A WALK IN THE WOODS: NEXT FIELD NOTES READ

Thanks to everybody who came to the Field Notes Book Group this July.  Our discussion of Everything I Never Told You was one of the best discussions we’d ever had (in my opinion): talk about parents’ expectations for children, the reasons people hide truths from even the people they love, cultural differences between Chinese Americans and non-Chinese Americans, discussion about the characters and how the book left us with hope for the future, even about whether Lydia committed suicide or not.  We barely had time to choose our book for August 17, but we managed to choose Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Now, I know they made a movie from this book (improbably starring Robert Redford as Bill Bryson — don’t take my word for it, look at Bryson’s author picture and decide for yourself whether the first actor you’d think of for him would be Redford), but you KNOW the book is better.  Bryson, a man in middle age, with virtually NO mountain climbing or hiking experience, decides, more or less on a whim, that he’s going to hike the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine through Georgia, and he even tells his publisher that he’s going to do this, and write about it, so he’s committed, or possibly stuck.  He describes his misadventures (and come on, you know they’re going to be disastrous) with verve and humor. Along the way, he and his friend Katz encounter all the usual perils of the hike, from physical issues through annoying fellow hikers through encounters with wild animals, bringing them all to life with self-deprecating humor.

Join us for a great read and what promises to be a fun discussion of the AT (as Appalachian Trail aficionados refer to it), our favorite humorous anecdotes from the book, and whatever else suggests itself.  Copies of the book will be available for hold at The Field Library, and we’ll be meeting in the Teen Zone at the library on August 17 from 11 to 12:30, complete with donuts and coffee. 

 

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HOW LOW CAN YOU GO, JO NESBO? KNIFE

As everybody knows, I’m a big fan of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, so of course when the newest book in the series, Knife, was released last week I dropped everything else I was reading to devote myself to it.  Having finished it, the big question in my mind is, why does Jo Nesbo hate his creation so much?

I get why a writer would get sick of a popular character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s frustration with Sherlock Holmes led him to kill the detective off in “The Final Problem,” though he did have to bring him back again in “The Adventure of the Empty House.”  It seems to me that it would be easy enough to stop writing about a character if you’re tired of him or her. You don’t actually have to kill him (or ruin him; I’m looking at you, Jeff Lindsay, and what you did to Dexter in that series). But maybe it seems to the author that only the most drastic methods will free them from this particular character, and I understand that.

What Nesbo does to Harry Hole, however, is of a different caliber.  Just killing him off would be one thing (he seemed to do that at the end of one book, Phantom, in a particularly shattering way), but Nesbo seems to delight in torturing his protagonist.  By the start of this book, Harry has a terrific scar across part of his face, a metal replacement for one of his fingers, and those are just the physical marks of all the horrible things that have happened to him over the years; the psychological tortures have also taken a major toll.

And even so, Harry starts out this book in what looks like the bottom of the pit: separated from Rakel without hope of reconciliation, drunk to the point of blacking out and forgetting where he’s been or what he’s done during those blackouts, getting thrown out of the bar he used to own.  We don’t know what happened (yet) to get Rakel to the point of ending things with him altogether, but we can see from Harry’s state that it must have been something dreadful.

And, believe it or not, that’s just the beginning and turns out NOT to be the deepest depths Harry is going to sink to.  Things actually get worse from there. Harry becomes a suspect in a murder investigation and is prohibited from investigating it because of his proximity to the victim, which makes it more difficult for him to try to clear his name and find out who’s the actual perpetrator.  Naturally, being officially forbidden from having anything to do with the investigation doesn’t prevent him from digging, though what he finds out just makes things darker and darker.

Nesbo hasn’t lost his fiendish touch when it comes to plotting. I can pretty much guarantee you will never figure out who was the real killer until the final revelation, not because he cheats by holding things back from you (he shows you everything you need to know, though he’s careful not to make any of it obvious), but because there are so many characters who could be the killer, and every time Harry thinks, and you think, he’s found the guilty party, Nesbo pulls the rug out from under you and makes it clear this person couldn’t be the one. Reading this book is like riding a roller coaster, but one of the modern ones with the hairpin curves you take at 90 miles an hour so you hang on for dear life the whole time, and you’re not even sure, till you get out of there alive, whether you were enjoying yourself or not.

There comes a point in every Jo Nesbo book I’ve read so far where the plot becomes so propulsive I can’t put the book down because I MUST find out how it resolves.  This one is no exception: two or three plots came together in the last fifty pages in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. It was completely satisfying, the kind of ending that wraps everything up and leaves you feeling things came out the way they should.

