PositiveWall Street JournalThe centerpiece of Ms. Millard’s book, goes beyond harrowing and into the ghastly ... Ms. Millard’s research and very readable storytelling are admirable, but there are some disappointing lacunae in River of the Gods. For instance, she doesn’t offer her own theory on whether Speke’s death was an accident or a suicide ... Ultimately, the identity of the person who first discovered the source of the White Nile may be a trivial matter. Ms. Millard conscientiously investigates the issue, of course, but River of the Gods is compelling because she does justice to the psyches and behavior of Burton and Speke—keenly flawed but enthralling, sometimes marvelous people.
RaveAir Mail... provocative and unsettling. It compels the reader to ponder weighty questions: Did a savage thug exploit smart, decent people? Can altruism sometimes be as lethal as psychopathology? Evil pervades this book, but it makes for a terrific read.
Rick Stanton, with Karen Dealy
PositiveWall Street JournalIf you’re ever trapped in a flooded cave, pray that Mr. Stanton attempts the rescue. Aquanaut: A Life Beneath the Surface is Mr. Stanton’s account of his evolution into one of the best cave divers in the world ... Aquanaut has its shortcomings and peculiarities. The writing can be labored: Some of the cave scenes are tenebrous for the wrong reasons. The patchy prose isn’t surprising, since neither Mr. Stanton nor his co-writer, Karen Dealy, have much writing experience. And you won’t be buzzed by the book’s suspense because there isn’t much ... The book reflects Mr. Stanton’s mindset—suspense is his enemy. He has always tried to eliminate it from his cave incursions, and I suspect the same code underpins this book ... There are also some odd omissions ... Despite my misgivings, both the story and the star of Aquanaut are so remarkable that its flaws seem unimportant. The book is, finally, the chronicle of a man from a humble background who worked devilishly hard to become accomplished in his beloved avocation, succeeded, and was willing to go anywhere to help people in the most dire cave disasters. Mr. Stanton shuns the \'hero\' label for his Thai cave triumph, but your (claustrophobic) reviewer deems it appropriate.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... isn’t quite in the class of its predecessor, but like all of Mr. Standage’s books, it is rewarding: the product of deep research, great intelligence and burnished prose. Moreover, he always comes up with offbeat and intriguing facts that I, for one, never knew ... The author makes his book a vehicle packed tightly with information about the car’s impact on history and society ... An unusually astute futurist, Mr. Standage offers observations about where we are now and where we might be heading that should be taken seriously ... It is rare that I encounter a nonfiction author whose prose is so elegant that it is worth reading for itself. Mr. Standage is a writer of this class, even if A Brief History of Motion isn’t top-grade Standage ... this book’s topics and themes might seem to many readers somewhat—pardon the pun—pedestrian.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalSuper Fly is a lucid, absorbing and sprightly account of the world of flies. There is also a parallel story here, in which Mr. Balcombe becomes an outright advocate. His fervent enthusiasm for flies startled me, until I eventually understood his benevolent motives ... Super Fly will satisfy the nonscientist’s desire to know about the physiologies and cultures of flies, and its championing of its subject is surprisingly moving ... To end on a lighter note, Mr. Balcombe shows a sense of humor when reporting on the sundry sexual stratagems of flies. For instance, signal flies, picture-winged flies and stilt-legged flies put the scent in concupiscent. Are you buzzed by the possibilities of such prurient perfumes? You’ll have to read the book to satisfy your curiosity.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... admirable ... [Schillace] deftly persuades the reader to take White seriously (he wasn’t even eccentric) and to ponder profound medical-scientific-philosophical issues. Best of all, the book is fascinating ... well-researched and well-written, and has its suspenseful moments. Readers might find themselves admiring and perhaps even sympathizing with White, whose attitude toward brain transplants was always motivated by a principled desire to alleviate human misery. But the book’s value lies in challenging readers to contemplate some momentous concerns. What is life? What is death? Should religion play a role in medical decisions? Should scientists experiment on animals? Can technology that saves lives still be immoral? Who gets to answer these questions?
