Friday, December 30, 2011

The Ten Best of 2011

This year I read some wonderful books. It wasn’t immediately apparent that I had read so much that tickled my fancy, but when I went back over the year, I was happily surprised to discover that there were quite a few standouts. I actually had to cut down my list a little bit to keep from going overboard. One of the things that surprised me about this year’s list was that almost all of my favorites were books that I had chosen for myself and were not review copies. This realization only strengthens my resolve to read more from my shelves this year and to let my reading be directed by my whims and not by what I’m expected or obligated to read. I’ve heard others say that when they decided on this route their reading became robust, stimulating and rewarding, so I’m hoping that 2012 is a year of rejuvenation for me when it comes to reading. As always, I will be looking to you all, my blogging buddies, for all those books that I simply must read right away!

This is the list of my ten top reads of the year. Instead of posting a synopsis of each read, I’ve decided to just give you a couple of sentences on how the books made me feel and the overall impression they left me with. Of course, if you want to find out more, you can always click through and read the previously posted review. Here is my list, in no particular order:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
: A stunning and strange powerhouse of a book that melds eyebrow raising science with the story of a family who are powerless against the medical innovations that wrecked their lives. A deeply resonating read that made me angry and amazed and also had me reaching for the box of tissues at my side.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
: Academia, witches, vampires and demons, oh my! A book that was rather large but had me excitedly flipping pages for hours and hours, wondering what would be revealed next. Magic, time travel and romance, and let me tell you, Edward Cullen has nothing on Matthew.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
: A strange discovery in the jungle that holds the secret to life, and a doctor who will do anything, no matter how unsavory, to hold onto this discovery and make it her own. A thrilling and inveigling read that kept me agog with its strangeness and edginess. Patchett’s writing wasn’t too shabby either!

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
: Time, relationships and music converge in this non-linear exploration of a handful of characters and their desires to make the kinds of connections that defy explanation. A read the kept me constantly wondering and off balance, but in such a good way! I had to see this one all the way to the end because I just couldn’t look away. Egan is a very talented lady.

Q: A Novel by Evan Mandery
: An absurdist adventure that intersperses time travel and romance. But this isn’t like The Time Traveler’s Wife at all. Witty, sarcastic and philosophical are all great words to describe this book, but most of all, it was damn funny, and I may have snorted in public while reading it. I’m just sayin’.

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
: Frightening and consuming, the story of a surgeon with Alzheimer’s who may or may not have committed a murder. She doesn’t really know, and neither do you, until that final whopper of a chapter that will have your stomach sinking into your toes.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
: A classic that I’m ashamed to admit took me this long to read. A heroine with modern sensibilities and a backbone as thick as can be. An amazing read that defied my expectations, and will be read again. And perhaps again.

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams
: Who knew that squid were such fascinating animals, and on top of that, who knew how incredibly important they are to humanity and modern medicine? A very weird and fun book that kept me constantly entertained and amazed. A nonfiction feast for the brain.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
: So disturbing that I had to sleep with my bedroom door locked and a night light on for a few days after reading it. Unsettling and oh so realistic, this is Shriver’s tale of a mother who raises a sociopath and her attempts to normalize a child who will never be normal. Chilling and expertly written.

Horns by Joe Hill
: I’m not a big reader of horror novels, but this strange little book by Joe Hill was so funny, and yes, scary, that I couldn’t resist adding this to the list. A young man slowly morphs into a demon complete with the red skin, horns and a new set of disturbing powers. Unexpectedly brash and totally unusual. Hill must do his daddy, master horror writer Stephen King, proud.

So that’s my list, and I have to say that I had fun reliving all these amazing books and coming up with these little snippets to entice you with. I’ve loved a lot of what I read this year, but these were the stand-outs, and I’m hoping you might give some of them a try! I also wanted to thank you all for reading my ramblings and for being such great friends to me. I hope that you all have an amazing New Year’s and that your reading for 2012 is both exciting and amazing. I’ll be happily following you through your year’s reading journeys!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson — 320 pgs

Feng is just a young girl who’s family is trying to climb the social ladder of Shanghai by marrying their oldest daughter into a wealthy family. Though Feng and “Sister” are constantly at odds with each other, they’re destined for very different lives: Sister as the wife of a wealthy and influential man; and Feng first as a companion to her grandfather and eventually coming to care for her parents in their declining  years. Then, on the eve of the wedding, Sister becomes very ill, and to prevent a loss of face to her fiance's family, it’s young Feng who must take her place in the new marriage. Trying desperately to hold onto her beliefs and individuality among a new family of coldness and brutality, Feng rapidly undergoes a change for the worse. When she is repeatedly harangued about securing the family’s fate by producing an heir, Feng does the unthinkable. As the years pass and the old Feng slowly fades away, she’s replaced by a woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, and though she has fulfilled her familial obligations, she keeps secrets that live just under the surface of her icy resolve. When Feng’s secrets begin to come crashing down around her one by one, she flees her once privileged life to the unknown terrors that are consuming the Chinese countryside under Chairman Mao. Both penetratingly and emotionally astute, this is the story of a girl who must give up her dreams in the blink of an eye, and the way that the loss of her future warps her into a shell that few would recognize and many would find repugnant.

At its heart, this was a story about how the loss of your dreams and the unexpected vagaries of life can shatter a once peaceful soul. Feng is not a horrible woman, and as a reader, it’s easy to understand why she ends up the way she does, but some of her actions and their repercussions really turned my stomach. I wouldn’t categorize Feng as unduly selfish or self-serving, and one could argue that it was a myriad of devastating and traumatic events that forced her into a design not of her own making. There was very little left to chance in her life, and the choices she did make were swift and terrible. I was almost at war with myself reading about Feng’s situation, because while I understood her heartbreak and the bitterness she carried over the life she was forced to give up, I also thought that she was wrong to emulate the coldness and calculation that surrounded her.