Two caveats: If you haven’t read any of the books in the series before, this is NOT the book to start with.  You can either begin with The Redbreast, which was the first one translated into English (and where I started the series), or with the first book written, The Bat, which was only translated after the other books became bestsellers in English.  You’re not going to understand anything that’s going on without meeting and getting to know these characters through the earlier books.

Second warning: while there isn’t as much stomach-turning violence in this book as there has been in others in the series, Nesbo writes very dark stuff, and if you don’t like violence or gore, keep away from Harry Hole.  Maybe keep away from Jo Nesbo altogether (Macbeth was similarly violent and gory).

If, however, you’re like me in that you’ve been following Harry through the many horrible crimes he’s solved over the years, and you have a strong stomach, I can heartily recommend Knife. Run, don’t walk, to the library to get your copy (or at least put it on hold), and then fasten your seat belt, because it’s one wild ride.

DANGEROUS CONFESSIONS: THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON

Are you ready for a different kind of historical novel, one that doesn’t start with someone in the present discovering a link to people in the past, one that actually trusts readers to be interested in the events of the past on their own?  Are you ready for a historical novel that takes on issues like racism and slavery from a different perspective than you’re used to seeing? Then take a look at The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins, new at The Field Library, and prepare for a great read.

Frannie Langton is on trial for murdering two people in the house in England where she worked as a servant, and the book is what she’s written to her barrister in response to his desperate request that she give him something he can use to defend her other than her initial response, which was that she couldn’t remember anything.  The circumstances of the murders are definitely against her: she was found in bed with her mistress, both of them covered in blood, the master of the house had been stabbed multiple times and there was a trail of blood going from his room to the mistress’ room. But worse than that, Frannie was black, a former slave from the Jamaica sugar plantations, and in 1826 London, she’s viewed as a savage, possibly not entirely human, and capable of anything.  That George and Marguerite Benham had taken her in when her former owner brought her to England, that they were well known members of upper class society, and that there were all kinds of rumors about the real relationship between Frannie and Marguerite, doesn’t help matters.

The trial serves as a thread that runs through the book; while Frannie tells the story of her life in the plantation and what happened to her once she arrived in England, periodically she returns to the murder case being tried in the Old Bailey Court, with excerpts of the testimony against her sprinkled through the book.  For quite a while, you don’t know exactly what happened, other than the sensational charges themselves, and Frannie takes her time getting to the actual events (in fact, you don’t get the real answers until the very end of the book), let alone the question of what she might or might not have done, how responsible she might have been for the deaths.

Along the way, we get to know Frannie, and she’s quite a character.  She defies stereotypes all along the line: she’s from Jamaica, she grew up on a sugar plantation, but she wasn’t ever a field hand, and her relationship to Langton, the owner of the plantation, and his wife is unclear: both of them seem to know more about Frannie’s background than she does.  She’s literate, she reads novels, and she’s enlisted by Langton as his scribe in the incredibly racist and disgusting experiments he’s conducting to prove the differences between blacks and whites. When he brings her to England to meet George Benham, who had been his collaborator in his researches but who has now disavowed that connection, he leaves her with Benham, as a servant.  She catches Marguerite’s attention, and falls in love with her mistress, all the while knowing that the relationship can never be equal and wondering whether there’s even a relationship at all (Marguerite is a strange woman, well-educated, addicted to laudanum, and hard to figure out in any event). Thrown out of that house, Frannie finds herself in a whorehouse, and then she goes back to the Benham household, shortly before the murders.

Smart and educated enough to see other people clearly and to see how Jamaican and English society are built on assumptions of racial superiority, Frannie nevertheless can’t escape from the expectations of those societies. Frannie’s status as a black woman, a servant, a foreigner, in England is different from what we as Americans in the 21st century would expect, but it’s fascinating to see how racism worked in English society at the time, and you find yourself hoping against hope that Frannie will find some kind of happy ending (no spoilers here; you’re going to have to read this for yourself).

Get absorbed in another time and place and enjoy the powerful perspective of Frannie Langton, former slave, whore and accused murderess.

NEW PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS

Women protagonists are becoming more and more common these days in thrillers, proof of which is three new thrillers at The Field Library, all of which turn on women’s secrets, in very different ways.

