Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I have heard so much about this nonfiction title and was ecstatic that our Valley Book Club picked it for its October discussion. It is what people now refer to as "narrative nonfiction" which to me means nonfiction that reads like a novel. Or in other words, nonfiction that I can read, understand, and even enjoy. And enjoy it I did!

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman who was treated for cervical cancer in the 1950's at Johns Hopkins hospital. The cancer spread rapidly, possibly because her cheating husband was constantly giving her one venereal disease after another. While treating her, a doctor at Johns Hopkins took a cutting from one of her tumors and put it in a petri dish and gave it to a scientist who was obsessed with finding cells that would continue to grow outside the body. These cells became HeLa cells, which did live outside of Henrietta and whose "offspring" are still being used in science today. The funny thing was, no one told Henrietta or her family that those cells were taken, and no one told them after they had reproduced by the millions. No one told them after these cells helped to cure diseases like polio. No one told them until some writers began to question who the cell donor was and began to dig into Henrietta's family. But none were successful until Rebecca Skloot.

Not only do we have a wonderful story of science and research here, but we also get a vivid historical story of Henrietta's world as a wife, mother, and woman. Skloot has woven the intricate details of cell duplication and reproduction along with the sorrows and harsh realities of cancer, poverty, discrimination, and struggles with faith. These are all rolled into a fascinating true tale of the power of one: one woman gave us what no one else could at the time, and it's changed the world and helped millions of people. A powerful story of survival even in death.

Don't miss this one - put it on your list just as the Valley Book Club has. And PLEASE post your comments so I can share them with our club!

Children and Fire by Ursula Hegi

I haven't heard anything about Ursula Hegi for a very long time, and so I was surprised and excited to see her new book. Hegi's Stones from the River is one of my favorites from back when I read every single Oprah Book Club pick about 15 years ago, and I've read everything I can by her. But it is Hegi's stories about World War II that are so memorable that their characters, like Trudi Montag, will live in your mind forever.

Children and Fire is the story of a school teacher named Thekla Jansen during the early days of Hitler's Third Reich. Thekla has replaced a Jewish teacher who she greatly admires and loves, but she struggles with her own unprejudiced nature and her patriotism and love of Germany during this difficult time. She so wants to impart to her boys what it means to be a good person while having to be very careful about what she says and who she says it to and watching books burn on the city streets. In addition to this struggle, Thekla's family upbringing come into play, an upbringing that in the end could prove dangerous.

I loved this book for it beautiful writing style and realistically flawed characters and the terrible history they cannot escape. I did find the movement of the book's chapters, which alternate from 1934 and Thekla's teaching days to the past and her mother's early life, very distracting at first, but I got used to it. I am always looking for books that teach me something new or allow me into the perspective of people with viewpoints which oppose mine. This book is a wonderful remembrance of what can happen when we trust leaders blindly and think we can allow ourselves to compromise our basic humanity just a little at a time.

I hope you'll pick this one up and then read Hegi's Stones from the River, if you haven't already. You'll never forget it. Also don't forget to post and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors. I can still remember many wonderful details from her book Bel Canto, and I read it almost 10 years ago. That's an amazingly memorable book. So I was excited to pick up Patchett's new one and find out if it had the same magical feel and vivid details that Bel Canto did.

State of Wonder is the story of Marina Singh, a research scientist quietly studying lipids with her lab partner Anders Eckman. She is farily content with her life, even though she is midde-aged, single, childless, and sleeping with the boss. But then the boss sends Eckman into the Amazon jungle to find out the progress of a research project funded by the drug company she works for. The project involves the life-long fertility of a Brazilian tribe and the doctor, Annick Swenson, who changed Marina's life forever without even knowing it. When Eckman fails to find out the needed information, Marina's boss and boyfriend sends her to the jungle as well, forcing her into a world full of danger, uncertainty, oppressive heat, and strange customs. Marina must find out the research's secrets, deal with the doctor who changed her career, find out the details of Eckman's "failure", and keep herself alive despite swarms of insects, huge snakes, threat of malaria, and other jungle pleasures.