With Feng’s removal from her old life and her abrupt entry into her new surroundings, she’s constantly at odds with herself and the others around her. Feng finds solace and friendship in her new maid, but even that is defeated by the hands of time and the changing attitude that she embraces. There is a significant plot element that I’m leaving out of this review for fear of spoiling the whole book, but suffice it to say that when this event took place, I was so angry with Feng that I almost decided to give up on her. It was her humble struggle that eventually led me to forgive her, and my realization that she was never able to forgive herself for what she had done. Her ill-conceived action hunted her like a slavering dog for all of her days, and it was hard not to feel empathy for her when I realized that she was being torn apart by her anger and sadness.

While I did enjoy the book, I felt that there was a bit of an imbalance in the depths of the character portrayals. Though Feng was drawn with a full brush and a compliment of literary colors, the others seemed more like stock characters and had no obvious dimensionality to them. I would have liked for them to have stepped out a little further into their space, but for some reason, they were not fully realized and they remained a little hard to relate to. This isn’t to say that some of the others didn’t play pivotal roles, just that they were a little washed out in terms of their personality and motives. Had the book been a little longer, I feel sure that Jepson might have developed them a little further.

I did enjoy this book and fell into the pages quite easily. It was a story that was chock full of strong emotions and starred a character who made difficult and unpardonable choices. In the end, I think that readers of this book will grow to understand Feng and the sacrifices she made in order to preserve the very heart of herself. A very interesting offering that somewhat surprised me.

Author Photo About the Author

Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director and producer of five feature films. He has also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine West East and is a founder and managing editor of the Asia Literary Review. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.

Visit Duncan at his website,

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, December 20th:Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, December 21st:The Lost Entwife
Thursday, December 22nd:Books Like Breathing
Tuesday, December 27th:Book Hooked Blog
Wednesday, December 28th:Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, December 29th:Life in the Thumb
Monday, January 2nd:Jo-Jo Loves to Read!
Tuesday, January 3rd:Broken Teepee
Wednesday, January 4th:Savvy Verse & Wit
Friday, January 5th:BookNAround
Monday, January 9th:Reflections of a Bookaholic
Tuesday, January 10th:Col Reads
Wednesday, January 11th:Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Monday, January 16th:The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
Tuesday, January 17th:Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, January 18th:The House of the Seven Tails
Thursday, January 19th:Library of Clean Reads

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Wherever You Go by Joan Leegant — 253 pgs

When Yona travels from New York to Israel to attempt a reconciliation with her estranged sister Dena, she's not only tormented, but heartbroken. It's been many years since an offense has torn the sisters apart, and Dena is now living with her husband and growing brood of children in a Jewish-American settlement in Israel. However these aren't the only changes, for Dena is now a militant crusader for advancement of the repatriation of the Jewish ancestral homeland and doesn’t desire a relationship with Yona at all. As the two sisters sway into tenuous emotional waters, Yona must not only realize that her desires may never be fulfilled, but also the extent to which Dena has changed. Meanwhile, young Greenglass, a visiting professor to Israel, makes a trip home to New York to visit and counsel the drug-addicted woman whom he left years before and replaced with stringent and devout Judaism. Discovering that he's not only losing the woman he once loved, but himself as well, Greenglass sets out on a journey of the heart that will take him into one of the most life-changing events that he has ever encountered. Finally, Aaron Blinder, a Jewish college dropout whose father is a best-selling author of books about the Holocaust, finds himself at the center of a radical Jewish enclave in the middle of the Israeli desert. In an effort to subsume his disappointment and failure, Aaron takes to the cause as a moth to the flame and becomes not only militant but recklessly dangerous. These protagonists meet in a culmination of misplaced ideals, misspent passion and spiritual conflagration. Both deep and psychologically penetrating, Wherever You Go tells the story of the human side of deep  religion and the repercussions that those with competing ideals and beliefs have on both the innocent and the tainted.

When I was preparing to read this book, I had not idea that it was going to be such a emotional and human story, filled with longing and regret, but also hope. I had been under the mistaken belief that this book was going to be somewhat more impersonal and more focused on specific groups of people, rather than individuals and the emotional loads they carried. It was beautiful and heartrending, and in a way, reading this book opened my eyes to the ways in which people wound each other, both intentionally and accidentally. I found myself caught up in the heartaches and struggles of the people that filled these pages, and Leegant’s prose had a way of reaching deep down into my soul and resonating in hollows I didn’t know I had.

This trifecta of stories intertwines around each other like a particularly inclement vine. As each protagonist deals with their very different circumstances, there are similar themes of alienation, absolution and restiveness that permeate them all and gently pepper the narrative with touches of naked vulnerability and heartbreak. Leegant has a perfect handle on her characters and story, never letting the pertinent points fade, but keeping them at the surface, where the reader can see not only the wounds but the scars of past experience as well. It's a heady balance of past and present that makes this book such a successful and emotional read. As I read, I was steadily grieving for the characters who had lost so much, yet remaining open to the possibilities of redemption that seemed to creep from the page.

