or had them crushed when my brother got into a fight with my sister’s baby’s father during the game. I have never had my house shifted off its foundation by a storm, nor had to cut a hole in the roof to escape through the attic. I have never had to watch my dog ripped away by the current of floodwaters during a storm. These are not experiences I would ever want to have. Through the power of her prose, Ward shares these experiences in ways that break through the differences in race and economics and geography and identity and speak to our common humanity.

Salvage the Bones is an amazing story about an amazing girl. It is also the story of people who have nothing to lose but each other–yet when it looks like they will lose everything, they somehow find out just how strong they are and how strong the bonds of family, friendship, and survival are. A truly extraordinary novel.

Book Review: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward


Book Review: Clade, James Bradley

Book Review: CladeJames Bradley

Fiction: CladeJames Bradley

Several months ago I was introduced to the term “Cli-Fi.” This breezy abbreviation refers to a subgenre of speculative fiction that tells stories of the world after climate change. BookRiot included several recommended titles in their article about Cli-Fi, several of which we have reviewed on Scintilla.


James Bradley’s Clade may be the best one of the group. Clade starts on the summer solstice in Antarctica, where a young scientist is studying the effects of climate change. Adam is also worried about his partner, Ellie, who is home in Sydney awaiting the results of IVF treatment. The book then follows their lives for several decades, from their daughter’s arrival to the dissolution of their own relationship, the loss of Ellie’s father, the challenges of parenting and grandparenting, until finally ending on another summer solstice many years later.


First, the novel itself is very poignant. Bradley never forgets the people he is writing about. Adam and Ellie are people who hurt, and in their pain they cannot help but hurt others. They each recognize the pain within themselves, and they see the pain in others, but they cannot break through their own suffering to give peace to anyone else. When they are sad, they lash out. When they are frightened, they lash out. This hurt extends through all of their relationships: Ellie’s father and stepmother, Adam and Ellie’s daughter Summer, their grandson Noah. Regardless of the science fiction or the trauma that is in their world, the human story that carries the novel is achingly real.


Hypothetically, in a peaceful world with a stable climate and amazing resources, Adam and Ellie might have been able to get therapy and move into some healthier relationships. That is not the world they live in. Their world is collapsing. Fires and floods, monster hurricanes that virtually wipe out England, riots and government collapses, pandemics. Entire countries lost to encroaching seas. Their personal stories are set on a planet that is roiling and has no time for their personal problems. One interesting speculation Bradley makes in building his world is that the removal of the weight from ice sheets from tectonic plates would cause them to shift, adding earthquakes and volcanoes to the challenges facing the planet. Previous mass extinction events have shown both climate change and seismic/volcanic activity in correlation, though there is no way right now to prove cause and effect (or which way that may tilt), but it does add another layer of complexity to the challenges facing the survivors of this world.


Clade is a novel worth reading if you like compelling human stories with very real-feeling characters. There are no heroes here, only survivors. But it is also a novel worth reading if you are interested in science fiction, “cli-fi,” or just want a good book to get lost in. I made the mistake of starting it when I went to bed. I could not put it down until I finished it. Clade is a book I highly recommend.

Book Review: CladeJames Bradley

Book Review: The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, Paige Williams

Book Review: The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate TrophyPaige Williams

Nonfiction: The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate TrophyPaige Williams

Eric Prokopi loves fossils. Even as a child he was taken with hunting fossils. After graduating from college, he created a business buying and selling fossils. He became extremely skilled in collecting, preserving, and mounting them. His work was displayed in museums around the world, collected by movie stars and other wealthy fans, and auctioned off for thousands of dollars. Perhaps his finest work was the mounting of a skeleton of T. bataar, a Tyrannosaurus relative that stood 8 feet tall and 24 feet long. When the gavel fell at the end of its auction, over $1 million had been offered. Rather than enriching Eric Prokopi, though, the gavel marked the beginning of the end of his career. T. bataar’s skeleton had been smuggled illegally out of Mongolia, and the Mongolians wanted her back.