Dear Wife, by Kimberly Bell, takes two familiar tropes and brings them together to create suspense.  The one trope is the abused woman leaving her husband and changing her identity; in this case, it’s Beth Murphy, who has been planning her escape for a year, working out all the details of her new life before she actually leaves her abusive husband.  The most important thing in the world for her is to make sure he can’t possibly find her. On the other end of the spectrum is Sabine Hardison, who just disappears altogether while her husband is away on a business trip. The police investigating the matter find only her abandoned car, and some signs of possible foul play, but as they dig deeper, more secrets emerge: evidence there could have been trouble between the husband and wife, and the suggestion that he might be better off without her.  What actually happened to Sabine, and what does her disappearance have to do with Beth’s escape? The two women are more closely connected than they seem at first, and the truth will out, no matter who wants to keep it secret.

Rachel Gaston, the protagonist of Lisa Jackson’s new book, Paranoid, is in a different situation. When she was a teenager, she shot her half brother to death.  It was an accident, she insisted; someone had changed the air gun she thought she was carrying that night for a real weapon and she didn’t realize it until after she’d shot it at Luke when he surprised her. She didn’t mean to kill him, but his death and her role in it has haunted her ever since, ruining her marriage and filling her nights with nightmares.  Now she’s approaching her high school reunion, and naturally she finds herself remembering Luke’s death, but also noticing other strange things around her: objects being moved when she’s not looking, strange cologne wafting through the air, the feeling of being watched, her car being tailed. Is she losing it? Or is the person who was really responsible for Luke’s death still around, still killing, keeping track of her for sinister reasons of his or her own?

Kelley Armstrong’s new thriller, Wherever She Goes, starts with a bang, figuratively: single mother Aubrey Finch sees a little boy being taken away from a public playground against his will. Like any good citizen, she reports this to the police, expecting an immediate response.  Instead, she’s met with skepticism: the child’s mother can’t be found, there was no report of any missing child, and kidnappings are the sorts of crimes people report immediately. People start wondering about Aubrey herself, why she’s insisting on this kidnapping that doesn’t seem to have happened.  She is, after all, a stay at home mother who’s lost custody of her child, which indicates to most people that there must be something seriously wrong with her, and she herself knows she has secrets she’s been keeping from everyone around her, including those nearest and dearest to her. She’s sure about what she witnessed, and she realizes she’s the only person who has any chance of saving that child, but can she act as she should, considering all the skeletons in her closet which could come out and destroy her?

Disappearing women, accidental killers, kidnappings that might or might not be: take your pick and check out the new thrillers while they’re hot.

WHEN YOUR FAKE SELF GETS MORE ROMANCE THAN YOUR REAL ONE: MY FAVORITE HALF NIGHT STAND

The premise of Christina Lauren’s new book, My Favorite Half Night Stand, seems like it could either be something really cringe-worthy or something kind of fun.  Our protagonist is a female professor who’s got a bunch of guy friends, all of whom are single, and all of them are invited to a black tie function to which they each feel they need dates.  They agree to use this dating app to find potential partners, and when Millie (our protagonist) can’t get any decent responses, she creates a fictional persona, in which she can be more herself, and naturally the one of her friends she really cares about becomes a match for that fake persona, and one thing leads to another.

Obviously if I’m writing about it here, it’s not cringe-worthy (for the most part, I don’t spend time tearing apart things I don’t like; I’m more likely to be pushing the things I do like), and that’s due to the characters, who manage NOT to be like people from The Big Bang Theory but like real people.

Take Millie.  She won me over on the second page of the book, when she admitted to having a lifelong fascination with female serial killers, which dated back to her interest in Lizzie Borden as a seventh grader (I mean, really, who wouldn’t be fascinated with the Lizzie Borden case?), and which led her to become a professor of criminology.  It’s not her academic specialty that has kept her single through her late twenties, though, as much as her unwillingness to let anyone, even the people she cares about, know much about the real Millie. She’s deft at deflecting people with questions about themselves, or with humor, and since she mostly hangs out with a group of guys in the world of academia, she doesn’t usually have to worry that anyone will notice how guarded she is, despite her outgoing personality in general.

Reid, her closest friend, who becomes, very early on, a friend with benefits, is also a fully developed character.  While he does go on at some length about Millie’s attractiveness (so much so that I was afraid, early on, that this was going to be one of those stories where the heroine is stunningly beautiful but doesn’t realize it, as if such creatures actually exist in the real world; fortunately, that didn’t happen), he’s a good observer of other people’s characters and doesn’t just live for his relationship, quirky as it is, with Millie, or with his other friends either.