I also think that Leegant mixes her characters well. There were some who were repugnant and some who were extremely sympathetic, but in this book, no one is totally flat and one dimensional. In what I think is a stroke of genius, Leegant makes her more difficult characters swell within their confines and become not villains, but horribly damaged people. It’s hard to hate the boy who's not loved, or to scorn the man who doesn’t know how to accept his family. Leegant gives us the whole picture and reflects through her plot permutations why they may have ended up like this and how they might still grow. She makes us see that it’s never black and white, although the darkest shade of gray may manifest itself as such, and places her characters in situations where it's impossible for them not to react and grow.

Though some aspects of this book left me with a heavy heart, there was indeed a lot of hope within the conclusion of the story, and for most of the characters, there was reason to be joyful. It must have been a sticky wicket to write about such controversial issues without being inflammatory and accusatory, but Leegant manages that and more. If you haven’t gotten the chance to read this book yet, I would recommend it to you. Its humility and energy were dark but very elastic and impressive. This is a story that I won’t soon forget and was glad to have read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night

This Christmas season, I wanted to take the time to wish all of my readers and blogger friends a very happy holiday season. You’re an amazing bunch and I’ve grown to appreciate each of you a little more every day. Generous, kind and caring are all good words I could use to describe you, but what really makes the deepest impression on me is the way you consistently share of yourselves: your minds, your hearts and your laughter. They are all given freely and openly in the things you share with me each and every day. So, this year as you gather with your family and friends sharing a mug of eggnog and some cookies, or take your places beside the tree to open up the gifts that Santa left, or even light the candles on your menorah, know that there is one person out there who is very grateful and thankful for everything you do to make my life a little bit merrier, every day of the year. Happy holidays to each and every one!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris — 336 pgs

Whether he's lamenting his difficulties with his sweaty prosthetic derriere or having strangely disturbing conversations with a couple who picks him up hitchhiking, David Sedaris is in top form in his new book of essays, When You are Engulfed in Flames. In the quiet and conversational style that is truly all his own, Sedaris grapples with his attempts to quit smoking, which involves moving to Tokyo for three months, and struggles with both the extremely rude and desperately grieving passengers on the airplanes he frequents. He shops for women's clothing with his sister Amy after finding it too hard to find flattering men's clothing in his size. He shares his first forays into writing and tells his audience how he got to be the David Sedaris of today, and he relates a terrifying story about a group of birds that aim to terrify him out of his French apartment. At times goofy, yet surprisingly lucid, these stories brilliantly share the mind and thoughts of one of America's most beloved comic writers of our day.

David Sedaris is possibly one of my most favorite authors. I've read all but one of his books, and find that the more I read about him and his life, the more enamored of him I become. In the early 2000's I had the opportunity to see him preform live in Miami, and I have to say that's one of my fondest memories. I would love the chance to see him again, and if he's ever in my area, I'm all over it! My husband and I listened to this book on audio, and it was his first time being exposed to David. I think he may have had a better time with it than I did, which is saying a lot! He's mentioned that we should definitely listen to more of Sedaris' work, which is not a problem, because I have quite a few of his books on audio just waiting for us!

This collection was similar to Sedaris' other books not only in the way the stories were delivered (deadpan) but also that it focused both on everything and nothing much at the same time. One of the things I enjoy most about Sedaris is that he can take the most mundane subjects and make them seem alive with wit and sparkle, a fact that Frank also mentioned. He has this acerbic way of delivering even the most shocking and funny things that makes me appreciate his talent all the more. When he calls his regular group of smoking companions a "foul little congress," it's not only the sentiment he makes but the delivery as well. It's the dry and unassuming way he makes pronouncements of all kinds, from the bizarre to the easily observable.

Most of this book is given over to short stories, but in the latter half he speaks mainly of his move to Tokyo, mainly to quit smoking. This section had a lot of resonance for me as I'm going through this particularly grueling ordeal myself. To hear Sedaris speak about it was both a balm and an amusement that kept me on the right track. During these segments, he also speaks of his difficulties in language school and the fact that even though he's a very studious person by nature, he's at the bottom of his class and is somewhat embarrassed by this. I found these sections not only funny, but touching, because I think a lot of people can relate to wanting to succeed and having to accept that some things are beyond your ken. As usual, Sedaris gets himself into situations that are not only unlikely, but strange, and in his attempt to explain himself, he delivers some incredible monologues.

There's really not much more to say about this little book, other than the fact that it is hilarious, and that once again, Sedaris performs like a star throughout this audio version. I sometimes think Sedaris' work is best appreciated in its audio form because it's solely read by its author, and there's no mistaking where the funny lies when David Sedaris is reading to you. Fans of Sedaris will find a lot to love in this book, and those new to him will also be pleased with this one. Highly recommended!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Model Home by Eric Puchner — 384 pgs

The Ziller family is experiencing growing pains. While father Warren is secretly unloading assets due to his failure in the real estate market, his wife, Camille, is beginning to consider an affair with the foreign man she works with. Meanwhile, the oldest Ziller child, Dustin, is in his punk rock phase, and though Warren tries to keep some connection between them, he’s drifting further and further away. Daughter Lyle is suffering from a healthy dose of ennui over her inability to fit in with other teenagers, while youngest son Jonas is just different in every way possible. As the three children encounter the trials of young adulthood and Camille finds herself pulling away from Warren, things go from bad to worse. It seems as if the family may lose their house as well as any ties that have been holding them together. But upon returning from an impromptu trip that may pull everyone back together, a horrible accident befalls one of the children, and it’s up to the rest of the Zillers to put their lives back together, piece by crumbling piece. But although the accident initially has some restorative effects for the family, soon everything begins to crumble in an alarming yet strangely methodical way, leaving each member to fend for themselves in a house of cards that is rapidly deconstructing. Dark and persuasive, Model Home reaches through the pathos with startling moments of clarity and humor that will surprise readers and keep them on the edge of their seats rooting for this strange family of misfits.