I loved this book for its believable characters, wonderful details of the Amazon, and its extremely interesting medical research premise. Could it be possible for a 70-year-old woman to give birth? Why would she want to? Are medical breakthroughs really found in the way that Dr. Swenson employs deep in the jungle? If we just found the right bark of the right tree and ate it in just the right way, could we cure cancer someday? It doesn't seem possible; it is a novel after all. And yet it seems completely possible, because I am completely hopeful. Anyway, it all completely fascinated me, and I'll look forward to Patchett's next memorable novel, hopefully very soon.

Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva

What can I say about someone who has perfected the spy thriller? What can I say about the perfect spy character, Gabriel Allon? The one thing I can say is that Daniel Silva has done it again with a timely, scary, thought-provoking speed ride of a book in Portrait of a Spy.

I've been reading a lot in this genre lately, and while I've come across a lot of them that I like, there is something about Silva's Gabriel Allon that is so interesting I just don't get tired of him. Yes, this is a series of books with the same basic premise of CIA and MI5 and Israel's secret service all fighting against jihadist terrorists. Yes, they have the same basic set of characters. But for some reason, Allon stands out and keeps it all going. He is part spy, part husband, part art restorer, part linguist, part friend, and all hero.

In this book, Allon is retired until he and is wife are taking a leisurely stroll in Covent Garden in London, and Allon comes across a man who is, to his trained spy's eye, a terrorist bomb threat. The outcome of the incident puts in motion a scenario that can only be stopped by trained, seasoned professionals like Allon and his crew. So he is forced to come out of retirement and bring down the kingpin of a new terrorist cell, who is hidden in plain sight. He again employs the help of a civilian who has the right contacts, but this ploy always makes Gabriel very nervous. Can he pull it off once again and take down the cell without getting any innocents killed in the process? You'll have to read to find out, but it won't take you long, because once you start on this roller coaster, you won't  be able to stop.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Iron House by John Hart

Hart's novel The Last Child was one of my favorite reads of last year, so I couldn't wait to pick this one up, and I have to tell you, I literally could not put it down. I read this one in two days, which in the exta busy summer months just seems impossible to me, but it's true. The writing is so wonderfully rich and the story so exciting, that every chapter just kept me wanting to find out what would happen next.

Iron House is an orphange where the two brothers in the book, Julian and Michael, grew up after being abandoned and left for dead in a freezing river in wintertime. Julian is the weaker of the two and is constantly harrassed by older boys who are inexplicably cruel. Michael is his guardian until a terrible incident forces Michael to run away, just when a rich Senator's wife has come to adopt them. So Julian is given a life of privilege and Michael is forced into the world of organized crime by a boss who finds and "saves" him, training him to be an extremely skilled enforcer.

But eventually, Michael finds a woman who makes him see a future filled with love and family instead of guns and hatred, and he wants out. He is granted immunity by his adopted father, but when the crime boss dies, Michael is left to flee the others who are after the don's millions. The rest is an exciting game of cat and mouse with some disturbing family drama thrown in to make it more interesting. Hart's characters are wonderfully real and dynamic, and the action and drama are perfectly paced so that at every turn the reader is pulled deeper into the story. It is not a book for the squeamish, however, as many scenes are violent and at times, gruesome. But when it's a book about organized crime and childhood abuse, there can be no other realistic way to play it.

So if you like thrillers that make you turn page after page in the wee hours of the night, this is the one for you this summer. Give it a try and let me know if you love it as much as I did!

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

I like to keep up on the YA scene as much as I can, and so I thought I'd try the first in this series that has been wildly popular at the library. Fans of Twilight gravitate toward these fantasy books and always give rave reviews, and now I know why.

Clary Fray is just a girl (or so she thinks) living with her mother in New York City, hanging with her best friend Simon and working her way through a normal teenage life including conflicts about boys and her mother. But a chance encounter with a demon and some beings called Shadlowhunters in a local club change her life forever. The fact that Clary can see these supernatural beings while others cannot, is the first clue that she is different, and her quest to learn about this new world and how she fits in becomes the stage for some exciting supernatural conflict.

