Welcome to my blog. If you're addicted to books, like I am, then you've come to the right place. I mostly write about books and my experiences reading them. These are very personal book reviews. (If you can even call them book reviews...) I’m a true believer that none of us lives in a vacuum. When you read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, etc., you absorb that art form into your life experience, and it changes you. But you also change it, because no two people see anything the same way. The way I interpret a novel may be totally different from the way you will. It’s still the same novel, but the meaning for each of us is unique. Once you express that meaning, it changes the art. So these posts are about how these books fit into my life. I’d love to hear how they fit into yours. Please make comment and share your experience.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Drowning in Library Holds

Why is it that as soon as I’ve found 2-3 books that I want to read, all of my library hold requests become available---even the ones I’ve been waiting on for months and months?  Seriously?!  How am I supposed to read all of these books?  Here is what is on my table at the moment:
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  This is the 2nd time I’ve checked this out and the 2nd time I’m going to return it without reading it.  Someday I’ll get to it. Sigh.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  A book club pick.  Luckily I’ve finished this one.  Due today, so I renewed it.  Just need to write the review before I return it. 
Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber.   I finished this one, too.  Just have to write the review.  (It was also due today and renewed!) 
The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk.  This is one of my favorite books.  I read it maybe 12-15 years ago.  I’d been thinking about it a lot lately and I wanted to re-read it.  My own copy disappeared at some point; I think I loaned it to my sister and it got left behind in one of her many International moves…  There are only two copies in all the libraries in Western Michigan, so I figured it would be weeks or months between the time I requested it and the time it arrived at my local branch.  It took 2 days.  Anyway, I’m about 130 pages into it at the moment.  (Also due today and renewed!)
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness---I requested this four months ago---why now????  Due 7/6.  The first eleven pages have not impressed me.  This one may get abandoned. 
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson.  Everyone is talking about this book.  I requested it four months ago, and it becomes available when I have 6 other books to deal with!  Luckily I can let this one go in peace since my dad is loaning me his copy.  No stress for this one.
The Help by Katharine Stockett, a book club pick for August.  Got some time before the club meets, but it’s due back next week…
Read fast, Jen.  How much sleep do you need anyway?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks [Book]
It is difficult to summarize this book quickly.  It’s an in-depth look at medical/bioethics.  It’s a story about a poor Southern woman who died of cancer and had no way of knowing she would have an immeasurable impact on the rest of the world.  It’s a story about a family and their lives and struggles.  And it’s a story about an writer’s quest to find out the facts surrounding a mystery in the history of medicine, scientific research and bioethics. 
HeLa is the name that scientists gave the cells that they took from Henrietta Lacks.  These were some of the first human cells that easily replicated in culture.  Before that, when scientists tried to grow human cells in the lab, they usually died, or only replicated a few times and then died.  But Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells kept growing and growing and growing.  And the scientists working with them started giving them to other scientists for experiments.  Eventually these cells helped doctors and scientists develop new drugs and vaccines and helped with genetic research and cloning and the list goes on and on…yet according to most of Skloot’s research, Henrietta probably never knew they were taken or were being used.  And most of the scientific world knew nothing of the person behind those cells. 
Many years later, scientists working with Henrietta’s cells wanted to compare them with cells from her family members to do genetic research; that is when her family first became aware of Henrietta’s “contribution.”  Their lives would never be the same again.
Crack Factor---10  For non-fiction or any book, this is a page turner.  I blew through this book in just a few days. 
Tears Shed Factor---9.  This story is often overwhelming.  There are many parts that made me gulp or choke back a tear or shake my head in sadness.  I felt this story. 
Distraction Factor---9.5.  This book had me riveted to the page.  When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking of when I could crack the spine again, wondering where the story would turn next.  And the issues raised in the book had my head spinning with multiple ethical questions. 
Enrichment Factor—10++ I knew absolutely nothing about the bioethic issues raised in this book before I read about Henrietta’s cells.  From now on, I’ll think about Henrietta every time I have a have a medical test taken or “give” a blood sample. 
Writing Skills Factor—10+++  About halfway through this book, I gave my parents an excited mini-synopsis of the story over lunch.  Both were intrigued and my dad took the book to read the inside covers.  He noticed that the author is a professor of “creative non-fiction” at the University of Memphis. “How can that be?” he said.  Creative NON-fiction?  What an idea.  We don’t often think of non-fiction as “creative” since it is supposed to be based on fact.  I think he even used the term “oxymoron.”  In the end we agreed that on the basic surface, it seems like non-fiction should be based on fact and calling it “creative” gives the illusion that you’re being “creative” with the facts, but that’s not what it really means.  All writing is creative.  And a great writer makes non-fiction sing while staying true to the facts.  A great writer can spin an engaging story about almost any topic.   Skloot makes this look easy.  Impressed is an understatement when describing how I view Skloot’s skill.     
Story telling Factor ---10.  This is non-fiction, but Skloot does tell a fantastic story.  She knows how to present the facts so that it flows like a story and not like a list. 
People Factor---10.  All the characters in this book are real people: Henrietta, her husband and children and cousins and friends and neighbors, and the doctors and scientists working with her cells.  Skloot draws clear pictures of them and you understand them as human beings with feelings and faults.  In a preliminary section of the book the author writes:  “I’ve done my best to capture the language with which each person spoke and wrote: dialogue appears in native dialects…”  I really appreciated this attention to detail.  I love love love language and I appreciate regional and socio-economic differences in language as things that give richness and identity to our culture.  This trueness helped me feel more a part of the story.
Surprisingly, the author herself is also character in this book, but it’s done so well that I can’t imagine any other way she could have told the story.  If she hadn’t been part of it, I don’t think readers could understand the patience and perseverance it took to find and follow this story. She really becomes a part of it as she gets to know the Lacks family.  It becomes her story, too. 
Total Rating: 9.79

Monday, June 20, 2011

Review of the Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold

Let’s talk about ruts.  How many of you readers out there find yourself in a rut from time to time?  All of the sudden you realize that everything you read is the same.  I’ve gone through an Oprah book phase, a classic phase, a Janet Evanovich phase, a mystery phase, a Sci-fi phase, a historical drama phase, etc.  From time to time I realize how deep the rut has gotten and I try to climb out of it.  When I most recently went looking for something outside my norm, I tried to find a “fantasy” novel written by a woman, because normally when I read sci-fi it’s a military/space drama written by a man.  My very brief search ended with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series.  It consists of four books, Beguilement, Legacy, Passage and Horizon

The Sharing Knife series is set in a fictional world, without modern technology or warfare.   Two groups of people live in this world.  The “Farmers” are regular humans just like us, with no special powers.  The “Lakewalkers” are also human, but with a developed sense of the world around them.  They can sense and manipulate energy, which they call “ground.”  I imagine “ground” as similar to the Chinese concept of Chi—a life force that flows through all living things, although in the books, even dead and inanimate objects have ground as well, it just manifests differently.  Because of their “groundsense,” the Lakewalkers live longer and grow taller than farmers.  They can also sense the location of other beings within a finite distance and they can feel the emotions of others as well.  They use ground for healing and they imbue ground in the products they create to make them stronger or better.  For example, a leather coat with ground reinforcement may be strong enough to repel arrows.  A ground reinforced rope may never break, etc.  Their groundsense and abilities also give Lakewalkers the ability to track and kill the “malices,” which are creatures that suck the ground out of everything around them, leaving a trail of blight that takes decades or even centuries to recover. 
In this world, Lakewalkers and Farmers do not mix.  Farmers generally misunderstand and fear Lakewalkers for their seemingly “magical” powers; and because Farmers cannot sense or “veil” their own ground, many Lakewalkers feel uncomfortable around them because they feel bombarded by all this “loose” energy and emotion.  And when two groups of people don’t understand each other, problems are bound to happen. 
The main protagonists in the series are Fawn, a young Farmer woman, who is fleeing from her overbearing family and facing an unwanted pregnancy.  Along the way she meets Dag, a one-handed, middle-aged Lakewalker, who rescues her from some bandits in the road.  When a malice threatens the pair, their lives become entwined even more.    Each of these books has a separate plot, and yet they are all moving in one direction.  Our main characters’ desire is to bridge the gap between Farmers and Lakewalkers so they may work together to overcome the seemingly endless threat of malices that endangers both groups.
I normally try not to read other people’s reviews before I write my own.  I can be spongy and I don’t want another reviewer to influence what I’m going to say.  But I did read several reviews of this series of books, both positive and negative.  Interesting to me was that another female reviewer blasted the series for being too “romance-like” (and she couldn’t get past the age difference between Dag & Fawn).  A more positive review was from a man who admitted they were “chick books” on the surface, but said that if other men discounted them because the first book seemed too much like a romance, then they would be missing out on a great series.  I agree that the first book does have a love story at the core; the two main characters struggle a bit getting together, but the rest of the series won’t happen if they don’t.  If these two characters don’t get together, there is no motivation to move the story forward and bridge the gap between these two groups.  So once we get Dag & Fawn together, the adventures get better because they both are experiencing the other’s culture and finding ways to maneuver through a world different from their own.     
CF (Crack Factor) – 10.  Honestly, I couldn’t put these books down.  I picked up the first one only planning to skim the first 10 pages since it was due back at the library the next day.  I wanted to see if it was interesting enough to check back out some other time.  I read 100+ pages that night.  Bujold definitely knows how to keep the plot moving forward.  These are action books.  Each book took me only about two days to devour.  I work full time and have two little kids, so if I’m making the time to power through a book, it’s good. 
TSF-Tears Shed Factor – N/A—This series isn’t going to make you cry with emotion wrenching parts, although there were a few parts that got to me---mainly because I empathized with Fawn’s insecurities. 
DF (Distraction Factor) – 10.  I actually found myself thinking about this “Sharing Knife” world quite often.  There were so many bits of Dag-wisdom that I found really insightful.  And Fawn’s emotional and social struggles and triumphs really resonated with me. 
PF (People Factor) -- 9.5.  Bujold’s characters are great.  She does a wonderful job of describing them without hitting you over the head with description.  She also gives her characters room to grow and change; character development is something I always appreciate.  And for all the likeable characters, she also gives you a good bunch of nasty ones to hate.  I swear you meet the most horrible mother-in-law ever created in the 2nd book, Legacy
WSF (Writing Skills Factor) –8.  Bujold’s style is a little different.  She moves easily from Dag’s and Fawn’s perspectives.  The story and ideas come across clearly and beautifully.  She does well to convey the “folksy” conversation of her characters when writing dialog, which doesn’t always come off well with other authors.  She also does a good job of giving description of characters and scenes without over-doing it, or making it seem forced. 
STF (Story Telling Factor) – 9.  I love this world Bujold created.  Each book has a separate plot and yet, they all move toward the overall series plot of bridging the gap between these two disparate groups. 
BABF (Bad Ass Babe Factor) – 8.  Bujold creates many strong female characters.  On the surface Fawn may not appear to be a BAB, but she is fierce in her own way.  Although physically small, she’s as tough and brave as they come and despite her diminutive stature, she is courageous enough to do what she needs to do to protect the people she loves.  There are many other strong female characters in the books as well and I loved how the Lakewalker culture has total equality for men and women.  The women are warriors and healers and leaders just as much as the men are.  And the society is matrilineal.  Very cool. 
HTAF (Too be explained soon but basically the hot guy factor) – 8.  Dag is a great character; he’s tough and wise.  He’s incredibly ethical and very creative in his way of thinking.   Even though his wife is 1/3 his age, he treats her like a complete equal.  He upends his entire life for her.  
It was hard to say goodbye to these characters and this world.  Bujold tied up the story nicely, but I still left it wanting more…Total rating:  8.9

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

“Not Quite String Theory” or “I Have Permission to Review 'Twilight' and 'New Moon' by Stephenie Meyer”

Before I begin this book review, I need to tell you a few things about my Uncle Stephen.  When I was a little girl, Uncle Stevie was a hippie with long hair and a long beard.  He and his friends lived off the land on a “farm” that sounded like a sort of commune to me.  As a single man, he would buy the oddest presents for his little nieces:  Sci-fi books and lapel pins and Guatemalan belts.  Completely different from the Barbie and Strawberry Shortcake dolls that other people gave me; they became enduring favorites. I still have some today.  On a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota, Uncle Stevie chased a mother bear and her two cubs through woods because she stole a backpack full of food.  And he got it back…  Despite two busted knees, he looks like poetry in motion on a pair of downhill skis.    He cried on his wedding day and still does when he watches a romantic or touching movie.  And when I saw a Science Channel show about string theory physics, I thought…I bet Uncle Stevie knows about this.  I asked him if he had any books to recommend to me.  “Oh, of course,” he said, peering out of his office a minute later with a stack of books about complicated advanced physics.  You get the picture here.  Uncle Stevie is cool and smart and so totally not the person I would imagine would tell me the “Twilight Saga” books by Stephenie Meyer are “pretty good.”
So now you know who encouraged me to read a series of books I would never have picked up on my own…  Here are the reasons why I wouldn’t have given them a chance:  The Twilight books are normally labeled “Horror,” “Teen,” and/or “Romance.”  All three are categories I would never choose on my own.  I’m not at all interested in horror books.  With two little kids at home, I read a ton of kid books, but have not ventured into “teen” books since I was a teen, which was a pretty long time ago.  Plus I don’t read strictly “romance” novels for two reasons:  1. I can be a book snob and most books labeled as such aren’t at the character, plot and literary level that I prefer.   2. From a purely practical standpoint, romance novels are really designed as porn for women.  And just like porn for men, they are so far removed from reality that it’s disturbing.  If you read a whole bunch of romantic scenes and a whole bunch of steamy hot bedroom scenes, pretty soon you’re escaping reality and then it’s hard for reality to measure up…No matter how fabulous your reality is.  It’s not fair to my husband if I’m disappointed he doesn’t act like HottieA from Steamy Romance Novel B, especially if I don’t want him to expect me to be PinUpXXX from NastyMagZ.   (Sidenote—when/if I ever finish my post on the HTAF rating factor—I will talk about this a little bit more.)
After reading the first two books in the series, Twilight and New Moon, I would have to say that I wouldn’t categorize them as either horror or romance.  I found them neither scary nor romantic, although they are about vampires and there is a love story at the heart of them.  I’m not going to summarize the plot of these books.  Unless you have lived in the Patagonian Steppe for the last 5 years without contact from the outside world, chances are you know what the stories are about, and if you don’t, you can find a great little summary of all the books right here on Wikipedia. In once quick sentence, it’s a love triangle between a vampire, a werewolf, and a human, with a little mystery and danger and mayhem thrown in. 
Despite my permission to read teen/romance novels from one of the coolest and smartest men I know, I still had a hard time admitting I liked these books.  I must really be a book snob.  But here—let me say it again---just to convince myself--I really did like them.  Once you set aside obvious pandering to the teenage girl audience, the story is actually pretty good.  A mystery unfolds as Bella, our protagonist, tries to figure out why her boyfriend Edward’s behavior is so strange…  The mystery continues in the second book as she discovers her best friend Jacob’s secret life as well.  Both books also have a good vs. evil struggle in the plot, which strengthens the story.  What I like most about the series, however, was getting peeks into this new world of vampires and werewolves.  I love it when an author creates the rules and boundaries of an alternate reality. 
Meyer’s vampires come in two categories, all of them are immortal, with cold, marble-hard skin that glitters in sunlight.  They are attractive, inhumanly strong and fast, and many have supernatural powers as well, like mind reading, or the ability to manipulate emotions or see the future.  After the vampire basics, they split into two groups.  Most embrace their vampire selves and enjoy drinking human blood.   But the ones Meyers focuses on are the ones who don’t particularly like being “monsters.”  These vampires jokingly call themselves “vegetarian,” because they choose not to drink human blood, surviving only on the blood of animals.  They are smart, sexy, kind, principled, and very protective of their adoptive families.  This cultural division gives the story some depth as the vampires clash with each other, the werewolves and the human world.  
CF (Crack Factor)---6.  To be fair, I picked this up from the library just as I was beginning Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon.  I read a few bits of Twilight, but there was no way I was going to stop Dragonfly for Twilight.  So even though Twilight and New Moon are pretty good page turners, they get a lower rating because they did take backseat to better books.  And no, I did not get obsessed with the Twilight series, so it’s not high on the crack factor scale, even though I do like them enough to probably read the next two books.
WSF (Writing Skills Factor)---5.  A solid average.  It’s pretty obvious Twilight is Meyers’ first book.  The only reason I’m not giving it a below average rating is because it’s in the “teen” category so I’m cutting her more slack. It was Meyers’ stunted writing skills that really gave me a hard time with the love story in the book.  She “told” the readers over and over how much Edward and Bella supposedly loved each other, but she didn’t “show” it; I never really felt it.  Even when friends and coworkers (and half the women in the world) were fawning over these books as passionate romances, it just felt forced to me.
PF (People Factor)—6.5.  I enjoyed most of the characters. I’d have to say I like the secondary characters better than the main ones.
STF (StoryTelling Factor)-8.  The plot is more than just two people falling in love-there are enough twists and turns here to make it into a good story.  As mentioned above, I like the created world with these mythical creatures in it living beside us with their supernatural abilities.  I have to admit being curious how the movie adaptations would portray these special powers.   (I saw both movies AFTER reading the books).  The books do a much better job than the movies.  Even all the special effects available now couldn’t compete with the words on the page.  Seeing Edward sprinting through the forest with Bella on his back in the movie was so disappointing.  It just looked silly to me; whereas in the book, it didn’t seem silly, just magical. 
Total Rating:  6.375

Thanks to Uncle Stevie for helping me step out of my norm and giving me permission to read some books I had dismissed.   I enjoyed them, plain and simple.   And now I know what the buzz is all about.  J
And thanks to my sister and editor, Stephanie Leddington, who made me re-write this entire post.  It’s a lot better now than version 1…

Monday, June 6, 2011

Notes on the book life

It’s been a few days since I’ve been able to post.  Mostly I’ve been busy with life and kids and work and house guests, but I’ve also been reading and I went to a book club meeting! 
Here’s what I’ve read since I last posted:
I finished the Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold, reading the 3rd book, Passage, and the 4th book, Horizon.  So sad to finish that series---I loved the characters and had a hard time putting these books down; they are total page-turners.  I savored the last 100 pages and still haven’t returned them to the library yet, re-reading my favorite parts over again.   I’m working on the review for the series at the moment. 
I have read some more in Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, which is a great collection of his favorite articles from The New Yorker magazine.  They are all really great little shorts for when you’ve got 20 minutes to kill. 
I’ve started reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot which is another book club choice.   I’m about halfway through it and so far, I am impressed.  This is non-fiction at its most enjoyable.  This writer is amazing.  It’s like the story leaps out at you.  It’s emotion-riddled, too—happy, sad, funny, infuriating, devastating and uplifting.  I’m just devouring it at this point.  
I also started listening to Off Armageddon Reef, by David Weber, on CD.  It’s the first in his "Safehold" series and I’m only listening to it until I can pick up the actual book at the library.  The book on CD was available first. 
On Wednesday I met with a book club to discuss Strength in What Remains.  It was a nice mix of people and we had some interesting discussion.  Tomorrow, I’m meeting with the Inforum leisure book club to discuss Await Your Reply.