I have to admit that I didn’t like this book very much, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of it had to do with the fact that I listened to this one on audio, and the narrator, David Colacci,  just ruined the whole thing for me. He was nasally. He was monotone for most of the time and his voice showed no range when it came to expressing what I thought were serious emotions. I even played a snippet of this book in the car when my husband and I were running errands, and although he was intrigued by the story, he mentioned that the narrator was awful. I spent so much time glancing at how long I had left with this book that I wasn’t able to enjoy it very much at all. I think had I read it in print, this would have ended up being a very different review.

This book had an unexpected streak of humor, which is surprising given the subject matter. Puchner has a way of injecting humor into some very dark situations and it softens a lot of the tragedies that have befallen this particular family. Without these brief bits of humor, this book would have been about as bleak as bleak can be. There were times I snorted aloud at something that Puchner had intuited about his characters and the way that he shares it with his readers. When it comes right down to it, it was this dark and cynical humor that made me continue on with the book and not give it up in frustration. A lot of the situations that the family got themselves into were odd as well, and though at first I wondered if Puchner was substituting idiosyncratic elements for a solid and well written tale, I ultimately grew to appreciate the absurdness that was placed so liberally in this story.

One thing that really bothered me was the author’s willingness to be so cruel to his characters. For some reason, it’s always grieved me when an author thinks nothing of dumping the most distressing and horrible things onto these beings that he’s created and gives his characters no way out. I sort of felt that way with this book. Puchner spends a lot of time being cruel to his characters, and aside from the cynical comedy that’s peppered throughout the book, there’s not much in these situations to laugh at. I felt a little overwhelmed at all this family was going through and kept wondering when they would get a break. Something about the needless cruelty really got to me, and I can fully admit that it may have been the period of life I’m in right now and not the book itself. I can imagine that had I read this at a different time,  I might have never given this aspect the consideration that I give it today.

When all is said and done, this isn’t a happy story, though it does have moments of dark humor. It’s not redemptive or hopeful, but it is very emotionally complex and it does tell a story that, like life, is unpredictable and slightly strange. I did admire the way Puchner harnessed his tale and kept all the elements tight and organic, but the combination of the horrendous narrator and the casual cruelty of the author to his characters makes me think that either I read this book at the wrong time or that I should have tried a different format. It was a difficult book for me to get through, and though there were some brilliant moments, I would have to recommend this one with caveats.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Doll: The Lost Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier — 224 pgs

A mysterious ship lands on an isolated island during a storm and stirs up desire, debauchery and revenge.  A man exhibits a powerful obsession for a woman who hides a strange secret. A charming and socially connected Vicar hides a flinty heart of steel. A young woman steals the thunder of her aging mother and finds herself in a very awkward and troubling position. These stories and many others form the collection inside The Doll, master storyteller Daphne du Maurier’s early endeavors in the realm of short fiction. Powerful, dark and sometimes sinister, these thirteen stories show a myriad of people in all their glorious malevolence. In du Maurier’s singular and penetrating voice, her characters come to life, stepping out from the ordinary into the extraordinary. With punctilious wit, du Maurier examines the hidden sides of men and women and brings them into the light, where all their flaws and idiosyncrasies come screaming off the page. Both varied and haunting, these stories will leave readers pondering the subtle nuances of the people who live inside the pages of this very eclectic and strange collection.

I’d never read any of du Maurier’s work before now, but I have heard great things about her full length novels and have made it one of my top goals of the new year to read Rebecca. Having the opportunity to read this book really opened my eyes in a lot of ways, and I was excited over it because I considered it a primer for tackling some of her longer works. What I found was strange and unsettling, and made me consider the fact that du Maurier must have had a very cynical mind and perhaps some strange misanthropic tendencies. Though I did get invested in these stories, they weren’t the type of things that one would read to brighten their days or to release the stress of the holiday season. In fact, the effect was just the opposite, and I grew a little wary of what would come next as I perused story after story.

None of the characters in these stories were likable. The men were lecherous and conniving, the women co-dependant and manipulative. There were certain themes that ran through the collection that I found a little disquieting, and most of them had to do with romantic entanglements. The men seemed to take great advantage of the women and then throw them away when they got bored. This happened in many different ways in in many competing scenarios, but after awhile, I felt like it was the same song and dance over and over again. This was a bitter collection, and if I were to make any type of opinion on the mind of the person who created these stories, I would have to assume that the author had been burned and was very distrustful of the opposite sex.

The women weren’t much better. In most of the stories with a female protagonist, they exist as emotionally immature harpies or calculating and mean-spirited witches who have no qualms about doing emotional damage. They also seemed to never be able to genuinely connect with their partners. A lot of the women seemed weak in one way or another. There were a few exceptions, but even the exceptions weren’t strong or positive women who had their heads screwed tightly on their shoulders. I grew to dislike every person who was highlighted in this collection, and though I found some of  the stories fascinating, others were somewhat plebeian and I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I can’t say this was a collection that I would ever go back to, because frankly, once was enough; but if you like your short stories dark, then this is the collection for you.

Although I didn’t really fall in love with this book, I haven’t given up hope that Rebecca will blow my mind, because I’ve heard such praise lavished upon it. I can definitely see that these early stories paved the way for something very interesting, but I have to admit that I was happy to finally turn the last page of this book. As I mentioned before, if you enjoy your short fiction bleak, then I think this has the potential to be a great read for you, but as far as I’m concerned, I could just as easily take it as leave it.