Computer dating is different for the guys than for Millie.  While they get some interesting hits, real women who have things going for them and who seem genuinely invested in starting relationships, she finds herself receiving dick pictures and getting responses from jerks.  While some of this is just the difference between how the sexes use dating apps, some of it is also because Millie, in her initial profile, tells very little about her real self, and doesn’t give much for any worthwhile prospects to latch onto.  She realizes this (her friends tell her this), and then decides to create “Catherine” (her middle name), another profile in which she can experiment with being more open about her past, her feelings, herself. She tells herself this is a sort of scientific experiment, with her original profile as a control, but when Reid is matched up with Catherine’s profile, Millie makes the mistake of responding to him as “Catherine.”  At first she’s sure he’ll recognize some of the references she makes in her emails and will guess that it’s really her, but when he doesn’t, she can’t seem to tell him the truth, and of course one thing leads to another.

This is a sort of romantic comedy, a modern day version of Cyrano de Bergerac with the sexes reversed.  It turns on the question of honesty, of what friends owe to each other and what Millie needs to learn in order to become a better human being (she’s not a bad human being even at the outset, but even she knows she’s not living the way she should be) and to have a chance at real love.  Of course you know that ultimately (spoiler!) there’s a happy ending, but the fun of the book is seeing how it comes about, and rooting for the two likable protagonists to see each other clearly and find out how good they are for each other. 

A THRILLER WHERE REALITY ITSELF IS AT STAKE: RECURSION

What if you couldn’t count on your own memory?  What if the things you thought you remembered weren’t actually things that happened to you, or to anyone?  What if other people were also “remembering” things that didn’t happen? What if there were some kind of disease that spread this kind of false memory among people, and what if the disease were contagious?

This is part of the premise for a new, and very different, thriller, Recursion, by Blake Crouch, and what a premise it is!  The two main characters are a police officer and a neurologist, who are working together to save the world, not from an evil corporation or a would-be dictator, but from the unmaking of reality that results from the spread of false memories.

New York Police Officer Barry Sutton is investigating a suicide, which should be straightforward, except for the reason the woman committed suicide: she claimed that her son’s entire existence had been erased.  As Sutton begins to dig into the person’s past, he starts finding evidence of a truly terrifying disease that seems to be planting false memories in people’s minds, driving them insane or worse.

Neuroscientist Helena Smith is acting with only the best motives.  She wants to find a way people can preserve and relive their most precious memories, and she’s been working on technology that will do that.  What could possibly go wrong? If you’ve read any speculative fiction at all, you can imagine the answers to that question.

It begins to seem that memory creates reality in a deep and profound way.  Sutton and Smith find themselves fighting against a force that actually unmakes the past itself, changing everything about the world as we know it, and making it much harder for them to find a way to stop its effects, let alone restore the past and the present.

If you’re interested in a thriller that incorporates speculative fiction and deep philosophical ideas about the nature of reality itself but that’s also a page-turner, you owe it to yourself to check out Recursion.

JULY 2019 FIELD NOTES CHOICE: EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU

After a vigorous discussion of American history and the gaps between American ideals and American realities, with impressive insights from those members of the group who didn’t grow up in America, the Field Notes Book Group chose its book for July: Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

You might think that a book which starts out telling you one of the main characters is dead would be either morbid or lacking in suspense or both, but in the case of this book, you’d be wrong.  Knowing before the characters do that Lydia is dead creates a Hitchcockian sense of suspense from the outset as we watch her sister and brother and her parents go through their ordinary daily lives, innocent of the event that’s going to shake up their world.

What Ng does best, in my opinion, is character.  This isn’t a book that turns on surprise twists of plot (though when you find out what actually happened to Lydia and how she died, very late in the book, you may be surprised), but on increasingly deeper understanding of the characters and why they do the things they do. The heartbreaking part of the book isn’t so much Lydia’s death (that’s sad but you know it’s happening from the outset) as the way Lydia’s parents never seemed to see her for who she was when she was alive.

As always, we can promise you coffee and donuts (possibly even more snacks) and scintillating discussion, so come and join us at The Field Library to pick up the books, and then join us on July 20 at 11:00 for our next meeting.

ALMOST TOO LATE: HOW NOT TO DIE ALONE

When I first saw the description of the book, How Not to Die Alone, by Richard Roper, I have to admit I had ambivalent feelings. The bare bones of the plot are that our protagonist, Andrew, works for a branch of the English government, taking care of the burials and funerals of people who have died without heirs or friends or family, and while everyone at his workplace believes he goes home to a wife and family, the truth is that he’s living by himself in a miserable flat, but all this changes when he meets Peggy, a woman who starts working with him and who sets him on the path to a new life.