Paige Williams is an outstanding journalist, but her work writing The Dinosaur Artist reads more like a thriller novel. Her prose is outstanding, her research is amazing, and the story is compelling and incredible. Eric Prokopi and his entire family gave her full access to their lives: interviews, documents, emails, introductions to friends and colleagues. They did so with no idea what she would write. She could have written a book condemning Prokopi as a smuggler and a thief. Certainly the material was there for that. He was accused and convicted of those crimes and sentenced to jail. His family fell apart, his business went bankrupt, and many of his friends abandoned him. He was even made the villain of a children’s book in Mongolia which told the story of the stolen dinosaur and her wonderful return home.


What Williams writes instead is a clear-eyed look at the entire fossil industry, telling the story of previous men whose rivalries caused the “bone wars” of the 1800s, of a paleontologist whose adventures may have inspired the character of Indiana Jones, of a woman who was so good that her pieces were mounted in the finest museums but whose upbringing was so common that she herself was not permitted in some of those same museums, and of a boy who grew up loving fossils–and who was willing to break laws and bypass customs as an adult to get them. She does not excuse or defend Eric Prokopi. What she does is put his crime into context, showing how he allowed hubris and greed and poor judgment to guide his actions, but also how he was swept up in international politics and bad timing. Prokopi broke the law. He was not the first (nor is he the last). Many others were (and are) doing the same things. Sometimes it is less about the crime committed than about the timing, the publicity, and the politics. In this case, it was about all of that.


The Dinosaur Artist is a true story. It is well researched, beautifully written, and hard to put down. Anyone interested in a very different sort of true crime story, in paleontology, or in modern Asian politics will find it fascinating.

Book Review: The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate TrophyPaige Williams

Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & You, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

Poetry: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

If you are on Twitter and not following Lin-Manuel Miranda, you are missing out. He regularly tweets short poems/phrases/words of encouragement to start the day (Gmorning) and then follows them up by echoing the sentiments later in the day (Gnight). He has collected many of those tweets into a book, GMorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & You, and frankly, you should buy a copy for yourself, your loved ones, your neighbors, random strangers you meet in the park, and anyone who has to keep working at this thing we call “life.”


Miranda is probably still best known for his musical Hamilton, but he is also starring in Mary Poppins Returns, wrote music and lyrics (and sang) for Disney’s Moana, and wrote and starred in the Tony winning musical In the Heights. He has won multiple Tonys, a Pulitzer Prize, Grammys, an Emmy, and has been nominated for an Oscar, among the many other prizes he has been nominated for or won. He also received a MacArthur “Genius” Award. This work probably will not get him his second Pulitzer, but it is pithy, heartfelt, and poignant.


Miranda encourages. His introduction (in rhyming couplets!) tells us:

Most often the greetings I wish you

Are the greetings I wish for myself.


So if I write “relax,” then I’m nervous,

Or if I write, “cheer up,” then I’m blue.

I’m writing what I wish somebody would say,

Then switching the pronoun to you.


This book is not meant to be a deep exploration of the human condition. It is meant to connect. And this is a good thing. We cannot always understand. We don’t always need to understand. Sometimes what we need to do is remember that we are not alone, that we are surrounded by people who have the same needs and feelings and desires and dreams and fears and disappointments that we do. Sometimes we just need to know that we are loved, that we are wanted, and that the world is survivable together. That’s why I say buy this book for everyone you love–even for everyone you just know. We all need this, and although Miranda wrote the words and Sun drew the pictures, if the book comes from you then the connection comes from you and that may be exactly what someone needs!


Good morning, stunner.

You’re just getting started.

Your age doesn’t matter.

The sun is up, the day is new.

You’re just getting started.


Good night, stunner.

You’re just getting started.

Your age doesn’t matter.

The stars are out, the night is warm.

You’re just getting started.


Jonny Sun’s illustrations are simple but profound. The basic line drawings put the words into images, sometimes whimsical, sometimes moving. In a powerful combination of word and drawing (written the day of the late Anthony Bourdain’s suicide), Miranda writes in all caps: “YOU ARE LOVED AND WE LIKE HAVING YOU AROUND.” Those words are rendered into a picture of multiple hands holding onto ropes, with the knots in the ropes forming the words.


It’s not Hamilton. But Hamilton is not for everyone. Gmorning, Gnight is a book for everyone (though parents be warned that sometimes Manuel has a “potty mouth”). Seriously, buy one for yourself. You could use the encouragement!

Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young, Somini Sengupta

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

The End of Karma is an extraordinary look at India, written by someone who has known India from both inside and outside its borders. Somini Sengupta reports for the New York Times. Born in India, she grew up in California but returned yearly with her parents to visit family. As an adult she became the NY Times bureau chief for New Delhi, living there for several years. She is a daughter of India, the mother to a daughter of India, and yet also brings an American perspective to her stories. She is, in her words, N.R.I.–Non Resident Indian. This is a term used by Indians themselves for the vast diaspora from their country, people who now make their homes in lands far away and yet find the pull of this ancient culture still tugging at their hearts.


Sengupta tells the stories of several young Indians raised during a time when India stepped out onto the world stage unlike any previous time. In many ways, the last (roughly) three decades have been a time of incredible advancement in the country. Poverty is down. The economy has boomed. Construction has exploded. Life expectancies have nearly doubled. Education is widespread. Childhood vaccination has become widespread, and disease is commensurately lower. Hunger is much rarer. India soon will be the most populous country on earth, and with this enormous population and dynamic economy has come new stature in international politics.


The stories of young adults coming of age during this time tell of the hopes and aspirations of this generation. They are better educated, richer, and have higher expectations from life than their parents. But the old India has not fully released its grip on their lives. Marriages are still largely arranged. Female feticide, though illegal, is not uncommon, leading to a huge disparity in the male/female ratio. Girls are on average less educated than boys and have fewer prospects. Infant mortality is down, poverty and hunger are reduced, vaccinations are up, but India still has more people living on less than $2/day than any other country in the world. The caste system has been legally abolished, but it still plays a significant role in daily life. Indians can see a day coming when the caste system is a memory, when arranged marriages are historical oddities, but that day is not here yet and there are many who do not want to see that day arrive.


The women in Sengupta’s stories fascinate me. One of them, Mani, aspired to escape her impoverished rural village. She set herself a goal to move up in the world, and she achieved that goal. What is hard for this western reader to appreciate is that her “moving up” was not a rags to riches story–it’s a rags to better rags story. She worked for years as a nanny/housekeeper for a middle class family, cleaning their apartment, doing their laundry, cooking their meals, watching their children. This family was more inclusive than most–they did not always insist that she eat separately, use her own dishes, never sit on their furniture, and otherwise maintain the physical separation between themselves and their unclean lower-caste servant. They even gave Mani a day off each week so she could attend church. Mani made enough money to send home and give her siblings a chance at better lives, enough money to help her mother build a better house, enough money to make a real difference in the lives of her family. And the family she worked for helped her in other ways: when Mani’s cousin was kidnapped and sent into forced labor as a housekeeper in another city, Mani’s employer actually helped find her and paid some of the bribes to free her. Mani’s situation is not a story where she was manipulated by an evil employer. On the contrary, she was extraordinarily fortunate to be hired by the people she worked for.


But the entire situation spoke to me about both the similarities and the differences between us. Mani had a dream and she pursued it. Her dream came true! She found employment in the city, away from the desperate situation at home. She made enough money to change the future for her entire family. She was even able to rescue a cousin who had been kidnapped! What could be more American than that?  Yet, that dream had her living in a small room of a small apartment, with little or no property of her own, working all day six days a week, in a position with no prospects for advancement and no expectations of that. And Mani knew that she was one of the more fortunate people in her position!


Sengupta, though, is careful to show that in many ways India is not so different from America. Few Americans have live-in servants. But many of us hire maids or gardeners whom we do not allow to live with us and we show no concern about their personal living conditions. Many of us hire people to cook and deliver our food, with no thought as to their medical benefits. And how many Americans would personally step in to help the kidnapped niece of our Lyft driver? Americans rely heavily on low-paid workers to take care of a multitude of tasks. We’ve just separated ourselves from their lives.


India is a huge country, with a huge population. It has made incredible progress, and there is every reason to believe that progress will continue. But it continues to face huge challenges. Mani’s story, along with the others in the book, powerfully shows how far they have come in such a short time. But the stories also show what challenges remain. Whether those challenges come from an increasingly restive Facebook generation insistent on having their free speech respected, from an impoverished rural region which can now see online how the “other half” lives, from women who will no longer stand for being objects of abuse, or from religious minorities or from long disrespected castes, how the country reacts to those challenges will shape how the next set of stories are told.


