Archive for May, 2011

What I’m Looking Forward To

I don’t have a big budget for books – the majority of what I’ve been reading lately have been advance reader copies from publishers, and for that I’m extremely grateful.  I’ve also read a lot of books I would not have necessarily chosen to purchase, and expanding my horizons has been a real joy.

However, I did pre-order a couple of books, and am anxious for when they are released:
Your Camera Loves You (Now Learn to Love it Back!) by Khara Plicanic.  I want this book for two reasons:  I have a digital SLR camera and I want to learn all its ins and outs to improve my photography without it being too technical.  AND, the author is a friend of mine whom I’ve admired for years.  She’s sassy and energetic and positive and a BRILLIANT photographer.  (Release date: August 31, 2011)

Pirate King: A Novel of Suspense Featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes by Laurie E. King.  I have not missed a single book in this series and really love this character.  The first book in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, introduces the prodigy Mary Russell who befriends Sherlock Holmes and he finally is matched in ingenuity and intellect.  King shows a side of the Sherlock Holmes character after his retirement from Baker Street that has been embraced by many die-hard Sherlockians, where other authors’ attempts at resurrecting him have failed.  If you haven’t read the books, start at the beginning.  It is worth it.


I’m an unapologetic Harry Potter fan.  I cannot wait for the release of the final installment of the screen adaptations of the books, which will be in theaters in July.

And this Christmas, the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is expected in theaters.  I’ve read all three books by Stieg Larsson and watched all three of the Swedish movie adaptations.  With David Fincher directing, it should be a wild ride and the casting looks to be every bit as good as the Swedish version.


This fall, at long last, library lending services for e-books will be available in Kindle format.  The Kindle was conspicuously absent from the lists of supported devices and formats for electronic lending from libraries, while the Nook has been boasting their compatibility as an edge over the Kindle.  I’m also tired of Nook users gloating about it.  Yay! More free reading!


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Review: The Art of Forgetting

The Art of ForgettingThe Art of Forgetting by Camille Noe Pagan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Marissa Rogers and Julia Farrar have been best friends since high school. Julia is an accomplished and confident woman, with a magnetic personality and a rising career as a publicist for a New York ballet company. Marissa is an associate magazine editor, and with both women living out their dream jobs, life seems to be ideal.

Then, on her way to dinner with Marissa, Julia is struck by a car and sustains a terrible head injury. When she wakes up, she first can’t remember anything, and then she recognizes friends and family but is a completely different person. Marissa wants to be there for her friend, but finds that Julia is no longer diplomatic, blurting her deepest thoughts about Marissa’s life to her without filter, and worst of all, trying to get Julia to abandon her boyfriend and get back together with an old flame.

I almost abandoned this book. Oh great, I thought, the third or fourth amnesia book in a month! I began to violently dislike the main character and had trouble caring where the story was going. It wasn’t fair that I started reading it immediately after reading one of the best books I’ve read in years, either.

I put this one aside for a few days and after some intervening palate-cleansing books, went back to it.

And it grew on me. I began to care about the narrator, especially after it became clear that Marissa was the main character and not her best friend, Julia.

I thought the author did a good job of character development and portraying the after-effects of traumatic brain injury. Family dynamics were vivid and believable, and most of all, I felt that I cared what happened to the characters in this book. While it wasn’t the most thrilling of stories, it was well crafted, paced perfectly, and did not sacrifice characters to advance the story.

All in all, it was a solid and, ultimately (thankfully) satisfying read.

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of the publisher.  Publication date: June 9, 2011.


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Review: The Back Chamber

The Back ChamberThe Back Chamber by Donald Hall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Probably not a good idea to sit down and read an entire book of poetry in one sitting. I like Hall’s poetry but this volume seemed more loose and sprawling than I like, and of course, at this stage in his life, it seems filled with regret at the turns of life and filled with his own mortality.

That said, there were parts that took my breath away, especially a poem called “Advent”:

“When I see a cradle rocking
What is it that I see?
I see a rood on the hilltop
Of Calvary…”

And his sly and irreverent take on things is still evident, particularly in the poem “Creative Writing”:
“Translating Virgil, eighty lines a day, Keats never did pick up his MFA.”

Hall writes about an octogenarian poet trying to find metaphors in a thesaurus, trying to make poetry even though his work has been taken out of new anthologies. I love that the last line of that poem is “If no one will ever read him again, what the f**k?”