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIn Escape Artist, Joseph McAleer’s premise is that his uneminent subject was in fact a remarkable fellow who deserves to be much better known. He calls Harry Perry Robinson (1859-1930) \'a latter-day Tocqueville\' whose \'march through history, a near-epic story,\' exemplified \'an exciting personal story worthy of Horatio Alger. \' Whether readers of this book will enjoy it depends, I suspect, on whether they agree with Mr. McAleer’s thesis ... Escape Artist is well researched and, for the most part, well written ... Escape Artist has many virtues, but its subject is more Zelig than exemplar.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... [an] excellent, thought-provoking, heady urban chronicle ... Like the urban venues that Mr. Wilson cherishes, this book can be tortuous. A given chapter might nominally be about Paris, London, medieval Baghdad or New York, but some metropolitan detail will prompt forays through time and space. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Reading this book is like visiting an exhilarating city for the first time—dazzling, frazzling, sometimes both simultaneously. Metropolis teems with information and observations; therefore it isn’t too difficult to cavil about certain judgments and omissions. For instance, why didn’t the Paris section discuss the Paris Commune, an event that played a momentous role in French history? On a lighter note, the 1964 New York World’s Fair is disdained as \'an embarrassing and costly failure.\' I take exception to that: My friends and I loved it ... More often, Metropolis occasioned some intriguing reflections ... Fear not, dear reader; don’t be dismayed by the author’s apparent promotion of chaos. He is really eminently sensible, as when he says that, from the early days of Uruk to now, \'the basic principles of urban life have not changed all that much.\'
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Harvey is a skillful writer and thorough researcher ... Mr. Harvey asks throughout his book whether Strang was a \'visionary idealist\' or a \'misanthropic opportunist,\' a question that misses the point. What’s important is how someone like Strang, a man who offered any number of reasons to distrust him, acquired so many loyal devotees ... That doesn’t delve deep enough. Since Mr. Harvey sees Strang as a microcosm of a certain kind of vexing, volatile Americana that’s still with us today, he ought to have gone further and considered, for instance, why most American \'losers\' were impervious to Strang’s seduction. (And not all of Strang’s followers were bumpkins.)
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe future is often portrayed, in books and in articles, as being overrun by the sinister consequences of robotics and artificial intelligence. In The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast, Andrew Blum offers a reassuring counterpoint to such technodystopias ... one of the most suggestive conclusions of this book is that weather forecasting is shaped by society’s larger agendas ... In his overview of 19th-century weather scientists, Mr. Blum surprisingly omits the distinguished British meteorologist James Glaisher, who risked his life to obtain data by soaring aloft in a balloon. Mr. Blum also mistakenly states that Nazi Germany’s attempt to install \'a clandestine intercontinental automatic weather station\' in Canada was \'the only known Nazi incursion on North American soil.\' In truth, Nazi saboteurs also landed in New York and Florida. Finally, the book gives a rather perfunctory account of climate change—which is startling, since climate change could, conceivably, profoundly alter our culture, our lives, our planet’s very geography.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Earth-Shattering: Violent Supernovas, Galactic Explosions, Biological Mayhem, Nuclear Meltdowns, and Other Hazards to Life in Our Universe is blithely engaging, a glittery planetarium that is, for the most part, a stage for astonishing and unnerving spectacles ... I greatly admire [Berman\'s] ability to lucidly explain astrophysics to the nonscientist ... Inevitably, [Berman\'s] accounts of egregious Earth-centric afflictions, while never pedantic, are just a little stolid.\
MixedLos Angeles Book Review\"Given its brevity, one wonders whether author and publisher are trying to capitalize on the earlier best seller [The Lost City of Z] ... While The White Darkness is cleanly written, smoothly weaving together Worsley’s story with Shackleton’s, I believe it should have been published as part of an omnibus volume... I find charging 20 dollars for its current incarnation — a skimpy narrative padded out with 53 color photos — somewhat disquieting ... Comparing The White Darkness to Grann’s excellent The Lost City of Z makes the new book seem even slighter. Though it also began life as a New Yorker article, The Lost City of Z is a real book.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[An] odd book, made odder still by the fact that it’s often simultaneously engrossing and exasperating. And yes: The reader who perseveres through Underbug will also learn a thing or two about the recondite workings of termite civilization ... Ms. Margonelli takes a rather cosmic view of the termites’ endeavors ... The most fraught of the sundry fields Ms. Margonelli explores have to do with national defense and the attempts by the Pentagon to extrapolate from termite attributes to create cutting-edge weaponry ... Underbug isn’t for the casual reader. Its structure is reminiscent of a termite mound, either baroquely convoluted or profligately shambolic, depending on how it’s viewed. The book is best read as a collection of essays. And while Ms. Margonelli writes well and tries to maintain a blithe tone, the science is complex and demands at least a modicum of background knowledge on the part of the reader. But she raises weighty, worthy questions about the moral underpinnings of termite research and, indeed, of the nature of science in general.
Edward J. Larson
RaveWall Street Journal\"Mr. Larson, an academic and author of many other books (including a previous work on exploring Antarctica), is a talented storyteller with a dry sense of humor, and the nicest compliment that I can pay him is that he does full justice to his three protagonists’ remarkable bravery, resourcefulness, accomplishments—and flaws ... Mr. Larson’s scholarship indicates that both men also lusted after fame and fortune. Cynics could conclude that Peary and Shackleton were hypocrites. And yet, my own cynicism notwithstanding, I can’t help thinking that these two adventurers (even mendacious Peary) wouldn’t, couldn’t, have endured the hellish ordeals they did if they hadn’t possessed a modicum of idealistic patriotism.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...an absorbing, suspenseful chronicle of a remarkable Cold War episode … The Taking of K-129 is admirably thorough in its research. Mr. Dean, a longtime magazine journalist, clearly loves technology, and he is quite good at describing it. He is also deft at detailing how government agencies interacted with one another and with the private sector … Was Project Azorian worth the money spent and the incredible work that went into it? Mr. Dean thinks it was.
Kate Winkler Dawson
PanThe Wall Street JournalJuxtaposing the stories of the fog and Christie’s crimes, Ms. Dawson maintains, offers a flavor of postwar life in Britain and illuminates ‘the way in which humans experience fear’ … Ms. Dawson, a journalist and documentary producer, is an assiduous researcher. She resists, for the most part, exploiting the Grand Guignol aspects of her narrative, and her portraits of the ordinary people confronted by the depredations of the fog and Christie are moving. But the book can be frustrating. Its paired subjects are unrelated—Christie’s main killing spree didn’t begin until after the fog had ceased—and hence don’t illuminate each other … Finally, there are puzzling omissions.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...an excellent, highly engrossing account of the search for a man who was cunning, avaricious—and a dreadful speller ... Most of The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell is taken up with the FBI’s investigation into the packages and, eventually, into Regan’s treachery. It is a fascinating story, and it would be criminally mean-spirited of me to ruin it by disclosing any more particulars here. I will say only that, unlike in films and most spy novels, the human factor—personality traits—and serendipity played large roles in the case ... It is a pleasure to be in the hands of a writer who so skillfully weaves his assiduous research into polished prose. I have just two caveats. There is a fair amount of information in the book about coding and decoding, and I suspect that many readers will find the technicalities hard going. Second, Mr. Bhattacharjee did not interview Brian Regan ... Though it concentrates on the Regan affair, The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell presents an estimable, thoroughly enjoyable overview of espionage in the digital age.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] riveting and poignant new book ... The Winter Fortress metamorphoses from engrossing history into a smashing thriller ... Mr. Bascomb’s research and, especially, his storytelling skills are first-rate. He even makes a reindeer hunt unnerving. And some of his anecdotes are priceless ... a tribute to courage, resourcefulness and patriotism in a neglected corner of the war.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt would be great fun to drive or stroll with Mr. Petroski and pick his brain about the infrastructure one sees. He seems to know everything possible on the subject and adores it all. But this book, a labor of love, can sometimes be laborious for the reader. The Road Taken is replete with so much minutiae about everything connected to infrastructure that the general reader might become a bit bemused at times.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Jaher, a former screenwriter and astrologer, doesn’t proffer an apologia for spiritualism, but the book is fair to its entire cast of flamboyant, enigmatic and complex characters. He is also a diligent researcher, and his storytelling skills are impressive.