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.