There are many interesting facets of Clare's new world that I found fascinating and different from other fantasy novels. These aspects make the story realistic and fantastic all at once, and get me to lose myself in their world. For instance, Clary discovers from Jace and his family that Shadowhunters are the beings who keep the human world safe from demons of the underworld. Demons are supposed to remain "down below" per an agreement they have with the higher powers. In the middle world are creatures like vampires and werewolves, fairies and witches, who are allowed to live in the human world as long as they don't bother the humans too much (or in other words, kill them.)The story of City of Bones revolves around a former Shadowhunter turned bad named Valentine who threatens to mess up this tenuous balance between worlds. Clary and Jace fight their way through hordes of demons in order to find out the truth about their own powers and heritage, giving the reader lots to get lost in: love, friendship, physical battle, and struggles of family loyalty. A rich world to be sure.

So, if you're ready to get lost in a good story of good vs. evil, with cool, realistic yet fantastical characters for some exciting summer fun, then pick up this set of novels right away. Let me know what you think!

The Night Journal by Elizabeth Crook

I've been wanting the to read this book for a long time because it sounded like it would be right up my alley. It took me a while to get through, mostly because the summer is super busy for me, but I did get bogged down a little in the details. The story, however, is wonderful and well worth the read.

Meg Mabry is an unmarried, soon-to-be-middle aged engineer who also takes care of her aging grandmother, known as Bassie. Bassie is responsible for publishing some journals that her own mother wrote while living in the western frontier. There has always been an odd tension, love/hate bond between Meg and Bassie that makes their lives full of conflict, and this relationship is further strained by Bassie's insistence that they travel to New Mexico to exhume the bones of Bassie's mother's dogs. This seemingly crazy request leads them both on a journey of discovery about love, their heritage, and the ties that bind lives together for all of history.

Interspersed with segments that are supposed to be the real journals of Hannah Bass, the narrative is rich with detail. I enjoyed the history of the early west and learned something about the mixing of Mexican and Anglo cultures during that time. There is also a nice romance element to the book that is compelling and realistic, but somehow very depressing to me at the same time, and I was a bit disappointed in Meg at the end, but I'm not sure why. I found all the detail in the book enjoyable, yet some may find it slow-moving. It is a book that makes you think about history, life, and relationships, giving the reader much to think about even after the last page.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy

I am a big fan of Maeve Binchy. Her storytelling and characters always make you feel like you are in the middle of an Irish neighborhood, stopping to call on a friend for a nice cup of tea. Minding Frankie had this same magic, and since it had been so long since I'd read one of Binchy's tales, it was like coming home.

The cast of characters here, like all of Binchy's novels, is really too large to name. But the story revolves around little Frankie, the new and unexpected daughter of Noel, a previously washed-up alcoholic with few prospects for a good life or love. But when Stella, Frankie's mother, knows she is dying and must find a father for the baby she is about to have, she thinks of Noel, and so it begins.

Frankie becomes the love of the neighborhood, and Noel's sobriety so that he can keep her becomes the neighborhood "cause." They band together to keep the baby watched, fed, loved, and keep Noel on the straight and narrow. But it is Emily, an American come to find her Irish roots, who keeps the whole of them in line, giving them new ideas and new hope for the future in a place she now belongs to as much as they do.  If someone needs a job, she finds one. If someone needs a babysitter, she is one. If someone needs cooking or gardening lessons, she is there at their home, showing them how easy it is.

Emily is, in fact, the kind of person that make most of us sick because she is quite perfect, rarely showing her impatience or disgust when people are lethargic or inept. But in her, the reader must also see someone who they really would like to strive to be: someone who is constantly giving to others, using talents they never knew they possessed, all to make others feel good about themselves or make a success of their lives. Although Emily made me a bit sick, yes, she was also good for me to read. We could all be a bit more like Emily. There was one thing that did keep bugging me about Binchy's writing of Emily, though. Emily was born and raised in America, not Ireland, and yet she spoke with the same colloquial expressions that all of the Irish characters used. She said many things that people in the US wouldn't even think of saying. Perhaps her Irish father spoke this way, and she picked it up? Or maybe it's like when someone from the Midwest moves to Texas and they come home with a drawl? It just seemed odd to me.

But that aside, Minding Frankie was a light, enjoyable story with a marvelous array of quirky characters that will warm your heart and make you take a look at your own life. Give it a try, and tell me what you think!