What I hoped this book would be: a warm, touching book, kind of like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which a lonely person steps out of his self-imposed isolation and begins to find a place in the world.

What I feared this book would be: a manic pixie dream girl comes and, through her loving but deeply unconventional ways, helps some obnoxious guy who’s never put any effort into being a good person live life to the fullest.

Having read the book, I’m happy to report that it was much closer to my hopes than my fears. Andrew comes across, at the beginning of the book, as something of a loser, someone who’s boxed himself into a narrow life because he doesn’t want anything more, but we see early on that he has a good heart.  He attends the funerals of the unfortunate souls who’ve died alone and without any friends or family, and he approaches the difficult part of his job, entering the homes of those people to look for any signs that there might be money for a funeral or any other human beings who might want to know this person has died, and who might mourn the person’s death, with grace and kindness. Frankly, it’s not a job I think I could do, and that Andrew (and the rest of the people in his department) manages to do it at all, and stay sane in the process, is pretty impressive to me.

Peggy, the woman who changes his life, might seem at first like a candidate for manic pixie dream girl: she’s lively, she curses, she approaches Andrew and the job with warmth and enthusiasm, she drinks and she’s not shy about telling people where to go. However, she’s got a complicated life of her own, including a husband who’s got a drinking problem, and two daughters who mean the world to her.  She cares about Andrew, and he comes to care about her, but she’s not here to fix his world. And in fact, at a critical point in the story, she tells him he can’t expect someone else to save him; he has to do it for himself.

Andrew didn’t originally create a wife and children, and a household, out of thin air for the fun of it (Andrew does very few things for the fun of it).  He was in an interview, and he made up a story on the spot, never dreaming he was going to have to live with that story for the rest of his time on the job, inventing increasingly elaborate stories about how he met his wife, what his children are like, and why nobody in the office has ever met them. He knows throughout that this isn’t sustainable; sooner or later people are going to find out the truth, but the longer he manages to keep the story going, the harder it’s going to be, in the end, to admit to reality. And when his supervisor, as a team building effort, institutes a program where people give dinner parties in their homes, Andrew knows his days are numbered.

His brother-in-law is blackmailing him about an inheritance, there are rumors of upcoming layoffs in the department, Peggy’s having difficulties with her marriage, and floating in the background are questions about how Andrew got to be this person in the first place and why he reacts so painfully to the sound of his beloved Ella Fitzgerald singing “Blue Moon,” which is explained late in the book (and when you find out and realize what his brother-in-law is referring to throughout his nasty attacks on Andrew, it’s a painful, poignant moment).  Even in the job itself, which could seem really depressing, there are moments of joy, including Andrew and Peggy tracking down a former lover of one of the deceaseds, and one funeral at least that feels like a real celebration of a life and not merely a routine between the vicar and Andrew as the sole mourner.

In the end, How Not to Die Alone is a warm, goodhearted book, a reminder that it’s almost never too late to start living.

FINISH THE STORY!

Perhaps this has happened to you.  You’re reading a book, you’re interested in the characters, the plot is carrying you along, and you’re really looking forward to seeing how it’s all going to work out, especially as complications ensue and twists occur and you’re looking at the amount of the book left to read and it’s getting shorter and shorter.  You reach the end, and only then discover that no, the author isn’t going to resolve the plot in this book because there’s a sequel! There was nothing in the publicity or the reviews for the book, and nothing in the book itself that indicated this wasn’t a stand-alone book, so you feel doubly gypped.

That’s happened to me a few times, most recently with Once and Future, by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy, and when it happens, whatever good feelings I had about the book drop dramatically when I discover that the author(s) pulled that kind of trick on me. My feeling is that readers and authors enter into a sort of implied agreement : the author is going to play fair, not pulling solutions to plots out of thin air, not violating the rules the author has set up for this particular universe, and finishing the story by the end of the book.  If the author is not going to finish the plot in one book, I feel it’s only fair to let the reader know in advance, by indicating somewhere that this is the first book in a series. Leaving the reader to find that out in the last pages of the book feels like a violation of that author-reader agreement.

It’s not that I don’t like books in series, or that I don’t understand that sometimes a story is too long and too complicated to be told in one book. I’m perfectly happy to read a book that’s part of a series, as long as I know it’s part of a series when I start, so I can decide if I want to read the first part now and wait years for the next part or not.