About the Author

Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) has been called one of the great shapers of popular culture and the modern imagination. Among her more famous works are The Scapegoat, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and the short story The Birds, all of which were subsequently made into films, the latter three directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, November 22nd:Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, November 23rd:The Lost Entwife
Monday, November 28th:Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, November 30th:Wordsmithonia
Thursday, December 8th:The Road to Here
Monday, December 12th:Book Drunkard
Tuesday, December 13th:Book-a-rama
Wednesday, December 14th:Books and Movies
Thursday, December 15th:Raging Bibliomania
Friday, December 16th:books i done read
TBD:Book Hooked Blog
TBD:Cafe of Dreams

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, December 12, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett — 368 pgs

When Dr. Marina Singh gets the news that her friend and colleague, Anders Eckman, has died in the Amazon jungle, having gone to search for a reclusive scientist who may be working on one of the most startling drugs ever discovered, she finds herself hungry for answers to his death. Making a promise to Anders’ wife, Marina agrees to go into the jungle to discover the fate of her friend and to seek out Dr. Annick Swenson, a groundbreaking scientist who has been off the map for several years. But when Marina arrives in the tropical locale, she discovers that there’s much more to the story than meets the eye. For starters, before she even gains access to the jungle, Marina must gain the trust of a couple whom Dr. Swenson has put in place to run interference for her. When she finally locates Dr. Swenson, she begins to learn the strange truth about her research and, more importantly, Anders death, and uncovers the secret of the tribe that Dr. Swenson has been studying. Part medical drama, part adventure story, State of Wonder tells the unfathomable story of one woman’s descent into a world where time stands still and where the mysteries of the jungle are being harnessed in ways that are so flamboyantly contrary to nature that they will leave readers awestruck and incredulous.

While my relationship with Patchett has been hit or miss, with me loving some books and abandoning others, it didn’t take long for me to become interested in reading this one after all the rave reviews had come out. I love stories of survival and of exotic places, and just reading about the excitement that other reviewers felt for this book had me rushing out to get my own copy as soon as it was released. I let it linger for awhile, but it always stuck in the back of my mind as a book that I knew I was going to love and devour once I could make time for it. And I have to say that I wasn’t disappointed. I read this one over a busy weekend and carted it along with me to every outing, snatching bits of reading time here and there until I reached the final page. I exhausted my husband with the entire plot synopsis, and though his eyes glazed over, I just know he was fascinated. I mean, who wouldn’t be?

I was deliberately brief with my plot synopsis, as I think the less you know about this book going in, the better. What I will say is that although some of the plot points do stretch credulity, there was something about Patchett’s writing style and skill in relating her story that made even the most bizarre aspects of this tale seem believable. What it all boils down to is that there is a scientist in the jungle who is creating a drug that does some incredible things. Things that it may not be 100% right to be able to accomplish. This scientist has her own reasons for wanting to hide away and escape from her sponsors and benefactors, and she’s very good at it. In the name of science, lines are crossed and people are sacrificed. But what really stands out is the way that Patchett creates a fully realized atmosphere and setting. There were times I got hot and sticky just reading about the jungle where this all took place, and there were pulse-pounding moments of intelligent and pitch perfect intrigue and action, all revolving around the natives of the jungle, human and animal alike.

This is also a story of humans; their fallibility, their selfishness that is masked by altruism, and their utter belief that they can triumph over nature, when nature shows them otherwise several times a day. The characters were expertly created and they elicited so many varying emotions from me, from coldness and disbelief to a warm compassion and understanding that left me feeling almost vulnerable at times. I really liked that the characters were so rich and varied, and that even those with ulterior motives had their share of softer emotions. I even grew to like the disagreeable Dr. Swenson, when I thought that would never be possible. When push comes to shove, each of these characters believes that they are doing the right thing, despite clear indications to the contrary.

I was a little baffled by the end of the book because I felt that there was something that was hinted at that was not stated explicitly. Most of the time, ambiguous endings don’t bother me, but in this case, I was pondering and pondering once I had turned the last page. If anyone else has read this and would be interested in discussing it with me, let me know! Aside from that very small niggle, I thought the book was excellent and it kept me reading with anticipation and glee as the weird got weirder and the revelations and adventure came fast and furious. I think this is Patchett’s best book to date, and it’s certainly my favorite so far.

If you haven’t read this one yet and are in the mood for a tale that will grab hold of you and won’t put you down until that final page, this is the book you want to read. It tells a story that’s not only unique, but thrilling, and Patchett is at the top of her game in its construction and execution. This is one book that will go on my favorites list this year, and I’m so glad that I found the time for it. A very exciting and winning read. Highly recommended!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach — 336 pgs

What was the real story behind the chimps and dogs in space, and where did they finally end up? Just what are the difficulties and realities regarding elimination in space, and where does it go when you are floating miles above the earth in zero gravity? Is it really true that sex in space is an especially cantankerous affair, and what is the likelihood that someone can get pregnant on a space mission? How did NASA ever come up with the idea that little food cubes coated with soluble fat would be a good form of sustenance for astronauts going into space, and why are the astronauts forced to drink so many milkshakes? What happens when astronauts can’t make a wardrobe change for over 30 days, and is there really any truth to the rumors that some companies are developing edible clothing? And just how are a room full of bed-resters contributing massive amounts of data for those at NASA to uncover the problems of weightlessness on the human body? These perplexing and awe inspiring questions, and hundreds more, are answered in Mary Roach’s latest stellar offering, Packing for Mars.  As Roach explores the strangeness of space travel, she shares her sometimes absurd and always interesting findings along the way, peppering her exposé with tidbits even the most apathetic reader will delight in and marvel over. In her trademark witty and wild exploration of the most curious aspects of space travel, Roach gives her readers more than enough to ponder and giggle over, and shares some little known realities of a mission to the moon, fecal containment bags and all.

