Reviews of books read last month: a novel, three novellas, and a non-fiction book. 1. "Angelmaker" by Nick Harkaway <http://www.amazon.com/Angelmaker/dp/0307743624> Joe Spork, single and in his late thirties, barely makes a living repairing mechanical devices from a bygone era. Most of the things he fixes are harmless, but one day he unwittingly reassembles a doomsday device for a client. The "Angelmaker", among other things, distorts time and compels people to tell the truth. This triggers panic among world leaders. It also plays into the hands of an evil despot, Shem Shem Tsien (the Opium King), who seems to have cheated death in his quest to "become God". After learning that he may be responsible for the end of the world, Spork teams up with a female octogenarian and former superspy to thwart Tsien's plans. He enlists his late father's former colleagues, both criminal and legitimate. Together they have to deal with shady secret government agents and the Order of Ruskinites before they can confront Tsien. Along the way, Spork finds the love of his life and some inconvenient truths about his family: the double-life of his paternal grandmother and the real motivation for his father's criminal career. This novel mostly succeeds in blending espionage, gangsters and science fiction, with a dash of humour. My only major criticism is that the ending of this swash-buckling thriller seemed a bit contrived. Overall, I enjoyed this book, although not as much as the author's first novel, "The Gone-Away World". 2. "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson <http://www.amazon.com/The-Strange-Case-Jekyll-Hyde/dp/149228856X> Having seeing several movies and TV shows based on this classic Victorian novel, I never felt the need to read the original. As it happens, Stevenson's novella is a bit different to how the story has been portrayed on screen. In addition the dual nature of the individual comprising the title characters, the novella considers the events from two viewpoints. Firstly, there is the account by Jekyll's friend and attorney, Utterson. The developing relationship between the doctor and the objectionable Mr Hyde has troubled Utterson. Why has the respected Jekyll given Hyde unfettered access to his home and laboratory, even going so far as naming him as his sole beneficiary? When Hyde is linked with assaults and a murder, Utterson feels duty-bound to warn Jekyll to sever his ties with Hyde. The doctor gets a chance to explain his side of the story in the final chapter. This story examines the internal struggles between good and evil in all of us, using the emergence of pharmaceuticals to take the idea to extremes. 3. "The Giver" by Lois Lowry <http://www.amazon.com/The-Giver/dp/B00AHG3UYA> This story is set in a future where there is no war, no suffering and no disease. All aspects of society and life are carefully planned. Children gain additional privileges, responsibilities and toys, at specified annual milestones. When they reach twelve years old, their lives so far are assessed and their future roles in the Community are assigned. For example, if a child shows skill and aptitude for building things, he or she will be groomed as an engineer. Someone who is good with younger children might be trained as a teacher. But the Community is not the utopia it appears to be: people are constantly medicated to avoid pain; feelings are suppressed and unpleasant memories are erased to maintain emotional stability; euphemisms are used to cover up euthanasia and death. Everyone experiences a comfortable "sameness", sacrificing colour, music and love. Jonas, the main character, has demonstrated some special skills, and is assigned the important role of the "Receiver of Memory". He will be trained by the "Giver", and become the sole repository of emotional memories for the Community. Later, in times of crisis or when difficult decisions need to be made, he may be called on to provide advice by drawing from that memory. Once Jonas becomes aware of what really is happening in the Community, he decides to rebel. This novella is generally considered a young adult's book, but the themes are challenging and universal enough for any reader. It reminded me a bit of Brave New World, focussing on children growing up in an apparent utopia. The author has written sequels which further explore the themes in this book. 4. "Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck <http://www.amazon.com/Cannery-Row/dp/014200068X> The opening lines set the scene: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses." Everybody loves Doc, a marine biologist who prepares exhibits for various museums around the country. He's done lots of little things to help his fellow inhabitants of Cannery Row: Lee Chong, a Chinese immigrant, runs the local grocery; Dora Flood is owner/operator of an establishment called the Bear Flag Restaurant, which is actually the local whorehouse; Mack is a middle-aged layabout and leader of "the boys", who try to do as little work as possible so they enjoy the good things in life. Mack suggests they all throw a party at Doc's place. But despite good intentions, things take a farcical turn, when gatecrashers arrive, fights break out, and Doc's place gets trashed. The people of Cannery Row decide to make amends by preparing a surprise birthday for Doc, but will they learn from their mistakes? This was an enjoyable look at life, friendship and simple pleasures in working class America in the 1930s. 5. "You Are Not So Smart" by David McRaney <http://www.amazon.com/You-Are-Not-So-Smart/dp/1592407366> Using research in psychology, cognition and neuroscience, the author explains why we often make irrational decisions. The book contains are 48 brief chapters, each examining one particular way we delude ourselves. Examples include: Priming (our unconscious minds are easily influenced by certain words and situations), Confirmation bias (we tend to focus on things that confirm our beliefs rather than consider evidence that challenges them), Hindsight bias (we look back on things we've just learned and assume we knew or believed them all along), Groupthink, Conformity, the Dunning-Kruger Effect (we're bad at estimating our competency and the difficulty of a task), the Bystander Effect, and Learned Helplessness. The author presents the results of many pivotal studies and experiments that helped verify our various cognitive biases and delusions. If you're interested in this subject matter, I recommend you listen to the author's podcast, named after the book: <http://youarenotsosmart.com/podcast/> Overall, this is a great introduction to cognitive and evolutionary psychology, exposing the many foibles of our minds. We're not as smart as we think we are. But that's ok, we're only human. I look forward to reading the follow-up, "You Are Now Less Dumb".