James Rollins likes to find the seeds for his action-adventures in reality, do his homework well and then, as he puts it, juice it up. In his latest, Altar of Eden, a standalone departure from his super-selling Sigma Force series, narrated with the right pace and pitch by Paula Christensen, he mixes recent history and cutting-edge work in fractals, genetics, animal intelligence, the human-animal bond and alarming attempts at modifying human performance to produce better soldiers, with a down-and-dirty, edge-of-your-seat, nail-biter of a thriller-diller. When Baghdad fell in 2003, the looting of the zoo and its hidden labs seemed minor. Six years later, research veterinarian Lorna Polk is asked to investigate the extraordinary animals found in the hold of a wrecked trawler off the Louisiana coast. They’re all genetic throwbacks, including a jaguar cub with the dentition of a saber-tooth tiger, and all have an unusual level of intelligence and the ability to communicate with each other telepathically. By the time the dots connect, Lorna and company have been through deadly attacks by a group of malevolent mercenaries (think Blackwater and beyond), lethal disease and mind-bending discoveries, mixed with blossoming romance and hope for happier times. All in all, for suspense fans, Altar of Eden is great fun.
Dunne’s last good-bye
Dominick Dunne died this past summer, but not without finishing his last book and having his last say about the moneyed upper crust of society that he’d observed, dissected and, in his own way, been part of for so long. Too Much Money, read in tandem by Ann Marie Lee and Nicholas Hormann, is such a thinly veiled roman à clef that it can easily be taken as Dunne’s farewell. I had the pleasure of knowing him—not well, but enough to know that he wrote with considered intention—and it’s clear that what he admits to in the book (being wholly wrong about Chandra Levy and Gary Condit, among other far more personal things) and the wrongs he still wants to right (Lily Safra’s part in her husband’s death) were intensely important to him. But Dunne’s special catty-chatty style, his natural ability to spin a tale and dish the dirt and his talent for getting into society’s inner sanctums all ensure a good story with operatic gestures and a touch of redemption. How sad that Gus Bailey, Dunne’s alter ego, won’t be back to take us into his world of monetary excess and social politesse.
Audio of the month
Is it really possible that a low-tech—actually no-tech—simple list can change and influence outcomes in our high-tech, super-complex world? The answer is a resounding YES! And in his latest book, The Checklist Manifesto, straightforwardly narrated by John Bedford Lloyd, Atul Gawande—one of those wonderfully multi-talented men who is a surgeon, New Yorker staff writer and MacArthur Fellow—explains why and how a “stupid little list” can help even the most highly skilled and trained avoid failure and achieve consistent success. Gawande draws many of his intriguing examples from surgery, his own specialty, but also offers compelling examples from construction, venture capital and aviation (a standard checklist helped make Capt. Sullenberger’s safe landing on the icy waters of the Hudson River a reality). Surgeons and medical teams have been slow to embrace checklists but, as Gawande demonstrates, the evidence is as simple and convincing as the checklists themselves: A surgical checklist used in eight very different hospitals around the world, from Seattle to rural Tanzania, significantly lowered post-op infection rates, saving lives and millions of dollars. Ours is an age of extreme complexity where an inept error, simply overlooking a small step, can lead to disaster. Yet admitting that more than one set of expert eyes is necessary seems difficult for many. I only hope this “manifesto” makes it easier.