It’s possible, too, for a book to be part of a series and yet tell a complete story in itself. For instance, there is a several book arc in Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series in which a wrong done in the first book finally gets righted, but in each one of these books, the main plot line is resolved, even if those other issues are left for a later book to resolve.  In the same way, Felix Palma’s Map books (The Map of Time, The Map of the Sky,  The Map of Chaos) are obviously all connected, and it’s much more fun to read the later ones if you’ve read the earlier ones, but each book resolves (and in each case the resolution is both surprising and perfectly reasonable, given things that happened earlier in the book), and none of them leaves you hanging and waiting for a sequel to find out what happened to the characters. The more I think about series I have enjoyed in the past (including Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land,  and Hilary Mantel’s still unfinished series about Oliver Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), the clearer it is that I have no problem with a series as long as each book in the series is self-contained.

Nor do I have a problem with a series where the story is continued over a couple of volumes (I grew up on The Lord of the Rings, after all), when I know from the outset that book one is not going to answer all the questions it raises.  It’s about expectations, really. My expectations may be unreasonable (I don’t think they are, but then, who thinks they’re being unreasonable?), but if you want to make me happy as a reader, play fair and tell me at the outset whether you’re going to tell the whole story in one book or keep me on tenterhooks till you get the next book published.

 

REAL LIFE HORROR STORY: MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL

Imagine a Venn diagram where one circle is “This nonfiction book is written like a thriller, so full of exciting detail that even though I know what’s going to happen, I still can’t put it down” and the other circle is “This nonfiction book is so terrifying, the things it depicts are so nightmarish that I have to force myself to pick it up and read it, no matter how well-written it is.”  The very small intersection between those two circles would be where Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham, would fit. It is a terrific read, a real page turner.  At the same time, it is one of the most frightening books I have ever read, especially since it’s all true and accurately reported.

This is one of those books, like Columbine, where you think you know what happened, but as you dive with the author down into the details of what actually happened and why, you discover that what you think you knew bears little resemblance to reality.  This can be a mind-blowing experience even if the events you’re learning more about aren’t horrific; it’s still mind-blowing but much more disturbing if the events are dark and bloody.

You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist or a historian of the former Soviet Union to follow what’s going on in this book; I’m neither, and Higginbotham is so clear, so detailed and so human, in his telling that I could understand (as much as anyone can) what was happening throughout.  He explains the science and gives background to everything you need to know while still keeping the narrative racing forward.

The book doesn’t read like a science or history text.  The closest thing I can compare it to is a horror novel, especially in the beginning, as we meet the people who will play roles in the disaster, from the director of the Chernobyl plant who was responsible for designing the plant and the town that went around it to the individual firefighters who tried, in valiant ignorance, to put out the insanely radioactive and dangerous fires in Reactor Number Four.  I appreciate the author’s ability to bring these distinct people to life, but the whole time I was reading the beginning, I kept wondering which of these people was going to die in the course of the book and how horrible the deaths would be. When things start cascading from disaster to mega-disaster, and the officials are dragging their heels, mired in denial and utterly unprepared for anything of this magnitude, refusing to order the evacuation of the town even as plumes of radiation are exploding out of the plant, the urge to scream at the participants, urging them to “Get those people out of there!” (a la Ellen Ripley in Aliens), was almost irresistible.  

There’s so much going on in this book, and while the officials of the Soviet Union chose their scapegoats to punish for the disaster, Higginbotham is much more measured and makes it quite clear there’s plenty of blame to go around, from the design of the reactor itself to the almost unbelievable arrogance of the scientists running the program who didn’t even try to imagine the worst possible accidents, let alone plan for them, to the people who actually took the steps that led to the meltdown and then tried to fix it without knowing what they were doing or whether anything they did would work. Spoiler alert: most of the things the people did in the beginning either didn’t work at all or made things worse.

There are nightmarish descriptions of the plant and its people in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and gruesome descriptions of how people die from acute radiation poisoning, but really the worst things in the book are the official reactions of the government to this unprecedented accident, the way the Soviet Union’s reflexive secrecy and refusal to admit error made everything worse than it might otherwise have been (though, obviously, things would have been pretty bad even if the various governmental entities had been much more open).

It’s hard to recommend a book that’s this terrifying, even though it’s meticulously researched and incredibly well written, but if you have a strong stomach and the willingness to look at one of the worst disasters in modern times, this is definitely a book you should read.