Somini Sengupta did not set out to write the definitive story of modern India. With over 1 billion people, there are far too many stories to tell than any book could hold. But the stories she tells show us an India in transition, an India finding its way in a changing world, an India that is held in tension between a very modern high-tech society that they are helping to shape and a very ancient culture they are fighting to preserve. The resolutions they find will not only shape their future. The future of India is in many ways the future of the world.

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker


Fiction Mystery/Thriller: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker


He’s ba-a-ack!


Considering the cover of the book says this is a “4MK Thriller,” I’m not giving too much away by saying that The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker’s sequel to The Fourth Monkey, features the return of Detective Sam Porter and his white whale, Anson Bishop, also known as the Fourth Monkey Killer or 4MK. Detective Porter and his team have been pulled off the hunt for 4MK when a body is found in a frozen lake. The body is that of a young girl who has been missing for a couple of weeks…but she is found under the ice, dressed in the clothes of a girl who disappeared just that morning. Chicago immediately fears that 4MK is back to his old tricks, but Porter believes this to be the work of someone else. Serial killers tend to have a unique style, and this murder does not fit the pattern of 4MK. As the body count climbs and the mystery deepens, the question persists: does this have anything to do with 4MK?


The hunt for the killer (or killers) expands beyond Chicago, reaching first to New Orleans and then to North Carolina. Bishop is back, but what if anything does he have to do with these new deaths? Why has he sent a picture of a mystery woman to Detective Porter, a woman being held in jail in New Orleans? What clues remain in his diary? And can they catch him in time to prevent whatever plans he has made from coming to fruition?


Barker has taken the loose threads remaining from The Fourth Monkey and woven them together to create a new and even more involved story. Tension mounts throughout the book. As the view shifts from detective to victim to killer, we learn more about the mysterious Anson Bishop. But each new revelation brings more questions. By the end of the book we see some mysteries solved. Many more, though, remain tantalizingly unresolved. Bishop remains free to wreak more mayhem. Porter has lost him again. His team is in desperate straits. And the reader, at least this reader, is left with nightmares about an elusive killer and a very satisfying thriller.


In just two books, J.D. Barker has become one of my favorite thriller writers. The Fifth to Die could be read by itself. Enough backstory is given that it stands on its own. But it will be more satisfying to read the two books in order. Just, don’t start them if you need to get some sleep. You will have trouble putting either of them down.


Again, a warning to more sensitive readers. There are violent scenes depicted in The Fifth to Die. If that sort of thing bothers you, this is not the book for you. And it is not a book I would recommend to children or tweens. The victims in the book include teenagers, which may make the violence even more disturbing to some. For the genre it is not particularly violent, but the thriller genre can be violent and Barker does not shy away from the grittier aspects of his subject.


Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J. D. Barker

Book Review: The Fourth Monkey: J.D. Barker

Book Review: The Fourth MonkeyJ.D. Barker


Fiction Mystery/Thriller: The Fourth Monkey, J.D. Barker

Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil. Most of us are familiar with the three monkeys and their advice, often depicted with actual images of monkeys covering eyes, ears, and mouth. J.D. Barker’s book tells us about The Fourth Monkey: do no evil. But the monkey in his book does all kinds of evil. He is a serial killer, nicknamed the Fourth Monkey Killer, and time is running out for his latest victim. WARNING: if you have a weak stomach or tender constitution, stop reading and find a different book. The book (and consequently this review) do have descriptions that might upset some readers.


Detective Sam Porter has been hunting 4MK for over five years. It looks like they have finally caught a break when a pedestrian killed by a bus is found to be carrying a box wrapped in the distinctive style of the killer. Every previous victim was preceded by the delivery of three carefully wrapped boxes. The first contained the victim’s ear. The second, the victim’s eyes. The third, her tongue. Finally, some days later, the victim herself, always a young woman, would be found. This box contained a young woman’s ear. The man himself also had a diary in his pocket, one that told a grisly tale about a young man growing up in a house of horrors.