After reading Roach’s first offering, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, I had been pondering which of her other books would next make my list. All of them sound amazingly good, but when my husband was browsing through them while picking an audiobook for us to share, this one stood out. Although I’m not as big as a space nut as he is, I had to admit that I couldn’t go wrong with this book. Anything that Roach turns her focus on becomes instantly intriguing, and the humor she presses into her unusual stories always hits just the right note. I wasn’t disappointed in this book at all, and though I liked Stiff just a little bit more, Packing for Mars was a fun romp through all the things I’ve ever (or never) wondered about space travel.

Mary begins her tale with the basics of traveling in space and goes on to chronicle the different space missions that have occurred throughout history. Her narrative delves not only in to the mysteries of space travel, but also the strange conundrums that shooting a human housed in a pressurized can into zero gravity can cause. She shares with us the reasons that animals were the first beings in space, and goes on to tell us what can happen when reentry goes horribly wrong. Through it all, her story is light and humorous, and Roach also shares her particularly amusing notes with her readers to bridge the gap between fact and comedy. Roach also includes actual transcripts of bizarre conversations that have taken place on spacecraft, such as when a floater escaped the fecal containment bag and went flying all over the capsule. I’ll leave it up to you to try to imagine what this conversation sounded like.

Aside from the humor, there was a lot of fascinating information presented about the logistics of traveling to Mars or living in space and how difficult both of those situations could turn out to be. When one thinks of astronauts, one thinks of heroes ascending into space to explore worlds and planets that the everyday Joe will never see, but in reality, space travel is much more a test of endurance and fortitude than anyone ever considers. Imagine being trapped with several strangers in a pressurized tube for months on end, not being able to sleep unless you tied yourself down, and being forced to remain in the same clothing (including underwear) for several weeks. Having to eat the most unappetizing things and not having any privacy to speak of. The realities of descending are also pretty frightening, and Roach shares the many ways things can go horribly wrong for those reentering the atmosphere. Funny and witty, yes, but eye-opening and penetrating as well.

What I liked most about this book was that Roach did an abundant amount of homework and took every story into several different tangents, leaving her readers fully satisfied that every avenue had been explored. It was amazing to think of all the things that must be studied and considered when sending even an unmanned rover into space, and Roach presents it all with style and aplomb, giving each component of space travel the attention it’s due. The narrator of this audiobook, Sandra Burr, was also wonderful because of her ability to relay all of this in a very informative way, without any histrionics. Her voice sounded wry and slightly amused as she read her way through the chapters. I appreciated her low-key delivery immensely, and hope that subsequent books I listen to feature her narration as well.

Whether you are a space junkie, like my husband, or a novice to all things orbital, like myself, there’s a lot to love about Packing for Mars. It’s crisp and hilarious at times, while also being chock full of the kind of information you won’t get anywhere else. It was a pleasure to end my day with a few chapters of Burr reading about the bizarre intricacies of putting men, animals and all sorts of other things in space. A great read that will shock and delight. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Poison Diaries by Maryrose Wood — 288 pgs

Jessamine Luxton is a quiet and retiring girl who lives with her father in the crumbling abbey on the outskirts of town. Her father is a master healer, adept at making healing potions and in caring for the sick and injured in his vicinity. But he’s not the loving and doting father that a girl like Jessamine needs, and with her mother having died many years ago, Jessamine is a girl hungering for love, understanding and affection. When a local ruffian arrives on their property with a very slight young man named Weed, Jessamine’s father takes in his strange tale like a healing draught. It seems Weed has a gift that Jessamine’s father wants badly, for he has the ability to create potions and use plants in a way that is long thought to be lost. When Jessamine’s father takes Weed into his locked garden that houses all the poisonous plants he has ever collected, he shares with the boy his desire to use these plants for his healing arts. Before Weed can begin to use his knowledge, a horrible fate falls upon Jessamine, and soon his feelings for her begin to blur the lines of what is noble and right and what is alien and dark. Soon Weed is on a quest to save the one person in the world who truly knows what he is, and what he will uncover will shock and electrify readers. In a world where things are not as they appear, Weed will come to make the ultimate sacrifice for love, honor and goodness.

When I read Beth Fish’s wonderful review of this book about two weeks ago, I knew I couldn’t pass it up. Not realizing it was a YA title, it arrived from the library and I happily sat down with it one afternoon and didn’t look up until it was finished. It was a strangely quixotic and utterly engulfing read that I have a feeling will impress both younger and older readers alike, and I enjoyed the brisk pace of the book in addition to its style, which was similar to a fairy tale. As I wound my way deeper and deeper into the story, I felt as though I knew what was coming, but the fact that I could spot the villain didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the tale at all. I credit this to the book’s deftness for keeping its readers caught in an unfamiliar world, where magic and mystery walk hand in hand.

There are really two different plot conceits going on in this tale, and both were enriching in different ways. On the one hand, there’s the blossoming romance between the neglected Jessamine and the unwanted Weed; on the other, there’s the notorious secret that’s locked behind the gates of the poison garden. As both of these plot elements mature and begin to twist around each other, there’s a deep romantic and tragic resonance that gains strength and is expertly built upon by the author. This isn't the sort of story that the reader can remain disengaged from for very long, and because of its tender representations of young love and dastardly misdeeds, it’s a book that will keep readers racing through the pages to discover what the final outcome will be. The book doesn’t present the reader with a story that can be kept at a distance, choosing instead to keep the characters’ interactions and the secrets of the villain and the garden very tightly enmeshed.