Fragile Beasts byTawni O'Dell

Family drama, teen angst, class struggle, love trianges, and a bit of history. There's a little something for everyone in O'Dell's newest novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Klint and Kyle lose their father in a tragic accident, and their mother and younger sister have not had any contact with them for years. Neither wants to move in with their irresponsible, money-grubbing mother, especially Klint who is the high school's star baseball player, a shoe-in for a big college scholarship. So, a mutual friend who happens to be a girl that Kyle is in love with, suggests they move in with her wealthy grandmother. Sounds odd, but that is what eventually happens, and it is Candace, the lonely widow of a Spanish bullfighter, who opens her life and her home to them and is able to teach them about love and loyalty.

O'Dell's characters are wonderful because they are so "real" and memorable. The angst and feelings that Kyle expresses are a sometimes beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious, look into the mind of a teenage boy who only wants his brother and a girl to love him. His search for something that he's good at, that makes him special, is a struggle that we all face in our lives at some point, and the help that Candace gives him is something we all wish for and strive to give as parents. Candace's personal journey with these young boys and her memories of her own true love and the land of bullfighting bring a wonderful mysterious aspect to the story, rich in detail and a bit of history, and not overly done.

If you need a good, involving summer read this year,  Fragile Beasts may be the ticket! Post your comments for me!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Twice a Spy by Keith Thomson

If you ever think that you're having a streak of bad luck, just pick up this sequel to Thomson's first novel Once a Spy, and you'll feel lucky.

Drummond Clark, the retired CIA agent, and Charlie, his once unsuspecting son and habitual gambler, are still on the run, trying to find a way to keep from getting killed by members of covert CIA and keep Drummond's Alzheimer's in check. They are helped by Charlie's new-found love, Alice, but Charlie must decide if she's a good guy or a bad guy. The father-son team must constantly be looking over their shoulders, constantly searching for the next escape route, constantly crashing out of the deadly situations that befall them.

Drummond's medication seems helpful, but it also may put him to sleep just when his ninja-like reflexes are called for. Charlie seems like a changed man, in love with a spy and his gambling habit in remission. Can they work together to make it out of their situation alive?

Twice a Spy is another fun, over-the-top, spy adventure that just seemed to flow from one ridulous, dangerous, exciting chapter to another. It's full of fun spy tech, great characters, and non-stop action. Pick it up for a fun read this summer!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ape House by Sara Gruen

When I picked this book up, I had no idea what it really was about. I really didn't think it could be about apes; the possibility seemed kind of bizarre to me. But I enjoyed this book very much and learned a great deal about bonobos and about my own state of Iowa.

Gruen got the idea for this novel and did her research at the Great Ape Trust in DesMoines, a place I did not know existed. There she studied the bonobos, the breed of ape that is depicted in the book with such fascinating detail that I wish I could reach the high level of security clearance it takes to meet the apes myself.

The story involves the bombing of an language research center right after a struggling newspaper reporter visits it, impressing both the bonobos themselves and their human linguist. When news of the bombing reaches the reporter, he knows he must go back to track the story, despite personal problems and difficulties that arise with security and the ambiguous fate of the bonobos themselves when the linguist is wounded. The apes are somehow sold to an unscrupulous character who creates a reality show around them that not only abuses them physically but begins to hurt their intellects. The linguist must battle her own injuries from the bombing as well as fight to return the bonobos to a habitat that suits them so that they can go on teaching humans about their language capabilities.

Despite the very mixed reviews this book got, I totally enjoyed it and felt it had a lot to teach us. The signing and language displays of the apes were fascinating, and their compassion and flawless character judgement was something I had never really believed another species capable of. The bonobos' simple statements such as, "Bonzi love Bell. Kiss kiss," and "Visitor dirty bad, dirty bad visitor," can be taken as reminders that sometimes things are indeed black and white, no matter how we try to gloss them over. Some people are just "dirty bad" and some are "kiss kiss."  The story is an excellent example of how we underestimate people (and animals), and how far humans will go to exploit almost anything in this world, if, as bystanders and onlookers, we allow it.

