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3 good books for February reading

February 4, 2011

Published by The Christian Science Monitor

1. Finding Jack, by Gareth Crocker

In his debut novel, Gareth Crocker pays homage to thousands of unsung war heroes: dogs. Highly trained and fiercely loyal, canine soldiers risk their lives for their fellow fighters with little fanfare. Some 50 years ago, a reported 4,000 dogs served in Vietnam, where they sniffed out explosives and led troops to safety. After the conflict ended, however, only 200 of them made it home. The rest, labeled “surplus military equipment,” were left behind. From such distressing facts Crocker builds the premise of Finding Jack.

After a great personal tragedy, Fletcher Carson enlists to fight in Vietnam. There his nights are haunted by the past and his days by the horrors of war. When a critically wounded yellow Labrador limps toward his unit, Fletcher feels compelled to save him – against his lieutenant’s order. Jack, as he comes to be named, miraculously survives, and a bond is irreversibly tied.

Though speckled with dramatic and, frankly, implausible plot points (top secret missions, perpetually selfless protagonists, and a 350-mile trek through the enemy-infused jungle), the novel is quick and captivating. Ultimately, it’s not the sensational Hollywood-style action that will stick with readers, but instead the humbling, eternal friendship between man and dog.

2. Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

In 1952 a pregnant Marylou Ahearn was spoon-fed a radioactive cocktail as part of a government research project she didn’t know she was a part of. The effects are devastating, and 50 plus years later she’s still not ready to forgive. And so, the snarky 77-year-old uproots her life in Memphis, changes her name, and settles in the same Tallahassee neighborhood as Dr. Wilson Spriggs. He’s the man who spearheaded the deadly experiment, and now, finally, Marylou is going to retaliate in Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s quirky second novel Revenge of the Radioactive Lady.

Marylou doesn’t know how she’s going to do it, but infiltrating Wilson’s family is a good start. In alternating voices, readers meet his daughter, Caroline, her husband, and their three teenagers: attention-starved soccer star Suzi, Elvis-obsessed Ava, and Otis, whose passion for atomic energy fuels a top-secret project. Though it’s clear from the beginning that Marylou’s scheme won’t go according to plan, nothing else is obvious about the unusual plot’s proceedings.

Stuckey-French expertly builds each character, even, eventually, the mysterious doctor’s. The family’s oddities are aftereffects of larger circumstances – Asperger’s syndrome, guilt, and resentment – but the author sticks with a light, humor-infused voice throughout the book.

3. An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, by Mark Stevenson

Writer, comedian, and learning-enthusiast Mark Stevenson is not a scientist. He’s just an ordinary forward-thinking British bloke with a lot of questions. In An Optimist’s Tour of the Future the lucky layman travels the world to ask its brightest people: “What’s next”?

He meets the Harvard professor who launched the Human Genome Project; a couple of roboticists and their talking, thinking machines; and the “inventor” of nanotechnology. He visits a pair of Australian farmers who plan to redefine agriculture and stave off climate change at the same time. He joins the president of the Maldives for a cabinet meeting 20 feet underwater.

Stevenson describes our future’s possibilities with a journalist’s eye for detail, a teacher’s knack for translating complexities, and a comic’s wry commentary. He neatly divides the book into four sections – Man, Machine, Mother Earth, and Me – but his internal conclusions aren’t as simple. “The way I think and reason is in thrall to a world that is passing,” he realizes. In the end, it is up to readers to decide if they will adopt the author’s ultimately hopeful state of mind when imagining the years to come.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 12, 2011 8:11 pm

    Speaking of radioactivity:

    I’m glad Mark Stevenson’s Optimist Tour is getting some media attention. Mark is a unique guy.

    In the acknowledgements of Mark’s book, he thanks me for providing him with some (unused) background on nuclear power. Mark was also kind enough to describe my book ‘Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power’ as “gripping”. I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry over twenty years. The common perceptions of this energy source – both bad AND good – have little relationship to the real world of atomic fun. I’ve tried to portray that reality in a way that isn’t boring – in airport paperback style. If we’re going to make good decisions about our energy future, we’ll benefit by first understanding our energy present. The book is available both online (free) and in paperback. See Some reviews are below. …And buy more copies of Mark’s book and give them to friends.

    Regards, Jim Aach

    “I got to about page four and I was hooked, I couldn’t put it down… It was very easy to read, the characters were well described, and they were vibrant.” – DAVID LEVY, noted science author and comet discoverer.

    “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.” – STEWART BRAND, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog.

    “It’s very nice.” – JIM’S MOM

    See the website homepage comments for many more reviews.

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