Two things I liked most were the imagery that was such a focal point of the story and the fluidity of the writing style. This was a book that was almost effortless to read, and stylistically, the story was arranged in a way that kept me on tenterhooks wondering where it would go next, replete with a gnawing sense of tension and anticipation. The story is somewhat timeless, and though the book exists in a historical time frame, the protagonists and their feelings echo what today’s young adults might feel if they were falling in love for the first time and were somewhat removed from the influencing aspects of society. There was also a tremendous gentleness in this love story, and the way it was juxtaposed with the evilness of the antagonists seemed perfectly balanced and scrupulously created a sense of the forces of darkness being pitted against the forces of light.

When I quickly got to the end of the book, I groaned aloud, for this volume is the first installment of a trilogy. This frustrated me because I wanted a more full resolution and conclusion, not just a stopping point. I was also unhappy that my library doesn’t carry the second book and I’m going to have to go out and purchase it to find out where the tale goes. This development made me a little frustrated, but also excited that there will be future installments. Beth Fish has already reviewed the second book, called Nightshade, and I can say that I’m really eager to find out what’s next in store for the characters I’ve grown attached to.

This book was surprisingly complex while remaining streamlined and compact, and I enjoyed the journey that it took me on. As I mentioned before, this is a book that will entangle readers of all ages from adolescent onwards. The book is like a wonderful confection, in that it’s very easy to gobble up all at once and leave you hungering for more. I’m thankful that I read this one and will be able to pass it to my daughter, who I think will love it too. A very diverting read that has innocence shot through with touches of raw darkness. Recommended.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan — 304 pgs

Jacob Marlowe is the world’s last werewolf, and he’s been living a life of utter ennui for the past hundred years. On the run from the agents of WOCOP, a specialized government unit that exists specifically to hunt down and kill werewolves, Jacob is ready to hand himself over and be done with it. A very cerebral man/wolf, Jacob has lived through some harrowing times and is a little over 200 years old. His frightening assimilation into a wolf and his unquenchable hunger and libido make him unlike any werewolf you may have encountered before, and his desire to balance out his carnal pleasures with slightly philanthropic endeavors has been the only thing to make his existence bearable for the last century. With the help of his close friend Harley, a double agent who also works for WOCOP, Jacob is looking forward to ending this nightmare once and for all. But when two very unexpected events take place within a few days of his planned surrender, Jacob finds that he might not be so keen on quitting the game as he had once thought he was. Now it’s a race against time to save the last werewolf from extinction, and in addition to the agents who exist only to hunt him, he’ll also come into contact with some seriously disturbing vampires who want Jacob for a different purpose entirely. In this dark and malevolent novel, violence and sex collide head-on as Jacob seeks to accomplish the impossible task of surrendering himself to his nature and getting out of it alive.

Though I’m not the most avid enthusiast of audiobooks, I’ve recently become more enamored of them and have started to seek out more and varied titles to be explored in audio. Part of this is due to Sandy’s influence, as she’s always directing me to the best books as well as ones I might be better off avoiding. We had hoped to listen to this book on our trip to SIBA but instead got caught up in chatting, so I grabbed this book for myself when we got back and began to listen. What I found was a very strange amalgam of the reflections of a man given over to his basest desires and his eventual struggle to come to terms with them. This audiobook was narrated by the very vocally talented Robin Sachs: a man whose voice thrummed with passion and melancholy with equal fervor. He was the perfect choice to tell Jacob’s story.

The first thing I have to mention is that the book was extremely graphic, and not only in the ways you might expect. As Duncan goes to great lengths to explain, his version of the werewolf is a *very* sexual being. This translated into Jacob’s reflections having the vague tint of pornography at times. My first forays had me a little uncomfortable, for although I’m not really a prude, these bits of sex were extraordinarily detailed. And there were a lot of them. When Jacob wasn’t pondering his predicament of being half man and half wolf, he spent a lot of time satisfying his raging libido. Sex to this creature seemed almost like a compulsion, and like a compulsion, he thought about it incessantly and tinged and tied every remembrance of his life towards some sort of sexual escapade. It may sound as if this was sexy, but to me, it was not. After awhile it became a bit overwhelming and some of his reflections had me rolling my eyes and wishing that Duncan would just get on with it.

Most of the story was centered on Jacob’s perpetual inklings of what it meant to be human and what it meant to be the perversity of nature that he now was. Not only was he literally a monster, because he was the last of his kind, he was lonely in a way that most of us can’t comprehend. There was singularity in both his forms, and to Jacob, life was more of an annoyance to be suffered through than a marvelous feast of the heart. He wasn’t overly concerned with the plights of his victims, and this in itself lent an air of recklessness to his personality; instead there was a great sense of Jacob’s being devoid of all the softer emotions. In essence, the wolf robbed him of much more than his humanity: It robbed him of his ability to find the importance in life itself. Part of this had to do with some of the things he did in his wolf-state, but another part had to do with his incredible lack of understanding himself, both as a man and as a wolf.