The fact that this book follows Gruen's wildly popular Water for Elephants, to me, is the only reason it got poor reviews. I enjoyed Ape House every bit as much. So, don't judge an author only by the cover of her most famous book, people. Keep your mind open, and you might be saying, "Sara Gruen love, kiss, kiss," too.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult has become a beloved author among book club enthusiasts everywhere because of her ability to tackle multiple issues and intertwine them in a way that lets readers get a look at them all in a seamless and seemingly real way. Some readers feel there is a definite formula to her writing, and this is true if you read them all, but I would guess that no one cares. Their honesty and genuine readability carries them further than the story and you'll think about them far longer than the time it takes to read them.  Sing You Home has been much awaited by Picoult lovers because of the issues it presents, and it was a powerful and affirming read for me.

In most of Picoult's books, the story is told from a varying point of view. The first in Sing You Home is Zoe, the 40-year-old childless, married woman who will go through anything, including mulitple invitro procedures, in order to get pregnant. Max, her husband, is definitely committed to having a child also, but towards the end of this journey, it is more about doing it for Zoe than anything else. When their last pregnancy try ends in devastating disappointment, Max has had enough - not just of trying to have a baby, but he's apparently had enough of Zoe and married life as well. He doesn't even really try to discuss it with Zoe and is angry that she wants to try for another baby. So, he instead leaves her to move in with his married, and also childless, brother.

Thus Zoe has been abandoned in her life and is seeking nothing except some kind of peace in order to go on. Then enters Vanessa Shaw, a work colleague who then becomes the life partner that Max never was. Vanessa has always acknowledged that she is gay and is hesitant to tell Zoe even when her attraction is hard to deny. When Zoe, too, falls for Vanessa, they begin a life together which includes marriage (although they must go to a neighboring state to do so.) They both wish they could have children when it dawns on them that Zoe still has three frozen embryos at the clinic that could be theirs if Max will sign them over.

Thus begins the moral fight and debate that is inevitable, complicated by the fact that Max starts to go to his brother's ultra conservative Christian church. Although he finds that faith helps him through the rough times in his life, including his alchoholism, he finds himself fighting the two parts of his soul: the part that is led by his brother and sister-in-law's beliefs in a God who would never condone homosexual relationships, and another part that truly wants what is best for Zoe. Part of him does realize that it's selfish for him to deny these children to Zoe, who he knows would be a great mother, when he himself does not wish for any children, but he still struggles with the church and the minister's condemnation of the gay "lifestyle."

Although you can tell which side of this hot civil rights issue Picoult is on in this book, I think she still portrays both sides with a fairly unprejudicial eye. The characters of the minister and Max's lawyer are extra confrontational for effect, but their zeal and maliciousness, I believe since having some personal experience with similar issues myself, is spot on.

This book is wonderful because no matter what side of the issues you lie on, no matter if you like the writing style or not, it will make you think. It will make you question. It will give you a tiny peek through the window at what others may be thinking and feeling and living. I love books like this one because it asks me to test my prejudices and my beliefs, and I know that the act of questioning can only make me a better and stronger person. I hope it will do the same for you.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

A writer on the flap of this book called it a "work of art." I must agree. Reading The Winter Ghosts is like looking an impressionist paiting or reading a piece of flowing poetry. The story unfolds like a period film, drawing you in with its simplicity and beautiful language.

It begins with the main character, Freddie, looking for an interpreter for an ancient document he has in his possession. The book seller/interpreter says he'd love to hear the story behind the exceptionally rare piece of writing and how Freddie came to have it. The book then becomes Freddie's memories of a time when he struggled with his brother's death in WWI. He tries to escape his grief in travel, and one night he wrecks his car and  comes upon a small village  and some innkeepers who take him in. While lodged there, he has a dream-like experience that is so real to him that he finds it hard to separate it from life, feeling deep love for a girl he swears he talked to for hours. The girl also tells him a haunting tale of her brave escape from enemy soldiers, and she begs him to come and find him the following day. But when Freddie wakes up with a raging fever, the innkeepers are baffled and think him insane.

Has Freddie seen one of the "winter ghosts" the car mechanic warns him about? Is any of his "dream" real and what does it mean for his life? In this brief and beautiful book, Mosse unfolds these mysteries for us with language that seems as if it, too, is from another time and place. I urge you to pick up The Winter Ghosts for something different, a story that strays from today's norm in fiction writing.