As Porter and his fellow detectives follow the clues, they start with several unanswered questions. Was the dead man really 4MK? Whose ear was in the box? And, most importantly, where was she? If indeed her kidnapper is dead, she only has a couple of days before dying of thirst. This urgency presses the team to follow every lead, even when those leads come dangerously close to the wealthy and politically connected elite of Chicago.


The Fourth Monkey shifts perspective often, usually between Detective Porter and the diary of 4MK. As the stories unfold, we realize that Detective Porter is carrying a great burden, one that inevitably affects his ability to follow the killer’s trail. And we realize that the diary is being told from the perspective of the serial killer–how much of its narrative is reliable? Meanwhile, a girl’s life hangs in the balance.


The Fourth Monkey is one of the best thrillers I have ever read. The police procedural rings true. The officers are dedicated, not perfect but not corrupt, frustrated at times with red tape but concerned about following procedure so that the result is a clean arrest and conviction, not to mention rescuing the missing girl. The diary never brought this reader to the point of sympathizing with the serial killer, but it made it easier to imagine how someone might lose his grip on appropriate choices when confronted with a distorted childhood. Of course, it is possible the diary was entirely a fiction within the fictional book–that is a possible interpretation that the author leaves for his readers to consider. All in all, a very well told story that leaves room for many of the characters to return again.


Barker tells a story that is both compelling and chilling. He does a superb job of leaving small clues in the story which later bloom into full reveals. There were several times when I realized that “something” was about to happen, only to realize that Barker had left enough clues for my subconscious to go into overdrive but not enough for me to fully figure it out ahead of time. And Barker leaves just enough in the cupboard that even on the final page there is a surprise for the reader. It makes this reader quite eager to see what else this writer has in store for his audience. Despite the occasional gore and graphic detail, The Fourth Monkey is a book I highly recommend to any fans of the thriller or police procedural genres.



Book Review: The Fourth MonkeyJ.D. Barker

Book Review: The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner

Book Review: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Fiction: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Considering that The Mars Room is on the short list for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and that author Rachel Kushner has twice previously been nominated for the National Book Award, there may not be much left to say in praise of either the book or the writer. The Mars Room is extraordinary. The plot is straightforward enough, but the characters are rich, deep, compelling, and the voice telling their story (sometimes first person, sometimes an omniscient narrator) is honest and unsparing.


Romy Hall is in prison for murder. She murdered a man who had followed her from her home in San Francisco to Los Angeles, where she had fled with her young son to escape his attentions. Despite the stalking, the jury only heard about a young woman beating a physically challenged man to death with a child nearby. Romy was sentenced to spend the rest of her life behind bars, her mother was given custody of her son, and the story begins with Romy on the bus heading to prison.


The Mars Room is the name of the strip club in San Francisco where Romy danced and where she met Kurt Kennedy, the man she would eventually kill. The book shifts perspective often, from Romy’s flashbacks to her present situation to other inmates to acquaintances and victims and accomplices of those other inmates and even to Kurt Kennedy in the days prior to his death. Throughout, Kushner is neither judgmental nor particularly sympathetic. Her characters are who they are, they did what they did, and whether the reasons behind the crimes matter is up to the reader to decide. The result is a haunting book that reminds me in weird ways of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Mars Room has nothing directly in common with The Grapes of Wrath (apart from being set in California), but the unforgiving yet nonjudgmental voice telling the stories of people with no legitimate reasons to hope has antecedents in literature. Kushner just does it much better than most other writers.


Romy tells about her broken family. Her troubled, immigrant mother. The father she never knew. The child she had to leave behind. The men she spent time with, including the one who sent her fleeing to Los Angeles and whom she later killed. She does want some measure of understanding, perhaps even forgiveness, but has learned not to hope. After her mother dies and her son is made a ward of the state, Romy does hatch some desperate plans to try to “save” him. She recognizes the plans are foolish and hopeless, but does not let that stop her from trying to implement them. Despite her situation, she is a mother who feels compelled to save her son. Yet as her situation may indicate, her judgment and decision-making are not always the best. Kushner lets Romy make her choices, lets those choices play out, and the reader sees how the consequences affect the characters. It is sometimes harsh and there is no “and they lived happily ever after” but the result is a powerful and moving novel that speaks to the heart.

Book Review: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner