One-Minute Book Reviews

August 13, 2009

James Rollins’s ‘The Doomsday Key’ – Blarney About Celtic Myths and More

An elite military unit has to grapple with codes and ciphers to find an antidote to a bioweapon

The Doomsday Key: A Novel (Sigma Force Novels). By James Rollins. Morrow, 448 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

What if the ancient Egyptians had brought to the British Isles the antidote to a deadly fungus that was threatening to wipe out the world in the 21st century? And what if their knowledge had passed to the Celts and early Christians, who left clues to the remedy in codes, symbols or conspiracies that involve the Vatican, a U.S. Senator, and shadowy global terrorist group called the Guild?

These questions underlie James Rollins’s latest technothrilller, a book that shows that you can write better than Tom Clancy and still serve up blarney. Rollins doesn’t trade in Clancy’s jingoism and alphabet-soup of acronyms, and he shows more respect for the English language than many authors who have left their mark on this paranoid genre.

But he has his own problems in his sixth novel about Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force, a fictitious unit of the U.S. Department of Defense. Rollins allows a subplot about genetically modified foods to sputter out about 75 pages before the end, which slows the pace and works against satisfying resolution to the plot. He gives the same emotional weight to so many events – a firefight, a reunion between ex-lovers, an avalanche above the Arctic Circle – that you can’t feel all you should for any of them. And only a conspiracy theorist or the most ardent fan of The Da Vinci Code might love his mishmash of real or historical figures, places or objects: Merlin, druids, Stonehenge, Celtic crosses, Queen Nefertiti, the Domesday Book, the Knights Templar, Saint Malachy, Princeton University, the Abbey of Clairvaux, Pope Benedict XVI and more. A few of these might have been intriguing. As it, when an off-kilter Freemasonry symbol appears near the end, you wonder: Will a reference to the Kennedy assassination be next?

Best line: “In Israel, botanists grew a date palm from a seed that was over two thousand years old.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Her methods were brutal – like murdering the Venetian curator – but who was he to judge? He had not walked in her shoes.” No. 2: “So in other words, we’re looking for a bunch of pissed-off Druids.” No. 3: “Her apartment was on the third floor. Though small, she did have a nice view of the Coliseum from her balcony.”

Editor: Lyssa Keusch

Listen to an audio excerpt from The Doomsday Key.

Published: June 2009

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 10, 2008

Alex Boese Lifts the Curtain on Popular Ruses in ‘The Museum of Hoaxes’

A writer who calls himself a “hoaxpert” says that flamboyant pranks and deceptions allow people to “carve out a small niche of personal control” in an age of oppressive bureaucracy

By Janice Harayda

Why do people try to hoodwink others with tales of Bigfoot, crop circles or bloggers who don’t exist?

Hoaxes allow their perpetrators “to carve out a small niche of personal control in a world otherwise regulated by massive, impersonal bureaucracies,” Alex Boese says in The Museum of Hoaxes: A History of Outrageous Pranks and Deceptions (Plume, 266 pp., $12, paperback). So the rise of the Internet has led not just to a new wave of deceptions intended to embarrass corporate giants like Microsoft and eBay but to a second life for some old standbys of chicanery.

As an antidote, Boese offers a collection of hundreds of literary sound bites, each of which explores an aspect of the origins of a well-known hoax and tries to set the record straight. In his section on the Loch Ness Monster, he focuses on a famous photo that appears to show the slender neck of a beast rising from a lake but in fact depicts a toy submarine outfitted with a sea serpent’s head. He doesn’t mention that a paleontologist might have guessed as much, because no fossil evidence exists to support the presence of Nessie, either.

Boese keeps tabs on new ruses or rumors of them on his site, which he says gets a million page views per month. And since the first publication of The Museum of Hoaxes in 2002, he’s written Hippo Eats Dwarf (Harvest, 278 pp., $14, paperback), which looks at other kinds of chicanery, including Nigerian bank scams and posts by fictitious bloggers.

One-Minute Book Reviews is a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. 

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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