When the tables begin to be turned on Jacob and he realizes that he must survive at all costs, the stakes are raised greatly. Now he can’t waste any more time wondering if indeed he should be alive, and all the brain power that he has expended on his existential plight must now be focused on freeing himself from the traps slowly closing around him. And it is quite a conundrum, as Jacob is soon discovering. There are people who have been on his side all along whom he has always considered threats, and a strange discovery at a train station makes him begin to question all that he has ever known. This discovery changes everything both past and present, and it seems that Jacob isn’t the only one to have discovered it. A thrilling and racing adventure full of intrigue and sabotage begins to be played across the pages that will take the reader into the heart of a man who’s finally beginning to understand all that he was so willing to throw away at the story’s inception.

This story had a bittersweet ending, and though it was graphic and violent, it held my interest and even made me laugh a bit with its dark cynicism and spot-on cogitations. It’s not a book for the faint of heart, but one that elevates the typical werewolf story into something a little more literary and a lot more provocative. I think those readers who experience this book in audio are in for a treat, because the narration by Sachs does a lot to inveigle the reader into the wayward mind and behavior of a creature that we all can understand but are loathe to identify with. A very interesting and strangely kinetic read.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley — 224 pgs

A celebrity before the days of celebrity, Charles Dickens was a genius and an enigma who created some of the most potent novels in history. Behind the scenes, Dickens was a man unlike any other, with strange beliefs, warring passions and an eclectic lifestyle. In this biography by famous author Jane Smiley, Dickens’ life and works are explored in great depth and with generous helpings of sympathy, interest and wonder. From his secrecy about his troubled childhood to his eventual marriage to a woman whom he would one day repudiate, Smiley gives us a profound insight into the inner workings of the man whose fame seemed to be ever increasing. She shares with her readers his rapturous enjoyment of his notoriety and reveals the ways Dickens sought to eradicate society’s social and political ills through his stories. She also sheds light on how he unintentionally captured the personalities and behaviors of both himself and his counterparts in his amazingly fluid and distinctive tales. Smiley reveals all this with a deep sense of understanding and intimate knowledge that mirrors the devotion of his many fans, and even the critics who panned him. Part biography, part literary critique, Charles Dickens: A Life is at once a fascinating study of a man who was ahead of his time and also, tragically, a product of it.

Though I haven’t read Dickens’ work extensively, I do consider him to be one of my favorite authors, and I’m constantly amazed at the unique and sensitive qualities of his writing. I am, in fact, so interested in Dickens and his work that I’m trying to undertake a project where I read all his published work incrementally throughout the new year. It's a vast undertaking, for most of Dickens’ books are very long, but I hope one day to be able to complete this journey through the works of an author whom I find amazing and inimitable. When I was approached to review this book, I did a happy little dance of joy and immediately said yes, for I could think of no better way to get close to this author than to read about his life and work in biographical form. This book was entrancing from the outset, and Smiley’s manipulation of her material was both expert and alluring. I learned so much about Dickens that I felt, as I closed the covers, as if I had gotten an intimate peek into the mind of a man who defies easy description.

As many readers of Dickens will attest, there is no one who writes a story in quite the way this man did. Many other authors manage to imitate him in their rich portrayal of character, but there is truly only one Dickens, and love him or hate him, this cannot be denied. One of the things that was most interesting about this book was discovering that each story he wrote had a good deal of autobiographical material threaded through it, and as Dickens matured as an author and his perceptions of the world changed, his characters also grew more evolved and multifaceted. Many of his characters were archetypes, and many of them were based on the very people he lived with, worked with or associated closely with. I found it interesting that Dickens seemed to have only two or three versions of the women in his tales, and these women were based on the limited and very prejudicial beliefs that he held. Most of his female characters were either based on his wife (who, in later years, he held little esteem for) or took on the virginal and unsullied role of those paramours that Dickens always kept out of public sight. It's stated rather clearly that it's only at the end of his life that Dickens truly began to understand women, and this also was reflected in his work.

Dickens was also very adept at making social statements and addressing pressing public concerns in his work, and used the platform of his novels to share his disgust and sadness at the failure of the system to adequately provide for the lower class. Much of his work has the hallmark of broaching topics of public sanitation, the workhouse, orphanages, and other systems where people fall through the cracks and are forgotten. Though these are topics he includes in his books, these aren’t the subjects of his books, and in his own way Dickens creates a pastiche of narrative, character and drama with an underlying and low level admonishment of the system that so many found themselves at the mercy of. Dickens sought to entertain but also to educate, and in this light, his work takes on a new meaning and portent that most modern readers remain unaware of. Not only was Dickens a very successful author, he was arguably the first celebrity to ever take the stage, with dramatic readings and recitations punctuating his literary work.

The one area where I have a bone to pick with Dickens is in his abysmal treatment of his wife. While it's true she wasn’t his first choice, as time went on and she made the gradual transition from paramour to maternal figure, Dickens seemed to gradually devalue her and make increasingly impractical demands of her. It seems he could only think of women in very limited ways, and her gradual transition from one type of woman to another drew his ire and ill-concealed hatred. It's also worth noting that Dickens’ life was marked by considerable restlessness and a desire for concealment and movement. The fact that he had scores of children and a wife who was more content to stay put was just another annoyance that he seemed to never get over. As an artist, Dickens was sublime, but as an everyday man, he was irascible and demanding, and I doubt I would have wanted to know him personally, though at times he was known to be generous, kind and exciting.

I had the time of my life with this book, getting to know both the very private and illustrious public sides of Dickens’ life. I would recommend this book to readers who are fans of his work or are just curious about the legendary artist who swept the country by storm and created the “domestic drama,” a type of novel that had never been attempted before. It was a pleasure to read this biography because, while it was clear that Smiley much admired and touted Dickens and his work, she was not blinded by his stardom and was able to paint the man behind the words with realism, honesty and impartiality. A very solid biography. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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