The Help by Kathleen Stockett

Last year,  The Help became the most requested interlibrary loan book that I have ever seen at our library, and now I get it. Our book club has read a lot of great books this year depicting race struggles both in the US and in other countries. Sometimes I kind of get bogged down by reading too much in a "theme" like this, but reading The Help was like a strong, cool spring wind that rushes you, taking your breath away: it takes you by surprise, is refreshing, and warns you not to get too comfortable because the bite of winter is not long gone.

The story unfolds through three different viewpoints, told in alternating sections. These three women represent three different perspectives on the issue of race in America in the early 1960's. Miss Skeeter is a budding writer who just wants to escape the small town where she grew up so that she can become the woman she knows she is inside. She has come home from college with a degree instead of a husband, something that her social-climbing friends just can't understand. Skeeter's mother doesn't help matters, always criticizing Skeeter's clothes, hair, and manner, making Skeeter an insecure mess. Aibileen is the maid for one of Skeeter's "friends" who has lost her only child and who loves the white children she is paid to tend. She is an intelligent, insightful woman who is trapped in a job much beneath her by her race and her race alone. Minny is Skeeter's very outspoken friend, also a black maid, who can't seem to keep a job because of her "big mouth" and pride. She is abused by her husband and loathed by the white ladies, but she finally finds a maid job with an unusual white woman who has come from a poor background in the South.

It is Miss Skeeter who brings all these characters together in a story within a story. She is asked by a New York publisher to write a book about the "colored" maids in her town, exposing their real lives to the world. At first Skeeter has a very hard time convincing any of the maids to come forward, jeopardizing not only their jobs by telling the truth, but their very lives which become threatened by whites who may seek revenge for the exposure to their lives and prejudices. It is Aibileen's struggle then, too, to help Miss Skeeter, who she initially mistrusts but grows to love. She wants desperately to tell her story, but she also wants it to mean something to all the other maids. She knows that their stories will be a tiny step in helping abolish segregation and injustices due to race.

Do these powerful women find their voice in the end? Does the book they write ever get published? Does the KKK seek retribution for their boldness? Does Miss Skeeter ever get out of her small town? Do Minny and Aibileen ever get a better life and is it everything they hoped? By the end of this beautifully told story, you will know all these answers, and I hope you will be as moved as I was.  I hope you will be moved enough to try to end prejudice where you see it in your life. Because it always takes the first person to say "No, this wrong!" before the right and truth can be found. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I am Number Four

So, yes, I am easily influenced by media, and when I saw the trailer for this movie, I had to read the book before I went to see it. I read the book, loved it, and now I'm iced in, locked in my house, and I may not even get to see the movie version. I'll try to console myself with the fact that it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The premise is this: The planet Lorien has been defeated by the merciless Mogadorians who pillaged Lorien for its natural resources. So only nine Lorian children escaped, along with their care-givers, to Earth where they had to separate and stay alive until their individual powers come to them. They can only be killed in numerical order because they are protected by "charms." These powers will help them to fight the Mogadorians and recapture their planet. But the Mogadorians not only want to wipe out the Nine, they also want Earth for its resources. So it becomes the mission of Number 4, now named John Smith, to learn to fight them, although his powers are still not fully developed.

Meanwhile, John just tries to hide in plain sight, going to school and being a "normal" teen. But on his first day in Paradise, Ohio, he gets in a fight with the most popular guy at school and falls for his girlfriend. Not a good way to hide.

All in all, this young adult title is a fun, sci-fi thriller full of great characters and lots of danger. The build up to the fight with the Mogadorians was very suspenseful, with the tension building up at a good pace. The ending, full of high-tech violence and much blowing up of aliens, got a bit long-winded for me, but most younger readers will probably enjoy it.   I hope I can get to the movie before it, like the Mogadorians, blows town.

Once a Spy by Keith Thomson

When another librarian recommended this book, it sounded like a fun read, and she was so right! If you're ready for a fun yet thrilling spy/espionage novel by a new author, this one's for you.

Charlie Clark, a lazy gambler who really hasn't found himself yet at near middle age, always thought his father was an average, low income appliance salesman. But when he takes Drummond, who now suffers from Alzheimer's disease, home after a confused episode, Charlie starts to wonder. He is forced to wonder things like, "Gee, why is that guy pointing a gun at me, and how does Dad know how to kick his butt and get away?" and "Okay, why did my house just blow up and my dad grabs me like a super hero and throws us both out a window before we're fried." These things can only add up to one thing: Dad is a spy. A class A, undercover, knows lots of secrets kind of spy.