I know I would have loved this book more if I’d read it on paper instead of an advance reader copy on Kindle; poetry should be seen in format and touched while reading, the way opera can’t be fully enjoyed just by sound, but also by sight. (Am I crazy to think this way?)

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of publisher.  Projected release date September 13, 2011


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Review: A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without Mustard (Flavia de Luce, #3)A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alan Bradley’s series starring eleven year old Flavia de Luce in 1950s Britain are some of the most delightful books I’ve had the pleasure to read. Flavia is a cross between Scout Finch, Wednesday Addams and Madam Curie.

In this third book of the series, Flavia is again beset by her two older sisters, Ophelia (“Feely”) and Daphne (“Daffy”). To avoid them at a church fair, Flavia goes into a gypsy fortune teller’s tent and, after hearing her alarming fortune, stumbles out of the tent and manages to cause it to catch fire and burn to the ground. She invites the gypsy to camp on the grounds of her family’s estate, but the gypsy is attacked in the night and beaten nearly to death.

Flavia begins to investigate what happened but then a neighborhood ne’er-do-well turns up murdered on the estate, posed rather dramatically hanging by his coat from a statue of Poseidon that adorns an ornamental fountain by the house.

Flavia and her bicycle (nicknamed “Gladys”) bumble through an investigation that turns up religious dissenters, a chatty vicar, a portrait painter, a secret about Flavia’s long-deceased mother, unscrupulous antique dealers and her father’s declining fortune.

Any tendency an author might have to imbue this character with saccharin cuteness is artfully avoided, and Flavia is an acerbic and independent soul who loves her chemistry experiments, light reading about deadly poisons, and plotting eternally how she might take her revenge on her sisters for their constant practical jokes and verbal abuse.

Some favorite passages:
“Miss Mountjoy was the retired Librarian-in-Chief of the Bishop’s Lacey Free Library where, it was said, even the books had lived in fear of her. Now, with nothing but time on her hands, she had become a freelance holy terror.”

The dates, stewed and served with cold clotted cream, were another of Mrs. Mullet’s culinary atrocities. They looked and tasted like something that had been stolen from a coffin in a midnight churchyard.”

[upon being caught with a cigarette] “It was a gift from Father. He believes that the occasional cigarette fortifies one’s lungs against vapors from the drains.”

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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m late to the party on this book and am kicking myself for having waited so long to read it.

In 1951, a black woman named Henrietta Lacks went to the free clinic at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins hospital for what she told the doctor was “a knot in my womb.” They dismissed her worries as women’s troubles, since a cursory exam showed no problems. Henrietta, the mother of five, was not soothed. She knew something was wrong.

After a few more visits, she began to bleed. She went back, and the doctors found a strangely shaped tumor in her cervix. Taking tissue samples and a biopsy, they sent Henrietta home to await results. It was cancer. Early stage cancer.

By the time she got back to the hospital, the cancer was growing at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, in a lab in Baltimore, a researcher (Dr. George Gey) was watching the cells taken from Henrietta’s tumor also growing monstrously–in test tubes and petri dishes. He was ecstatic – they were growing and multiplying and doubling every 24 hours in a culture medium, and he knew he was seeing something historic in the scientific world: immortal cells.

Most cells divide about fifty times before dying. Scientists had trouble maintaining cell lines for research for this reason. But the cells of Henrietta Lacks (or HeLa cells) were a tremendous boon for science. Soon, Dr. Gey’s discovery was gaining the attention of the research world. He gave away tubes of HeLa cells, which other researchers used to conduct experiments with diseases, drugs and viruses. Another lab perfected a culture medium that could be standardized, and then HeLa cells began to be a marketable commodity. They were growing and dividing so fast that they became a cash cow: and invaluable to the science world.

The problem: they couldn’t help Henrietta, who died only months after her diagnosis. She left behind five children and a husband, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Worse yet, the cells that were rocking the science world and making research labs commercially wealthy had been taken from Henrietta without her consent, and for nearly 30 years, her family had no idea what a revolution HeLa cells had caused. In fact, they had no idea HeLa cells existed.

This book follows two parallel stories: the story of Henrietta Lacks the person and her family’s struggle after her death; and the story of HeLa cells and their spread throughout the world, helping scientists develop the polio vaccine, identify the HPV virus, develop chemotherapy drugs, and myriad other discoveries to advance medical science.

When Henrietta’s family finds out about the cells and the fact that nobody informed Henrietta about their existence, their commercial potential or how they would be used, they were outraged. What followed were years of further exploitation of the family for journalistic purposes, scientists wanting samples of their DNA for more research, con artists attempting to profit from their situation and more.

The book’s author, Rebecca Skloot, spent years researching HeLa and Henrietta. She worked diligently to be introduced to the family, and became close to all of Henrietta’s children. And she did what nobody else had: she wrote the book with full cooperation from the family and with part of the proceeds, she established a foundation to help the Lacks family with medical and other expenses.

The book opens a complicated debate about the role of human tissue in scientific research, how and whether anyone should profit from the use of their cells, informed consent for medical procedures and a host of other ethical questions. It showcases the terrible exploitation of black people by the medical system (including the Tuskeegee Institute’s syphillis research on unwitting black subjects) and the advances made in the past 50 years toward improving the way patients’ privacy and dignity are protected.

This is a fascinating and well-written, exhaustively researched book that manages to combine science and human interest without being dry or maudlin. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

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Review: Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away

Tiny Sunbirds, Far AwayTiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Blessing and her brother Ezikiel live with their parents in an apartment in a Nigerian city, but everything changes when her mother walks in on Blessing’s father with another woman. After the divorce, Blessing and her mother and brother go to live with her grandparents in Warri, a tiny village in the Niger Delta. She’s never met them before.

Blessing’s grandfather is a man of great (and failed) ambitions. He converts to Islam and wants to take a second wife. He attempts to get a job as a petroleum engineer. He starts a snail farm. It is his wife, Blessing’s grandmother, who is the wisdom and heart of the story.

Ezikiel, increasingly disheartened about living in a filthy village, his allergies, his asthma, his thwarted ambitions to become a doctor…falls in with a local group of boys who call themselves Freedom Fighters, railing against the exploitation of the Niger Delta by Western oil companies.

Meanwhile, Blessing is being trained by her grandmother to become a midwife, and Blessing learns the extent and long term cultural and physical effects of genital mutilation upon the women of the Niger Delta.

Things begin to escalate when Blessing’s mother meets and falls in love with a white man who works for the oil company. Blessing’s family must choose between their culture and progress, their family and their ambitions. Every choice results in a series of explosive consequences.

I was not expecting to become so emotionally invested in the characters of this book, but it grew on me so that I was in tears during parts of the story and laughing at others. The author has done a tremendous job of crafting well-rounded characters that never, despite any idiosyncrasies, become caricatures.

Fascinating, compelling, eye-opening and amazing.


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Review: Before I Go to Sleep

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

She wakes up in a bed she doesn’t recognize, in a room she’s never seen, next to a man she can’t recall. Thinking for a second that she’s hungover and about to remember a terrible one-night-stand mistake, she creeps to the bathroom and closes the door. She reaches to wash her hands, and is shocked to see how aged her hands look. Then she looks in the mirror and does not see what she expects: she sees a middle-aged woman.

Panicking, she runs into the bedroom, where the man tells her he is her husband, Ben. She is Christine Lucas. She had an accident and has lost her memory. He shows her the pictures throughout the house of them together over time, and she finally calms outwardly, even though inside she is freaking out.

Ben goes to work, having left her with a list of instructions and a cell phone to call him if she needs anything. Later, a different phone rings in her bag – a second phone. She answers it, and it is Dr. Nash reminding her of their appointment later. He is a neurologist and tells her she’s been seeing him without her husband’s knowledge. He tells her she asked him to call and remind her that her journal is in the closet.

She finds it just where he said it would be and in the front cover is her name: Christine Lucas. Below it is written, in the same handwriting and underlined: “DO NOT TRUST BEN.”

This was one of the most intensely satisfying, tightly wound suspense novels I’ve ever read. The plot unfolds hundreds of revelations to Christine, unexpected knowledge of what Ben has kept from her to protect her from the 20+ years of amnesia she’s suffered. She can remember everything that happens in a day, including flashes of her life before the accident that took her memory. But when she goes to sleep at night, all of those memories are erased.

Dr. Nash helps her get started on a journal, where she records every flash, every event, every memory of each day before she goes to sleep and loses them. Every time she sees the journal, it’s brand new to her and she must start at the beginning to read through the progression of her memory. As more and more memories flood in, she begins to question what is told to her by everyone in her life, and she begins to wonder which memories are real and which are imaginary.

I was fortunate to receive an advance reader copy of this book, and immediately predicted it would become a best seller. At the time of this writing, we’re still two weeks from publication and already the book has been included on several news outlets’ lists of essential summer reading. If it’s not made into a movie, I’ll be surprised. Did I mention this is a debut novel? Unreal.


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