This may seem kind of cool and exciting to a guy whose life is only as lively as the next horse race, but it gets a bit tricky when a CIA operative gets Alzheimer's. He becomes a threat- a threat that needs to be eliminated.  And so the action begins. The father and son become a spy-fighting unit, complete with guns, stealth, and code-breaking expertise. Drummond's coherent moments seem to come at just the right time, and the two battle to try to find the person who isn't a bad guy who can help them out of their mess.

Thomson's thriller was a fun, surprising ride, and I can't wait for the sequel which comes out soon. So, give Once a Spy a try. It'll have you on the edge of your seat and looking over your shoulder. After all, anyone can be a spy, even dear old dad!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

This classic novel about slavery first published in 1852 is our February book club pick. But because we think of it as "classic" now, it's so easy to forget that publishing it was, quite simpy, an act of complete heroism during that time. While the flowery, abundant language of the time period was a bit difficult to get through compared to the brisk, no-nonsense style of writing of today, Uncle Tom's story is one that all Americans can learn from and keep in their hearts for all time.

While Uncle Tom's story is the center-point of the book, the stories of other slaves in many different kinds of circumstances are intermingled with his, giving the reader a sense that while everyone has a story, the basic, horrifying truth about slavery was universal. While some slaves may have been treated in a way that the "white folks" called "good" or "humane" the mission of all slaves, regardless of how they were treated, was simply to be free.

It was still shocking to me to read dialog between whites where they discussed how Africans didn't have souls; that they weren't really people at all. I know this is a novel, but I also know that it was based on cultural fact.  It's so difficult to believe that anyone could really believe such things, even if they did grow up that way, living in the South. How could you look at another human and say they are a dog instead? How could you observe the strong spirit of a person who was willing to endure anything just to live and keep their family, and say there really is no spirit there? 
Another interesting aspect of the book, which is very blatantly a plea by the author to put an end to slavery, is how much the Bible is quoted, and how much the issue is debated in terms of its relation to religion. Stowe pointed out that slavery in America was not the economic issue that farmers in the South wanted eveyone to believe, but a moral issue, and an issue that would affect your very salvation.

I have to say that reading the book, while not exactly enjoyable because of its length and wordiness, was well worth it because of its beautiful and moving story. It was a wonderful reminder to me to keep fighting for what I believe in. I know that I need to work to remove any prejudices that may remain within myself, and I also need to continue to try to help others see the blatant bigotry and unfairness that they impose on others and which they justify to themselves in various ways, especially through scripture. At the risk of sounding "preachy" here, I'm going to put myself out there with Harriet Beecher Stowe in her belief that to become a truly free America, we, if we are a religious people, need to stop interpreting the Bible to mean whatever we want it to mean in order to justify our prejudices. We need to look to the story of Uncle Tom and gain from it the knowledge that there are truly good people in the world, in all different circumstances, races, and lifestyles. Uncle Tom's message is that if you believe in and love God,  He will include you in His love no matter who you are; He does not discriminate.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

In looking for the above picture for the blog, I ran across a film article that states that the director of the first Twilight movie, Catherine Hardwicke, will direct the film version of The Maze Runner! This is fantastic news, as many Twilight fans will tell you that there's just a great feel and indescribable addictiveness to that first Twilight that the others, while very good movies also, did not have. The other really great thing is that The Maze Runner is a wonderful young adult novel that will make a very exciting movie.

The Maze Runner is mostly the story of a boy named Thomas who arrives in some kind of mysterious elevator called "the box" and is dropped into a place called "The Glade." Thomas, like all the other boys who have been brought to the Glade in the past two years, cannot remember anything but his first name. But Thomas is a bit special, because he does have a feeling that he knows some of the boys and the single girl who shows up. He also has an strong, inner calling to become one of the maze runners, who daily go out to find a solution or way out of the huge stone maze that surrounds the Glade. The Maze walls move around at night, and lurking around every corner are bulbous, monster-creatures they call a "Grievers" who have horrible, half animal, half machine appendages to kill anything that come near them.  

The boys in the Glade also talk a bit differently, and this, to me was the only real weakness in the book. We are introduced to the idea that the boys have formed their own "slang" and dialect, but really all it is is a way for Rashner to include a lot of swearing and cussing without actually saying all those words that parents would object to. I call it "pseudo-swearing," and while I appreciate the idea of eliminating bad language in young adult books, it was used so much in The Maze Runner that it became distracting and felt unnecessary.

However, all the wonderful details about The Glade and the Maze make for an exciting book that really is about many ideas that are so important for people to develop for the survival of a community and a world:  the power of hope, the strength of the individual, and the even greater strength of working together to solve problems and having the courage to attack them at any cost. All-in-all what you get here is an exciting, easy-to-read novel that will appeal to a wide range of young people. Strong male and female characters abound, exciting action is throughout, and those messages about how we can train ourselves to overcome anything make for a fun read. For those of you who loved The Hunger Games, this book is for you! And luckily, there is also a sequel that I'm putting on my reading list called The Scorch Trials.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Twelfth Imam by Joel C. Rosenberg

     This is maybe one of the most difficult reviews I've done on my blog for various reasons. I started reading this book thinking it was a thriller - which I guess it is. I liked it in the beginning because it read like a thriller - which I suppose it is. Then, toward the middle or end, it started to get weird. It was kind of a weird that I personally laugh at, so it was kind of entertaining, but then when you think about other people reading it, it kind of scared me a little.
     It tells the story of a young man and his parents who escapes Iran with the help of an American embassy worker. They never tell their son of their perilous escape, and he goes on to live the American dream. He is an Iranian/American, living a mostly typical life. His father is a doctor, and he is a good student, but he always feels the pull of some darker past and gets in  trouble, despite his high intelligence. Wow - the making of a spy.
     And that is what David becomes. He is the master of many languages and infiltrates the Iranian "government" to try to stop the enriching of uranium which the US fears (and is right) will be used against Israel and then the states. It's a good plot with some great twists and good, engaging characters. And then it just gets weird, as I said.
     The reason for the title is that all the Iranians are waiting for the coming of the 12th Imam, which is like their Christ, who will come at the end of the world to save all devoted muslims and kill all infidels, namely the Israelis and Americans. And then he, who they also call the "mahdi" appears. Yup, he appears to some people, doing miracles and performing wonderful acts. So the muslim leaders who are in charge of the nuclear program in Iran, finally have him as a guest at their meeting, and he tells them to start annhilating the "infidels" as quickly as possible, and Allah will reward them. Yes, they think he just stands before them, a man, speaking at their meeting.
     If that's not weird enough, one of the  workers in the Iranian plant, a nonviolent muslim, has a car crash, and as he fumbles from his car, who does he come upon but . . .  yes, wait for it . . .  Jesus Christ. Whup, there  he is. Jesus himself appears to the man and tells him to not be afraid but there are false prophets around, and he needs to basically convert, and he'll be alright.
     Now, while I don't usually tell the ending in my reviews, I'd love to make an exception for this book. Oh, whoops, excuse me! There is no ending! No, nothing, nadda, no ending. And it's not even like, "ok, here's the ending that you have to fill in and wonder how to interpret it until you go to book club and discuss it" ending. This is an actual, and most dispised by Lisa, nonending. A more blatant set-up for the sequel has never existed. And that makes me mad. It's kind of like movies that in the end are like "Whoops! Just kidding- it was all a dream!" aka "Vanilla Sky" style. Ugh. GIVE ME A BREAK!
    Well, I'm almost done with my rant about how disappointing this book is before I start talking about religion and how disapointed I am in many people of my own Christian religion of late, and how this book actually should teach some people something about how we need to watch for false prophets and that each religion's Bible must be interpreted by many in order to get a handle on its meaning otherwise chaos in the form of world domination and extreme bigotry may occur. So, I'll get to the point of my mistake in reading this book. In the back it was recommmended highly by Rush Limbaugh, and on Amazon I REALLY should have read this disclaimer in a review - "Rosenberg laces his political speculation with evangelical Christian themes, which will bother those who like their thrillers unencumbered by the author’s political and religious beliefs." Yeah, that would be me.
   So, while I love people coming to check out books in our library, please pass this one up. But I love a good debate, and I believe everyone's opinion is valid. How about you?